Destiny, Fate, Free Will and Free Choice in Oedipus the King - Oedipus and Fate


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Oedipus the King and Fate

 

     D.T. Suzuki, a renowned expert on Zen Buddhism, called attention to the

topic of free will in one of his lectures by stating that it was the battle of

"God versus Man, Man versus God, God versus Nature, Nature versus God, Man

versus Nature, Nature versus Man1."  These six battles constitute an ultimately

greater battle: the battle of free will versus determinism.  Free will is that

ability for a human being to make decisions as to what life he or she would like

to lead and have the freedom to live according to their own means and thus

choose their own destiny; determinism is the circumstance of a higher being

ordaining a man's life from the day he was born until the day he dies.  Free

will is in itself a far-reaching ideal that exemplifies the essence of what

mankind could be when he determines his own fate.  But with determinism, a man

has a predetermined destiny and fate that absolutely cannot be altered by the

man himself.  Yet, it has been the desire of man to avoid the perils that his

fate ho lds andthus he unceasingly attempts to thwart fate and the will of the

divine.. Within the principle of determinism, this outright contention to divine

mandate is blasphemous and considered sin.  This ideal itself, and the whole

concept of determinism, is quite common in the workings of Greek and Classical

literature. A manifest example of this was the infamous Oedipus of The Theban

Plays, a man who tried to defy fate, and therefore sinned.

 

      The logic of Oedipus' transgression is actually quite obvious,  and

Oedipus' father, King Laius, also has an analogous methodology and transgression.

 They both had unfortunate destinies: Laius was destined to be killed by his own

son, and Oedipus was destined to kill his father and marry his mother.  This was

the ominous decree from the divinatory Oracle at Delphi.  King Laius feared the

Oracle's proclamation and had his son, the one and only Oedipus, abandoned on a

mountain with iron spikes as nails so that he would remain there to eventually

die.  And yet, his attempt to obstruct fate was a failure, for a kindly shepherd

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happened to come upon the young Oedipus and released him from the grips of death.

 The shepherd then gave the young boy to a nearby king who raised him as his own,

and consequently named him Oedipus, which meant "swollen feet."

 

     Upon Oedipus' ascension to manhood, the Oracle at Delphi once again spewed

its prophecy forth, this time, with the foretelling that Oedipus shall kill his

father, whom he thought to be the king that had raised him as his own, and marry

his mother.  Oedipus, like Laius, was indeed frightened of such a dire fate, and

thus resolved to leave his land and never return, so that the prophesy may not

be fulfilled.  Oedipus tried to travel as far away from home as he possibly

could, and along his journey, he crossed paths with a man who infuriated him

with his rudeness.  Oedipus killed the man without the knowledge that that man

was indeed his father Laius and ultimately, half of the prophecy had been

fulfilled.

 

     And when he came to Thebes, the remaining portion of the prophecy was

fulfilled as he became the champion of the city with his warding off the Sphinx,

hence winning the hand of his own mother Jocasta in marriage.  Together they

bore four children, and Oedipus' dire fate had been fulfilled, all without his

knowledge.  The Theban Plays begin with a plague that ravages the city of Thebes,

and Oedipus sets out to find the cause.  At length, he discovers that he himself

is the cause for he was guilty of both patricide and incest.  When that

realization is manifested, the utter shock and disgust of the horrific situation

causes the tormented and disillusioned Oedipus to blind himself of a self-

inflicted wound2.

 

     According to some scholars, this was the retribution he paid for his crime,

but others would argue that Oedipus had no choice in the matter and simply had

fulfilled his destiny.  The latter argument seems to be more convincing because

Oedipus does not consciously know of what he was doing at the time, and thus,

his crime was not entirely premeditated.  And one cannot condemn ignorance no

more than one can realistically condemn good intentions, for Oedipus was both

truly unaware of what he had done and of no desire to harm whom he had thought

to be his parents.

 

     In the aspect of ignorance, Oedipus purely lacked a consciousness of his

actions.  This particular consciousness is described as a "sensory element3 "-

that which affects one's decisions.  The senses are what pull people to make the

choices they do, e.g. the sensing of danger causes a fearful retreat into hiding.

 At times, these sensory elements can constrict the true inhibitions of humans,

as they tend to alter the decisions that humans make and pull them from doing

what they truly want, i.e. Oedipus sensed from the Oracle that he was to commit

a grave sin and thus went against his inherent desire to remain with his parents.

 According to St. Thomas Aquinas, free will is the acting without interference

of sensory elements in total regard to one's own inner psyche4.  Oedipus and

Laius both had sensory elements, namely a fear of their fate, and they acted in

accordance to their sense of fear, thus they did not have free will,.

 

     In consideration of good intentions, Oedipus meant well in his leaving his

country and defeating the Sphinx; but as it turned out, in his departure he

killed his father, and in his conquest of the Sphinx he won Jocasta's hand.  In

fact, it seems as if he was, shall we say, "in the wrong place at the wrong

time," for obviously, had he known that the man he was about to kill was his

father, and the woman he was about to marry was his mother, the events that

followed would most likely never have taken place.  With this in mind, free will

in Oedipus' case is altogether unlikely as he would have never willed to commit

those crimes.  Determinism again scores a victory with proof that one simply

cannot run from nor thwart fate.

 

      If one can imagine the unbelievable agony and fear that consumed Oedipus

upon his hearing of his own fate, of how he was to kill his own beloved father

and have bear children with the very woman that bore him, perhaps the sin of

running from fate may seem somewhat understandable.  His fate was not one that

can either be swallowed or simply pushed aside, for even the mere thought of

such a thing causes a neurotic shudder.

 

     This is the reason why he ran from fate.  But ultimately his attempt was an

disastrous one, and he suffered severe consequences.  His town suffered the

punishment for his physical crime, and he himself was the incarnate sufferer for

the spiritual crime.  Determinism maintains that Oedipus, as a man subject to

the will of the gods, whether it be right or wrong, should not have attempted to

outwit them for he cannot.  But perhaps the premise of free will managed to

unearth a tiny, though dramatically enticing piece of itself to Oedipus.  With

such a thing as free will, "no matter how strait the gate, or charged with

punishments the scroll," he was the ultimately the "master of his fate, and the

captain of his soul." 5   That proposition seemed entirely the more attractive

to Oedipus than what he had been offered, and so he took it.  He went against

the gods for he willed his own end and the means by which to achieve it6.  His

suffering is a portent to any man who would try to do things beyond his own me

ans for he is doomed to fail in the attempt and will consequently suffer some

type of repercussion for it.  A nice little analogy would be an attempt to

escape from prison.  The situation at hand is this: if the escape is successful,

a life of freedom awaits, but if it is a failure, additional punishment shall be

added to the current one.  The question is whether or not a life of freedom is

worth the risk, and most men answer this as "no."  Oedipus, unlike most people,

answered "yes", and because he his escape failed, he suffered much more greatly

than most people.

 


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