View from Athens: the Greek Crisis as Greek Tragedy

Alexis Papazoglou
146486115 300x200 View from Athens: the Greek Crisis as Greek Tragedy

Supports of the Syriza party wave flags at a rally following an expected second place in the general election on 17 June in Athens. The conservative, pro-bailout New Democracy party came in first winning 130 of the 300 seats in Parliament.

Last week I saw a production of Sophocles’ Antigone at the National Theatre in London and it struck me that the play echoed dangerously in today’s Greece, especially if thought through Hegel’s reading of the play.

The story of the play goes like this: Both of Antigone’s brothers (all children of Oedipus, by the way) have died in battle, in a civil war scenario, both fighting for the throne. Creon, the new king, decides that Eteocles is to be buried with great military honours, whereas Polyneices is to be left unburied, a sign of ultimate disrespect. In addition Creon legislates that whoever attempts to bury Polyneices will face the death penalty.

Antigone, is put in a tight spot. By tradition, it is her duty as a woman to take care of her family’s private matters, including the burial of relatives. However, if she follows her duty towards her family, she will be breaking the law set by Creon and face death. Unable to bear the disgrace of her brother she decides to bury him, justifying her actions by reference to the divine law of gods that requires all dead men to be buried. When Creon discovers that Antigone has attempted to bury Polyneices he is also put in a tight spot. Antigone is a noble herself and engaged to Creon’s son. Should he then acquit her, being a future member of his family, or would that undermine the laws of his kingdom as well as himself as the lawgiver? To complicate things, the prophet Tiresias warns Creon that leaving Polyneices unburied will lead to him loosing a son.

Hegel’s reading of the play suggests that what Sophocles exposes is a cultural contradiction in Ancient Greece. The play, according to Hegel, shows the incompatibility between the two spheres of Greek life: the private sphere, which is run according to the divine law and is the responsibility of the women, and the public sphere, run according to the law of people, which is the responsibility of men. When the two domains of Ancient Greece’s form of life came into conflict, there could be no resolution but bloodshed.  (In the play, Creon holds his ground, which results in the death of Antigone, of Creon’s son as well as Creon’s wife.)

For Hegel then the play represents the incompatible norms of Greek society, but we can also read it at the individual’s level as the incompatibility of norms that people are bound to, sometimes without realizing that they are so bound. Antigone gives absolute priority to the norms of divine law, ignoring the norms of human law that, however, as her death shows, she is also bound to whether she likes it or not. At the same time Creon refuses to acknowledge that the norms of divine law are not only binding for the women of the society, but for the men too, including himself. The events following his decision to punish Antigone can be seen as the gods’ revenge on Creon.

My suspicion is that contemporary Greece and the EU are suffering a cultural contradiction similar to that of Ancient Thebes. On the one hand, Greece is bound to the norms of democracy. On the other hand, Greece is part of the EU, a club that comes with its own set of norms. The current economic crisis in Greece and in Europe has revealed, like a Sophoclean play, that those two sets of norms can in fact be incompatible. Today’s Greece is bound to the EU through a lending agreement according to which Greece has to put in place certain state reforms and austerity measures. On the other hand, yesterday’s elections showed that a great number of Greek voters reject that agreement and are unwilling to follow its imperatives.

Until yesterday, Greece was flirting with taking up the role of Antigone, and Europe flirting with taking up the role of Creon: Greece was threatening to act like Antigone, giving priority to the norms of her “private” sphere and ignoring the norms of the “public” sphere, those of the EU. Such an act, however, came with the warning of the end of funding and a consequent inevitable exit from the euro. The EU on its side was rehearsing for the role of Creon, giving priority to the norms of the “public” sphere that itself had set down, ignoring the norms of Greek democracy and threatening to end Greece’s funding if Antigone took to the stage. However, such a potential move came with the warning of a huge risk to the financial survival of some of the EU’s other family members.

The election results yesterday revealed as first party (by a small margin) New Democracy, a party that recognises Greece’s commitments to the EU. So the mask of Antigone was not picked up. However, nearly a third of Greek voters wanted to see a government lead by SYRIZA, a party that promised to cancel the lending agreement between the EU and Greece and put an end to austerity measures and state reforms. There might be a feeling of temporary relief and alignment of Greek and EU norms, democracy and lending agreement. However, the contradiction between Greece’s commitments to the EU and the will of a large number of Greek voters won’t go away. SYRIZA’s politics traditionally find expression in mass demonstrations on the streets of Athens, and this might plausibly be the reaction to continued austerity measures. So the new government, even if fresh from a democratic victory, might prove fragile.

