The Eumenides, Antigone and the Nature of Objective Justice

By Patrick F. Sheils
2021, Vol. 13 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

Abstract

Justice in The Eumenides is established as an objective entity and it is in The Eumenides that it is solidified as a concept which has causal power over the material world. This metaphysical abstraction seeks to gain purchase through interpersonal relationships and inner-psychological longings. In Antigone, this meta-concept is personified in the material existence of Antigone as a solitary individual. Justice exists as an underlying substructure in both the abstract and the material and can only be instinctually known through its manifestation in human action. This concept is best displayed using both The Eumenides for the former and Antigone for the latter. Through decisive action, regardless of consequence, justice can be rationally deduced as objective in nature; the causal nature of justice is personified in the physical existence of Antigone, using the metaphysical architecture of objective justice established in The Eumenides.

While justice is intuitively understood as an arbiter of fate for the characters within the various performances of Greek theatre, it is a concept that can only be manifested in the material world through human action. The freedom of the human individual to act on these moral imperatives must first come through a recognition of justice as an objective entity. Aeschylus’ The Eumenides serves as the catalyst for this metaphysical abstraction to gain legitimate purchase in the material world through the trial of Orestes. By setting the events from The Eumenides within a framework of a criminal trial, Aeschylus is able to articulate both the nature of justice as an objective entity and its position at the top of a hierarchy of ideals. The eponymous character in Sophocles’ Antigone functions as the physical personification of the objective justice established in Aeschylus’ The Eumenides. Antigone’s complete cognizance of this metaphysical truth grants her an authentic autonomy and serves as the bridge between the objective grounding of metaphysical justice established in The Eumenides and its causal effect in the material realm of existence. As a character who exists as the physical personification of justice, Antigone is granted the ability to dictate profound consequences on the world around her.

In order to illustrate the ability of justice to dictate fate within the sphere of Greek tragedy, it is first necessary to probe the nature of justice itself. Justice pervades every facet of The Oresteia, both as an arbiter of action in interpersonal relationships and as an avenue towards specific ends in these same relationships. The interpersonal relationships which constitute the palace intrigue within The Oresteia are ultimately dictated by an underlying existence of justice; The Eumenides serves as a culmination of these ideas, which were originally laid out in Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers. The Furies state, “bow before the altar of the rights, revere it well. Never trample it underfoot, your eyes set on spoils; revenge will hunt the godless day and night – the destined end awaits” (Aeschylus 254). This passage works towards delineating the existence of justice as an entity worthy of both worship and fear. As an entity worthy of worship, justice is placed at a higher level of importance than the individual human beings that operate under its rule.

An adherence to these moral rights necessarily renders them objective, for they must be grounded in objective truth in order to justify their worship. Further, a willingness to forego the demands of justice in favor of selfish gain will ultimately end in disaster. By correlating justice with destined ends, the Furies are establishing that justice permeates every last facet of human action. They further state, “all of your own free will, all uncompelled, be just and you will never want for joy… but the reckless one – I warn the marauder dragging plunder, chaotic, rich beyond all rights… the squalls of torment [will] break his spars to bits” (255). The Furies are once again emphatically stating the ability of justice to enact tangible consequences in the world of human relationships.

The gods who dictate these moral imperatives are using objective justice as their barometer from which these same moral actions are measured against. As the gods themselves are subjective beings, they require a unifying force blind to individual opinion; without this unifying force, they are robbed of authenticity. Nicholas Rynearson explains the subjective leanings of the individual gods further by stating, “[u]nlike Zeus, however, Athena rejects violence, preferring to incorporate the [Furies] into Athens by establishing a cult for them… Such reconciliation is crucial to the transition from retributive justice of the lex talionis… to a ‘civilized’ form of justice guaranteed by the community” (Rynearson 3). The gods can be seen as an anthropomorphized representation of metaphysical ideals; their ability to govern human affairs is representative of a higher plane of existence, yet without a unifying ideal to govern them, they remain subjective physical beings; no different than the humans that they govern. Rynearson reinforces the idea of justice as a unifying force amongst the gods, stating, “Athena characterizes [the Furies] acceptance of and incorporation into the new order of justice she establishes as a victory not only for herself and the Athenians, but for Zeus” (18). While Zeus and Athena may differ on their stance towards violence, they can share in a mutually beneficial relationship with objective justice.

