, , , , , , , ,


What does everyone want? We want to be happy, to control our lives, to give ourselves an environment we can thrive in, and most importantly to live the life that we want to live; in essence, we want freedom. Everyone would like to believe, whether we admit it or not, that we can take charge of our life through conscious choices and actions–in other words, that we have free will. Even modern scientists are curious to see what can be inferred about free will from studying the brain. However, professionals in the field of science often come into conflict when researching this phenomenon: Sam Harris, a prominent neuroscientist for example, believes that we cannot consciously control the forces that dominate our decisions. On the other hand, Roy F. Baumeister uses psychology to assert that humans do, in fact, have free will. When a theory cannot be proven through science, one must look to the humanists–what do writers and philosophers have to say? In this paper, I will examine the relationship between choice and destiny through literary foils, or pairs of characters who manage similar situations differently.

The problem of fate is not a new one: it has been thoroughly researched, reflected upon, justified, and attacked since ancient times. Many texts argue that destiny and divine intervention play a role in human existence, and it is indeed tempting to wonder whether certain events or connections were “meant to be” when reflecting upon the course of history. If this idea is true and everything is predetermined by fate, how could free will exist?

According to Greek tragedians, it does not. In fact, a complete lack of free will was a central point in ancient Greek tragedies–the Catholic encyclopedia appropriately sums up this concept:

The Greek tragedians frequently depict man as a helpless creature borne along by destiny…the future life of each individual is so rigorously predetermined in all its details by an antecedent external agency that his own volitions or desires have no power to alter the course of events.

This uncompromising nature of fate is certainly in Sophocles’s tragedies. Scholars would argue that the characters in Antigone are predestined to make the choices they make. Their fates are forced upon them by the gods to either teach them a lesson or punish them for something their ancestors did. In this case, they are presumably being punished for the errors and crimes of Oedipus, a previous ruler of Thebes. Oedipus had unwittingly committed incest and married his mother, bestowing a tragic legacy upon his family, which includes his daughters Antigone and Ismene. Throughout Antigone, these sisters are among multiple characters who are faced with similar situations: one chooses a certain path, while one the opposite; Ismene acts as a foil for Antigone because she contemplates the same course of action but chooses a different path. The play begins with Antigone exhorting Ismene to help her bury their brother: “Decide. Will you share the labor, share the work?”(50). Ismene considers her options with several questions, such as “What work, what’s the risk? What do you mean?” and uses reason to consider the rules she would break: “What? You’d bury him–when a law forbids the city?”(51-55).  Ismene distinguishes herself from her sister by rejecting the proposal to act as an accomplice. She declares that “It’s madness, madness”(81), and expresses both scorn and concern for her sister’s rash behavior. Later in the play, Antigone tells Ismene: “You chose to live, I chose to die”(626). Regardless of which decision is “right” or “wrong” or even why they are compelled to choose as they do, the two women approach the situation differently, indicating that they each independently consider and justify a different choice–they therefore are responsible for their actions.

Ismene is not the only character to have a foil in Sophocles’s play; Haemon and Creon are faced with a similar situation and likewise, make different decisions. Just as both Antigone and Ismene have the option to bury their brother, both Creon and Haemon have the opportunity to react violently. Although the King has the power to kill Antigone, Haemon could react passionately by killing Creon or even devise a rebellious strategy to stop his father and save his bride. Instead, he attempts to reason with his father and persuade Creon through speech. He first uses ethos to establish himself as someone Creon can trust, and pathos by humbling himself: “Father, I’m your son…you in your wisdom set my bearings for me–I obey you”(710). He then uses logos to suggest that the citizens of Thebes do not agree with their ruler’s choice: “But its for me to catch the murmurs in the dark, the way the city mourns for this young girl”(775). Haemon further uses metaphors to show how Creon’s inflexibility could lead to his destruction:

You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent, how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig, but not the stubborn–they’re ripped out, roots and all. Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing: haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch, you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage keel up and the rowing-benches under. Oh give way. Relax your anger–change!(797-804).

Haemon ends his argument with a logical appeal by suggesting that “It’s best to learn from those with good advice”(805), encouraging his father to listen to his words or Tiresias’s counsel. Creon’s son exercises judgement–he uses reason, the faculty for making choices, and his ability to create unprecedented solutions. He then makes use of his rhetorical skill and faculty of speech to persuade his father–as if they were in a public debate–to pursue an alternate or less extreme course of action. He counsels prudence and moderation. The different paths that Haemon, Creon, Antigone, and Ismene take when they are facing the same problems and difficulties indicate that they are able to make their own decisions and are not forced in a certain direction by any kind of fate.

