Law & Human Pliancy

Law and the administration of law are distinct things. The latter can undermine the former and it can be at odds with a certain conception of justice.

Hegel reflects on the interplay of law, the execution of law, and justice in his early essay “The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate” (Der Geist des Christentums und sein Schicksal).

This triad of themes figures prominently in Antigone of course. In what follows I find in the tragedy analogues to Hegel’s early ideas, ideas separate from those developed in his later, (in)famous reading of Antigone in The Phenomenology of Spirit.

The law is the law


“The law cannot waive punishment. It cannot be lenient. For then it would annul itself. [When] the law has been broken by the transgressor, its content no longer exists for him; he has annulled it . . .”

“[D]as Gesetz kann die Strafe nicht schenken, nicht gnädig sein, denn es höbe sich selbst auf; das Gesetz ist vom Verbrecher gebrochen worden, sein Inhalt ist nicht mehr für ihn, er hat ihn aufgehoben . . .”


This is a defining dilemma in Antigone. Creon’s edict prohibits, on pain of death, the burial of Polynices. In knowingly violating the edict, Antigone denies the new law respect. The Law is fixed but its execution is inconstant and alterable.


“The living being who has united his power with the law, the law’s administrator, . . . is not abstract justice. Rather, he is a person, and justice is only one of his aspects.

Transgression of the law automatically merits punishment; that’s established. But the execution of justice is not automatic. And because justice is only an aspect of the administrator, that aspect can give way and another aspect can appear. In this respect justice is contingent.”

“[D]as Lebendige, dessen Macht sich mit dem Gesetze vereinigt hat, der Exekutor, . . . ist nicht die abstrakte Gerechtigkeit, sondern ein Wesen, und Gerechtigkeit nur seine Modifikation. Die Notwendigkeit des Verdienens der Strafe steht fest, aber die Übung der Gerechigkeit ist nichts Notwendiges, weil sie als Modifikation eines Lebendigen auch vergehen, eine andere Modifikation eintreten kann; und so wird Gerechtigkeit etwas Zufälliges . . .”

Haemon recognizes that Creon makes the law but is not identical with it. He can be separated from the law; that is to say, he can be persuaded to waive its execution (705-718):

Don’t dress yourself in only one way of thinking,
Believing that you, but no one else, is right . . .
Instead, retreat from anger and be open to changing.

μή νυν ἓν ἦθος μοῦνον ἐν σαυτῷ φόρει,
ὡς φὴς σύ, κοὐδὲν ἄλλο, τοῦτʼ ὀρθῶς ἔχειν . . .
ἀλλʼ εἶκε καὶ θυμῷ μετάστασιν δίδου.

And Creon does ultimately demonstrates the distance which exists between law and its administration. In speaking with the chorus he first waivers (1102):

Is this what you recommend? Should I back down?
καὶ ταῦτʼ ἐπαινεῖς καὶ δοκεῖς παρεικαθεῖν;

And then he retreats outright (1111-1112):

My decision is now reversed,
and since it was I who imprisoned her,
I will be there to set her free.

ἐγὼ δʼ, ἐπειδὴ δόξα τῇδʼ ἐπεστράφη,
αὐτός τʼ ἔδησα καὶ παρὼν ἐκλύσομαι.

Color photograph of an oil painting of Hegel

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

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