Vol. 54, No. 5, 411–441, October 2011
DAVID N. MCNEILL, University of Essex, UK
ABSTRACT: Sophocles’ Antigone contains the first recorded instance of the word ?u’ ? ´o?o?o?, the source for our word “autonomous”. I argue that reflection upon
the human aspiration toward autonomy is central to that work. I begin by focusing on the difficulty readers of the play have determining whether Antigone’s actions in the play should be considered autonomous and then suggest that recognizing this difficulty is crucial to a proper understanding of the play. The very aspects of Antigone’s character that seem to militate against understanding her actions within the play as autonomous—her rejection of life, her intimacy with death and the way she seems defined by her incestuous heritage— serve to illustrate the inherently problematic character of a moral ideal that we can provisionally call Antigone’s autonomy. I show how the movement of the play can be understood in terms of Antigone’s progress from what Kant would characterize as a heteronomous representation of her irremissible duty to bury her dead brother, to a self-conception defined by a recognition and embrace of her autonomy understood as, in Kant’s words, “a respect for something entirely different from life”. Antigone’s autonomy is exemplified by her choice to be dead, the choice to bear the burden of responsibility to her own. This choice, I argue, must be understood as the choice of herself as defined by her obligation to her own. Sophocles’ Antigone suggests that the moral ideal Antigone represents is unlivable, but that this ideal is nonetheless essential to human moral aspiration.