By foregoing vengeance and its violent underpinnings for a community-oriented justice, Athena effectively illustrates the necessity of objective justice as an arbiter of human affairs. By making these established connections readily apparent, the audience can help decipher the relationship between a subjective individual and the governing laws of the world that they inhabit. Without the objective anchorage of that vital connection, one is left adrift.

It is in this relationship where justice presents itself as a unifying theory of cohesion for subjective decision makers; it exhibits a purity that even the gods must conform to. In speaking to Athena before the trial of Orestes, Apollo states, “[b]ring on the trial. You know the rules, now turn them into justice” (256). In this simple demand, Apollo shares a profound insight into the ability of justice to differentiate between equitable and unequitable action; further, he allows the reader to see that it is justice itself that serves as both a means and an end. The trial exists as a necessary vehicle for justice to manifest in the world; while the outcome is contingent upon a recognition of justice, it must necessarily be framed within a construct that can mete out a morally recognized ideal. It is not sufficient to merely recognize justice on an intellectual level, there must be man-made avenues through which justice can maneuver and deliver these specific ends.

Apollo’s insistence on pleading the case of Orestes is an example of moral imperatives being contingent upon a prior ideal. If justice was no more fundamental than the gods who proclaim its necessity, there would be no reason for the gods to extoll its virtues in the first place. There is perhaps no greater confirmation of this idea than in Athena herself, who states, “[t]oo large a matter, some may think, for mortal men to judge. But by all rights not even I should decide a case of murder” (252). This begs the obvious question: if the gods are helpless to decide a case of murder, on which grounds is it equitable to do so? There must be an underlying, objective entity which anchors the enterprise.

The means and ends that justice dictates will necessarily play out within the realm of human existence; they must first, however, be viewed in a metaphysical sense. By discerning their existence as objective, the bridge between the abstract, metaphysical existence of the concept and its agency in the physical world can be established. Rebecca Futo Kennedy argues that what differentiates The Eumenides from the first two plays in The Oresteia is that justice has become institutionalized. This institutionalization is an attempt to morph the abstract notion of justice into more concrete, tangible terms. She states, “[f]or it is institutionalized justice, not abstracted, that finds itself the focus of the third play of [Aeschylus’] trilogy. And it is specifically Athenian justice that is put forth as a mechanism of control” (Kennedy 36). Kennedy has offered a fruitful path towards understanding the necessity of a trial. The abstract nature of justice can be understood theoretically, but without an avenue towards enacting its causal power, it remains merely an abstraction. Orestes reinforces the necessity of turning justice into a more concrete entity through the trial: “Bear me witness – show me the way, Apollo! Did I strike her down with justice? Strike I did… But how does our bloody work impress you now? Just or not? Decide” (Aeschylus 258). Orestes is arguing with a detached ambivalence; his personal opinion that his actions were just is not enough to confirm his innocence. The trial itself, contingent upon the objective authority of justice, is necessary in displaying whether or not his opinion is confirmed as true. This goes a long way towards delineating between subjective notions of justice and objective ideals that underpin the moral realm.

