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Serge Moscovici

Nikos Kalampalikis
Denise Jodelet
Michel Wieviorka
et al.

– II – Écologie politique

The Legal and the Legitimate: Re-opening Sophocles’ Antigone for revisiting the tensions in the biodiversity debate1

Paula Castro

Texte intégral

  • 1 Acknowledgements: I am grateful to FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia) for partially support (...)

“Il est plus facile de légaliser certaines choses que de les légitimer.”
Nicolas de Chamfort, 1795


1I have two goals in this text, both drawing for their formulation on concepts from the creative and rich theoretical legacy of Serge Moscovici. The first goal is to re-open Sophocles’ Antigone (Athens, 441 BC) and the debate about biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation with Natura 2000 (European Union, today)—in order to explore parallels between them through a psychosocial reading. For this reading, I shall particularly rely on the theory of social representations (TSR) and its dialogical approach to Self-Other relations (Moscovici, 1972a; Marková, 2008), from which I also take the notions of reified and consensual universes (Moscovici, 1984 and 1993); I also draw on Moscovici’s writings on nature-society relations (especially Moscovici, 1972b), in which he also discusses Antigone.

2The parallels I shall highlight in a first moment are the following: in both Antigone and in the Natura 2000 debate there is:

3(1) resistance—to a new (city) law (in Antigone) and to several new (supra-national and national) laws (in Natura 2000); (2) open conflict—between the policy sphere/Creon and Antigone, and between the policy and public spheres (in the Natura debate). I will first explore some of the questions Antigone asks, and then will focus specifically on how they re-appear in the Natura debate. My psychosocial reading of these conflicts and resistance processes will highlight how they are expressive of a more general tension—that between the legal and the legitimate.

4This will conduct me towards the second goal: to discuss how different attempts to make the legal also (appear as) legitimate follow in general two different argumentative paths, that of necessity and that of contingency. These paths link representations and values to state institutions, and thus to politics, in very different ways, and for ending the text I shall formulate a question about these connections. Thus, I shall be ending with a question, not a conclusion, and the ending question is also directly taken from Serge Moscovici’s powerful questioning of the role of the social sciences in the ecological debate.

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5Sophocles’ Antigone is one of humanity’s best loved theatre texts, and its potentialities for illuminating the human condition have been amply highlighted. The huge literature of huge names writing about Antigone, from Hegel and Holderlin to Steiner (1986) or Butler (2000), could be projecting now one very intimidating shadow over the present text, was it not meant to be a humble one, acknowledging how opening Antigone is anyway “a defeating thing to try,” in the words of Anne Carson2, poet and translator of Antigone. It is in this same spirit that I hope the text is able to be one (more) testimony to the heuristic potential of Moscovici’s theoretical legacy—for social psychology and for what can today be called social studies of the environment and sustainability (Castro, 2015), to which he offered pioneer contributions.

Sophocles’ Antigone

Synopsis and context

  • 3 There is some discussion between two dates: 442 or 441 BC (Rocha Pereira, 1990).

6Sophocles’ Antigone was written in 441 BC3 to compete in Athens’ theater Festival (Rocha Pereira, 1990), where it won the first prize. This means it was written after Thebes had supported the Persians in their conquering attempts against the rule of Athens. Staged in Athens and telling a story happening in Thebes, the play invites a psychosocial reading informed by a dialogical perspective (Moscovici, 1972a; Marková, 2008) to take into account that Thebes constitutes for Athens a radical Other. It is thus possible to read it as a staged warning about the misfortunes of Others, that We should take care not to let happen to Us. Or a rehearsal of wisdom, suggesting the Self avoids the ordeals of the Others by not repeating their misdeeds. And what ordeal it is, that falls upon Creon, the one that creates a new law. And what ordeal it is, that falls upon Antigone, the one that resists it. Let me recall them briefly.

