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Fate and Free Will in Classical and Christian Tragedy Fate and Free Will in Classical and Christian Tragedy
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-09-22 09:44:43
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“Oh God, it has come true”

                                                               --Sophocles’ Oedipus

“There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”

                                                                                 --Shakespeare’s Hamlet

The pieces on palmistry that Ovi has posted lately have motivated me to revisit one of my favorite philosophical, age-old problems, that of the conflict between fate and free will. Are they mutually exclusive or perhaps complementary to each other? Another way of positing the problem is to ask whether or not tragedy is possible within a Christian view of the world.

My favorite answer to that conundrum is to point out that indeed it would be impossible if hell did not exist and we were all predetermined and predestined to heaven. To the contrary, there are plenty of “tragedies” in Dante’s hell; and they remain tragic exactly because no reversal is possible as there is with the pilgrim Dante who is still alive and just passing through with Vergil. This remains true despite Dante’s designation of his work as a comedy.

Perhaps the best way to even attempt an initial answer such a question, aside from examining the palms of one’s hands which would lend right back in pre-determinism, or consult the many philosophical tomes that have been written on the subject, is to examine and compare a classical Greek tragedy to a Christian tragedy as expressed by Sophocles and Shakespeare. The Classical Greek tragedians undoubtedly appreciated the conflict between fate and free will. At the heart of every one of their great tragedies lies the universal struggle between the human inclination to accept fate absolutely and the natural desire to control destiny.

Both Sophocles and Shakespeare would agree that the forces of destiny and choice continually vie for control of human life. Yet, each of these great playwrights espouses a perspective on the struggle born of his specific time and culture. For the Greek Sophocles, fate far overpowers human will; the harder a man works to avoid his fate, the more surely he catapults forth into that very fate. Sophocles' characters ultimately surrender, after resistance, recognition, and reversal, to their destinies; Sophocles' plays warn against the pride that deceives us into believing we can alter fate through human intervention.

For Shakespeare, who is a Christian dramatist, the choice between good and evil represents man's basic dilemma; for him, the human will is indomitable. Though fate may ultimately win, a man must fight to the death, if necessary, in order to remain the master of his own choices, choices that ultimately decide if and how his fate defeats him. The contrast between the two points of view is a note-worthy feature of any comparison between Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

In his book The Poetics, Aristotle based the definition of tragedy on Oedipus Rex, making Sophocles' play the archetype of the genre. The notion that a hero must be a man of stature who is undone by some flaw in himself entirely governs Oedipus, the play's protagonist. While Oedipus only nominally controls his life, Hamlet's choices direct and ultimately destroy him. Oedipus, the prototypical Greek tragic hero, can see nothing until he blinds himself, thereby breaking free of the human compulsion to understand forces that one should simply obey. Introspection is only possible for Oedipus when his blindness forces him to stop examining the world around him. Sophocles' hero is stoic, strong, and stubborn; he seeks to bully fate and then gives in to self-destruction. Only then can he recognize his shortcomings and failures.

By contrast, Hamlet remains painfully aware of himself, his shortcomings, and his powerlessness to right what he perceives to be great wrongs. Poetic, thoughtful, and philosophical, he seeks to thwart his fate through intellectual maneuvering. Hamlet sees all too clearly the varying shades of gray that muddy his vision and blur his choices. He resembles the modern tragic hero — the common man tossed in a turbulent sea of social ills who loses his battle to correct them. Hamlet is no Buddhist contemplative, to be sure. He is bound inside himself, imprisoned by the words in his head that allow him no sleep, and no rest. “ There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," he says, surrendering to his obsessive thoughts. Hamlet is the quintessential Shakespearean hero, born of stature but not necessarily powerful, and undone by external forces as much as by internal ones. The struggle to live between opposing expectations and to assuage a throbbing conscience constitutes the battle Hamlet cannot win. No one force determines the outcome for Hamlet. God asks of him one thing, and man demands another.

Oedipus, however, remains at the singular mercy of the gods. Having learned from the oracle that he would kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus has blundered into his own fate. Despite his best efforts to thwart the prophecy, dramatic irony prevails. Liberating Thebes from the tyranny of the Sphinx, Oedipus completes the first part of the dreaded prophecy. Flattered that the people choose him to be their king, Oedipus blindly accepts their offer of Jocasta's hand in marriage. Thus he completes the second phase of the prophecy by marrying his natural mother. Oedipus finalizes his destruction by attempting to escape it. By exerting his free will, he submits himself to the whim of destiny.

