You can hardly open a newspaper at the moment without being bashed around the head by a headline involving the word “Greek” in close proximity to the word “tragedy”. But can actual Greek tragedies teach us anything about the crisis? Yes, and also about the importance of families when politics goes pear-shaped.
Families generally don’t get good press in a Greek tragedy. Incest, rape, murder, infanticide, fratricide, patricide, matricide and general grisliness are par for the course. That’s just not practical in modern life. You can’t be forever sacrificing your daughter, carving up your uncles and hanging yourself if you are also running a fourth-generation bottle factory in Leicestershire. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, for a start.
Greek tragedies were meant to be intense, of course. There was no Tour of Duty 4 in fifth-century-BC Athens, so night at the theatron had to satisfy your desire for horror and carnage. But the best plays were more than that.
Take Antigone by Sophocles. Antigone’s brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, fight each other for the throne of Thebes, but both die. Creon becomes king and decides that Eteocles should get a state funeral, while Polyneices’s corpse should be left to rot outside the city. Antigone wants to bury Polyneices, but Creon won’t let her. (It doesn’t end well.)
The big theme here is whether the demands of the state or the family are most important. When they clash, which takes precedence? What you might call The Antigone Instinct is strong. So strong, as Cleon sees, that it threatens to undermine the state. But it doesn’t have to be destructive. In fact, there are times that it can actually help society.
The background to Antigone is the ancient Athenian belief that democracy provided a framework that helped people flourish. Whether you wanted to sell paintings, be a banker or make shoes, you did better in a well-organised state with institutions and laws. Stability is so important that people ought to accept the state’s rulings, even when they don’t like them. Socrates even accepted his death sentence, and refused offers to escape Athens, because he thought he should obey the state. That’s why Creon has to oppose Antigone. For Creon, stability trumps everything else.
But what happens when democracy fails, as it is arguably doing in Greece at the moment? What holds things together then? Creon sees the destructive side of the Antigone Instinct – it threatens to undermine the state. But there are times when that impulse can be a cohesive force. When governments collapse, countries don’t disintegrate. That’s because it’s not only politics that holds society together, but also the ties of family, community and friendship.
The motto of the Greek Republic is “freedom or death”, which is ominous for a country that is being controlled from Berlin right now. But a short-term loss of freedom, while humiliating, needn’t have such a dramatic outcome. It’s easy to forget about families in our world, which is dominated by the public sphere and the chatter it generates. But while governments and even states come and go, family life and family businesses go on. Long live the Antigone Instinct.