Fate Versus Free Will Essay

Oedipus as the Puppet and the Puppeteer The misfortunes that befall Oedipus the King in Sophocles’ play show a fundamental relationship between the will of the gods and man’s free will. The ancient Greeks believed that the gods ruled the universe and had an irrefutable role in the conditions of man’s existence. Man was free to make his own choices but was ultimately held responsible for his actions. The concepts of free will and fate play an integral role in Oedipus’ destruction. Although he was a victim of fate, Oedipus was not completely controlled by it.

Inevitably, Oedipus will fulfill the prophecy delivered by the oracle before his birth. He tries to avoid his fate and believes that he has outsmarted the gods by leaving Corinth. He obviously believes in the concept of predestination but refuses to obey it himself. Like Laius and Jocasta, who tried to kill him after his birth, he sought ways to escape his horrible destiny. The chorus takes the side of the gods and preaches their power throughout the play, only deviating from this position once. “But if any man comes striding, high and mighty/in all he says and does,/”¬¶let a rough doom tear him down.

” The mortal who ignores the laws of the Universe exhibits hubris and is doomed to fail. (Ode 2. 972-82) If Oedipus manages to avoid the prophecy he will diminish belief in the power of the gods. A paradox surfaces when the chorus fears he may prove the gods wrong, but at the same time fears that the prophecies may prove to be true. Although Oedipus shuns the idea of fate and the lack of free will, it is evident that he believes in and is fearful of them. After hearing rumors that he was not “his father’s son”, Oedipus turns to the oracle and discovers that he will someday kill his father and marry his mother.

Oedipus flees in a desperate attempt to escape, proving that he believes in fate. If he had control, he would have no reason to run. During his travels, Oedipus meets with a “brace of colts/drawing a wagon”, and after being thrust off the road he reacts violently and kills all but one man. Oedipus fled because he was afraid he would fulfill the prophecy. His actions support the argument that free will does exist. He knew what was prophesized yet still acted in rage and committed murder rather than trying to avoid it. Oedipus cannot be held responsible for the life set out for him by the gods.

He can, however, be accused of having too much pride, which inevitably leads to his own downfall. Perhaps he could not have prevented the actual patricide and smarmy incest, but he could have allowed himself to realize his identity. Oedipus is merely an unfortunate victim of circumstance. He possesses the ability to make his own decisions within the structure created by the gods. Oedipus displayed free will by killing Laius at the crossroads and could have prevented his sins but only temporarily. If it had not been at that time, he would have fulfilled the prophecy later.

Disgusted by his sins and his blindness to them, Oedipus literally puts himself in the dark. The chorus asks him “what superhuman power” drove him to it and he replies that “the hand that struck my eyes was mine,/mine alone””no one else””/ I did it myself! ” He will not accept fate as his downfall. Jocasta also tries to deny fate. “Fear? / What should a man fear? It’s all chance,/ chance rules our lives. ” (scene 3. 1069-71) Oedipus claims full responsibility for his sins and shows that he still believes in free will.

Perhaps his true sin lay in his overzealous attempt to raise himself above the gods and escape his fate. When Oedipus tears at his eyes with Jocasta’s broaches, he is accepting the full burden of his actions. Therefore, the last act of destruction is caused by his free will, but is only done in protest of his misfortunes that came about because of the nature of the gods and their role in human affairs. The chorus concludes in the exodus by warning the Greeks that the only way to attain happiness is through humility and respect of the gods, both which are qualities that Oedipus lacks.

Oedipus, a puppet of the gods, never accepts this and serves as an example to all men alike. He does have some control over his own life, however, which is shown when he commits the murders and blinds himself. Oedipus chooses not to commit suicide at the end of the play and shows that he has control over his own death. The opposite poles of destiny and free will are present in the play and their differences end up complimenting each other, forming a tragedy which is able to portray Oedipus as both an innocent victim and a criminal who is responsible for his own downfall.

The events in Oedipus the King, written by Sophocles, show an underlying relationship of man’s free will existing within the cosmic order or fate which the Greeks believed guided the universe in a harmonious purpose. Man was free to choose and was ultimately held responsible for his own actions. Both the concept of fate and free will played an itregal part in Oedipus’ destruction. Although he was a victim of fate, he was not controlled by it. Oedipus was destined from birth to someday marry his mother and to murder his father. This prophecy, as warned by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi was unconditional and inevitably would come to pass, no matter what he may have done to avoid it. His past actions were determined by fate, but what he did in Thebes, he did so of his own will.

