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

Meeting You in Song Space

We say God and the imagination are one.
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

-Wallace Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”

Sappho Fr. 2

Come from Crete to me, to the holy temple
where there’s an elegant apple orchard
and altars
smoking with frankincense.

There, cool water babbles through apple-branches;
the place is entirely shadowed with roses;
and from bright stirring leaves
deep sleep pours down.

There, a meadow where horses graze
blooms with spring flowers,
and the honied breezes blow . . .
[ ]

In this place, Kypris, as you take up [ ],
into golden cups gently pour
mixed with our rejoicing.

Sappho Fr. 2 is addressed to Aphrodite (Kypris), summoning the god to her temple precinct.

The precinct may have existed in Lesbos, but this being song, I’m going to suggest it exists in the mind. In other words, the “me” and the “holy temple” (the first verse) are one and the same.

The sensuous landscape seems very much a mindscape: obscured by smoke, shaded throughout (fancifully, by roses), and the light filtering through dancing leaves brings enchanted sleep.

It is here, in the space created by and for song, that the communion with the god occurs.

Something similar is at work in Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus I.I.

The poem’s central conceit is that of a song-space: a place where the father of song and the creatures attentive to his music gather. This place of communion (“a temple”) is situated not in the physical world, but inside of them (“in the ear”).

It’s in this interior space that Sappho and her god, and Rilke and his demi-god, meet in song.

Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus I.I

A tree sprung up there. O pure transcendence!
O Orpheus singing! O tall tree in the ear!
And all was quiet. Yet in the silence itself
a new beginning, an intimation, a change came on.

Creatures of stillness thronged out of the clear
untroubled forest, from their lairs and nests.
And it was not from cunning,
nor from fear, were they so quiet in themselves,

but from listening. Bellow, cry, roar
seemed small in their hearts. And where there was scarcely
even a hut to host this,

a shelter made of their darkest longing,
its entryway held up by wobbly posts–
there you built for them a temple in the ear.

Sappho Fr. 2:

δεῦρυ μ’ ἐκ Κρητας .π[ ]ναῦον
ἄγνον, ὄππ[ ] χάριεν μὲν ἄλσος
μαλί[αν], βῶμοι δὲ τεθυμιάμε-
νοι [λι]βανώτῳ·

ἐν δ’ ὔδωρ ψῦχρον κελάδει δι’ ὔσδων
μαλίνων, βρόδοισι δὲ παῖς ὀ χῶρος
ἐσκίαστ’, αἰθυσσομένων δὲ φύλλων
κῶμα κατέρρει·

ἐν δὲ λείμων ἰππόβοτος τέθαλεν
ἠρινίοισιν ἄνθεσιν, αἰ δ’ ἄνητοι
μέλλιχα πνέοισιν [
[ ]

ἔλθα δὴ σὺ [ ] ἔλοισα Κύπρι,
χρυσίαισιν ἐν κυλίκεσσιν ἄβρως
ὀμ[με]μείχμενον θαλίαισι νέκταρ

Rilke Die Sonette An Orpheus I.I

Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!
O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr!
Und alles schwieg. Doch selbst in der Verschweigung
ging neuer Anfang, Wink und Wandlung vor.

Tiere aus Stille drangen aus dem klaren
gelösten Wald von Lager und Genist;
und da ergab sich, daß sie nicht aus List
und nicht aus Angst in sich so leise waren,

sondern aus Hören. Brüllen, Schrei, Geröhr
schien klein in ihren Herzen. Und wo eben
kaum eine Hütte war, dies zu empfangen,

ein Unterschlupf aus dunkelstem Verlangen
mit einem Zugang, dessen Pfosten beben, –
da schufst du ihnen Tempel im Gehör.

A pottery shard, circa 250-100 B.C., inscribed with Sappho 2.
It is held in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence.

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

An Apple A Day

The fragment below is what survives of a hymn to Adonis by Praxilla (5th-century-BC female poet). The lines are Adonis’ response to a question put to him in Hades: what’s the most beautiful thing you left behind in the world of the living? 

Praxilla Fr.747 (PMG) 

The loveliest thing I leave behind is sunlight;
Then follows brilliant stars and the face of the moon,
And also ripe cucumbers, and apples, and pears.

κάλλιστον μὲν ἐγὼ λείπω φάος ἠελίοιο,
δεύτερον ἄστρα φαεινὰ σεληναίης τε πρόσωπον
ἠδὲ καὶ ὡραίους σικύους καὶ μῆλα καὶ ὄγχνας·

Zenobius (2nd century AD) preserved the fragment in his collection of proverbs. He explains that the inclusion of fruits and vegetables alongside the moon and stars is so foolish that it gave rise to the saying “sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis.” 

But is it silly to rank fruits with the heavenly bodies as life’s singular blessings? Looked at from the perspective of Rilke, a 20th-century poet much influenced by Greek lyric, Praxilla was prescient, not silly. 

In poem I.13 of his Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke celebrates the eating of fruit as a transporting, ineffable experience which carries with it sensations of life as well as intimations of death. In other words, the aspirations of lyric are little other than what the humble apple and pear already accomplish for us.

Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus I.13

Ripe apple, pear, and banana,
Gooseberry . . . These all speak
Death and life into the mouth . . .I infer . . .
Read it in a child’s expression

when she tastes them. This comes from far away.
Does this nameless thing slowly happen in your mouth?
Where words used to be, discoveries flow
From pulp surprised at being set free.

Try to say what it is you call ‘apple.’
This sweetness that’s at first tightly contained,
Then, when tasted, gently unfolds

To become clear, alive and transparent,
Double in meaning, sunny, earthy, present—:
O experience, feeling, joy—colossal!

Rilke: Sonette an Orpheus, I.13
Voller Apfel, Birne und Banane,
Stachelbeere … Alles dieses spricht
Tod und Leben in den Mund … Ich ahne …
Lest es einem Kind vom Angesicht,

wenn es sie erschmeckt. Dies kommt von weit.
Wird euch langsam namenlos im Munde?
Wo sonst Worte waren, fließen Funde,
aus dem Fruchtfleisch überrascht befreit.

Wagt zu sagen, was ihr Apfel nennt.
Diese Süße, die sich erst verdichtet,
um, im Schmecken leise aufgerichtet,

klar zu werden, wach und transparent,
doppeldeutig, sonnig, erdig, hiesig –:
O Erfahrung, Fühlung, Freude –, riesig!

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples and Pears (1892).

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

Stay Home, Philocomus!

Alciphron (ca. 170-220 CE) wrote fictional prose letters depicting scenes from the lives of ordinary people. Like the epigrams on which they were modeled, the letters offer snapshots of experience, portraits of vivid emotions. They are pictures rather than meditations. 

I’ve paired Alciphron’s letter about a rural youth’s desire to travel to the city with a letter from an 18th century epistolary novel about an urban youth’s move to the country. Alciphron’s letter is a portrait of naive yearning; and Goethe’s, a portrait of sober reflection. 

Alciphron: Letter 2.28

From Philocomus to Astyllus

Since I’ve never yet gone into town, I don’t know what this thing called “a city” is. I so want to see the fresh spectacle of people living close together, as if in a web; and I want to learn the many other ways city and country life differ. If you should have occasion to go into town, do go, and take me along this time. I’ll surely experience to the full what it has to offer. After all, my first beard is coming out! And really, is there anyone more qualified to introduce me to the multitude of city things than you, one who wanders about inside its gates?

Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther June 21

Dear Wilhelm,

I have thought over all kinds of things: about man’s desire to spread himself, make new discoveries, wander about. And then also about his inner impulse to willingly surrender himself to his limitations, to continue on with the same habits, and not to worry about what’s to his left or right . . . O, distance is like the future! Something enormous and dark rises before our soul, our emotions become blurred, and our eyes too . . . And alas! When we hurry to it, when the “there” becomes “here,” everything is just as before, and we stand there in our poverty, in our limitation, and our soul thirsts for an elusive balm.

Alciphron, Φιλόκωμος Ἀστύλλῳ

Οὐπώποτε εἰς ἄστυ καταβὰς οὐδὲ εἰδὼς ὅ τί ποτε ἐστὶν ἡ λεγομένη πόλις, ποθῶ τὸ καινὸν τοῦτο θέαμα ἰδεῖν, ὑφʼ ἐνὶ περιβόλῳ κατοικοῦντας ἀνθρώπους, καὶ τἆλλα ὅσα διαφέρει πόλις ἀγροικίας μαθεῖν. εἰ οὖν σοι πρόφασις ὁδοῦ ἄστυδε γένοιτο, ἧκε ἀπάξων νῦν κἀμέ. καὶ γὰρ ἔγωγε ἄγειν οἶμαι τοῦ πλέον τι μαθεῖν, ἤδη μοι βρύειν θριξὶ τῆς ὑπήνης ἀρχομένης. τίς οὖν δή με τἀκεῖθι μυσταγωγεῖν ἐπιτηδειό<τερο>ς ἢ σὺ ὁ τὰ πολλὰ εἴσω πυλῶν ἀλινδούμενος;

Goethe, Am 21. Junius.

Lieber Wilhelm, ich habe allerlei nachgedacht, über die Begier im Menschen, sich auszubreiten, neue Entdeckungen zu machen, herumzuschweifen; und dann wieder über den inneren Trieb, sich der Einschränkung willig zu ergeben, in dem Gleise der Gewohnheit so hinzufahren und sich weder um Rechts noch um Links zu bekümmern . . . O es ist mit der Ferne wie mit der Zukunft! Ein großes dämmerndes Ganze ruht vor unserer Seele, unsere Empfindung verschwimmt darin wie unser Auge . . . und ach! Wenn wir hinzueilen, wenn das Dort nun Hier wird, ist alles vor wie nach, und wir stehen in unserer Armut, in unserer Eingeschränktheit, und unsere Seele lechzt nach entschlüpftem Labsale.

The Acropolis and surrounding area, Athens.
Neil Beer/Getty Images

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