is one of the four children born in Thebes of Oedipus incestuous marriage to Jocasta, and thus the sister of Ismene, Eteocles and Polyneices. Upon discovering his past, Oedipus goes to Colonus to die and the sons agree to alternate the rule of Thebes, but then Eteocles refuses to give up the throne. Polyneices attacks Thebes with the help of forces from Argos. The brothers kill each other in the fight. Creon, brother of Jocasta, takes over the rule of Thebes. When the play opens Polyneices and Eteocles have just killed each other and Creon has decreed that Eteocles the defender of the city will be given honourable burial, while the body of Polyneices must be left laying as a prey for the birds. The penalty for disobedience to this decree will be death. Antigone resolves to bury Polyneices herself and alone. She is captured in the act and brought to Creon who condemns her to be walled up alone in a cave. She commits suicide and after that so does Heamon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé; then Eurydice, Creon’s wife, also kills herself. (Adapted from the Dictionary of Classical Mythology, J. R. March.)

The legal and the legitimate in Antigone

7From a psychosocial perspective, then, what central tension does Antigone stage? It is a tension already discussed in the Greek public sphere (Trindade Santos, 1999), and resulting from the following facts: (1) human action is constrained; (2) it is constrained by natural limits, and these evidently do not require legitimating; (3) but human action is also constrained by limits humans agree amongst themselves, and these need legitimacy. In other words, if tragic resistance and conflict— emphasis on tragic—are to be avoided, agreed limits need to be seen as legitimate by those they constrain and/or by those imposing them.

8In the conceptual vocabulary of the TSR, the constraints humans agreed amongst themselves, however, do not belong or come from to just one universe. Some belong to and originate in the consensual universe, and others in the reified one (Moscovici, 1984). In the first, the consensual universe, “no one member is assumed to possess an exclusive competence, but each can acquire any competence which may be required by the circumstances” (ibid.: 21). This universe of common sense is also a dilemmatic one (Billig et al., 1988), “and the fact that it ‘affirms one thing as well as its opposite’ constitutes it’s ‘old and irritating dilemma” (Moscovici, 2001b: 22-23).

9Other constraints belong instead to the reified universe, where there is a “system of different roles and classes whose members are unequal” (Moscovici, 1984: 22). Moscovici initially identified it mainly with only a specific institution—science (see especially Moscovici, 1993b); but the notion was then further extended to include other institutions, in particular the legal one (Batel and Castro, 2009). When drawing from Moscovici’s dialogical epistemology (1972a), and this distinction between consensual and reified universes, as well as to rhetorical psychology (Billig et al., 1988) and recent conceptualizations of what institutions are (Searle, 2005), the picture of agreed limits to action that I next describe emerges.

10Agreed limits to action are based on and legitimized by shared social representations and values, and stabilized by institutions. Institutions are collective agreements about a system of rules (ibid.). Each institutional system of rules—of the institutional/reified universe—takes the shared, but also dilemmatic (i.e. contradictory, heterogeneous) representations and values of common sense (Billig et al., 1988; Moscovici, 2001b) and makes options—of inclusion, exclusion and, mostly, of prioritization of certain representations and values over others (Castro, 2012; Searle, 2005). For example, some institutions are state/policy, and can issue the institutional facts we call laws and these make choices (Searle, 2005)—in some national laws and/or international treaties freedom gets prioritized over security, while in other cases the reverse happens (as it did in many US laws after 9/11). The institutional universe and its system of rules thus offer consensual universes, and the groups operating within them, some stability by stabilizing, at least temporarily, their dilemmatic and heterogeneous possibilities.

11However, prioritizing one value or representation over another does not make the (contradictory) other disappear from the universe of common sense (Billig et al., 1988). Prioritization does not entirely dispel the dilemmas or prevent conflicts about legitimacy. This opens never ceasing debates and conflicts between universes. When certain values and representations are institutionalized by the state through their incorporation in laws, this can open conflicts in which the legal and the legitimate are viewed and discussed as nonequivalent, or as openly clashing. One way of dealing with these conflicts—or of arguing before or during them—or even of trying to prevent them, is to make agreed limits seem instead natural limits. The more agreed limits are made to seem natural limits, are made to seem integral to “how the world is,” the easier it is to argue for them, and to demonstrate that they have “inherent” legitimacy (Castro and Mouro, 2016; Latour, 2010).

