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: Most pitiful is this man’s story: His fortunes are most changed, his state 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 Laius hears that his son will kill him, he tries to avoid it.
He, along with Iocaste, pins their child’s legs together and gives him to a messenger to be disposed of on a mountain. However, out of pity for the boy, the messenger gives the baby to a shepherd of a nearby town, Corinth. Thus the boy grows up to become Oedipus. Later in his life, Oedipus learns through Apollo that he is “the man / Who should marry his own mother, shed his father’s blood / With his own hands” (3. 81-83). To avoid doing so, he leaves Corinth and the people he thinks are his parents. By doing this, he walks right into fate.
According to Bernard Knox, “the prophecy allows for the independent action of the recipient; the fulfillment of the prophecy results from the combination of the prophecy with the recipient’s free action” (39). Laius, Iocaste, and Oedipus all try to avoid their fates, but in reality, their actions only lead them closer to their fates being sealed. Do these characters have free will? They are in control of their actions. For example, Laius and Iocaste give up their child. They don’t have to; they could have raised the child and protected the king.
They could have even killed the child themselves. Giving up the child is their own decision. Likewise, Oedipus doesn’t have to leave Corinth; he could have questioned his parents and discovered the truth. Instead, he leaves Corinth on his own free will. However, “the hero’s will is limited by fate” (Knox 3); the gods will have their divine intervention. Knox goes on to add that a play has to have some sort of proof of character free will in order to effect any excitement (5). The characters show that they have free will but their actions are really guided by the fates predicted by the gods.
In other words, their actions are their own but the results of their actions appear as the interventions of the gods. It seems that no matter how they try to avoid their fate, the gods will ultimately win: “As for death, it will come whenever the Fates with their spindle decide…. For in no way is it decreed that a man may escape death…” (Guthrie, 130). Not everyone believed in the prophecies of the gods. Iocaste feels that the word of the gods should be disregarded. She believes that Laius died by the hands of a stranger rather than “at the hands of his son, as he had feared” (2. 7).
Since she believes that her son is long dead, she feels that Laius escaped his fate and the god’s prophecy was proven wrong. In scene two (324-29), she tries to explain to Oedipus the reasons behind her disbelief in the prophecies: He [the shepherd] cannot ever show that Laos’ death Fulfilled the oracle: for Apollo said My child was doomed to kill him; and my child- Poor baby! – It was my child that died first. No. From now on, where oracles are concerned, I would not waste a second thought on any. Iocaste adds, “This is what prophets and prophecies are worth!
Have no dread of them” (2. 198-99). However, in due time, the audience, along with Iocaste and Oedipus, will see that the prophecies have already come true and that the gods are no longer interfering; the damage has already been done. According to Barron’s Booknotes, an online literary resource, the position of fate “is clearly shown in the role that the gods play in revealing the truth of the oracle’s prophecies to Oedipus. ” No matter how honest a life he tries to lead, Oedipus is destined to commit patricide and incest.
Oedipus tries to avoid committing the crimes and offending his family by leaving Corinth. He is a good king to Thebes: he saves them from the Sphinx and promises to save them from the current plague. However, the gods feel that it is not enough and Oedipus must suffer his fate. Harold Donohue questions “the extent to which western culture is dependent on this notion of fate. ” He brings up the situation of Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex. If Oedipus “is not fated to kill his father and marry his mother,” what basis would Freud’s theory have?
This proves the dependency of fate to the western world. Much modern philosophical thought has been based on the very idea of fate and it’s role. When asked about the ability to have free will, Donohue responds saying that Oedipus “is punished for his free-thinking and rationalism, and the ‘accidents’ of the plot are actually instances of the naked will of Apollo (rather than of an impartial fate). ” In other words, Oedipus is punished deliberately by the gods, rather than be fate, when he tries to solve the crime of Laius’ murder.
Donohue also says “what a modern audience would see as an accident, ancients would see as an example of divine will. ” It can be argued that Oedipus could have lived with himself in the condition he was in. His fate, that he would bed his mother and kill his father, certainly comes true, however the gods do not prophesize his downfall nor banishment. Frederick Ahl agrees that Oedipus serves his own destruction. He says that Oedipus thinks he is the victim of an unfortunate fate while at the same time he is aware that he is partly at fault for his downfall (Ahl 147).
In the Exodus, Creon says to Oedipus “Think no longer / That you are in command here, but rather think / How, when you were, you served your own destruction” (289-91). He, not the gods, brings his exile and self-mutilation upon himself through his incessant quest for the truth. Iocaste does not have to kill herself either; that is an action she certainly controls herself. The gods only predict the previously mentioned oracles; the rest of the wretchedness is caused by the characters themselves: as the Second Messenger says in the Exodus, “The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves” (9).
The audience may never know for sure whether or not Oedipus’s actions are of his own free will or if the gods control them. Some believe that “the human beings act as they do because a god has so willed it” (Knox 34). There is evidence that many believed in the prophecies of the gods, however, many were still skeptical. Whether or not fate is the eternal power of all action is a rather large controversy in society. After all, if fate exists, then Oedipus was created to kill his father and marry his mother: a rather harsh outlook for a baby that hasn’t yet seen the light of the world.