Much has been done on account of passion in human history. Our literature is full of stories of people who, overcome by their feelings, take action. Many actions taken in passion are considered wrong or sinful by many standards, but it is always difficult to decide where and how the blame falls in these cases. In Dante’s Inferno, we read of Francesca, who is in hell because she could not resist the temptation of illicit romance. In Sophocles’ play Antigone, the heroine is secretly driven by a fated passion and love. Are we to hold people swept up in passion, like Francesca and Antigone, responsible for their misdeeds even when their decisions are being influenced by things beyond their control?
I say that we should hold such people responsible. While we may not be able to always directly control our actions, we can control who we are, and thereby stop ourselves from doing things that are wrong. Free will for us means having the ability to shape our own characters, and having responsibility for the resulting actions we take. This idea is prevalent in the writing of the philosopher John Stuart Mill. In the moment, no decision is truly ours. Every action we take is a result of because of who we are. If one is a strong and virtuous person, he will act strongly and virtuously. However, if one lacks fortitude and restraint, like Francesca or Antigone, he will succumb to his emotions. I am not simply a mechanism that makes discrete choices again and again, choosing this then that, right then wrong. Humans do not have free will in that sense. Human will consists of a the ability to form cumulative character, and as Mill said “Our actions follow from our characters…” (26). Mill insists that “We are exactly as capable of making our own character, if we will, as others are of making it for us.” (27). While environmental factors may influence our character, it is reasonable to believe that we can influence it too. So, why can we hold those swept up in passion responsible for their actions? It is because they lack good character.
Dante meets the adulterous lovers Francesca and Paulo in the second circle of hell. There, all those guilty of carnal sins are being eternally swept up and buffeted around by a fiery whirlwind. When Dante asks Francesca why she is there, she gives a speech that is rich in meaning and has many implications for the ideas of sinfulness and free will. In one of the most famous parts, Francesca cries out: “Love, which swiftly kindled in the noble heart…Love, which pardons no one loved from loving in return, seized me….Love led us to one death.” (100) In this passage Francesca echoes both Dante and another Italian romantic poet, Guido Guinizelli. Later Francesca describes the actual circumstances in which her affair took place. She writes of how she and Paulo read the story of Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere and were inspired to act upon their romantic impulses towards each other (127). Through the details of her speech it is apparent that Francesca has become fixed upon the romantic ideals she has read about in poetry and literature. What drove her to commit adultery was the fantasy that had been cultivated within her mind from a young age. Dante realizes that he is partially responsible for her adultery and this is part of the reason he faints (139). Another prevalent theme in the speech is Francesca’s insistence of her lack of agency in the affair.
Francesca has been swept up by the “whirlwind” of passion. Usually when we think of someone being swept up, there is not much agency on the part of the victim involved; it does not seem like a situation in which blame can be placed. However, Dante still has put Francesca, and all others “swept up” by passion and lust, in Hell. This decision is telling. These people did something wrong, but it was not that they directly decided to sin. Dante knows that they were swept up, hence the punishment. So what was their failure? To continue with the whirlwind analogy, the victims of lust did not make themselves heavy enough; they did not instill fortitude and restraint within their character. Francesca has grown up reading love stories, and she cannot help that she has sinful fantasies implanted in her mind. However, just because the fantasies come from something outside her control does not mean that she has no power to resist them. In her speech to Dante she reveals that even as she is undergoing eternal suffering on account of the fantasies that brought her into sin, she is still being controlled by those same fantasies. It seems unfair to condemn someone for not doing something, that is, to say Francesca is guilty because she did not cultivate her character. It is not as if shaping yourself into a decent person is an easy process. But to not condemn misdeeds resulting from lack of character is to surrender any relevant conception of free will. What use is our freedom if it makes no difference what we do with it? As Mill said, we are just as capable of making our own character as others are. Dante and other romantic poets may have influenced Francesca’s character, but our characters are in the end, our own. It is our job to cultivate and maintain them and endeavor to ensure virtuous actions through this cultivation. If at a point, our character fails, and we do wrong, we are responsible for this failure of character.
