In the Fall Term of 2008, Greek 204 (Greek Tragedy) met for the first time on the morning of Monday, September 15. Over the weekend, two of the most respected firms on Wall Street had toppled, as Merrill Lynch agreed to sell to Bank of America for $50 billion, and Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, another giant, AIG, was tottering, with a row of multi-billion dollar dominoes lined up behind it. The issues of Sophocles’ Antigone seemed, on that first morning, a world away from the upheaval on Wall Street. There is nothing in Sophocles’ tragedy about bad mortgage-backed securities. On the other hand, economic issues do enter into the play, and these stood out with increasing clarity as the dominoes continued to fall on Wall Street.

When the play opens, the sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, have fallen at each other’s hands before the walls of Thebes. Polyneices, who had come with an Argive army to claim the throne of Thebes from his brother, has been branded a traitor, and the new ruler of Thebes, their uncle Creon, has declared it a capital offense to give Polyneices a proper burial. But Antigone is resolved to honor her fallen brother, and her resolution brings her into an inevitable conflict with the will of Creon.

When the Guard reports to Creon with the news that the body of Polyneices has mysteriously been buried, Creon concludes that the watchmen have been bribed to carry out the burial themselves. He tells the Chorus:

Money is the nastiest weed ever to sprout
In human soil. Money will ravage a city,
Tear men from their homes and send them into exile.
Money teaches good minds to go bad;
It is the source of every shameful human deed.
Money points the way to wickedness,
Lets people know the full range of irreverence.
(295-301; trans. Meineck)

Later in the play, Creon comes to the same conclusion about Teiresias: that the prophet must be driven by the profit motive. Teiresias, attempting to mollify Creon, says: “Listen, my advice is for your benefit./Learning from good words is sweet when they bring you gain” (1031-2; trans. Meineck). Creon sneers:

I have a lot of experience with soothsayers. Your whole tribe
Has made a market of me from the start. “Benefit”? “Gain”?
If you want to turn a profit, speculate in gold from India
Or go into trade with Sardis for electrum and traffic in that.
(1035-9; trans. Meineck)

The main conflict in the play is between Antigone’s loyalty to gods and family and Creon’s loyalty to the state and, ultimately, to himself and his own authority—but in his confrontations with the Guard and Teiresias, he confronts the disturbing possibility that loyalty can be bought and sold. Loyalty, which for Creon and Antigone is attached to a fixed object like a walled city or a brother’s corpse, becomes attached to a handful of coins that can change hands. Loyalty becomes easily transferable, like any other commodity in a cash economy.

In the Politics, Aristotle discusses the institution of hard currency as a means of exchange. “The reason for this institution of a currency,” Aristotle writes, “was that all the naturally necessary commodities were not easily portable; and men therefore agreed, for the purposes of their exchanges, to give and receive some commodity [i.e. some form of more or less precious metal] which itself belonged to the category of useful things and possessed the advantage of being easily handled for the purpose of getting the necessities of life” (1257a8; trans. Ernest Barker). Currency, in the form of silver or gold, had its own intrinsic value, but it could also represent the value of other things, and be used to facilitate their exchange.

Socrates might have observed that money is very much like language: a word, like a metal coin, can be used to represent something else: an ox, a sack of grain, piety, goodness. The Oresteia might be seen, somewhat simplistically, as a drama about the transition from a barter to a cash economy: the old vengeful bartering of an eye for an eye is replaced with a legal system in which a court determines what price will be demanded for the taking of an eye. The minting and circulation of money is—like the law courts—an institutionalization of what had been a highly personal transaction: the product of my labor for the product of yours, a death in my family for a death in yours.

In Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon politicizes the burial (or non-burial) of Polyneices. He institutionalizes what Antigone insists on seeing as a private and familial matter. The tragedy represents a conflict between the public and political sphere and the private and personal sphere, between the demands of state and the demands of family, between Creon the ruler and Antigone the sister. But both Creon and Antigone are influenced by a kind of mercantile thinking.

In one of the most troubling passages in the play, Antigone gives a final justification for her decision to disregard Creon’s edict and bury her brother:

What law can I claim on my side for this choice?
I may have another husband if the first should die
And get another child from a new man if I’m a widow.
But my mother and my father lie in the land of death,
And there is no ground to grow a brother for me now.
(908-12; trans. Meineck)

Husbands are replaceable; a dead husband can be exchanged for a living husband. The marital relationship is transferable. Ironically, Antigone’s reasoning echoes a notoriously sexist remark that Creon makes in an earlier scene between Ismene and Creon:

Ismene: But will you really kill the bride of your son?
Creon: There’s other ground for him to plow, you know.
(568-9; trans. Meineck)

Sheila Murnaghan has dealt effectively with Antigone’s speech as a reflection of the institutional nature of marriage in fifth-century Athens:

Antigone is defining “husband” not as the unchanging identity of a specific individual but as an abstract role that could be played by several different men. In doing so, she is pointing to the way in which marriage, unlike ties of kinship, is not created irrevocably by nature but instituted by society.