  • 4 The Choir or Tiresias also take on this same task, but for reasons of parsimony here we will focus (...)

12It is this tension between the legal and the legitimate that we find in Antigone, staged together with the tension between the institutional universe of state/political institutions and the consensual universe or polis. It is thus in this sense that Antigone illustrates how although legality is created in only one universe (the institutional one), both universes are needed for legitimacy. It can moreover be said that there are two moments in Antigone’s tensions between legal and legitimate. In a first moment, a new law (Creon’s decree) is issued, and legitimizing what is now legal is Creon’s task, while de-legitimizing the law and legitimizing her resistance to it is Antigone’s task. In a second moment, the punishment for the violation of the law is brought forward and discussed, and at this point legitimizing it is Creon’s mission. And questioning its legitimacy is Heamon’s task, in this case while also talking for the polis4.

  • 5 All excerpts are from the English Version of Antigone by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald.

13Starting with the first moment, this is how Antigone seeks to delegitimize Creon’s decree and to legitimize her transgression of it5:

CREON: Tell me, tell me briefly:
Had you heard my proclamation touching this matter?
ANTIGONE: It was public. Could I help hearing it?
CREON: And yet you dared defy the law.
ANTIGONE: I dared.
It was not God’s proclamation. That final Justice
That rules the world below makes no such laws.
Your edict, King, was strong,
But all your strength is weakness itself against
The immortal unrecorded laws of God.
They are not merely now: they were, and shall be,
Operative for ever, beyond man utterly.

14From the psychosocial perspective adopted here, what Antigone calls the immortal unrecorded laws of God can be seen as the result of (past) agreements that offered priority and privilege to certain representations (honour loved ones = bury them), making them dominant, institutionalizing them. In this case, institutionalization happens through religion, but in time it is forgotten as a choice/agreement and becomes fully integrated in common sense as “natural”. In other words, from this psychosocial perspective and converging on this point with Butler’s (2000) reading of this play, no norm is foundational in the sense of being necessary, all are contingent (also a point made in Moscovici’s 1972 reading of Antigone), but contingency is often forgotten/hidden over time.

15Antigone herself, however, presents these limits to action as coming from God (or the “gods” in other translations), who “reveal” them as necessary, and thus as expressing what is “natural, thus operative forever. And we can only suspect that the community/polis to which she belongs also supports them as such. In this sense, they are part of hegemonic representations about how to deal with death and kinship, supported by the gods who “naturally” know “how the world is”. And their present hegemonic “naturalness” elides that—at some point in the past—they were agreed amongst people as limits to action and institutionalized in (religion-linked) rules.

16The play thus illustrates that when the contingency of past intersubjective agreements is forgotten (in the present), they can be integrated in the reservoir of values of the consensual universe as necessary or “immortal laws”. This seeks to legitimize them by presenting them as (necessary) natural limits to human action. In sum then, Sophocles play shows, through Antigone, how in the consensual universe of shared but dilemmatic values, some values are made to seem natural by forgotten or unacknowledged past institutionalization.

17And how had Creon legitimized his decree? To which universe had he appealed to?

CREON: Gentlemen: […] I say to you at the very outset that I have nothing but contempt for the kind of Governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course that he knows is best for the State.
These are my principles, at any rate, and that is why I have made the following decision […]: Eteocles, who died as a man should die, fighting for his country, is to be buried with full military honors […] but his brother Polyneices, who broke his exile to come back with fire and sword against his native city and the shrines of his fathers’ gods […]—Polyneices, I say, is to have no burial. […] This is my command, and you can see the wisdom behind it. As long as I am King, no traitor is going to be honored with the loyal man.

