Between Pandemic and Democracy: What Antigone Can Teach Us

Magda Romanska

Over the past four years since the pandemic started, different countries have implemented distinct strategies to curb the spread of the Covid-19, often restricting freedom of movement as well as implementing a variety of draconian surveillance methods and compulsory measures, including cellphone and face-recognition contact tracing, quarantines, border closings, and vaccine and testing mandates. Most of these measures have not been accepted in democracies, where privacy laws and civil freedoms are considered the bedrock of a social contract. 

In rejecting these more drastic measures as contradictory to their governing model, democratic societies have also instinctively rejected milder forms of infection control, such as masks, HEPA filters and social distancing, even in healthcare settings where such measures used to be routine before the pandemic. These actions have been detrimental to clinically vulnerable populations, sometimes sentencing them, so it appears, to permanent self-isolation. Can these two contradictory state interests, maintaining the foundations of our political system and protecting the public — particularly its most vulnerable members — from a highly infectious and still-deadly disease, be reconciled?

Antigone by the body of Polynices, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, 1888 (Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France)

One of the most famous Greek tragedies, Antigone, teaches us that it’s probably not possible, and that we should learn to live with the incongruity. Living with that incongruity, however, means understanding that the state which cannot acknowledge or find balance between its conflicting self-interests, by excessively favoring one at the expense of the other, will jeopardize its long-term stability, and risks the potential erosion of either its political foundations or else the social contract that safeguards the welfare of its populace, including its most vulnerable constituents.

Written by Sophocles in 442 BC, Antigone has survived over two millennia as a staple of both the philosophical and the dramatic canons, mainly because of its focus on the tragic battle between its main characters, Antigone, and Creon — her father-in-law and Thebes’ ruling king — as a near-ideal illustration of dialectical conflict between a number of binaries: state/family, human law/divine law, male/female. To preserve and honor ancient tradition, Antigone wants to bury her brother, Polyneices, while Creon forbids the deed under the punishment of death as a way to deny Polyneices, whom he considers a traitor, the last rites — and thus, by such a denial, to send him to eternal damnation.

Antigone condemned to death by Creon, Giuseppe Diotti, 1845 (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy).

In addition to illustrating these multiple conflicts (agōnes), Sophocles’ Antigone also illustrates the tragedy of the state: Creon sees himself as a stand-in for the state, believing that he acts in its best interest. His legitimacy is reaffirmed by his ascendancy to power, and by the law of Thebes. The state as such cannot exist outside the law, yet the law is what can also destroy it. Creon suspends the law of burial on the basis of the law that gives him the power to suspend it; but by suspending that law, he simultaneously undermines it and, thus, his power to suspend it. The suspension of the law, which the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben defined as “the state of exception”, marks the limit of the law: the sovereign cannot legitimize lawlessness without having a hold on power, yet he simultaneously cannot maintain power without some sort of law. The play thus lays bare the limits of the Greek democracy which necessarily violates its own norms in its own name.

Antigone is a political play about a government forced to decide between its two survival modes: the ‘biopower’ of sanitary considerations, and the universality of the law — both essential to the survival of the state as a political structure and as a communal entity. The universality of the law on which the state is built is fragile and unstable; it depends on the multifaceted aspects of power and its execution, including biopower (the management and control of human bodies, and their physiological needs and challenges), and its necropolitics (the management of death, dying and the dead). This includes sanitary measures implemented at population level and maintained, sometimes for political purposes, but more often to protect the healthy and the living from the sick and the dead.

Apollo sending plague, Alexander Rothaug, 1920 (Belvedere Museum, Vienna, Austria).

The odor of Polyneices’ rotting flesh is carried on the wind, lingering at the gates of the city, reminding citizens what happens to traitors. Vultures rip the meat to pieces which they then drop onto holy altars as they fly over them. What happens to the body is both physical (it rots and smells) and symbolic (it needs funeral rites so as not to rot and smell). The smell of the rotting body serves as a political tool to keep citizens in check and to strengthen Creon’s authority. For his edict to be effective, the body has to rot; it has to give off the odors of death, reminding his subjects about the power that let it rot. The funeral rituals are performed by Antigone on religious grounds: honoring the age-old customs ordered by gods and ancestors. But the corpse is also a site of the biopower that delineates the relationship between the sovereign and death; it is a site of the “politico-sanitary discourse” that defines the nature of the state and its opposing but equally valid interests.

Greek funeral rites were elaborate and rich, offering an opportunity to display the family’s wealth and the strength of its kinship bonds. The corpse, dressed in a long gown and crown of flowers, was displayed in public for two days, allowing the community a final opportunity to contemplate the deceased. Antigone captures the essential question of this transition: to whom does the body of the dead belong, the state or the family? Can the state use the funeral (or its absence) as a political tool, even if its actions go against its better interests? And yet the state’s ownership of the dead is complicated by its responsibility toward the living.

Aenne Schwarz as Antigone, Burgtheater, Vienna, Austria (dir. Jette Steckel, 2015credit: Christian Michelides).

