Between bios and zoē: Sophocles’ Antigone and Agamben’s Biopolitics


Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer and its biopolitics have been brought to bear on Sophocles’ Antigone with some frequency. These biopolitical readings of Antigone rely on a binary distinction drawn by Homo Sacer at its very outset: a distinction between βίος and ζωή — between proper, political life and bare existence. However, these readings have not sufficiently examined how these words operate in Sophocles’ Greek. Can βίος be meaningfully distinguished from ζωή in Sophoclean tragedy and, if so, how does this semantic binary operate in Antigone? Although the distinction is far from absolute in Sophocles’ poetry, I argue that the conflict between Antigone and Ismene is underscored by their preference for ζῶ-words or βιόω-words respectively. If the sisters disagree over whether to sacrifice their own lives to perform the act of burial in defiance of Creon, it is at least in part because they conceive of their lives’ value quite differently.