The establishment of a jury and criminal trial not only serves as a reflection of an objective moral reality, it enhances the system from which it is birthed. In this case, the Athenian system of government is illuminated as the supreme arbiter of justice; it necessarily follows that judgments made through this court will reflect the underlying metaphysical imperatives on which they are contingent. Kennedy states,

In Eumenides, justice is expressed by the non-violent verdict of Athenian jury—a verdict that is decisive and unambiguously fair. Agamemnon kills Iphigenia, so Clytemnestra kills him as punishment. Atreus kills Aegisthus’ brothers, and so he participates in Agamemnon’s murder out of desire for revenge. Orestes kills both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus as retribution for Agamemnon’s murder. This cycle of justice would have continued with Orestes’ death… if Athena had not stepped in to stop it (63).

Of course, viewing the play within the context of Athenian justice is natural; social and cultural influences will inevitably grant various interpretations to justice. In this sense, the implementation of justice is malleable. It must be stated, however, that the objective recognition of justice predates these subjective interpretations and allows them to be discernable at all. Even in situations where subjective interpretation is forced upon justice, its underlying objective substrata remains rock solid.

Kennedy’s assertion that the non-violent verdict of the Athenian jury is an expression of justice is crucial; it reinforces a differentiation between justice and mere vengeance and expresses the ability of justice to be recognized as objective. The murders that constitute Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers promote a violent brand of vengeance where murderous acts are contained within a cycle of further violence. It is only through the trial set up in The Eumenides that the overall arc of the trilogy is properly contextualized. It is The Eumenides which properly illustrates that justice must manifest itself in the mortal realm through human individuals. These human individuals may be detached from the situation; the impartial and objective members of a jury are the perfect vessels from which this manifestation can be accomplished. Conversely, they may also be personified in the physical existence of a human being who possesses an autonomy pure enough to ward off all opposition from the outside world. Antigone’s existence as the latter serves as the bridge between the disparate abstract and tangible concepts.

By infiltrating a construct which governs human affairs, we can see that justice must be an objective entity and possess the ability to manifest itself in the human arena. It is useful at this time to pivot from the objective, metaphysical existence of justice established in The Eumenides to the physical personification of that same justice in the human existence of Antigone. First, the parallels between the jury in The Eumenides and Antigone’s physical existence need to be established. The jury in The Eumenides wield the power to convict a man of murder; whether or not Orestes is guilty is a superfluous point. Through the jury, justice is given prominence over the gods themselves and it is in that idealistic role where justice can manifest itself and dictate fate; this is the crucial point. The personification of justice in the human form both grants autonomy to the individual and allows them to direct fate on their own terms. Selflessness is in and of itself a version of autonomy. Antigone’s complete resolve in honoring the memory of her dead brother is not only a selfless act but a defiant one. William Robert states, “by performing her filial piety for her dead brother Polyneices despite his revolt against their brother Eteocles and against Thebes, [she] enacts her own revolt against Creon and his artifice of civil law that refuse to admit and that even actively opposes difference” (Robert 426).

The correlation between Antigone’s selfless loyalty to her brother and the illusory nature of Creon’s selfish idea of justice can be seen in Antigone’s ability to enact change in the material world. The circumstances surrounding the death and burial of Polyneices must be addressed in order to better understand Antigone’s role as a vessel of justice within the play. According to John Tralau,

[t]he prohibition of the funeral transgresses right, justice, law, or customary usage. This is not an offense against ‘tradition’, but also, as Antigone later makes clear when confronted by Creon, against religious obligations, and hence against the gods. Creon’s edict is not valid since it contradicts the agrapta kasphale Theon/nomina, ‘the laws/ Of the gods, that are unwritten and unfailing” (Tralau 386).

Antigone’s character traits must be properly fleshed out in order to view her existence as a vessel of justice within the play.

Building on the ideas cemented in The Eumenides, Antigone acts as justice demands. Antigone is fearless to stand in defiance of the man-made obligations forced upon her by Creon. Just as mortal men cannot harm metaphysical justice, Antigone is fearless in the face of physical consequences. We may look to Antigone’s autonomy as the personification of justice by first viewing its opposite in the existence of Creon. Cowell-Meyers states, “[a]s a leader, Creon conflates the personal and the public, the self with the abstract, and takes every act of political objection as personal confrontation. Unable or unwilling to separate the office from the individual holding it, he loses his kingdom rather than lose face” (Cowell-Meyers 349). Let us look to these character traits for a moment, for they illustrate the divide between Creon’s allegiance to man-made subjective ideals and Antigone’s to objective, metaphysical ones.