The symbolic purpose of funeral rites was to pay tribute to the gods, but their pragmatic purpose was to prevent the biohazard that the dead could potentially inflict. The dead had to be disposed of because corpses presented a real danger to cities and their inhabitants. Left unburied, the dead brought disease and the vultures, rats, and hyenas who fed on corpses. To leave corpses unburied has a symbolic meaning (the dead are deprived of religious rites), but, foremost, it implies a clear and present danger to the living. Thus, by leaving Polyneices’ body to rot in the Grecian sun, Creon acts not only in the name of the universal law that he established and that he believes will help hold the state together (by maintaining his power) but also against the biopower of sanitary precepts that allow the community to survive free of plague and other death-related biohazards. How is the state to choose between one and the other, if the two are indeed at odds?

The play thus illustrates the state in crisis, asking itself whether the abstract rules that govern it — its social contract — should give way to “politico-sanitary reasons”, or whether the rule of law provides such a strong foundation for the state that without it the state itself would disintegrate. Hence the principal question the play poses pertains not so much to the conflict between individual and social interests but to the conflict internal to the construction of a state, and to the limits of power and the law. What is more important: to preserve the political institution of the city-state, or to follow the basic sanitary precautions that protect the community from dangerous biohazards?

Antigone in front of the dead Polynices, Nikiforos Lytras, 1865 (National Gallery of Athens, Greece).

The play does not answer this question, but it does end in tragedy, with all of its principal characters (except Creon) dead. The question, in fact, cannot be answered, as the two competing interests of the state are mutually exclusive. This very incongruity, Sophocles seems to suggest, is a permanent condition of the state which, at the moment of crisis, reveals its vulnerability, leading to a tragic ending.

In the 21st century, this issue became first apparent following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the US government attempted to surveil a large segment of its citizens in the name of safety. Reluctantly, Americans agreed to give up some of their rights for the promise of control over “terror”. The fear of uncontrolled and unpredictable violence was sufficient for the population to relinquish many of its civil and constitutional rights, including the right to privacy, to due process, and to freedom from searches without probable cause. These rights, although seen as foundational for the well-functioning democratic states, were deemed less important than the physical survival and well-being of the population. The same argument, however, does not seem to apply to gun control: Americans are not willing to curtail their right to bear arms, regardless of how much they collectively fear rampant unpredictability of mass shootings.

The Philistines struck by the plague, Étienne Picart, an engraving of 1677, after a painting by Nicolas Poussin.

The apparent inability of Western democracies to contain the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 is both surprising and fully expected. Although generally good at preventing biohazards thanks in part to their systems of open dialogue, liberal democracies are bad at containing them in times of crisis, as democratic societies perceive any infection control measures as detrimental to individual freedom perceived as foundational to the existence of the free state.

Thus, while free societies are better at detecting and stopping epidemiological threats early, because people’s voices are not censored, totalitarian societies are better at containing epidemics, since they can control and surveil all their people without much resistance. As a result, the world, like the ancient state, got stuck between the worst of two systems: totalitarian censorship — which initially allowed the virus to evade human control — and rejection of even the most reasonable infection control measures.

A Greek woman tends to a grave: detail from a white-ground lekythos attributed to the “Reed Painter”, 420-410 BC (found in Athens, Greece, and now in the British Museum, London).

China’s draconian zero Covid policy which kept the virus, and its most deadly consequences, at bay for the duration of the policy best illustrates this paradox: complete control over the entire population meant that people were both protected from infection and contained in a way that became dangerous to maintain even for the authoritarian Chinese government. Even the Chinese government, with all its high-tech surveillance methods, and a political system which allowed it to implement them without resistance, could not enforce drastic infection control forever, fearing social unrest; they eventually let the virus run rampant, killing countless citizens.

But by juxtaposing these two state needs — the need for individual freedom vs the need to protect the population from the external biological threats and from the unchecked violence — as fundamentally contradictory and incongruous, the way that Sophocles does in his tragedy, Western democracies run the risk of forfeiting both their political foundations and the stability and security that democratic systems have historically nurtured and preserved. After all, the state’s priority, its raison d’être, is to protect the lives and welfare of its citizens.

Sophocles’ Antigone warns us that although the state, by its very nature, exists in the perpetual condition of self-contradiction, lack of flexibility in resolving the incongruity of its self-interests inevitably leads to a tragic ending.

Magda Romanska is a professor of theatre, performing arts and media at Emerson College in Boston, MA, and Principal Researcher at metaLAB at Harvard University, where she researches the relationship between art, science, and technology. She can be found on Twitter and

Further Reading:

I recommend an anthology edited by Stephen Elliot Wilmer and Audronė Žukauskaitė, Interrogating Antigone in Postmodern Philosophy and Criticism. (Oxford UP, 2010). In addition, readers may enjoy Bonnie Honig’s Antigone, Interrupted (Cambridge UP, 2013), and the special issue of Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal focused on Antigone: 41.3 (2008) 15–30. My own recent essay might also be of interest: “Antigone’s choice: tragedy and philosophy from dialectic to aporia.” Performance Philosophy 7.2 (2022) 89–110, available here.