David McNeill: "To Go Alive into Hades: On Antigone's Autonomy"
Introduced by Thomas Bartscherer
Part of the ROSTRUM series, hosted by The Language and Thinking Program at Bard College languageandthinking.bard.edu
David McNeill is a professor of philosophy at the University of Essex, England. He spoke in Olin Hall on the Bard campus on August 18, 2010.
Shortly before she is led away to be buried alive for transgressing the edict forbidding the burial of her brother, Antigone, for the first time, apparently laments her fate. No one will sing a marriage hymn for her, she says, because her marriage is to Acheron. The chorus attempts to console her with the following words: "But, will you not have fame and praise when you depart into the depths of the bodies of the dead? You were not struck
down by wasting diseases, nor did you pay the price of the sword, but autonomous, you are the only mortal who will go down alive into Hades."
The chorus' words contain the very first recorded instance of the word "autonomous" (autonomos), a law of the self. This is also the only early use of autonomos to refer not to either a self-governing political community or an individual as a member of such a community, but to something like what we think of autonomous agency, i.e. free, independent or self-legislating action. Strikingly, in the Antigone, 'autonomy' is explicitly related to Antigone's uncanny relation to life and death. This paper will center on what we can learn about the Antigone by focusing on her transgressive action as an example of the virtue of autonomy, and what we can learn about the virtue of autonomy by reflecting on the Antigone.