Fate Versus Free Will
Fate, as described in the Oxford English Dictionary, is “The principle, power, or agency by which, according to certain philosophical and popular systems of belief, all events, or some events in particular, are unalterably predetermined from eternity.” To the western world, fate is perceived as “a sentence or doom of the gods” (Oxford). They often sought prophecies of the gods, especially from Apollo, the god of knowledge. The Greeks would seek prophecies usually when they had doubts about something, or if they were afraid or in despair. When the gods made a prophecy, the Greeks put all their faith in it and believed that it would happen. When their prophecies did come true, was it really fate that controlled them? If so, was there any room for free will?
Some have difficulty believing that a god, rather than their own actions, could control their fate. However, when a god made a prophecy, which later came true, the evidence was clear enough to cause someone to believe in fate. In one famous play, the question of fate versus free will plays a dominant role during analysis. The play, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, stars a young man, Oedipus, who appears to be the pawn of the gods. In Ode four (27-31), the chorus comments on Oedipus’ state:
And now of all men ever known
Most pitiful is this man’s story:
His fortunes are most changed, his state
Fallen to a low slave’s
Ground under bitter fate.
Every aspect of Oedipus’ life and everyone he loves eventually suffers from a horrible fate predicted by the gods. However, did Oedipus have to suffer his fate or did he have the power to change it; is the outcome of Oedipus’s life really the result of fate or his own actions? Afterall, “The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves” (Exodus 9).
There is a lot of evidence contained in the play that proves the Greeks believed that their lives were controlled by fate. Edith Hamilton agrees that “the human mind played no part at all in the whole business” (176). Three oracles are introduced. An oracle is a communication pathway between mortals and the gods. The first oracle predicts a murder. Laius, the king of Thebes, hears the prophecy that his son will kill him. The second oracle predicts that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. The third and final oracle states that whoever can solve the riddle of the Sphinx will win the throne of Thebes and Iocaste as his Queen. These three oracles serve as the backbone of the story. Knowing these, the audience sits back to wait the turn of events. Reading the play while knowing the oracles can be compared to watching a movie for the second time: you still think the characters will make a different decision. However, these characters are the victims of fate, and their actions have already been planned out, or have they?
When the Greeks received bad prophecies, they often tried to avoid their fate through actions of their own. When...