18Creon in this excerpt faces alone (without gods, without nature) the contingency of human decision-making. It is clear that he draws on principles, representations and values from a consensual universe. For example, he highlights how rulers should not be afraid of doing what they know is best for the State; or how those who come with sword against their city need punishment. But, he is also very clear in assuming that it is the ruler’s choice of values that sustains the law: it is in this sense that he is alone.

And yet… Creon nevertheless ardently hopes he is not alone, he hopes for consensus in the polis, among citizens:
CREON: Of all the people in this city, only she
Has had contempt for my law and broken it.

19But consensus in the polis is difficult. This is what Creon’s son, Heamon, reminds him of:

HEAMON: Father: […] I cannot say—
I hope that I shall never want to say! —that you
Have reasoned badly. Yet there are other men
Who can reason, too; and their opinions might be helpful.
You are not in a position to know everything
That people say or do, or what they feel:
Your temper terrifies them—everyone
Will tell you only what you like to hear.
But I, at any rate, can listen; and I have heard them
Muttering and whispering in the dark about this girl.
They say no woman has ever, so unreasonably,
Died so shameful a death for a generous act:
“She covered her brother’s body. Is this indecent?
She kept him from dogs and vultures. Is this a crime?
Death?—She should have all the honor that we can give her!”
This is the way they talk out there in the city.

20In this reminder, that Creon dismisses, Heamon lets him know how the polis whispers old sedimented values of the consensual universe, recalling how two universes are needed for legitimacy.

21Let us now attempt a summary. Creon seeks to legitimize his law by appealing to values shared in the polis, assuming contingency. Yet the law’s legitimacy—and the legitimacy of the punishment for its violation—are questioned by other shared values of the polis. Creon’s paradox is thus that he is pursuing politics as contingency but excluding the Other, forgetting s/he can reason too, as Heamon underlines. Antigone, in turn, performs an illegal action. Yet, although illegal, it finds some legitimacy in the polis, which comes from partaking of shared values and representations of common sense. She herself legitimizes her action by presenting the values it responds to as being necessary, as expressing unfailing and immortal laws. So, Antigone’s paradox is presenting resistance as necessity, thus also excluding the Other, and even the idea of joint decision-making with the Other.

22In sum, the play can be seen as a rehearsal of wisdom on how two universes are needed for (de) legitimizing new laws, and two paths can be taken for it: the path of necessity and the path of contingency. If they choose the later, state institutions need to acknowledge also what Haemon recalls Creon: that there are other men who can reason, too. They need to acknowledge that there can be disagreement even when both parts reason well. Consequently, negotiating representations and values is necessary for avoiding tragedy. It is thus in this sense that the play also asks a question about politics—it asks whether the political should be the realm of necessity or of contingency. This question is central for the (political) governance of biodiversity, and we now turn then to the biodiversity debate of today around Natura 2000.

Back to today: Natura 2000—legitimating a European ecological (legislative) order

23In today’s heterogeneous and supranational “polis” and in a time when the “ecosystem of the red tuna extends to the sushi bars of the whole planet and includes friends and enemies of many human and nonhuman shapes: consumers, activists, treaties, governments” (Latour, 2010)—how are we to legitimize new laws? In how can governance institutions/laws achieve legitimacy? By following the path of necessity or by choosing that of contingency?

24A case worth studying in this regard is that of Natura 2000. The Natura 2000 network of protected sites—the cornerstone of the European Union (EU) policy for biodiversity conservation—cuts across the territory of the 27 member states representing today 18 % of their area. The governance of the sites—which include public and private land—is supported by legislation initially prepared at the EU level and gradually transposed to the legal frameworks of member states (Castro and Mouro, 2016). How were Natura laws prepared, legitimized and implemented? By appealing to consensus-in-contingency and recognizing the dilemmatic nature of values, i.e., recognizing the knowledge binding farmers and fishers to land and sea and negotiating with their values and identities? Or by appealing to necessity and the immortal laws of nature, that science alone can reveal? Or even both?