From the beginning of this tragedy, Oedipus took many actions leading to his own downfall. Oedipus could have waited for the plague to end, but out of compassion for his suffering people, he had Creon go to Delphi. When he learned of Apollo’s word, he could have calmly investigated the murder of the former King Laius, but in his hastiness, he passionately curses the murderer, and in so, unknowingly curses himself. “Upon the murderer I invoke this curse- whether he is one man and all unknown, or one of many- may he wear out his life in misery or doom! If with my knowledge he lives at my hearth, I pray that I myself may feel my curse.” (pg. 438; lines 266-271)

In order for Sophecles’ Greek audience to relate to the tragic figure, he had to have some type of flaws or an error of ways. This brought the character down to a human level, invoking in them the fear that “it could happen to them.” And Oedipus certainly is not one without flaws. His pride, ingnorance, insolence and disbelief in the gods, and unrelenting quest for the truth ultimately contributed to his destuction. When Oedipus was told (after threatening Teiresias), that he was responsible for the murder of Laius, he became enraged and calls the old oracle a liar. He ran away from his home, Corinth, in hopes of outsmarting the gods divine will. Like his father, Oedipus also sought ways to escape the horrible destiny told by the oracle of Apollo. The chorus warns us of man’s need to have reverence for the gods, and the dangers of too much pride. “If a man walks with haughtiness of hand or word and gives no heed to Justice and the shrines of Gods despises- may an evil doom smite him for his ill-starred pride of heart!- if he reaps gains without justice and will not hold from impiety and his fingers itch for untouchable things. When such things are done, what man shall contrive to shield his soul from the shafts of the God?” (pg. 452; 975-984)

Oedipus’ unyielding desire to uncover the truth about Laius’ murder and the mystery surrounding his own birth, led him to the tragic realization of his horrific deeds. Teiresias, Jocasta and the herdsman tried to stop him from pursuing the truth. Take for example a part of the last conversation between Jocasta and Oedipus. After realizing that the prophecy had came true, Jacasta begs him to just let the mystery go unsolved for once. “I beg you- do not hunt this out- I beg you, if you have any care for your own life. What I am suffering is enough.” (pg. 461; 1158-1161) Oedipus replies, “I will not be persuaded to let chance of finding out the whole thing clearly.” (pg. 461; 1166-1167) He is unable to stop his quest for the truth, even under his wife’s pleading. For it is in his own vain that he must solve the final riddle, the riddle of his own life.

Upon discovery of the truth of his birth from the herdsman, Oedipus cries, “I who first saw the light bred of a match accursed, and accursed in my living with them, cursed in my killing.” (pg. 465; 1300-1303) Oedipus knew that his fate had indeed come to pass and feels cursed by it. The chorus then sings an ode on the sorrow of life and the tragic fate to which even the most honored, like Oedipus are ultimately subject. “What man, what man on earth wins more happiness than a seeming and after that turning away? Oedipus you are my pattern of this, Oedipus you and your fate! Luckless Oedipus, whom of all men I envied not at all. (pg. 465; 1305-1311)

At the end of this tragic story, when Oedipus gouges out his eyes, the chorus asks him what god urged him to blind himself. Oedipus replied, “It was Apollo, friends, Apollo, that brought this bitter bitterness, my sorrows to completion. But was the hand that struck me was none but my own.” (pg. 467; 1450-1453) He claimed full responsibility for his actions. Oedipus was guilty of killing his father and marrying his mother, but perhaps the true sin lay in his overzealous attempt to raise himself to the level of the gods by trying to escape his fate. The chorus chants about how in prosperity, he was envied by all men, he was honored highest above all honors, and how he won happiness by pride (by slaughtering the Sphinx, and by trying to deceive the god’s will.) But, how ultimately, Odipus was judged for it, causing a reversal of fortune in his prosperous life.

The fact that Oedpius’ motives for killing his father, Laius, and wedding his mother, Jocasta, it does not take away from the horrific nature of the crimes. When he tears at his eyes with his Jocasta’s broach, Oedipus is accepting the full burden of his acts and knew that he must be punished for his sins. Therefore the last act of destruction was caused by Oedipus’ free will, but his tragic fate came about because of the nature of the cosmic order ( that every sin must be punished) and role of the gods in human affairs.

The chorus concludes this tragedy by warning the Greeks, that the only way to happiness is through humility and respect towards the gods, (qualities which Oedipus lacked, and ultimately led to his destruction.) They also warn not to take anything for granted, or suffer a fate like that of Oedipus. ” You live in my ancestral Thebes, behold this Oedipus,- him who knew the famous riddle and was a man most masterful,- not a citizen who did not look with envy on his lot-see him now and see the breakers of misfortune swall him! Look upon that last day always. Count no mortal happy till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain.” (pg. 470; 1643-1670)

Filed Under: Literature, Sophocles

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