By: Robert Shi  

“Yes.” This is the answer I most often receive when I ask peers if they believe we have free will. It’s so obvious isn’t it? We make choices at every hour of everyday and these seemingly individual choices lead to distinct results. But what happens when we look closely at why and how we make these choices? At the very source of these choices will we find something that is governed by ourselves or something beyond our control?

Sophocles’s Antigone is a tragedy revolving around the burial rights of Antigone’s rogue brother—Polynices. The play gives several examples that point to the fact that in life, there is a lack of choice and a lack of free will and instead inscrutable forces ultimately control the world. Therefore, it implies that life functions under determinism—the belief that “the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future.”[1] In the opening arguments between Antigone and her sister Ismene, Antigone is fueled by emotion. Sophocles expresses her emotions through passages with her appeals to pathos. She believes “There’s nothing, no pain—our lives are pain—no private shame” (5-6). The continual use of the words pain and shame forces the reader to empathize and feel her emotions. She asks rhetorically whether Zeus will spare them from any dread or pain in their lives, almost as if she already knows her situation is completely helpless and that her destiny is entirely in the hands of the gods. The “griefs our father Oedipus handed down” continue to harm her family.

One of the first factors we can use as a rebuttal against the existence of free will is genetics. Here, Antigone blames her father for her suffering, her brother’s, and her sister’s. Through his loins, incestuous Oedipus bestowed one curse after another and each of these curses have culminated in Polynices’s restless and eternal limbo between the world of the living and the dead. Although it may seem unfair for Antigone to blindly attribute her problems to familial ties, research has shown that this kind of connection may not be an unreasonable source of how we act and think. Within the psychological community, there has been ongoing debate for many decades about just how much behavior is affected by genetics, often referred to as the nature versus nurture debate. In his article, You Don’t Have Free Will, Professor Jerry Coyne explains:

 ‘The vehicles that make ‘choices,’ are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by your genes and your environment.’[2]

This is completely true. We are designed by twenty-three chromosomes from our father and 23 chromosomes from our mother. Every replicating cell in our bodies takes direction from this combined DNA information to replicate in specific ways. Therefore, everything that forms our identity is really driven by the force of genetics. So does this mean that Antigone had some merit in her claims against Oedipus? Could the doom of Polynices really have been hi father’s fault? In a scientific sense, the answer is yes, maybe. Part of how all of Oedipus’s children act is decided by how they are created, which is up to the genetic information that is passed on to them. At the biological level, Oedipus is really a fundamental part of his children’s choices and actions.

However, as mentioned by Coyne, there are external and social factors involved as well when it comes to our choices and decisions. Ismene serves as the logical foil for Antigone. Ismene’s opening arguments are filled with appeals to logos that contrast with Antigone’s passionate lines. She begs her sister to “be sensible. Remember we are women, we’re not born to contend with men…we’re underlings, ruled by much stronger hands” (74-76). Ismene points to the fact that Antigone’s behavior isn’t socially acceptable. The synecdoche of the stronger hands solidifies just how immovable the gender conventions are. Ismene is practical, wondering why Antigone would want to “rush to extremes?” (80). Despite all this logical reasoning and discussion, Ismene, and as the audience discovers as Antigone as well, is bound by the gender constraints of her social environment.

Like Ismene, we are all influenced by the class relations that society makes for us. We are subject to these guidelines. In both direct and indirect ways, we are told how to act properly. We are directly told to do things like respect elders and do unto others as you would have others do unto you. We also learn by observing our peers by seeing how to wear clothes and how to speak. The majority of our acting depends upon these kinds of social laws; but this isn’t necessarily a terrible thing under normal circumstances. One of the most influential psychologists of the modern age, in Free Will is an Illusion, but You’re Still Responsible for Your Actions, Michael Gazzaniga, explains that despite the true absence of free will, we must still live responsibly as a result of the aforementioned societal norms. In life, in order “for the social network to function, each person assigns each other person responsibility for his or her actions.”[3] We have ingrained guidelines in society, and we must call upon the the codes of behavior in order to navigate them. In other words, even though we cannot have true choice, we have no excuse to break laws or harm others.

