Saturday, April 26, 2008

Final note about free will and greek literature.

A little something I wrote about free will in greco-roman literature...i was thinking about the
"addiction" and "lack of free will" at times in the House of Leaves. Let me know what you guys think. BTW this is *not* my final. Let me know what you guys think...since we know there are a lot of references to Greek literature, especially.


“Ah how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods.

From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,

But they themselves, with their own reckless ways,

Compounds their pains beyond their proper share.”

- Odyssey 1.37-40

The concept of “Fate vs. Free Will” is very prominent in a lot of ancient literature, especially in Greek antiquity. Zeus, during the Odyssey 1.37-40, describes his opinion on this very idea, explaining how it is from Gods alone that human suffering and misery comes. He further elaborates to explain people even manage to worsen their share of suffering with their reckless behavior. The apparent lack of free will, and fate being the determinant of everyone’s lives can be seen in three examples of ancient Greco-Roman literature: The Odyssey (Homer), Oedipus (Sophocles) and Metamorphoses (Ovid). Major protagonists in these old texts all suffer at the hand of their fates which they are unable to dodge.

When young Oedipus approached the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, he was brought bad news about his future. The oracle informed Oedipus about a prophecy…it was said to be inevitable. This prophecy predicted his downfall, which essentially boils down to two major events, the murder of his father and marriage to his mother. Terrified of these horrible news, Oedipus immediately left his “parents” in Corinth and began his journey to Thebes. There he murdered Laius (his father) and married Jocasta (his mother), all in ignorance. His parents back in Corinth, as becomes known were his foster parents who found him and adopted him and he unknowingly did all of his actions thereafter.

One may wonder how this story supports the notion of fate being the determinant of everything, after all nobody coerced Oedipus into going to Thebes where he killing his father and marrying his mother. That is exactly why it was fate. The fate aspect of his destiny comes into play when one considers his actual will and what he intended to do. The things that happened to Oedipus were beyond his control. He proactively was trying to avoid the prophecy of the Delphi oracle by fleeing Corinth. He thought that his parents were there, in Corinth, and in fear of doing just what he ends up doing, he left his home town to go to a far, far away. It was through no fault of his own that he lived a life of ignorance and that nobody had informed him of his real past. Fate determined Oedipus’s life due to a series of events, which led him to a life without the knowledge of truth. Oedipus had no control over what happened to him because of the deception that ignorance had brought on him – had he only known his true past he surely he would have been able to avoid his horrible fate, but by trying to avoid it his life became the worst case scenario.

The question of “Fate Vs. Free Will” is also approached and answered in The Odyssey by Homer. Odysseus was lost at sea for many years where he had encountered many quests for glory and kleos. However, the best example which shows his fate and the ultimate return to his homeland, Ithaca, is towards the very end of his journey. Against his will, Oedipus is coerced to fall in love with a sea nymph named Calypso. With Calypso, Oedipus spends seven long years (and she even bears him offspring according to Hesiod). It certainly was not Odysseus choice to spend all these years away from home as he spends his days longing for his family. However, after Athena approaches Zeus about the possible “release” of Odysseus, Zeus dispatches Hermes to command Calypso to allow Odysseus to leave. Then, it is Poseidon who creates the storms out of his personal hatred for Odysseus which bring him to the Phaeacians who eventually escort Odysseus back home to his wife Penelope.

It appears almost as though everything in Odysseus’ life is due to fate and the will of the gods (not really his own will). Calypso manages to keep Odysseus against his obvious will for years and it is decided amongst the gods for him to be allowed to make the decision to leave. Athena knew that Odysseus would leave, given the opportunity and so it is decided amongst the gods that he would be allowed to leave (or make the decision thereof). Suppose, Zeus would have declined Athena’s request and not sent Hermes to have Calypso “pardon” Odysseus he could have remained her “slave” for eternity and he would have never found his way home to Ithaca. Also, it was Poseidon’s storm which took Odysseus raft to Phaecia which was his ticket home – so even that part of his journey was divinely influenced. Odysseus almost seems like a toy to the gods with the decision’s they make concerning his life and what he can and cannot do and what does and does not happen to him.

The Roman poet, Ovid, shows the worst case of recklessness on the behalf of the gods and their influence, which they exert upon people, in his famous work the Metamorphoses. In this case, Io is the victim of the fate which the gods have “decided” for her. After Zeus deceives Io and changes himself into her husband to lull her into a sexual relationship all sorts of problems arise. Hera soon finds out that Zeus is not being a loyal husband and in order to save Io from Hera’s wrath, Zeus turns her into a cow. For a long time Io is kept away from Zeus by Argus Panoptes who is later slain by Hermes upon the direction of Zeus. Hera, in order to keep her away from Zeus then forces her to wander for a long time until she finally ends up in Egypt. Long story short, Io did not really make many decisions at all – her free will and her desires were really limited by the Gods who decided what to do with her, essentially making her a slave to her fate.

To gain a further understanding of Io and her lack of choice a few events have to be considered. She was only engaged in sexual contact with Zeus because she was deceived by Zeus to think he was her husband and it was all because of her ignorance and lack of knowledge that she was tricked into making decisions which were not really her will – very similarly to Oedipus. Io was more or less an object to the Gods and they did with her what they wanted to and unfortunately for her Hera and Zeus had very different intentions with her and she was caught in-between a conflict which brought a lot of suffering to her. The gods turned her into different things, chased her around the world and kept her as a slave, essentially, for years. There was nothing Io could have done to have a better future – her fate was sealed as soon as she was caught between the will of the gods.

As Zeus said in the Odyssey, people do have free will, but their decisions are empty because their fate is predetermined by the gods – although people do have the power to make things a lot worse. Zeus only explains that people can make things worse, but they are not really able to avoid their fate, that is what the Gods have decided for them. This idea becomes obvious in many works of antiquity and seems to be a running theme throughout much of ancient literature. In Oedipus, Metamorpheses and The Odyssey the main human characters are sometimes able to make conscious decisions but the entire system is “rigged” and the Gods have already predetermined the outcome of what they want to happen to the characters in question. People’s decisions are weightless because of their ignorance and sometimes they are not even able to make decisions as even their conscious thought can be controlled by the Gods and the Gods can exert their will on people through such coercion. Free will in the literature of antiquity is an illusion – people are slaves to the god’s will and their predetermined fates.

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