As a fundamental aspect of the human condition, free will allows people to make conscious decisions throughout their lives. Even if a person may feel that he does not have a choice in a matter, the concept of free will suggests that he always has alternatives. This situation can be seen in the play Antigone, in which the protagonist Antigone feels that she is bound to break a law of the city-state Thebes and face her death. As the offspring of an incestuous relationship between Oedipus and his mother Jocasta, Antigone has a fatalistic world view and assumes that her destiny has already been determined by her tragic family history and the legacy of incest. Moreover, she believes that her grief will never be alleviated and that she has nothing to hope for in the future. By examining her situation carefully, however, one can see that free will plays a role throughout the play, and that Antigone has, in fact, shaped and directed her destiny from the very beginning.
Antigone and her sister Ismene both exercise free will after Creon, the king of Thebes, declares that the body of their brother Polynices may not be buried. While Antigone disobeys Creon’s decree, insisting that she has an obligation to honor the gods, Ismene cautiously yields to Creon. When Creon confronts Antigone after declaring that she must die for her crime, Antigone greets him defiantly: “[The laws of the gods]—I was not about to break them, / not out of fear of some man’s wounded pride, / and face the retribution of the gods. / Die I must, I’ve known it all my life— / how could I keep from knowing?—even without / your death-sentence ringing in my ears. / And if I am to die before my time / I consider that a gain” (509-16). Here, Antigone portrays her devotion to the gods, whose laws state that every corpse must be buried. However, as she says that she looks forward to dying before her time, she also reveals a fatalistic attraction to her death. This notion is reinforced when Ismene, who initially chose not to take part in Antigone’s crime, attempts to accompany her sister in her punishment. Antigone tells her, “Courage! Live your life. I gave myself to death, / long ago, so I might serve the dead” (630-31). As Antigone declares her premature embrace of death, she reveals an eerie interest in entering the afterlife; she seems to believe that Creon’s punishment only helps to fulfill her destiny. Later, just before Creon sends her away to her tomb, Antigone further illustrates her uncanny enthusiasm for death when she proclaims, “The god of death who puts us all to bed / takes me down to the bank of Acheron alive—denied my part in the wedding-songs / no wedding-song in the dusk has crowned my marriage— / I go to wed the lord of the dark waters” (904-07). Here, as Antigone provides images of her entrance into the underworld and her marriage with Hades, she further shows her enthusiasm for her destiny by showing how she has grown to love her fate.
Just as Antigone believes that she has no choice but to bury her brother, her sister Ismene also believes that she has no choice but to follow temporal laws. When Antigone asks her sister to help her bury Polynices in the beginning of the play, Ismene replies, “Think what a death we’ll die, the worst of all / if we violate the laws and override / the fixed decree of the throne, its power— / . . . / I, for one, I’ll beg the dead to forgive me— / I’m forced, I have no choice—I must obey / the ones who stand in power. Why rush to extremes? / It’s madness, madness” (71-73,78-81). Here, as Ismene fears the punishment of committing a crime against the city-state and the power of her uncle’s authority, she feels that she has “no choice” but to allow Polynices’ body to rot. She then attempts to justify her inaction by saying, “We must be sensible. Remember we are women, / we’re not born to contend with men. Then too, / we’re underlings, ruled by much stronger hands, / so we must submit in this, and things still worse” (74-77). Thus, as Ismene feels that she and Antigone have no power to oppose men, she fearfully urges that they must “submit” to whatever their king proclaims.
Examining the actions that Antigone and Ismene take in response to Creon’s decree, each of them clearly demonstrates free will. Even though they both claim that they had no choice in making their decisions, the different ways in which they deal with the same situation show that neither woman was ever restricted to a single position. Antigone’s exercise of free will, moreover, can be seen in the first scene of the play, in which she attempts to persuade Ismene to join her cause. Before asking Ismene to help her bury Polynices, Antigone states, “My own flesh and blood—dear sister, dear Ismene, / how many griefs our father Oedipus handed down! / Do you know one, I ask you, one grief / that Zeus will not perfect for the two of us / while we still live and breathe? There’s nothing, no pain—our lives are pain—no private shame, / no public disgrace, nothing I haven’t seen / in your griefs and mine” (1-8). Thus, by proclaiming how much they have suffered throughout their lives, Antigone seeks to appeal to Ismene’s emotions before putting forth her proposal. Giving a carefully arranged speech that she hopes will embolden and inspire her sister, Antigone shows that her plan to bury Polynices is a product of self-conscious deliberation, not fate. As no one prompted Antigone to disobey Creon or to ask for her sister’s aid, she shows that all her actions result from her free will.