Hegel saw the tragic element in Sophocles’ play as the society in contradiction with itself. But Hegel also saw cultural contradictions as the motor of history. A culture incubating incompatible norms is unsustainable and has to change in a way that those contradictions are resolved. The cultural contradictions between a sizable part of Greece and the EU cannot simply be hidden under the rug. The new Greek government will have to convince those citizens that sticking broadly to the terms of the lending agreement leads to a better future. On the other hand, the EU has to realise that it needs to loosen the austerity conditions of the lending agreement and offer Greece space for economic growth and job creation.

Otherwise the contradictions between Greece and the EU will remain and a new, premature round of elections might finally resolve them along the lines of a Greek tragedy.

Alexis Papazoglou is Greek and a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He is the editor of The Pursuit of Philosophy: Some Cambridge Perspectives, being published this summer.

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  • Colin Nicolson

    A good example of why Greece is in such a mess – obsession with past glories, over-intellectualizing, evading responsibility though abstraction.

  • Thanassis Silis

    Mr Nicolson, respectfully, don’t mix tomatoes and potatoes.
    Past glories is one thing and the need to look back in order to see into the future is another.

  • Bunkers_Hill

    Apart from Socrates and Diogenes in his barrel, I cannot think of a single philosopher who wasn’t quite well off. Even Kant – the son of a saddle maker – had the patronage of the local Pastor, and went off hob-nobbing with the gentry in town. Philosophy is a pastime for bored rich boys who want to talk down to others.

    Neither can I think of a single instance where philosophy has made a difference in this world. People that really make a difference are not motivated by protracted ideas and conscious thought, they are moved by more instinctive, sub-conscious preferences for right and wrong. Take Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler for example.

    It is said that philosophy is the father of all science. Well science went its own way many years ago, leaving metaphysics to go the other way. Seeing how philosophers after 2500 years still speculate on about matters that cannot be proven, I’d say it is about time philosophy was consigned to history … along with academic tripe like the article above.

  • dourscot

    Don’t recall any of Sophocles’ Theban Plays whose central plot twist was a 400 billion euro debt…

  • Pacificweather

    Creon was an amateur at dictatorship so a comparison with Angela Merkel is valid. Stalin now, there was a man to run a dictatorship as we saw in the Collaborator. The Greeks voted the Antigone ticket but could not decide which party was Antigone so the constitution gave it to Creon. Nothing changes in 4000 years but Sophicles would be pleased people are still doing his play. The Romeo and Juliet ending never goes out of fashion. Had Shakespeare read the story I wonder?

  • Pacificweather

    When you refer to subconscious preferences for right and wrong are you thinking of Churhill’s invasion of Russia after the first world war tor Hitler’s invasion on Sudatenland before the second.

  • Babbaloveshine

    I don’t understand the ancient slant on todays financial turmoil.

    Hey, I’ve got an idea, why doesn’t Greece leave the eu and use the Drachma again!!!

    Come on Greece, get back on your own 2 feet!

  • Peter Snelson

    ZZZZZ. What he is trying to say is Greece is broke, doesnt want to pay back the money and most important clueless on how to MAKE money.

  • Mingtb

    There is no tragedy in the Greek crisis only farce.

    When a society composed of the gullible, the politically naive, and the stupid are given the right to vote for a political elite who are incompetent, corrupt, and greedy you have the basis for a sick comedy.

    The Greeks, who gave the world “democracy,” proved that “democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people.” (Oscar Wilde)

  • Ian Kemmish

    Or maybe the gods were just pissed at all Thebans by then.

    It does seem, though that Mr Papazoglou has the two spheres reversed. The imperative not to live beyond one’s means is the closest the modern world has to a divine law; on the other hand, the never-sustainable desire which crops up from time to time, to level society from the bottom up through subsidy is a very human one. Naive if the politicians believe what they tell the people, cynical if they don’t, but in any event human.

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