Just because Ismene and Haemon use reason to make choices does not mean that Antigone and Creon do not think through their decisions: each character in the play acts deliberately and seems to be aware of potential consequences. From the moment she chooses to bury her brother, Antigone recognizes that death is a possible if not inevitable punishment–it could be argued that she welcomes it as martyrdom when she proclaims: “And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory”(86). Throughout the play, she demonstrates “true grit”–when Creon asks about her involvement in the crime, she says “I did it. I don’t deny a thing”(492). Creon is fully aware of his choices as well–in fact, he thoughtfully plans Antigone’s murder: “I will take her down some wild, desolate path never trod by men…”(870). Furthermore, Creon is advised to rectify the situation (Tiresias warns him: “All men make mistakes, it is only human. But once the wrong is done, a man can turn his back on folly, misfortune too, if he tries to make amends, however low he’s fallen…”) but he remains steadfast in his desire to punish Antigone. Even if Creon had changed his mind, it is dubious that the gods would have intervened–just because Creon and Antigone are not making use of the faculty of judgement, does not mean they are controlled by external forces. In fact, Creon’s elaborate plan of action and Antigone’s blind allegiance to her own cause demonstrate that that they are acting upon their own personal convictions. Thus, their reckless insistence on an extreme position can be attributed to a lack of thoughtfulness, not to divine intervention.

In Antigone, each character makes a certain choice, receives a specific punishment, and has their own individual ending–if the characters do in fact make their own decisions and know what consequences will follow, is fate really an overbearing agent? Jean-Pierre Vernant explores this question through the fate of Agamemnon, another tragic ancient character:

If we think in the categories of the ancient Greeks we shall say that when Agamemnon was carried away by his desire he was acting if not in a willed manner (volontairement) at least voluntarily (volontiers), of his own volition (hekōn) and that, in this sense, he does indeed appear to be aitos, the responsible cause of his actions (Vernant 75).

The observation that Agamemnon and hence the characters in Antigone act of their “own volition” reveals contradictions in ancient works, challenging the common assumption that the destinies of ancient characters are fixed by the gods. Greek writers such as Sophocles illustrate a unique human ability to ponder options, have opinions and draw original conclusions, even if it lacks the name “free will.” Just because the Greeks did not concern themselves with free will theoretically, does not mean that they were uninterested in careful deliberation and human agency. The four main characters in Antigone share a genetic make-up, are composed of the same biological nature, have similar socio-economic circumstances, and are even members of the same family, but still make different choices: if they are all controlled by gods, how would they choose so differently? This ability to choose and think independently is supported by Descartes’s well-known phrase regarding human existence in his Discourse on Method, “I think therefore I am.” The idea that we are free-thinking agents attests to our existence. If the characters in Greek tragedies were not free thinking and did not have personal ideas, they would not be humans.

How does the discussion of fate in Greek tragedies relate to the free will debate in modern day? Works such as Antigone were written thousands of years ago, yet they are still studied today and often used as models for contemporary literature. Just as Ismene acts as a foil for Antigone, modern tragedies have foils for the character who consciously chooses, knowingly or not, a path that will lead them to their doom. Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart, for example, covers the British colonization of Nigeria in the nineteenth century. The story focuses on the indigenous tribal leaders Okonkwo and Obierika, and how they react to the massive changes that missionaries impose upon their way of life. Obierika warns Okonkwo that he should not resist change, but Okonkwo’s refusal to overcome his fear of weakness causes him to die tragically–his abhorrence of shame leads him to an ironically shameful death. Things Fall Apart and Antigone adhere to a structure that most stories (past and present) follow: a protagonist makes a journey that leads him to a standstill where he must choose a course of action. This climactic impasse determines whether the archetypal story ends happily or tragically, depending on whether the character overcomes his weaknesses and emotions or allows himself to be consumed by them. From ancient texts to modern novels, literature has often illuminated tragic flaws of human nature–it has also, however, revealed that reason and judgment can be used to overcome these deficiencies. Whereas Creon and Antigone are trapped in their own ways of thinking, Haemon and Ismene are amenable to persuasion and reason. Similarly, while Okonkwo surrenders to his fear of appearing weak, Obierika has the courage to consider change. Despite attempts to prove the dominance of fate, these works actually provide excellent examples of humans exercising their decision-making faculties; each character has the opportunity and ability to apply reason, think independently, and take a specific course of action. Although Sophocles’s play does not follow the traditional definition of free will, it combats the idea of an all-supreme fate by highlighting the incredible process by which we make choices. This human capability of decision making suggests that every failure, accomplishment, terror or triumph of mankind since the beginning of humanity has stemmed from the free thoughts and free will of individuals–that we do, in fact, have authority to an extent over our own lives. We may not be able to determine our situations, but we can control our actions and consequences through careful deliberation, judgement and human agency.


Maher, Michael. “Fatalism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 5 Nov. 2013 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05791a.htm>.

Sophocles. Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. Robert Fagles. United States: Viking Penguin Inc., 1982. Print.

Vernant, Jean Pierre., and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. “Imitations of the Will in Greek Tragedy.” Myth and Tragedy. New York: Zone, 1988. N. pag. Print.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.