Furthermore the aspect of marriage that she especially emphasizes—the possibility of replacing one participant in it with someone else—is central to its character as an institution. Social institutions characteristically establish principles of substitution and replacement whereby entities that are not identical can be treated as interchangeable [e.g., the offices of a democratic polis]… Human institutions counter the precarious, transitory, contingent nature of all specific people and things by establishing equations that allow them to be replaced by other people and things that are in actuality different but by convention identical (Murnaghan 199).

It should be noted that Murnaghan offers a footnote here where she observes that the institution currency is based upon this principle of “the exchange of markedly different commodities.” Furthermore, she observes that this “economic principle” operates elsewhere in human life, but she doesn’t trace it at length in the Antigone itself. In a sense, this essay of mine is simply an expansion of Murnaghan’s footnote.

While Creon’s opinion of marriage seems to tally with Antigone’s (it’s a simple equation), elsewhere he shifts between making qualitative and quantitative judgments. As the moral ground shifts, he sees things both in terms of one-to-one equivalences and in terms of the qualitative differences that set things apart. Here’s a crucial exchange between Antigone and Creon:

Antigone: There’s no shame in having respect for a brother.
Creon: Wasn’t he your brother, too, the one who died on the other side?
Antigone: Yes, my blood brother—same mother, same father.
Creon: When you honor the one, you disgrace the other. Why do it?
Antigone: The dead will never testify against a burial.
Creon: Yes, if they were equal. But one of them deserves disgrace.
Antigone: He wasn’t any kind of slave. He was my brother, who died.
Creon: He was killing and plundering. The other one defended our land.
Antigone: Even so, Hades longs to have these laws obeyed.
Creon: But surely not equal treatment for good and bad?
Antigone: Who knows? Down below that might be blessed.
Creon: An enemy is always an enemy, even in death.
Antigone: I cannot side with hatred. My nature sides with love.
(511-23; trans. Meineck)

Antigone begins by arguing for exact equivalencies: brother equals brother. Creon insists on placing a different valuation on each brother: Eteocles is good, Polyneices is bad. The brothers are qualitatively different. But then Creon immediately insists upon another equation: “an enemy is always an enemy.”

Creon becomes trapped in judgments that are both absolute and sweepingly general. “I hate bad wives for sons,” he tells Ismene (571). Ironically, his assignment of differential value, good and bad, is minted into a moral commonplace redeemable in any circumstance.

Later, when Creon passes his final sentence on Antigone, he lumps Ismene together with her sister (using one of the many significant dual forms in the play): “But those two girls will not escape their fate.” The Chorus, taken aback, asks him: “Are you really planning to kill both of them?” And Creon steps away from the equivalency he has made: “Not the one who never touched the crime. You’re right” (769-771; trans. Meineck). Again, his thinking shifts between making equations and assigning differential values.

The family of Oedipus was, of course, a mess of unintended equivalencies: mother-wife, sister-daughter, father-brother. Society, as Murnaghan observes, institutionalizes certain equivalencies in the public sphere, but the notion of equivalency carried too far in the private sphere becomes taboo. Yet the state demands, even from the family, certain equivalencies which, according to the “economic principle,” become the basis for exchange.

In ancient Athens, a man’s unmarried daughter was considered a part of his estate. If he died intestate, and left a daughter and no sons, his nearest male relative inherited his estate—on the condition that he married the daughter. A surviving daughter in such a position was known as an epikleros. She was essentially a coin, a token of the transfer of wealth from the dead man to his heir.

At the end of the Antigone, there are only two members of the family of Oedipus left standing: Creon and Ismene. Creon has lost both his son and his wife: but these are precisely the two relations (child and spouse) which are replaceable according to both Antigone’s logic and, by implication, his own. “There’s other ground for him to plow.” This line perhaps gains added significance because Ismene, to whom it was spoken, is now essentially in the position of an epikleros: her father and brothers are dead, and she must go, with her father’s estate, to his nearest living male relative. In her case, that would be Creon.

Works cited.

Sophocles, The Theban Plays. trans. Peter Meineck.  Hackett.

Aristotle, The Politics.  trans. Ernest Barker.  Oxford.

Sheila Murnaghan, “Antigone 904-920 and the Institution of Marriage,” American Journal of Philology 107 (1986), 192-207.