25When Natura 2000 biodiversity frameworks were prepared and implemented the arguments they were based on were that science knows, ecologists know, laws are evidence-based (Weber and Christophersen, 2002; Paavola, 2004; Castro and Mouro, 2011). Thus, the institutional argumentation for legitimating them was that the public sphere/consensual universe needed to listen to the institutional one, learn from it, follow its choices, which were in fact not really choices, much less choices of values, but simply a way of following and respecting the unfailing laws of nature.

26And how were, and still are, these laws received by the citizens they affect? Were they seen as legitimate, and defended, or were they contested? A recent review of 149 papers analysing Natura’s reception (Blicharska et al., 2016) helps systematize a response. The review identifies how, since the early 1990s and across EU member states, fishers, farmers, other professional groups as well as local authorities have contested the low level of public participation in the implementation of the network, its frequently noncooperative management, its unidirectional forms of communication, the dismissal of local knowledge, identities and values (see also Paavola, 2004; Weber and Christophersen, 2002; Castro and Mouro, 2011, 2016).

27In other words, the universe of scientific and state institutions supported by scientific ones and the public sphere/consensual universe of values seem to have been drifting apart in the preparation of these biodiversity laws, a process that leaft labour, knowledge and values in the consensual universe often neglected, and mostly attributed to science the work of legitimating decisions taken about nature. Yet, as Moscovici had remarked many years before, “only where there is labour and knowledge is there nature. […] And where one sees nature one always discovers the labour and knowledge that sustain it” (1972b, my translation). The path chosen for Natura 2000—politics as necessity—has originated universes clashing in the implementation of the laws, has brought resistance, and conflict. Yet conserving biodiversity is crucial, continues to be crucial. This shows that we need to imagine more, and more broadly, in order to better tackle biodiversity conservation, as well as other ecological issues.

Imagining more

28Today, when the “ecosystem of the red tuna extends to the sushi bars of the whole planet and includes friends and enemies of many […] shapes: consumers, activists, treaties, governments” (Latour, 2010), can really “politics as necessity” help us imagine more for ecological issues and biodiversity conservation? Can it be helpful in re-discussing values, making them more inclusive of the extended network of actors that are involved in the ecologies of today? Can it fuel the imagination of new ones, and help us go beyond “unfailing laws” (although not excluding these), or—and this is the really difficult question—does “politics as necessity” always work to reproduce present day power hierarchies? And, on the other side of the same difficult question, can “politics as contingency” better protect us from demagogy, simplistic reasoning and the closing down of imaginations? Can it help imagine more? These are questions that need the social and human sciences. As Moscovici (1990a) has pointed out, they require “the kind of illumination that only the social sciences can provide,” social sciences that talk to each other and to human sciences. And he further adds that we—in the social sciences—cannot leave “to the physical and biological sciences the job of constructing the new images of the social” that are required for dealing with ecological issues (ibid.: 18). Without the social and human sciences we risk re-imagining the social as the biological, closing down instead of opening up our values, taking contingency and choice for necessity (Moscovici, 1990a), thereby producing only indisputability and simplistic reasoning (Latour, 2010). Moreover, if we fail to fully integrate the social and human sciences in the reflection and action about the ecological issues of our time, we also risk failing to examine the difficult questions: whether politics as necessity can indeed only create a re-enforcement of old imaginations and old powers, and if so how does this happen? through which processes? In my view, to better understand these processes is one task social psychology should not elude, and for which Moscovici’s theoretical legacy continues to offer creative instruments.


1 Acknowledgements: I am grateful to FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia) for partially supporting my reflection on Natura 2000 through project “Memotrade” (ERANET/ CIRCLE-MED2/0003/2013).


3 There is some discussion between two dates: 442 or 441 BC (Rocha Pereira, 1990).

4 The Choir or Tiresias also take on this same task, but for reasons of parsimony here we will focus on Heamon only.

5 All excerpts are from the English Version of Antigone by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald.


(Instituto Universitário de Lisboa, Portugal)

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