Oedipus eventually resigns himself to his failure by saying, "Oh God! It has come true. Light let this be the last time I see you." Having accepted his powerlessness, the only recourse left to him is to blind himself so that he may symbolically escape his failure. Unlike the Christian tragic hero, nothing motivates Oedipus to change the course of his life or make amends. He has disobeyed the gods by exhibiting too much pride, and he must now acquiesce to the will of the gods and accept his punishment. He travels to Colonnus and dies in exile, satisfied that he deserves such an end. In Oedipus Rex, man loses the battle for control of life and must surrender to the inescapable whims of fortune. The gods sit on Mount Olympus and manipulate humanity as though they were clay dolls to be moved about, discarded, and broken — like chess pieces. After Oedipus willingly acknowledges his insignificance, he attains the freedom to live beyond his pain and to die in peace.

For Hamlet, the consummate Christian tragic hero, fate exists, but human choices may cancel its power. Hamlet never stops choosing the paths he will take. Furthermore, his reluctance to succumb to his fate stems as much from his religious morality as from his intellectual meandering. He is aware that his father's Ghost expects him to commit murder, that the Bible dictates that murder is wrong, even when executing an evil man, and that fate desires him to violate his God's Ten Commandments.

In Hamlet, King Hamlet's Ghost, who appears to Hamlet and directs him to punish Claudius, personifies fate. The Ghost reveals that Claudius, by killing his own brother, has committed a "murder most foul" and deserves to die. Hamlet can choose to obey his fate or ignore it and then face the consequences. Hamlet consistently avoids making this choice by refusing to act. However, his need for self-determination, driven by his psychological conflicts, finally forces him to take vengeance into his own hands. He finds that the forces of the primal world (which value "an eye for an eye") and the enlightened world (which legislate "Thou shalt not kill") equally compel him. The Ghost has ordered Hamlet to act against his conscience, and the diametrically opposed commands paralyze him.

In Oedipus, the king's corruption has bred an illness among his subjects. A plague has descended upon Thebes, and only Oedipus' punishment and removal will rectify the ills that are killing the people. Oedipus knows that he can right all only by excising the enemy of the gods from the body of the city-state. He is that enemy, having had the arrogance to assume that he could choose his own path.

On the other hand, a corrupt society that threatens to compromise his integrity confronts Hamlet. The King and his cohorts drink too much, and gamble too frequently. King Claudius casts on all of Denmark the reputation of an indolent wastrel. Hamlet knows that the duty to correct the depravity that holds his country captive falls to him, but he also knows that, in order to right this wrong, he must commit the worst of all crimes. He is torn between doing God's work and doing God's bidding, and the lines of distinction are not clearly recognizable. Were he able to simply reverse his will and submit to fate, he would find peace more swiftly; but constantly exercising his human will is Hamlet's cross to bear, and he only finds peace in death. Even making no choice exercises his free will, because inaction is as much a choice as action. Hamlet cannot ask God to absolve him of choice because the Christian God requires freely chosen submission. Even a Calvinist, while admitting predestination in the mind of God, will tell you that man remains free to choose his own destiny.

Where Oedipus must relinquish his will and allow the gods to manipulate him, Hamlet must exercise his will and follow as his God guides him. Hamlet is an intellectual. He rationalizes his life and all its events and accepts nothing without careful analysis. The powers of Mount Olympus, however, entirely manipulate Oedipus. Hamlet can blame neither God nor fate. No unseen hand directs Hamlet's life and death; his own free will determines the results. As Oedipus exemplifies the Greeks' religious conviction that man is a pawn to the gods, Hamlet illustrates the Christians' fervent belief that man's mind is the master of self and chooses to follow God. This distinction is crucial, it seems to me.

However, neither Hamlet nor Oedipus has the last word in the argument between free will and fate. The question persists and demands a response: Are free will and predetermination mutually exclusive? So long as humans have the power of thought, this concern will continue to dominate literature and philosophy. It can be safely predicted that the preoccupation with the way in which the two vie for control of the human psyche promises to keep philosophy, literature and even art alive with myriad possibilities for a very long time.

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