Judging Antigone’s guilt and wrongdoing is less straightforward than in the case of Francesca. Indeed, Antigone is often heralded as a literary hero and symbol of resistance to authority. However, she is in many ways just as guilty as Francesca, and through her wrongs she does hold some blame for the complete ruin that occurs in the climax of the play. On the surface the play seems to be about Antigone standing up for the law of the household, or the law of oikos. She claims that the gods have given her a responsibility to care for her family, and she is defying Creon’s laws (the laws of the city, or polis) in favor of this pious responsibility. But there are many subtle hints throughout the play that this is in fact not the case. She refers to Polynieces as “the one I love” (86), and later the chorus delivers an ode about the all-overpowering force of love, which drives whoever is in its grip mad (884). Sophocles is trying to suggest an incestuous relationship between Antigone and Polynieces. She is not fighting for oikos, but for her cursed love. In her last moments before she is entombed, she delivers a speech that seems to utterly defy the idea of loyalty to the oikos, saying “A husband dead, there might have been another. A child by another too, if I had lost the first. But mother and father both lost in the halls of death, no brother could ever spring to light again.” (1001). What is driving her is not any holy law of the household, but passion. This is even more evident in the hubris she displays in her frenzied stand, as she does not seek to use reason but rather asserts that she knows the will of the gods and defies all those who oppose her, including her sister Ismene. Sophocles hints at this hubris when he has Antigone compare here rocky tomb to that of Niobe (915), seemingly failing to realize that Niobe’s fate was a result of her hubris, a punishment for declaring that her children were as fair as the gods. Of course, a large portion of the blame for the catastrophes at the end of the play falls on Creon, but the cataclysmic ending would not have been possible without Antigone’s wrongdoing, that is, her arrogant, impulsive crusade and her abuse of the law of the oikos.
Sophocles does not seem to be condemning Antigone for the relationship wih her brother. In the story, the relations were unavoidable. Dante and Sophocles were not trying to write realistic modern accounts of how humans act. We cannot take the descriptions of all of every character’s actions as case studies for how humans act and should be judged. Not everything that takes place in the texts are relevant to the idea of free will. For instance, the concept of fate is important in Greek tragedy. Jean Pierre Vernant describes this staple of the genre in his article Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece; he writes: “The action does not emanate from the source; rather, it envelops him and carries him away, swallowing him up in a power that must perforce be beyond him.”(63). There is no culpability in the character of Antigone with regards to the incest, just as Oedipus is not held personally accountable for his actions in the play Oedipus Rex. The wrongdoing of Antigone that I want to focus on is how her passion led her on a hubristic, Oikos-distorting warpath through which she contributed to the suffering caused in the story. It seems difficult to judge a character when her actions are so entangled with fate. Comparing Antigone to Creon helps reveal why we can hold her accountable. Just as Creon was swept up by tyranny, Antigone was swept up with passion. Just as Creon distorted the law of the city to justify his actions, Antigone distorted the law of the home to justify her unwavering stance. We do not excuse Tyrants because they were swept up by love of power. Just as Creon should be held accountable for the lack of fortitude of character which allowed him to be controlled by impulses, so Antigone should be as well.
It seems strange to condemn characters in stories for not having cultivated themselves in the past. Their pasts are, in fact, the thing that identifies them in the story. But I say this is irrelevant. It is almost pointless to talk about what Antigone or Francesca could have done to “cultivate good character” because if they had then they would no longer be Antigone or Francesca. Rather, we condemn them based on who they are. Failure and wrongdoing is inherent within them. They are written to be guilty, and my task in this paper has simply been to establish their guilt.
What we are able to do is the basis of how we decide what we should do. We have the ability to influence our own characters, which in turn are the basis of every action we take. We can instill values that ensure good actions, and restrain ourselves from wrongdoing, or we can let our environments and the other people around us be the masters of our characters. To not create ourselves is to fail as a being with free will, and we are responsible for that failure and the actions that result from it.
-Mill, John Stuart. On the Logic of the Moral Sciences: A System of Logic, Book VI. London: Longman, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1872.
Fagles, Robert, and Bernard MacGregor Walker. Knox. “Antigone.” Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus. London: Allen Lane, 1982. 59-128. Print.
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Trans. Robert M. Durling. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Print. Vol. 1 of The Divine Comedy. 3 vols.
-Vernant, Jean Pierre., and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. New York: Zone, 1988. Print.