Sergio Rebeles
A nebulous idea, “free will” is defined[1] as the “freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.” Consensus on the existence of free will has eluded scholars since ancient times, but this illusion should not be allowed to fester any longer. Free will, that is, will independent from divine decree, does not exist. At least not in the traditional sense of the idea. Our actions are determined by authorities beyond ourselves, whether by fate, “higher powers,” or mere chance. Ultimately it is God, the gods, or a contingency that shapes our lives.

The sovereignty of the gods is exemplified in ancient Greek tragedy. As delineated in Sophocles’ Antigone, free will is shown to be an elusive ideal that cannot be fully realized. Distraught that her brother, Polynices, will not receive a proper burial, Antigone assumes control of the situation and performs the rites herself. This act is significant for two distinct but fundamental reasons. Firstly, Antigone clearly rejects “higher” authority (her uncle Creon’s mandate), and instead takes it upon herself to decide what is right and what is wrong. She creates her own morality and is indifferent to how others may conceive of her actions. Secondly, Antigone accepts complete responsibility for said actions and, if anything, she does so almost eagerly. Declaring “Leave me and my ill counsel to endure / This dreadful doom. I shall not suffer aught / So evil as a death dishonorable” (Antigone, The Harvard Classics, 109-111), she freely submits to the consequences she knows she must undertake. These acts may appear to exalt Antigone’s free will, but closer inspection refutes such a claim. While Antigone may disregard Creon’s decree, she in turn yields to an older and even greater law – that of death. Antigone’s insistence that Polynices be buried properly shows not a radical refutation of authority, but instead a turn to a darker and more primordial one. Antigone reveres the dead and the gods of the underworld (“More time have I / In which to win the favour of the dead” [83-84]) so devoutly that she is willing to sacrifice her life in order to please them. Antigone’s preoccupation with these primal death gods demonstrates her ultimate servitude to tradition and ritual. Said best by Jean-Pierre Vernant in his essay Intimations of the Will (1990), “It is a will bound by the reverential fear of the divine, if not actually coerced by the sacred powers that inform man from within” (52). Indeed Antigone does not rebel against the Greek authority that constrains her – no, if anything she obeys it in the highest sense.

Polynices Burial

Antigone burying her brother, Polynices

Creon’s role in Antigone also serves to undermine the existence of free will. In a speech to his son, Haemon, Creon argues that it is the responsibility of Thebes’ citizens to bow to his will. He robs them of their ability to think and choose for themselves. Proclaiming “He who breaks or goes beyond the laws, / Or thinks to bid the powers that he obey, / He must not hope to gather praise from me” (756-758), Creon’s assertions present the ancient concept of will as that of submission to higher powers. The Greeks had no concept of individual freedom independent from the political realm. Instead they viewed the ability to collectively craft and discuss laws to be the highest form of “freedom;” choice as individuals was a concept unimportant to them. While Sophocles may denounce Creon’s despotic reign, he would doubtfully be so radical as to argue that everyone should be allowed absolute freedom to do whatever he pleases. Although Creon’s megalomanic declaration “No! we must follow whom the state appoints” (759) may demonstrate his sense of self-importance, it also reveals his obedience to the city and thus his submission to greater forces. For even Creon himself, the king of all of Thebes and ruler to its people, defers to divine judgment in times of crisis. When Teiresias warns him of the gods’ displeasure and the curse they will place on his family, even the great Creon can do little more than apologize and attempt to reverse his plans. While Creon’s authority may permeate Antigone, ultimately his “will” is shown to be quite insignificant in comparison to that of the divine.

The supremacy that these heavenly powers hold over humanity is of central importance in Antigone. The misfortune that befalls the tragedy’s characters is so widespread that it seems inevitable, intimating that they were doomed from the outset. Finding an answer in the inheritance of sin, it is hardly a leap of faith to suggest that the dramatic action of Antigone is rooted in retribution for Oedipus’ crimes. Antigone, when in the throes of misery, laments the “Woe for the curses dire / Of that defiled bed, / With foulest incest stained” (993-995), thereby reinforcing the idea that humans are not free to decide their own destiny or make their own decisions. This is because the gods punish Antigone and her siblings for their parents’ incest, even though they played no part in it. In essence, their fates were determined even prior to birth. This ancestral legacy of responsibility is echoed by Vernant who proposes that the “defilement of crime is contiguous and attaches itself, over and beyond the individual to this whole lineage” (62). Indeed, even Oedipus’ life was dominated by the prophecy that he would murder his father and marry his mother; no matter the lengths to which he went to avert it, Oedipus still could not escape his disastrous fate. As demonstrated in Sophocles’ Theban cycle, individuals and their “choices” do not exist in a vacuum. The gods may allow Antigone to ostensibly act as she wishes, but her destiny was always predetermined by her pedigree.

The Oedipal curse is analogous to the Christian concept of original sin, suggesting that Christian doctrine may also, in part, negate the idea of humanity’s free will. A cornerstone of Christian literature, the Divine Comedy contains instances where the concept of said will is questioned. Dante’s trek through Hell and beyond is a testament to humanity’s vitality and endurance in the face of hardship. However, it is important to acknowledge that had it not been for God’s aid, Dante the pilgrim would never have been able to reach the Empyrean. Virgil and Beatrice are sent by God to guide Dante, and an angel is sent by Him to open the gates of Dis. Therefore, there is no doubt that Dante would agree that God is of fundamental importance on our journey to salvation. However, if there exist obstacles so insurmountable that only His will may conquer them, how is it that our actions can, in comparison, have meaning? While this may appear to silence any argument against free will, further examination reveals otherwise.

Original Sin

Adam & Eve’s exile from earthly paradise

The sinners Francesca and Paolo are placed in the 2nd circle of Hell for committing adultery, thereby demonstrating their freedom to choose and assume responsibility for said choice. Likewise, Guido da Montefeltro is placed in the 8th circle of Hell for giving Boniface VIII fraudulent counsel. However, these sinners provide an interesting case study of Infernal shades and their devotion to what we might term, “false idols”. Francesca reveres Eros, the god of not simply love, but sensual love. Meanwhile Guido adores Power, seeking it no matter the risk or consequence. These hollow gods drive them to sin, guide them to their respective circles of the Inferno. As Francesca puts it, “Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving, / Seized me with pleasure of this man so strongly.” (Inferno, V, 103-104) Her veneration of Eros conditioned her and compelled her to sin. This same reverance for Power is what coerces Guido into the 8th bolgia. While superficially all of Hell’s inhabitants are there because of what they chose to do with their “free will,” this is not entirely true. Idolatry consumed these figures’ lives, acting as an external pressure that drove them to their selected fates. When devoid of gods, we are drawn to creating hollow gods so that they may rule over us. Admittedly far from divine, these false gods nevertheless reign supreme in Dante’s universe.

The human conception of free will, as demonstrated in Sophocles’ Antigone and Dante’s Divine Comedy, does not exist. Humans are punished for the crimes of their ancestors, live lives sketched out by celestial hands, and only “choose” between choices already chosen for them. Although we may fight against our fates, as did Oedipus, our destinies are ultimately the dominion of the gods. We are bereft of free will because of our gods’ sacred supremacy.

[1] “free will.” Merriam-Webster, 2013. Web. 26 October 2013.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy f Dante Alighieri: Inferno. Trans. Robert M. Durling. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Sophocles, Robert Fagles, and Bernard Knox. The Three Theban Plays. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1984. Print.

Vernant, Jean-Pierre and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. “Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece.” Imitations of the Will in Greek Tragedy. Trans. Janet Lloyd. New York: Zone Books, 1990. 49-63. Print.