Moreover, as Antigone values the laws of the gods over the laws of man and embraces the notions of death and the afterlife, she convinces herself that she must defy Creon and bury her brother out of religious obligations. Therefore, her perception of this situation can be reflected in Andre Rivier’s discussion of the Greek tragic character, as described in Jean-Pierre Vernant’s Myth and Tragedy. According to Rivier, “The tragic man does not have to ‘choose’ between two possibilities; rather, he ‘recognizes’ that there is only one way open before him. This involvement reflects not the free choice of the subject but his recognition of this religious necessity that he cannot elude . . . It is a will bound by the reverential fear of the divine” (Vernant 52). Thus, Rivier portrays the tragic character to be at the complete mercy of divine influence. Antigone’s understanding of her situation can be reflected in Rivier’s assertions, as she feels that she is in no position to decide whether she should or should not follow the laws of the gods. However, as Ismene abides by the same religious traditions but still chooses to follow Creon’s decree, she invalidates Rivier’s contention that the Greek tragic character—such as Antigone—is under the control of the gods and has no free will.
Furthermore, Antigone’s fatalistic perspective illustrates determinism—the notion that all future events, including human interactions, have already been determined by events from the past. As determinism claims that the future is set in stone, it thus denies the existence of free will. The problem with this doctrine, however, is that it does not focus enough on the alternatives that a person could have chosen prior to making a decision. In her article, “Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience,” Hilary Bok states, “Determinism does not relieve us of the need to make decisions. When we make decisions, we need some conception of the alternatives available to us. If we define an alternative as an action that is physically possible, then determinism implies that we never have more than one alternative.” Here, Bok asserts that, even if every future event has already been determined, human beings must still thoughtfully consider all their options when making decisions. Personalities such as Antigone’s cannot resign themselves to what they believe to be their fate without first making the decision to do so, and every person therefore exercises free will. Furthering her point that every person has free will, Bok states later on in her article that, “A person whose actions depend on her choices has alternatives; if she is, in addition, capable of stepping back from her existing motivations and habits and making a reasoned decision among them, then . . . she is free.” Here, the person whom Bok portrays stands in contrast to Antigone, who anticipates what she believes is her fate. As Bok asserts that all human beings have the ability to logically examine their alternatives in whatever situation they may find themselves, they must always see that there is never only one choice. Whenever someone claims that he is carrying out his only option in a matter, in reality, he is making the decision he thinks is best—or sometimes most convenient.
Many advocates of determinism assert that, since decisions are the result of chemical and biological reactions taking place in the brain, free will cannot exist according to the laws of nature. However, this viewpoint assumes that people can exercise free will only if there are no external factors to influence their decisions. A better interpretation of free will states that people exercise it during times when they make any sort of decision—in turn, free will becomes a cause for future events in their lives as well as others’. Roy Baumeister elaborates on this point in his article, “Do You Really Have Free Will?” in which he contends that, “Free will cannot violate the laws of physics or even neuroscience, but it invokes causes that go beyond them. . . . [It] enables humans to control their actions in precisely the ways required to build and operate complex social systems.” Thus, Baumeister proclaims that, as free will can work alongside the laws of nature, it allows human beings to use reason and judgment rather than be led by blind instinct. As it has led to the exponential growth of human civilization, free will can be considered a trait inherent in human beings that allows them to cause future events that benefit themselves. This notion of free will as a driving force of humanity’s development is echoed even by biologist and materialist Richard Dawkins, who states in a PBS interview that, “We drive ourselves to achieve goals . . . which cannot be said to directly benefit our survival or that of our genes. . . . We can deliberately take the decision to emancipate ourselves from the world of natural selection in which genes were naturally selected, and make a new world for ourselves to live in.” Thus, Dawkins concedes that free will has allowed human beings to become much more than predictable biological or genetic machines. Breaking away from a deterministic world in which biological processes define all the interactions between animals, human beings use their free will to make choices and actions that imbue their lives with meaning.
Overall, free will allows people to choose their own destiny in spite of the many hardships they come across throughout their lives. Although Antigone believes that she has no choice but to bury her brother, she exercises free will in deciding her course of action. Even with her fatalistic perspective, no one prompted her to disobey Creon and bury Polynices, and she even demonstrates deliberation by carefully composing a speech to persuade Ismene to help her. Thus, even though some believe that all future events have already been determined, this does not stop human beings from having to use their intellect and judgment to make choices. As one of the most important and influential aspects of human nature, free will gives people the opportunity to strive, grow, and change.
Baumeister, Roy F. “Do You Really Have Free Will?” Slate. The Slate Group, 25 Sept. 2013. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.
Bok, Hilary. “Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience.” The Chronicle Review. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.
“Richard Dawkins.” Interview by Margaret Wertheim. Faith and Reason. PBS, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/transcript/dawk-frame.html>.
Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays. Trans. Robert Fagles. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1984. Print.
Vernant, Jean Pierre, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Myth and Tragedy. New York, NY: Zone, 1988. Print.