By Joyce Kang
Recent findings in the field of neuroscience suggest that humans are like marionette puppets with forces beyond our control pulling the strings. Brain researchers claim that all of our actions result from “molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another” (Coyne). This scientific approach can help explain the majority of human behaviors, but it cannot explain all of our actions. It may be true that most people’s choices are determined by physical and chemical forces within their brains. However, it is possible for some people, who possess extraordinary courage and strong conviction, to make a free choice in certain circumstances where something greater is at stake.
An example of “most people” is Dante’s Francesca da Rimini, whose choice to commit adultery was the direct result of the brain chemistry associated with lust. Dante meets Francesca in the second circle of Hell, where the lustful are forever swept up in an infernal whirlwind that resembles the effect of the erotic passions that caused them to sin. Dante explains that these lovers “subjected their reason to their lust” (Inf. 5.37–39). Dante’s word for lust, talento, originally referred to the unit of weight in silver used in antiquity (Durling 95). This suggests that erotic desire is a weighty, ponderous force—one that pulls the strings of helpless puppets like Francesca. In each of her three terzinas beginning with the word Love, Francesca personifies desire as an unforgiving, god-like power that “seized” her and Paolo, leading them on “to one death” (5.100–108). She goes on to describe the events of the affair in greater detail: they were reading the story of Lancelot together when at one point their feelings “overpowered” them. They kissed, and “that day they read there no further” because they were discovered and killed (5.130–138). Modern neuroscientists would attribute Francesca’s actions to the flooding of estrogen and the neurotransmitter dopamine in her brain. Studies have shown that dopamine produces fierce energy, concentrated motivation to attain a reward, and elation—the “core feelings” of attraction and desire (Fisher). In the heat of the moment, erotic desire hijacked Francesca’s sense of judgment to the point where she was no longer the agent of her choice. This is perhaps why Dante places sinners of lust in the second circle of Hell instead of further down: they were lured on mindlessly by pleasure without stopping to reflect.
Sophocles’ Ismene is another character whose choices are dictated by forces beyond her control. Whereas Francesca’s choices are made by lust, Ismene’s are fear-induced. After their two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, kill each other in a civil war, Ismene and Antigone find themselves alone in an unstable world with no family to turn to, except their tyrannical uncle Creon. After the war, Creon becomes the king of Thebes, and he decides that the bodies of the two dead brothers shall not be treated in the same manner: the body of Eteocles, who died defending the city, will be buried with full honors, whereas the body of Polynices, a traitor to the city, will be left to rot. Furthermore, Creon issues a royal decree that states that anyone who attempts to bury Polynices shall be publicly stoned to death. In the opening scene of the play, Antigone approaches Ismene to seek her aid in giving Polynices a proper burial. In response, Ismene says that they could not possibly “violate the laws and override / the fixed decree of the throne, its power,” and that they “must be sensible” (ln. 72–75). Here, the throne serves as a metonym that represents all of Creon’s power as the ruler of the polis. To Ismene, the power of the city is absolute: “I’m forced, I have no choice—I must obey the ones who stand in power” (78–80). The words and phrases she uses—“forced,” “no choice,” “must obey”—reveal her willingness to submit. Even though she wants to bury her brother, she cannot will herself to do it because she is terrified of her uncle’s power and his threat of punishment. Her fear paralyzes her, and she shrinks from the act of defiance. Today, scientists know a lot about how electrical activities in different areas of the brain create the feeling of fear. A recent study using EEG data shows that the electrical wave associated with fear starts in the amygdala and then interacts with the hippocampus (the brain’s memory center) before traveling to the frontal lobe, where thought processing areas are engaged (Delarosa). By telling us to avoid threatening situations, fear is our body’s way of helping us survive. Although Ismene does survive in the end, she proves to be a coward.
