§17 Dialogue between Antigone and Ismene [125-126]

can indeed frequently mean simply something like "right at the commencement" or "initially." In that case, the word merely expresses the order of a sequence. Yet in the words of Ismene. ἀρχήν is spoken with regard to τἀμήχανα, that which is of no avail, that is, with regard to that over which human beings can neither rule nor dispose. And furthermore, the word here stands in a poetic context. Thus there are many reasons why it does not have the meaning that can pertain to it in everyday language. Moreover, were we to take ἀρχήν in its merely "temporal" meaning, this would result in the "remarkable" sense, that is, nonsense, of this line meaning that to pursue at the beginning what is of no avail would be improper, though later and at the end it might well be permitted. A different, more recent translation evidently links the οὐ in the line with ἀρχήν and understands the ἀρχήν in the sense of ἀρχήν οὐ, which means: "not" at all—namely, it is "not" at all befitting to strive for what cannot be achieved. The translation of the line thus runs:

Man soll nicht jagen nach Unmöglichem.

One should not pursue the impossible.

This is a commonplace that bears no relation whatsoever to what comes to word in the dialogue; as though the stance and comportment of Antigone were just any arbitrary human activity to which "one" could apply general "rules of life." As though that with which Antigone's "pursuit" is concerned were not τἀμήχανα. That against which nothing—essentially nothing—is of avail, τὰ ἀμήχανα, is that which resists that entire μηχανόεν that is named explicitly in the second antistrophe of the choral ode as the work of the human being who ventures forth in all directions. As though whatever it is that is of no avail, and which Antigone has decided in favor of, were some arbitrary impossibility rather than that which concerns her dead brother, namely, the law of the dead, and thereby the fundamental law of the living. As though her decision in favor of that which is of no avail did not directly and necessarily make that which is of no avail into the point of departure governing all actions. Provided that we accept these words in the context of the dialogue and take this dialogue as the essential prelude to the poetic work as a whole, we cannot but translate them as we are venturing to do here.

The οὐ belongs where it stands, to πρέπει. This word, in the present context, where that which is of no avail is named, also has the meaning accorded it by the Greek language. τὸ πρέπον is that which is fitting in the essential sense, that which is structurally articulated and ordered within the law of being. It remains οὐ πρέπει, unfitting (counter to what is fitting):