By: Stephone Christian
Richard Dawkins, a physicist and professor at Oxford University, was the cause of international uproar with his release of his novel The Selfish Gene in which he describes humans as machines whose actions are heavily conditioned by their genetic code. This stark description of the source of human activity reignited the debate on free will. Under this interpretation, Richard Dawkins effectively states that evolution and the process of natural selection are the principle agents of free will, as these mechanisms are responsible for makeup of our genetic code. Jean-Pierre Vernant, in his writings in Myth and Tragedy, defines free will as the ability to commit oneself by making a choice, whatever the context, and in doing so becoming an autonomous agent able to manifest himself through his own actions (Vernant 50). Given this interpretation of free will, I will enter the debate on its existence by analyzing the actions of Antigone—a protagonist from Sophocles’ play.
In the ancient Greek world of Antigone, religion was a powerful element in the lives of the average citizen. Rituals, sacrifices, and daily prayers were performed as actions compelled by the divine law of the Gods. This obedience to the ancient Gods is a characteristic of biastheis, which is formally defined by Jean Pierre Vernant as “the ancient Greek religious necessity which made one eternally compelled to an idea or action” (Vernant 52). Given how Vernant defines free will as the ability to act upon one’s own decisions by becoming an independent agent, it could be said that an individual who is able to sway from the narrow tunnel of biastheis—that is, someone able to make a decision based on one’s own choices and not those of divine authority— is a person capable of exercising free will. If Antigone’s actions align with the said established parameters, one could argue that Antigone has exercised free will and that free will, therefore, exists.
In the opening lines of the play, Antigone proclaims loudly how her fate is burdened by the misdeeds of her father, Oedipus: “My own flesh and blood—dear sister, dear Ismene, / how many grief our father Oedipus handed down!” (4–5) From this statement, the audience can understand how Antigone attributes the death of her brothers and all the misfortune and grief in her life to the past actions of her father. After Creon’s decree denying Polynices’ burial, Antigone finds it impossible to obey Creon’s law while also obeying the laws of her deities—as burial was a divine right for every individual: “These laws—I was not about to break them, / not out of fear of some man’s wounded pride, / and face the retribution of the gods” (509–512). It is here where Antigone feels bound by religion to sprinkle incense on her brother’s body even under the penalty of death. The source of Antigone’s actions and her strong motivation by religion may be characterized as biastheis, and by acting solely based on the powerful constraints of her religion, Antigone displays no capacity for free will in this regard. However, a under a closer inspection of her dialogue, it can be revealed that the motivation behind her actions is multidimensional, as her own personal incentives play a factor in her decision to perform a funeral rite for Polynices.
Antigone begins to veer from this linear path of biastheis as hubristic pride begins to appear within her actions. While at first glance it appears that religion is the only stimulus for her deeds, a strange want of credit for her action of burying Polynices also spurs her to passionately defy Creon. When Antigone’s actions are discovered and she is brought in front of the king for trial, she does not deny the allegations but instead proudly confesses her crimes: “I did it. I don’t deny a thing” (492). Furthermore, when Ismene attempts to side with Antigone and incur part of the blame for the crime, Antigone sharply refuses Ismene’s involvement as she wants her agency —and her agency alone—to be recognized: “Who did the work? / Let the dead and the god of death bear witness!” (610–611).Quite transparently, an emotion of pride—a feeling of exquisite satisfaction and enthusiasm for an achievement—overtakes Antigone and may be interpreted as a motivating factor for her decision to disobey Creon’s forbiddance of burying Polynices’ body.
While pride plays a large role in Antigone’s actions, Antigone’s familial affection for her brother Polynices also alters her trajectory away from the path of biastheis. Antigone displays affection for her fallen brother Polynices through both her actions and her dialogue throughout the play. Before she is taken away by the guards, Antigone exclaims how her brother’s death brings about her own death: “Oh dear brother, doomed in your marriage—your marriage murders mine, your dying drives me down to death alive!”(956–957).This quote not only communicates to the audience the extent of her affection for Polynices, but it also clarifies her strange desire for death expressed earlier in the play during her exchange with Creon: “ 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 it a gain. Who on Earth, / alive in the midst of such grief as I, / could fail to find death such a rich reward?” (512–516). If one were to reference freudian psychoanalysis, clearly Antigone has a death drive— that is, a drive toward self-destruction and death. Usually, Eros—the opposing force of love and salvation—keeps the presence of the death drive at bay (Purdue 1). Given Antigone’s circumstances however, it is understandable how a death drive has possessed her actions as the force of Eros has ceased to exist due to Polynices’ death. With this in mind, it can be said that Antigone’s eerie craving of death can be seen as further evidence of her love for Polynices, as it is only through her death that she may once again reunite with her brother. It is here where it becomes evident that her affection for her brother far surpasses that of familiarity. Her “affection” for Polynices is indeed love, and this love provides a strong motivation for Antigone’s actions throughout the play. The following quote provides compelling evidence of Antigone’s love for Polynices: “Never, I tell you. / if I had been the mother of children / or if my husband died, exposed and rotting— / I’d never taken this ordeal upon myself.”( 995–998). Such a powerful love—a love magnitudes greater than the love between a mother and her children and husband—undoubtedly served as a motivating factor in her decision to lay her brother’s body to rest. As further evidence, even the Chorus sings of love and its affects on the characters of the play: “Love! / you wrench the minds of the righteous into outrage, swerve them to their ruin… / warm glance of the bride triumphant, burning with desire!” (887–892).
The multidimensional nature of Antigone’s motivation is undeniable evidence of the freedom of her agency and the depth of her subjectivity. Antigone is obviously an individual with her own desires, and her actions are distinctly the result of the pursuit of those said desires. It would be fairly acceptable to project Richard Dawkins’ view of genetics onto the ancient Greeck devotion to divine law, the biastheis, as religion was as powerful as Dawkins supposes genetic constraints to be. With this being said, the power which biastheis had over the typical Greek citizen can be compared to the power which Dawkins believes a persons’ genetic identity to have over their actions.While Antigone’s actions of defying Creon and burying Polynices’ body stem from biastheis—that is, her genetic code, other personal elements such as pride, love, and her peculiar death drive play decisive roles in her decision making. For this reason, the protagonist of our play has strayed from the narrow path of biastheis, has refuted the supposed deterministic properties of her genetic programming, and has thus exercised and validated the existence of free will.
Dawkins, Richard. Faith and Reason. Public Broadcasting Service. November 11 2014.Web.<http://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/transcript/dawk-frame.html>
Introduction to Sigmund Freud, Module on Trauma and Transference. Purdue University. July 17 2002. November 9 2014.Web. <http://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/psychoanalysis/ freud5.html>.
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.