Both Francesca and Ismene are like puppets controlled by the chemical and physical processes in their brains. Lust pulls Francesca’s strings, and fear pulls Ismene’s. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle would use the term hekōn to explain Francesca and Ismene’s actions. Hekōn is appropriately translated as “of one’s own volition,” implying an individual committing to a particular course of action without necessarily going through a process of deliberation (Vernant 56). The concept of hekōn can be likened to our modern understanding to mean the biochemical processes in our brains that cause us to take a certain course of action. When one acts through a strong emotion like desire or fear, “one certainly does it of one’s own volition (hekōn) but not as a result of a decision” (Vernant 57). Francesca and Ismene’s actions lack what Aristotle calls proairesis. The concept of proairesis builds upon the idea of hekōn in that proairesis involves a process of reflection and deliberation using reason that eventually leads to a decision, which then manifests as an action (Vernant 56). By committing to a decision, an individual makes himself what Aristotle calls a “responsible and autonomous” agent (Vernant 50). Although the act of a decision (proairesis) intrinsically implies volition (hekōn), the reverse is not necessarily true: “what one does of one’s own volition is not always the result of a decision” (Vernant 56). Because their choices arise out of hekōn alone, Francesca and Ismene do not behave as agents, so their choices are not free.
Unlike Francesca and Ismene and so many others, Antigone is able to exercise freedom of choice through her extraordinary courage and unwavering conviction. French philosopher Simone Weil views Antigone as a noble hero who struggles alone in the face of an agonizing situation (19). Under the threat of death, Antigone disobeys Creon’s decree and gives her brother the proper burial rites. She justifies her decision with sound reason: to the Greeks, there could be no greater shame or dishonor than to be left to rot after death (Weil 20). When Creon asks Antigone if she feels any remorse for her actions, she defiantly proclaims that she has not felt “ashamed for a moment” because “Death longs for the same rites for all” (84–85). Empowered by her faith, Antigone puts her own religious beliefs above Creon’s power as the ruler of the city. In challenging Creon’s political authority, she oversteps the traditional boundaries of a woman in ancient Greek society. All alone, without any backing, Antigone “dares to be in opposition to her own country, to the laws of that country, to the head of its government” (Weil 19). She stands up for her beliefs until the very end: “even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory” (63). No scientific rationale can explain Antigone’s choice. No neurotransmitter nor electrical network nor chemical process directly causes someone to choose to die for a higher moral cause. In fact, our brains are biologically programmed to maximize our chance of survival. Through her courage and strong conviction, Antigone is able to override the forces within and without and take her fate into her own hands.
There are many readers of Antigone who argue that Antigone did not actually exercise freedom of choice. To support this argument, they point to other powerful forces that seem to influence her actions—her wild passions and stubborn pride, her possibly erotic feelings towards Polynices, and the curse of the gods on the family of Oedipus. However, these factors are irrelevant to the discussion because, to the core, Antigone believes that her choice was the right one: “it is for having done what is right that so much wrong is done me” (Weil 23). All sorts of mighty forces attempt to sway her—fear, solitude, humiliation, even the threat of death—but she never wavers in her decision to give Polynices the proper burial rites. It is as if all the strings of the world were pulling her to the right, and she decides to go left instead. Antigone is no puppet. By using her own reason and sense of judgment, she comes to her own decision and carries it out until the end. This is the fulfillment of the Aristotelian idea of being an autonomous agent, making a free choice through one’s own volition as well as a conscious deliberation upon facts, circumstances, and outcome.
When presented with difficult choices, the majority of us let the physical and chemical processes in our brains, such as those associated with emotions like lust or fear, take over and dictate our course. However, every so often, there are people like Antigone who are able to come to a decision and stick to what they believe in, no matter the consequences. These people are very rare, but they do exist. Who are they? They are the Martin Luther Kings, the Nelson Mandelas, and the Gandhis, who fight for the freedom of oppressed peoples even though they face great danger in doing so. They are the doctors and nurses selflessly going to West Africa to help with the Ebola outbreak, even though they might catch the disease themselves. They are like 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who advocates for education for girls despite persecution from the Taliban. They are the best of us, the Antigones in a world of Ismenes, the agents who both recognize and make use of their freedom.
Coyne, Jerry A. “You Don’t Have Free Will.” The Chronicle Review. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
Delarosa, Bambi L. “Electrophysiological Spatiotemporal Dynamics During Implicit Visual Threat Processing.” Brain and Cognition 91 (2014): 54–61. ScienceDirect. Elsevier B.V. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
Durling, Robert, trans. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
Fisher, Helen. “Biology: Your Brain in Love.” Time. Time Inc., 19 Jan. 2004. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1984. Print.
Vernant, Jean Pierre., and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. “Intimations of the Will in Greek Tragedy.” Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. New York: Zone, 1988. 49–57. Print.
Weil, Simone. “Antigone.” Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks. Trans. Elisabeth Chase Geissbuhler. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957. 18–23. Print.