I’ve found some guidance in the ancient story of Antigone to help navigate arguments over Confederate monuments that have hinged upon claims about our history and the proper posture we should take to it.
Antigone’s brother, Polynices, took up arms against their city, Thebes. Polynices was defeated. His body lay exposed on the battlefield, food for scavengers. By decree of Antigone’s uncle, King Creon, the corpses of the traitors were to be left where they fell, humiliated and dishonored. Anyone who dared give a turncoat the dignity of burial would be put to death, too.
Faced with a choice between the commands of political authority and what, in Sophocles’s recounting, Antigone described as “laws which were decreed neither yesterday nor today but from a time when no man saw their birth,” Antigone defied the king’s order. She was captured and walled into a pit that would become her tomb.
It was a devastating punishment, however, not only for Antigone but for Creon. Despite his success enforcing his will against Antigone and the traitors, Creon’s story ends in desolation with his family ripped to shreds.
In part, the tragedy is philosophical. Antigone and Creon both reach a terrible end, because both fail to reconcile two competing claims to justice — those of the political order and those of ancestral piety.
The tragedy is also in part historical. Antigone’s and Creon’s fates had been set not only by their own ideas but also by the sins of their forefathers. Antigone’s grandfather, Laius, in his panicked anxiety about losing power and privilege, tried to murder his son, Oedipus. Antigone’s father, Oedipus, for lack of self-knowledge subverted both family and city when he married his mother-queen and killed his father-king, Laius.
If we are to navigate our way out of the mess we’ve set before ourselves, we must succeed where Creon and Antigone failed. We must reconcile political with ancestral justice, and we must come to terms with the crimes of our wretched national heritage.
Racialized chattel slavery (along with Native American genocide) is the fateful “original sin” of the American polity, and the Confederates are our Polynices. The Antigones among us would garland them with ennobling memorials. Our Creons demand they be disowned, defamed and expelled. What to do?
Those who would remove CSA monuments are right that we should exclude Confederates from places of public honor. The ideology for which they seceded and fought is rightly anathema to a political order committed to racial equality and democracy. Those affiliated with the CSA must accept that, as Robert E. Lee did himself.
Our Antigones are also right, however, that we owe a measure of piety to our forefathers, our kin, and our wayward fellow citizens. Different, customary and sacred obligations govern our relations with the dead. We should therefore tolerate our Antigones’ private gestures of piety in cemeteries, homes and other private spaces.
Philosophy, in short, offers a principle of discrimination between public and private that makes it possible to integrate the claims of both political and ancestral justice.
Philosophy on its own, however, will fail us unless we also close in some substantial way our deep and abiding historical wound. We owe piety to our enslaved ancestors as well as to the ancestors who enslaved them. More than that, vigorous efforts must be undertaken to rectify the persistent injustices endured by the descendants of the enslaved with regard to wealth, health, criminal justice, and education.
Ignorance of who we really are (Oedipus’ failure) and a foolish desire to cling to power and privilege (Laius’) will lead us down a tragic road. Digging in our heels by refusing to accommodate the claims of both political and ancestral justice will (like Creon and Antigone) carry us toward self-made destruction.
A philosophically careful engagement with ourselves and our history opens another, better future. I hope we are up to the challenge.
Peter S. Fosl is a professor of philosophy at Transylvania University.