For Creon, the conflations of his imagination place the material world and selfish desires at the pinnacle of importance. By doing so, Creon shows an utter disregard for anything other than his own betterment. This proves to be a futile endeavor; Cowell- Meyers states, “Plato’s point that power is best exercised by those who do not want it makes a charade of Creon’s assertions that his actions are designed to serve the public welfare… Creon sets a test for himself to prove he is worthy of the city’s allegiance and fails it almost in the same breath” (348). Creon’s pride creates a metaphorical blind spot in his ability to discern right from wrong. This does nothing but prop up his own subjective notion of what is morally just. It also dictates negative consequences on those who wish to defy his edicts. The illusory form of power that Creon craves is set in stark contrast to true power, which Antigone demonstrates by her refusal to acquiesce to the demands given to her. Through exercising her individual autonomy, Antigone embraces her inevitable death but does so on her own terms. Rather than starve to death in a prolonged submission to Creon, Antigone defiantly takes her own life. From the physical death of her body, Antigone is able to enact justice, using those individuals who surround her as the means to do so. Antigone’s refusal to walk away from her obligations of fate—regardless of their personal ramifications—bolster her credibility as the personification of an objective ideal; it simultaneously illustrates causal agency while maintaining the individual integrity that serves as a bedrock for the aforementioned justice.

According to William Robert, “Antigone speaks and acts from the other side of law… This legal substance that deserves respect is double: divine and embodied. Antigone refuses Creon’s subtraction of divine substance from civil law… she resists Creon’s disjunction of divine and human legal substances” (Robert 415). Antigone intrinsically possesses the metaphysical ideal of justice while acting within a framework of the human construct of the law. While both Creon and Antigone are able to enact change in the world, Antigone is differentiated from Creon in her willingness to accept personal consequences. It is in her selflessness that justice illuminates the false ideals of Creon; simultaneously, it affirms Antigone’s autonomy and intrinsic value. This can be viewed not only through Antigone’s actions, but the ramifications that play out after her death.

We can look towards Antigone’s declaration of action over mere words as proof of her conviction: “I have no love for a friend who loves in words alone” (Sophocles 87). Talk is cheap, as the old saying goes. As justice is blind to the whims of humans and gods, Antigone is immune to the political ideologies which would otherwise force her to acquiesce to their demands. There is no doubt that she dutifully observes the fate which befalls her; it is her very adherence to this duty itself that serves as a manifestation of higher-principled ideals. Antigone exists as a reminder that the decrees of mortal men are illusory if not anchored in objective justice. Further, an adherence to these selfish desires brackets out one’s ability to discern objective justice at all.

While each character in Antigone shares in the same belief that they themselves are doing what is right, only Antigone’s belief is supported by Tiresias, who acts as a voice of the gods among mortal men and women. In dialogue with Creon, Tiresias states, “you’ve robbed the gods below the earth, keeping a dead body here in the bright air, unburied, unsung, unhallowed by the rites. You, you have no business with the dead, nor do the gods above” (Sophocles 115). This is a crucial point: the gods do not have governance over the dead. Instead, the dead themselves have the ability to enact moral change in the world. Antigone, who embodies objective justice, enacts change in the world through the very death of her physical body. Her actions are not recognized as just by the individuals who dominate the play until she has passed. The point remains, however, that her actions are logically consistent with the idea that she herself exists as a pathway towards the inevitable advancement of change.

