Commencement 2009: Conflict and Compromise
Members of the Skidmore College Class of 2009, parents, and honored guests, let me
too extend my welcome to everyone in attendance at our 98th Commencement Exercises—most
especially to you graduates. As you may know, you number more than 640, representing
the largest graduating class in the college’s history.
Four years and (at least) 120 credits ago, most of you read the inaugural common text of our newly launched First-Year Experience Program, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sophocles’ play Antigone, entitled The Burial at Thebes. As I hope you will recall, the fundamental conflict that drives this play pits Creon, the ruler of ancient Thebes, against Antigone, one of its citizens. Thebes has just survived a war in which Antigone’s two brothers fought on opposing sides. Creon allows burial for Eteocles, who fought for the city, but denies it to the other, Polyneices, who fought with the invaders. Creon defends his ruling as a necessity of state. “whoever isn’t for us is against us in this case,” he says. But Antigone believes she owes a higher allegiance to her brother and to the divine injunction that mandates a proper funeral be given to anyone. Antigone knows that the price of defying Creon will be her own death.
The Burial at Thebes did launch a thousand discussions, and I hope that through those conversations you came to see the complexity at the heart of this conflict. It is tempting to read this play as a straightforward contest—an agon in Greek—between Antigone as the compelling heroine and Creon as the villian. However, in a background essay prepared for this project, philosophy professor Francisco Gonzalez discusses Hegel’s more complicated—and complicating—reading of this and other Greek tragedies. Hegel proposes that the fundamental opposition here is not a “tragic collision” between good and evil but rather “between one-sided positions, each of which embodies some good.”1
For the Greeks, human laws were legitimated only to the extent that they expressed the laws of the gods, but the laws of the gods were merely abstract or theoretical until “translated” into human terms. So, on this view, Creon’s and Antigone’s positions each represent distorted mirror images of the other. The only way out of their dilemma is for one antagonist to abandon or at least modify his or her position, or for one or both to be destroyed. As we know, the play moves inexorably to this tragic conclusion. One of the questions this play poses to us today is whether such deep-seated oppositions can admit of compromise or at least some other resolution short of tragic destruction of one or both sides. The Palestinian-Israeli or the Sunni-Shiite conflicts come immediately to mind, but of course there are many others much closer to home—for example, between economic development and environmental responsibility.
Now in case you graduates haven’t yet noticed, commencements bring out a nearly uncontrollable urge in your elders to offer sage advice to guide you on the remainder of your journey through life. You might think of this as partial payback for the sins of your youth. In any event, it is your burden, and bear it you must. Accordingly, this is the moment when I should extract a final lesson from Antigone that you can carry with you, along with your Skidmore diploma, a use to resolve any such problem you might encounter in your life.
Well I’m sorry. There’s no such formula that I’ve ever discovered. The deepest and most troubling human dilemmas are so difficult to resolve not only because those on each side can be deeply invested in its view of the world but also because each of those views has both a history and a set of reasons that make them compelling. Hegel is surely right in pointing out that such opposing sides frequently relate to one another in ways that should make them, at least, mutually intelligible. But understanding the logic of such a conflict is one thing; turning that understanding into a workable solution is quite another. And unfortunately, our inability to craft those solutions often leads to many more burials. So where does this leave us?
In fact, the best advice I could offer would be for you to pursue a liberal arts undergraduate education—one that would sensitize you to the complexity of such human dilemmas and let you explore ways of creatively rethinking them to see if, in a given case, there might be a way of untieing the gordian knot. But wait, you’ve already done that.
In thinking further about The Burial at Thebes, we could note that the relationship between Creon and Antigone is asymmetrical: Creon has the power to put Antigone to death; she cannot do that to him. Therefore Creon is much better positioned to create a compromise that could resolve this conflict short of the destruction of one or both antagonists. In fact, in this case, one can imagine a relatively easy fix: Creon could have said: “OK, Antigone, go bury Polyneices if you must, but do it somewhere outside the walls of the city. And then come home.” Of course, this solution would have made for a much shorter and an infinitely less dramatic play—one that never would have taken its place in the Western literary canon occupied by the Antigone we know.
Even so, my hope is that you will retain your appreciation of complexity and always look to articulate the assumptions that underpin a given conflict. Then look further to see how the assumptions on each side might interrelate and possibly even light a way forward toward agreement. Finally, ask “who is best positioned to effect a solution?” In most cases, the side with the most power should be prepared to make the first move toward compromise.
In real life, such work is always messy, complicated, and frustrating. But if you persist, perhaps you can reframe a problem that previously looked insolubile and so create a resolution that avoids the path to destruction walked so inexorbly by Creon and Antigone. In real life—as opposed to art—sometimes “no drama” can be a pretty good idea.
1 Gonzales actually quotes Walter Kaufman’s account of Hegel.