As Thebes is recovering from a civil war in a state of emergency, the force of oppression becomes a necessity according to Creon’s agenda. Gender roles become another distinct factor limiting Antigone and Ismene’s free will, and it’s one that continues to this day.However, under lack of freedom, these rules are by definition detrimental. As explained by Ismene, perhaps she would have liked to have helped her sister were it not for the rules of Greece that scorned women making such bold actions. It is this lack of choice that forced Antigone to go about her mission alone. And by inscrutable forces, despite her attempts to defy oppression, Antigone is dead by the end of the play.

Along with the inner and external pushes and pulls we feel, the Greeks and many modern day philosophers had a strong sense of fate. The prophet Tiresias tells Creon that the gods will be “deaf to our prayers, they spurn the offerings in our hands, the flame of holy flesh…pride is a crime. No, yield to the dead!” (1127-1138). Tiresias’s prophecy is filled with gruesome imagery that serves to warn Creon of the resulting harsh consequences from his disrespect of Polynices’s body. He very clearly wants Creon to make amends before it is too late to appease the gods. Tiresias rhetorically asks the king, “Where’s the glory, killing the dead twice over?” (1140). With pathos and sense of urgency, Tiresias is also logical and reasonable. He knows that Creon is being stubborn and dogmatic, and reason is one of the best ways to help him. Creon, of course, pushes the prophet away, accusing him of being a money-hungry liar and does nothing to alleviate the situation. This proves that his fate is truly beyond any form of free will imaginable. Although he wishes to help, Tiresias can really only serve as a messenger for the inscrutable forces, which are named here as the gods. Though it appears that Tiresias is giving Creon the opportunity to choose his future, Tiresias truly does not have that ability. His powers are limited so that he cannot change the future, and instead he can only point out what the forces tell him.

After the prophecy, the Leader attempts to convince Creon to reconsider. It is only after he reminds the king that Tiresias has never been wrong in the past that Creon turns:

 ‘I and my better judgment have come round to this—I shackled her, I’ll set her free myself…it’s best to keep the established laws to the very day we die’ (1234-1238).

And yet, despite this conversion, with whatever haste Creon will make to the tomb, the deaths of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice are impossible to prevent. Because Creon cannot effectively change his future under the laws of determinism as a result of the unfathomable forces, he murders Haemon “my son, against my will—you too, my wife” (1461-1462). As this play shows, the belief in fate was so concrete in ancient Greece that they wove the Moirai goddesses of fate into their mythology. These goddesses spin the threads of individuals’ futures in a manner that leaves the humans without control over when and how they will die. In this sense, of course there is no free will to be found in the fabric. English determinist Bertrand Russel explained that, “The law of causation, according to which later events can theoretically be predicted by means of earlier events… [is] a category without which science would not be possible”.[4] So can we assume that punishments as terrifying as that of Creon are awaiting us in our futures and are simply immutable products of what has occurred in the past? It may be easy to agree with this in Creon’s situation because of hindsight bias. But the fact is, the idea of fate or determinism works concurrently well with laws and rules of nature that have already been firmly established. And perhaps as a result, our decisions are as predictable as the solution to a mathematical equation.

With the help of Antigone, we see that the world operates under determinism in the form of inscrutable forces. It would be difficult to claim that we will ever fully understand these forces that guide us, making the presence of free will an impossibility. Yes, perhaps we can experimentally discover how chromosomes can be passed along. But do we truly understand why genetics have come into existence and how the deciding node of a deceptively random process leads to an independent and thinking being? Antigone and Ismene face gender norms in society, but why must they have been so strictly bound? Why is it that Antigone dared to go beyond the established boundaries for women, but was killed for it? Finally, although the mortal Tiresias was able to translate the messages from the gods, he had absolutely no way of changing what the forces had already determined. The fantasy of choice that he gave Creon was no real choice at all, since whatever Creon would say, Tiresias had no way of controlling the inexplicable powers’ plans for the future. We can see now that the seeds of the choices we have are truly incomprehensible, and, as a result, we cannot claim to have free will unless these guiding forces are completely understood.