Greek tragedy, in particular, has traditionally been associated with fatalism, or the idea that “an attitude of resignation in the face of some future event or events is thought to be inevitable”. In such plays, fate variously anticipates a person’s destiny, or the fixed result of the will of the Gods, or the necessary consequence of the actions of one’s ancestors. In a close reading of Sophocles’s Antigone, however, there emerges a debate as to whether fate is actually stronger than one’s free will. Although most of the larger context in the play suggests that humans are indeed bound to a particular destiny–regardless of their choices, the characters in Antigone seem to be responsible for their actions. Focusing on Antigone, Ismene, and Creon, in this essay I will show that such characters can be seen to exercise free will.
As the play begins, Antigone approaches her sister Ismene with a proposal. Antigone is concerned for the dead body of their brother Polynices. Their uncle Creon, ruler of Thebes, has decreed that traitors, including Polynices, will not receive burial rights on penalty of death. In the play, Ismene’s reasons, “I do them no dishonor… but defy the city? I have no strength for that.” (93-94) Circumstantially, this tone encompasses Ismene’s personality. Through a more logical approach, it roots a greater ethical appeal that resonates with her upheld values about moral conduct and freedom. On the contrary, Antigone responds to her sister’s beliefs with a much more authoritative tone, although Ismene is the actual elder in the situation. Antigone demands that her older sister, Ismene, set aside her “fear for me” and suggests that she “set your own life in order.” (97) Anew, such domineering diction echoes Antigone’s personality and personal views on moral freedom on a more emotional approach. Antigone’s headstrong qualities and her high belief in divine law are affirmed through the conflict of Polyneices’ burial. Ismene, inversely, is more complacent than her sister. While Antigone discerns enlightenment and empowerment in her own predetermined destiny, Ismene’s perspective is the complete opposite. Ismene engages in what she believes to be reasonable behavior, while Antigone’s actions are based on an emotional foundation. Because each position can be reasonably argues, it is all the more difficult to attribute the happenings in the play to fate, even retrospectively. Antigone and Ismene have made their decisions of their own free will, and thus each woman is responsible for the outcome, or consequences of her decision.
In another instance, Ismene, this time seems to embrace the power of her moral freedom. She begs for Antigone’s agreement: “Oh no, my sister, don’t reject me, please. let me die beside you, consecrating the dead together.. save yourself.” (613-625) In response, Antigone proclaims, “I don’t grudge you your survival. You chose to live, I chose to die.” (626) The key repeated words “chose” add emphasis and power to the ideal of free will. In addition, the parallelism of “You chose to live, I chose to die” incorporate a sense richness and a cohesiveness that develops emotional appeal to Antigone’s speech. It serves to further evoke the image of genuine moral freedom and its impact on the individual, Antigone.
Similar to the “ill-fated” sisters, Creon’s future is dependent upon his actions. In the play, Creon appears, at first, to be a just leader. However, much like Antigone, Creon’s greatest power and, notably, his greatest flaw is his power of real choice. Creon’s ability to determine the course of his actions leads to his downfall. Because Creon is stubborn and his pride is so great, he will not listen to anyone. In his refusal to entertain the opinions of others, Creon demonstrates that he feels superior to all, “Whatever you say, you will not change my will.” Creon’s arrogance causes his downfall. Relating to common aspects of traditional Greek Mythology, someone like Oedipus is born with a certain prophesied fate and is not able to circumvent it by any means. Creon, differently, seems to suffer through his own choices and stubbornness. Creon, initially, feels confident that through his will, he can make laws for the city of Thebes, and at first he sticks by his decision to punish Antigone. For example, when the prophet, Tiresias, visits Creon in Antigone, he comes to deliver a warning, not an inevitable prophecy. Only until after Tiresias reveals to him the possible fate or consequences awaiting him if he persists does he realize the consequences he has brought upon himself: “Oh it’s hard, giving up the heart’s desire… but I will do it- no more fighting a losing battle with necessity” (1228-1230) In his deliberation, Tiresias signals Creon’s actions as foolish, but proposes a chance for redemption. Furthermore, Tiresias anticipates a choice in outcome for Creon: “wrong is done, a man can turn his back on folly, misfortune, too, if he tries to make amends, however low he’s fallen, and stops his bullnecked ways.” (1133-1136) While Oedipus did not have this choice, Creon does. He refuses to change his stubborn ways. It is then that it is realized that humans are burdened with the weight of their own free will. Eventually, it simply is too late: he is caught in the grip of a terrible consequence that he can no longer escape.
Although most would argue that the central focus that Sophocles embraces fatalism, it is clear that the actions of the play’s protagonists convey otherwise. Moreover, to further extricate the correlation between human conduct and fatalism, it is important to note the validity of the ideal. In Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, Jean-Pierre Vernant asserts the proposition that “the defilement of crime is contiguous and attaches itself, and beyond the individual to his whole lineage, the whole circle of his relatives” (62). An example of such proposition is settled on the marital conduct of Oedipus and his biological mother. It is not to say that the act is justified. Instead, however, it is explained. Nevertheless, it is also relevant to take into account that Vernant also proposes that even though it “becomes identified with him”, this source of fatalism also “remains separate, beyond him”. This contradicts the previous statement Vernant makes. It is also proved with the actions of the ill-destined tragic hero, Antigone. In great despair it is demonstrated, “My own flesh and blood- dear sister, dear Ismene,” says Antigone, “how many griefs our father Oedipus handed down… There’s nothing, no pain- our lives are pain-no private shame. The doom reserved for enemies marches on the ones we love the most” (1-13). The irony manifested in this passage that the military put in place to defend Thebes was used against their own heir, Polynices, in order to denote an emotional appeal that allows Antigone to justify her future actions. The central idea of fatalism is prominent in this introductory passage, as well. Fate still is powerful in this view, but more so where humans are arrogant and blind. The purpose of the tragedy of Antigone then is to undermine the power of fate. There are usually a myriad of choices for an individual, but both Antigone and Creon make the wrong decision. To the undiscerning eye, however Antigone seems to be ill-fated with an inheritance that plagues everyone in the family of Oedipus. Her destiny seems more set and less her fault; nevertheless, it her damnation of free will that molds her destiny. Alternatively, she could have assimilated to the logics of her sister Ismene. Antigone’s death is not a consequence of the absence of moral freedom. However, it is the consequence of the misconduct of free will that decides her future. Thus, the recurring concept that free will is a burden remains prominent throughout the text.
As one can see, the concept of Fatalism such as the one suggested by Sophocles is relative to perspective. Antigone is presented to emphasize the relationship between fate and moral freedom, and how they are reliant upon each other, and, therefore, grant fate down on them. The negligence and faulted conduction in Antigone’s free will is the result of her death. This evolution of the idea of fate to include the participation of human choice and reason is part of the Greek legacy of humanism. Illustrating an alternative point of view on destiny or the future, the future is dependent upon human action and free will. It is not our helplessness against fate, but rather the play seems to imply that we shape our destinies through the use of good judgment. Therefore, our burden, from Greek Literature to modern times, is fatalism. Our burden, as it remains, it good judgment.