It is not until Antigone dies that the implications of Creon’s egoistic desires are realized. Antigone’s existence as an agent of change is only enhanced by her refusal to move from the moral imperatives she feels in her heart. It is in Antigone’s refusal that justice reveals itself through its absence in her opposite, Creon. Judith Fletcher sees these opposite character traits as the crux of the play itself. She states,

[Antigone’s] position towards Creon’s interdiction is that of an Athenian citizen who had the right to denounce a magistrate for malfeasance and who recognizes and demonstrates that the authority of law resides in a power that transcends Creon’s articulation of a command. It is thus significant that the first person to speak in the play is not Creon announcing the edict, but Antigone complaining about it to Ismene (Fletcher 83).

The implications from these disparate stances can help to better acquaint the reader with the idea that it is Antigone who represents moral truths and their role in Greek society.

While Antigone’s physical fate may be contingent upon the actions of Creon, the implications of her death play a far more important role than her death itself. Antigone’s interactions with her sister, Ismene, can be seen as a metaphorical representation of the power of conviction. Antigone makes it a point to hold true to her ideals, regardless of the consequences; Ismene feels compelled only to bloviate about these ideas in a hypothetical sense. Antigone recognizes this charade, stating to Ismene that “your wisdom appealed to one world—mine, another” (88). Ismene’s existence as an ancillary character further reinforces the singular uniqueness of Antigone in Sophocles’ tragedy. The necessary change that goes hand-in-hand with staying true to one’s convictions is not something which is easily digested. Often, it ends in consequences that are too painful for the individual to bear.

While Ismene may wish to pretend that she possesses the same autonomy as Antigone, her utter inability to suffer any form of discomfort pulls the veil from her illusory notions of what is morally just. Ultimately, Ismene acts in accordance to her own best interests. Ismene’s willful obedience to the status quo reinforces the idea that human beings exist as puppets of fate. If one were to only view Ismene as the sum total of human existence, this would be a tenable position to hold. After all, Ismene lacks the necessary traits to enact change in the world. It is Antigone, however, that serves as an elixir to this idea. Her uniqueness is highlighted by her sister’s conformity to both societal pressure and ego-driven ends. Antigone’s propulsion to a higher realm of existence emerges organically out of this comparison. Through death she can enact justice and through her words she can illuminate the absence of justice in those whom surround her.

Antigone exists in the same way the jury in The Eumenides exists: as a vessel for justice. Her death brings about necessary change and just consequences upon those who have wronged both her and the demands of justice itself. Her ability to bravely look this morbid fate in the face stands as a testament to her strength of character and more fundamentally, her unique autonomy within the play. Her existence as a female in an ancient patriarchal system only enhances this bravery and reinforces her importance.

Let us finally look to the events in the tomb for closure to Antigone’s existence as the personification of justice. She uses her selflessness in order to fulfill the necessary fate which befalls her for defying Creon. Antigone states, “now, Polyneices, because I laid your body as well, this, this is my reward. Nevertheless I honored you—the decent will admit it—well and wisely too” (105). Antigone recognizes that this act of defiance will result in her inevitable death; at the same time, she confirms that those individuals with the ability to recognize objective truth will also be able to recognize that her actions act as an avenue for justice to manifest in the world. According to Annie Pritchard, “Antigone is motivated to defy Creon’s edict by her pride in her lineage, her duty to the gods, and her unique love for her brother” (Pritchard 81). While these are all noble motivations, it is, in fact, Antigone’s defiance to simply roll over and starve to death which best personifies objective justice. This can be seen through the deaths of both Haemon and Eurydice. It is their suicides which serve as the linchpin for Antigone’s physical personification of justice. The Messenger states to the Leader, “[d]ead, dead—and the living are guilty of their death… Haemon’s gone, his blood spilled by the very hand… His own… raging mad with his father for [Antigone’s] death” (120). Through Antigone’s death, the false worship of selfish gain is exposed for the empty pursuit that it is.

