Where Does Fate End and Free Will Begin?

Note:  The following is the second and last paper I wrote for my World Humanities 1 class.  It deals with the issue of fate vs. free will in Oedipus the King, Macbeth, and the creation story of Genesis.  Please keep in mind that in regards to Genesis, this was written from a literary perspective and only using the information found in the first two chapters.  The paper has been edited slightly to look better as a blog post.

Introduction

Some of the earliest artwork that’s been found, like the cave paintings at Lascaux in France and the Venus of Willendorf, indicates that man has had an interest in the supernatural since before recorded history. Archaeological evidence shows intentional burial of the dead with objects needed in the afterlife as much as sixty-thousand years ago and evidence also exists of the universality of religion in historic and modern times (Ember, Ember and Peregrine 446). This preoccupation with religion has led to the development of complex belief systems throughout history, from the Greek pantheon of gods in ancient Greece to the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which are based on the Jewish Talmud and Torah.

Starting with Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., scholars, theologians, historians and philosophers have speculated about religion. This speculation has sometimes taken the form of literature, such as the creation story in the book of Genesis, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These stories present situations that place man at odds with the supernatural. They pose the question of whether or not man has any control over his own life. Does man have free will, or is he driven by fate to success or failure? Each of the three stories gives us a similar, but different possible answer.

Adam and Eve Were Doomed to Fail

Adam and Eve stained glass window.
Adam and Eve stained glass window.

The book of Genesis is a Jewish religious text, later recognized by both Christians and Muslims, that tells the story of creation. In Genesis, God creates the world and then places man in that world as the pinnacle of His creation. From man, God creates woman and they live together in a paradise on Earth called the Garden of Eden. God also chooses to place the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. He tells Adam and Eve that they can enjoy the rest of the garden as much as they want, but they may not eat from that specific tree. Despite this warning, Eve does eventually eat the fruit of the tree and Adam joins her, causing them to be cast out of the garden.

Is it Adam and Eve’s fate to commit this sin, or do they have free will to avoid temptation? When God creates Adam and Eve, they are created without any concept of right or wrong. They have no concept of morality, because morality requires knowledge of right and wrong, or good and evil. When God places the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, he is setting Adam and Eve up for failure. Despite his instruction to Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree, they cannot be reasonably expected to follow this instruction, since they do not know that disobeying it is wrong.

God also allows evil to come into the garden, in the form of a talking snake, to tempt Eve into doing what God says shouldn’t be done. Even when Eve decides to eat from the tree, she does not do it out of a conscious act of disobeying. She does it because the tree is pretty and the fruit looks tasty: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes … she took of the fruit thereof…” (King James Version, Gen. 3:6).

God could have placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil anywhere in creation, but He chooses to place it in the Garden of Eden, where He also places man. God then tells Adam and Eve that they may not eat from the tree, but does not give them the mental capacity to understand that following His command is the right thing to do. God then allows the snake to tempt Eve. One could reasonably assume that an omniscient, all powerful God did these things for the sole purpose of ensuring that Adam and Eve would sin and fall from grace. Adam and Eve never had a choice in the matter.

(Image of Adam and Eve from The Rector’s Corner)

Laius and Oedipus Ruined Their Own Lives

Oedipus the KingIn Oedipus the King, Sophocles presents a tale showing that a foretold fate can be prevented, but is sometimes brought about by one’s own hands. The story revolves around two key prophecies from Apollo, one given to Laius and one given to Oedipus. Relating the story to Oedipus, Jocasta tells him that the oracle “declared that doom would strike [Laius] down at the hands of a son, / our son, to be born of our own flesh and blood” (Fagles 201). When Oedipus visits the oracle, he is told: “You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring / a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see– / you will kill your father, the one who gave you life!” (Fagles 205).

Both of these prophecies set in motion chains of events that lead to their fulfilment, but not because of fate or an inability to change the future. Laius and Oedipus both make conscious choices, of their own free wills, to act, or not act, on these prophecies, influencing the final outcomes. After hearing the prophecy, Laius could have acted in other ways that would have prevented its fulfilment. Laius could have killed Oedipus himself, or he could have raised him. If he had killed Oedipus outright, the prophecy would have had no chance of coming true. If he had raised Oedipus in Thebes, the boy would have either grown up to love him, or at the least he’d know who his son is. Knowing who his son is would have allowed him to keep an eye on him. Instead, Laius sends the baby Oedipus into the mountains with a shepherd, to die from exposure.

Instead of being left to die, Oedipus is given away and becomes the adopted son of the King and Queen of Corinth, where he in turn grows up and receives his own prophecy. When Oedipus hears this prophecy, he makes a conscious choice to leave Corinth, to avoid killing the people he believes are his parents. However, he also makes a choice to not heed the remainder of the prophecy. When trying to escape from an unpleasant fate, shouldn’t one take into consideration the whole prophecy? It’s true that he believes his parents are Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, but considering the stipulations of the prophecy, he could have chosen to avoid killing or marrying anyone in the future.

When Oedipus encounters a rude traveller on the road, instead of choosing to avoid trouble and run away, he attacks and kills the man, who turns out to be his biological father. When presented with an opportunity to marry, he takes it and unwittingly marries his mother, rather than remembering the prophecy and abstaining from marriage altogether. Through their own actions and their own choices, Laius and Oedipus both fulfil the prophecies they are given.

(Image in this section from KevinStilley.com)

It’s All in the Journey, Because the End Doesn’t Change

Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches.
Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we are presented with yet another way to view fate. While returning from battle, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches along the road that present Macbeth with two prophecies. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, which he is. They then hail him as Thane of Cawdor, which confuses him since there is already a Thane of Cawdor. Finally, they hail him as “…Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” (Orgel 9). Shortly after the witches disappear, Macbeth finds out that he has been named the Thane of Cawdor. The witches do not tell him when these prophecies will come true and whether or not it is a deception on their part, Macbeth takes his immediate naming of Thane of Cawdor as a cue to act to ensure the fulfilment of the third prophecy.

At this point, Macbeth begins to control how he will bring about his own fate. Macbeth and his wife conspire to kill the current king, Duncan, and after succeeding, Macbeth is placed in power. He attains the kingship and his prophecy is fulfilled. However, because of the way Macbeth chooses to reach his prophesied destiny, his reward is short lived, violent and ends in tragedy. If Macbeth had chosen to wait for the prophecy to fulfil itself, he may have been a much older man when he was named king, but the transition would have likely been more peaceful and he might have even sat on the throne longer. In Macbeth, fate is absolute, but how Macbeth attains his fate is optional.

(Image of Macbeth and Banquo with the witches from Wikipedia)

Conclusion

These three works of literature each present a different view of how man is subject to fate. Is man locked into his fate with no chance to escape, like Adam and Eve in the Genesis creation story? Can man avoid fate altogether by acting on prophecy and making the proper choices, as evidenced by Oedipus the King? Or is our fate absolute, with only the way we get there left to our discretion, as in Macbeth? As long as man continues to believe in the supernatural, questions about man’s relationship with the divine will continue to be debated, because there is no way to definitively prove that any particular view is correct.

References

Ember, Carol R., Melvin R. Ember and Peter N. Peregrine. Anthropology: Thirteenth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010.
Fagles, Robert. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984.
Orgel, Stephen. Macbeth. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000.
Thomas Nelson Bibles. The Holy Bible; Containing the Old and New Testaments; Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001.

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