ClSt / ComL 200:
Notes and Supplements: Wednesday, April 3

"Kierkegaard’s Antigone"


The Danish philosopher Soren Kiekegaard in his essay on ancient and modern tragic drama, which you read for today, puts forth his views on what distinguishes the modern concetion of tragedy from the ancient type. In order to do so, he invokes the figure of Antigone from Sophocles’ three Oedipus plays, and then invents his own modern Antigone, whom he contrasts with the Sophoclean heroine. His purpose in doing so is to explain what is tragic about each of these heroines, Sophocles’ ancient and his own modern Antigone, and so to illustrate the difference (as he sees it) between ancient and modern conceptions of tragedy.

In today’s lecture and in sections tomorrow and Friday we will discuss some of the strategies that Kierkegaard uses to develop his argument. We will question some of his assumptions not so much to decide whether they are right or wrong as to bring out some of the habits of mind that lead him to formulate an argument like this.

Ancient and Modern

The first thing to notice is that Kiekegaard’s entire project in this essay depends on an agreement between the author and his reader that ancient and modern conceptions of tragedy are in fact different. He begins the essay by admitting a kinship between the two: they can both be described by the same word, “tragic,” after all; but it remains his main point to distinguish between the two kinds of tragedy. “In ancient tragedy,” Kierkegaard says, “the sorrow is more profound, and in the corresponding consciousness the sorrow is more profound, the pain less; in modern tragedy, the pain is greater, the sorrow less. Sorrow always has in it something more substantial than pain. Pain always indicates a reflection upon the suffering that sorrow does not know” (pp. 147-48). It will be useful in your sections to discuss exactly what Kierkegaard means by this distinction and to examine the other means that he uses to enforce the distinction between ancient and modern tragedy. Today, the main point is to notice, first, that the distinction exists; second, to contrast this distinction with the attitude that we have seen in earlier periods.

The Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and even the early modern period seem not to have drawn such a hard and fast distinction between antiquity and their own times. We have seen, for instance, that images of pagan mythology--Deadalus, for example, or the goddess Venus--were placed in a series of reliefs along with the Christian sacraments of penance and matrimony on the bell tower of the Florentine cathedral. We have also seen that the nineteenth-century sculptor Antonio Canova had no difficulty prepresenting the Emperor Napoleon as a classical hero much in the style of certain statues of Hellenistic rulers from the second and third centuries BC.

It would be wrong to say that these medieval and early modern artists perceived no difference between the ancient myths and contemporary practices and individuals. In fact, it would be equally wrong to assume that the ancient artist who depicted a contemporary ruler in the guise of Hercules was unaware that he was drawing a comparison between two very different spheres of experience. But it does seem correct to infer that all of these artists are working to assert the similarity that they or theri patrons perceive between the ancient myths and contemporary experiences. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, is working to assert that their is a categorical difference between the Greek myths in their “original” form and the forms to which a modern audience would respond, at least in the filed of tragedy. He was not the first modern thinker to make such a claim, but his essay is notable for the way in which it uses a specific version of a familiar ancient myth to illustrate the idea.


Kierkegaard’s essay is unusual in a number of ways. It is certainly serious in that it is trying to make an important philosophical contribution to contemporary aesthetic and ethical discussion. But at the same time, it is obviously ironic, and most of its irony is reflected back on itself. It pretends, for example, to be an address before a society with a Greek name, the Symparanekromenoi or “Fellowship of the Dead.” Its language, especially at the very beginning of the essay, but at certain later points as well, becomes almost unbelievably involved and pretentious. It seems at times to be almost a parody of a scholarly essay. And yet at other times, it makes its points in fairly simple, direct language. Furhter, it seems actually to be a fairly “scholarly” piece of work: the author cites primary sources, like Aristotle and Sophocles, and uses Greek technical terms, such as dianoia, ethos, telos, and so forth. These two aspects of the essay seem to pull the reader in opposite directions and make any simple reaction to it impossible. What is Kiekegaard doing?

The first thing to stress is that Kiekegaard does demonstrate adequately that he has a fairly high degree of scholarly control over the mythic material. Unlike, say, many writers and artists of the Renaissance (according to Seznec, for instance), Kiekegaard is not writing on the basis of a handbook knowledge of the Greek myths: he is evidently able to read Sophocles (and Aristotle, et al.) in Greek, no doubt because he received the intensively classical education that was usual for young European men in his day. In fact, it is probable that the title of the bogus society that he pretends to be addressing is borrowed from a Greek author of the second century AD, Lucian, who wrote comic dialogues using mythological material and sometimes dealing with serious themes. So Kiekegaard is in a sense following in the footsteps of ancient authors whom he himself has read in Greek and knows very well.

Even so, Kiekegaard is obviously not following his ancient models slavishly. In fact, after discussing the character of Antigone in Sophocles, he then goes on to invent his own Antigone, different from the ancient prototype, to illustrate the differences between ancient and modern conceptions of the tragic.

Kiekegaard’s realationship to his ancient mythological sources is obviously rather complex. On the one hand, he (arguably at least) knows the sources of ancient Greek mythology better than, say, the painters of the Renaissance; yet he finds it necessary not merely to demonstrate his accurate knowledge of the ancient myths, but then almost ostentatiously to develop his own ideas about these myths, even varying the form of the stories, in order to illustrate a philosophical point.

Why Kiekegaard does this would be another good question to ponder for your discussion sections. Some particular points to pocus on are:

Why Antigone?

Another interesting feature of this essay is the way in which it focusses on the figure of Antigone. Why does Kiekegaard take this approach?

Early in the essay, Kiekegaard invokes Aristotle’s conception of tragedy. In his Poetics, Aristotle had cited Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as the most perfect tragedy. Aristotle is speaking primarily in terms of plot construction.Kierkegard evidently wishes to place himself within the tradition of philosophical discussions of tragedy that Plato and Aristotle began, but he also wishes to assert a difference in perspective. For Aristotle, says Kierkegaard, thought and character are the two main sources of tragic action; “but he also notes that the primary factor is the telos [end, purpose] and the individuals do not act in order to present characters; rather these are included for the sake of the action. Here it is easy to perceive a difference from modern tragedy” (p. 143). Kierkegaard, then stresses the importance of character in modern tragedy. Thus, when he later invokes Sophocles’ Oedipus “trilogy” (which, as we have seen, is in fact not a trilogy in the ancient sense, since the plays were written years apart from one another and were all performed in different competitions), he chooses Antigone as the heroic character on whom he wishes to focus.

Is this an idiosyncratic choice? The influence of Aristotle in canonizing the Oedipus myth was obviously great; and in the twentieth century, as we have said before and as we will see next week again, the influence of the Oedipus myth has been enormous, and the role of Antigone in this myth has received very little emphasis by comparison with that of Oedipus himself. So is Kierkegaard’s choice unusual? Not at all; because, as George Steiner writes (in Antigones: The Antigone Myth in Western Literature, Art, and Thought (Oxford 198), “Between c. 1790 and c. 1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, scholars that Sophocles’ Antigone was not only the finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit” (p. 1). Steiner goes on to document this assertion in a book of some three hundred pages, which includes a thorough discussion of Kierkegaard’s essay and many other appearances of the Antigone myth during the period in question.

Why this fascination with Antigone? What is it that made Antigone such a compelling figure, especially to nineteenth-century intellectuals? Can you find elements in the other material we have seen and read--in Byron or Tennyson, in the images of Canova, David, Ingres, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood--that agree with points made by Kiekegaard and so help to explain the popularity of Antigone in particular? This would be another good topic to reflect upon in preparation for discussion sections tomorrow and Friday.

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