Haemon’s death reinforces the importance of Antigone’s physical body by allowing Creon to see the consequences of his narcissistic behavior. Haemon’s mother, Eurydice takes her own life upon discovering Haemon’s death. Creon is inconsolable, stating “my crimes… My plans, my mad fanatic heart, my son, cut off so young! Ai, dead, lost to the world, not through your stupidity, no, my own.” The Leader can only reply, “[t]oo late, too late, you see what justice means” (124). When the Messenger relays to Creon that Eurydice has also committed suicide by plunging a knife through her heart, he finishes by stating, “with her dying breath she called down torments on your head—you killed her sons” (126). This declaration circles back to Antigone in a profound way. If she had simply acquiesced to Creon’s demand that she starves to death, her death would lack the power necessary to elicit in Haemon the will to take his own life. It is Antigone’s defiance of Creon and her resolve in committing suicide that allows her physical form to radiate justice as a causal entity which has tangible consequences in the physical world. In matters of life and death, justice will use whatever it needs to in order to enact such drastic change. In Antigone’s autonomy, justice has the necessary vessel to illuminate to Creon the horrors of his selfish indulgences and the ramifications of them to those who he holds most dear. Only through Antigone’s existence can Creon truly see the reality which he has created by his very hand. Antigone’s body serves as a confluence of these fundamental, metaphysical principles and is the only way that justice could have ever truly manifested in Creon’s world; for this, he is left in utter despair.

In both The Eumenides and Antigone, a fundamental adherence to objective metaphysical truth is necessary to advance change. Justice –the highest of these concepts—is fully embodied in the material world only when it is allowed to operate within the framework of human affairs. The Eumenides illustrates the logical consistency of justice’s objective grounding; through the trial of Orestes, these higher-principled concepts are allowed to breathe and take root in interpersonal relationships. Antigone, the titular protagonist of Sophocles’ tragedy, builds upon these metaphysical concepts and fully personifies them through her physical existence. Antigone’s ability to recognize justice for what it is allows her to not only stare down her fate but dictate it on her own terms. It is her selflessness and strict adherence to what is morally true that grants her intrinsic autonomy and the courage to take her own life as an exchange for these ideals. Through the death of Antigone’s physical body, Creon can finally see the errors of his ways. Without the courage to take her own life, Antigone’s death would not have the impact on Haemon that it does and would be inadequate to set off the chain of events which Antigone ultimately hinges upon. By willingly entering the tomb and killing herself, Antigone confirms her physical existence as the personification of the same justice The Eumenides established so fully.


References

Aeschylus. The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, New York, 1977.

Cowell-Meyers, Kimberly. “Teaching Politics Using Antigone.” PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 39, no. 2, 2006, pp. 347-349.

Fletcher, Judith. “Citing the Law in Sophocles’s ‘Antigone.’” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal,vol. 41, no. 3, 2008, pp. 79-96.

Kennedy, Rebecca Futo. “Justice, Geography and Empire in Aeschylus’ Eumenides. Classical Antiquity, vol. 25, no. 1, 2006, pp. 35-72.

Pritchard, Annie. “Antigone’s Mirrors: Reflections on Moral Madness.” Hypatia, vol. 7, no. 3, (Summer 1992), pp. 77-93.

Robert, William. “Antigone’s Nature.” Hypatia, vol. 25, no. 2 (Spring 2010), pp. 412-436.

Rynearson, Nicholas. “Courting the Erinyes: Persuasion, Sacrifice, and Seduction in Aeschylus’s ‘Eumenides.’” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014), vol. 76, no. 1, 1982, pp. 22-33.

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, New York, 1984.

Tralau, Johan. “Tragedy as Political Theory: The Self-Destruction of Antigone’s Laws.” History of Political Thought, vol. 26, no. 3, 2005, pp. 337-396.

Walsh, Keri. “Antigone Now.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 41, no. 3, a special issue: ANTIGONE (September 2008), pp. 1-13.

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