The Concept of Determinism in the Play “Oedipus”

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Suzuki, a renowned expert on Zen Buddhism, called attention to thetopic of free will in one of his lectures by stating that it was the battle of”God versus Man, Man versus God, God versus Nature, Nature versus God, Manversus Nature, Nature versus Man1.” These six battles constitute an ultimatelygreater battle: the battle of free will versus determinism. Free will is thatability for a human being to make decisions as to what life he or she would liketo lead and have the freedom to live according to their own means and thuschoose their own destiny; determinism is the circumstance of a higher beingordaining a man’s life from the day he was born until the day he dies.

Freewill is in itself a far-reaching ideal that exemplifies the essence of whatmankind could be when he determines his own fate. But with determinism, a manhas a predetermined destiny and fate that absolutely cannot be altered by theman himself. Yet, it has been the desire of man to avoid the perils that hisfate holds and thus he unceasingly attempts to thwart fate and the will of thedivine.. Within the principle of determinism, this outright contention to divinemandate is blasphemous and considered sin. This ideal itself, and the wholeconcept of determinism, is quite common in the workings of Greek and Classicalliterature. A manifest example of this was the infamous Oedipus of The ThebanPlays, a man who tried to defy fate, and therefore sinned.

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The logic of Oedipus’ transgression is actually quite obvious, andOedipus’ father, King Laius, also has an analogous methodology and transgression.

They both had unfortunate destinies: Laius was destined to be killed by his ownson, and Oedipus was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. This wasthe ominous decree from the divinatory Oracle at Delphi. King Laius feared theOracle’s proclamation and had his son, the one and only Oedipus, abandoned on amountain with iron spikes as nails so that he would remain there to eventuallydie. And yet, his attempt to obstruct fate was a failure, for a kindly shepherdhappened to come upon the young Oedipus and released him from the grips of death.

The shepherd then gave the young boy to a nearby king who raised him as his own,and consequently named him Oedipus, which meant “swollen feet.” Upon Oedipus’ascension to manhood, the Oracle at Delphi once again spewed its prophecy forth,this time, with the foretelling that Oedipus shall kill his father, whom hethought to be the king that had raised him as his own, and marry his mother.

Oedipus, like Laius, was indeed frightened of such a dire fate, and thusresolved to leave his land and never return, so that the prophesy may not befulfilled. Oedipus tried to travel as far away from home as he possibly could,and along his journey, he crossed paths with a man who infuriated him with hisrudeness. Oedipus killed the man without the knowledge that that man was indeedhis father Laius and ultimately, half of the prophecy had been fulfilled. Andwhen he came to Thebes, the remaining portion of the prophecy was fulfilled ashe became the champion of the city with his warding off the Sphinx, hencewinning the hand of his own mother Jocasta in marriage. Together they bore fourchildren, and Oedipus’ dire fate had been fulfilled, all without his knowledge.

The Theban Plays begin with a plague that ravages the city of Thebes, andOedipus sets out to find the cause. At length, he discovers that he himself isthe cause for he was guilty of both patricide and incest. When that realizationis manifested, the utter shock and disgust of the horrific situation causes thetormented and disillusioned Oedipus to blind himself of a self-inflicted wound2.

According to some scholars, this was the retribution he paid for his crime, butothers would argue that Oedipus had no choice in the matter and simply hadfulfilled his destiny. The latter argument seems to be more convincing becauseOedipus does not consciously know of what he was doing at the time, and thus,his crime was not entirely premeditated. And one cannot condemn ignorance nomore than one can realistically condemn good intentions, for Oedipus was bothtruly unaware of what he had done and of no desire to harm whom he had thoughtto be his parents. In the aspect of ignorance, Oedipus purely lacked aconsciousness of his actions. This particular consciousness is described as a”sensory element3 “-that which affects one’s decisions. The senses are whatpull people to make the choices they do, e.g. the sensing of danger causes afearful retreat into hiding. At times, these sensory elements can constrict thetrue inhibitions of humans, as they tend to alter the decisions that humans makeand pull them from doing what they truly want, i.e. Oedipus sensed from theOracle that he was to commit a grave sin and thus went against his inherentdesire to remain with his parents.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, free willis the acting without interference of sensory elements in total regard to one’sown inner psyche4. Oedipus and Laius both had sensory elements, namely a fearof their fate, and they acted in accordance to their sense of fear, thus theydid not have free will,. In consideration of good intentions, Oedipus meant wellin his leaving his country and defeating the Sphinx; but as it turned out, inhis departure he killed his father, and in his conquest of the Sphinx he wonJocasta’s hand. In fact, it seems as if he was, shall we say, “in the wrongplace at the wrong time,” for obviously, had he known that the man he was aboutto kill was his father, and the woman he was about to marry was his mother, theevents that followed would most likely never have taken place. With this inmind, free will in Oedipus’ case is altogether unlikely as he would have neverwilled to commit those crimes. Determinism again scores a victory with proofthat one simply cannot run from nor thwart fate.

If one can imagine the unbelievable agony and fear that consumed Oedipusupon his hearing of his own fate, of how he was to kill his own beloved fatherand have bear children with the very woman that bore him, perhaps the sin ofrunning from fate may seem somewhat understandable. His fate was not one thatcan either be swallowed or simply pushed aside, for even the mere thought ofsuch a thing causes a neurotic shudder. This is the reason why he ran from fate.

But ultimately his attempt was an disastrous one, and he suffered severeconsequences. His town suffered the punishment for his physical crime, and hehimself was the incarnate sufferer for the spiritual crime. Determinismmaintains that Oedipus, as a man subject to the will of the gods, whether it beright or wrong, should not have attempted to outwit them for he cannot. Butperhaps the premise of free will managed to unearth a tiny, though dramaticallyenticing piece of itself to Oedipus. With such a thing as free will, “no matterhow strait the gate, or charged with punishments the scroll,” he was theultimately the “master of his fate, and the captain of his soul.”

Thatproposition seemed entirely the more attractive to Oedipus than what he had beenoffered, and so he took it. He went against the gods for he willed his own endand the means by which to achieve it6. His suffering is a portent to any manwho would try to do things beyond his own means for he is doomed to fail in theattempt and will consequently suffer some type of repercussion for it. A nicelittle analogy would be an attempt to escape from prison. The situation at handis this: if the escape is successful, a life of freedom awaits, but if it is afailure, additional punishment shall be added to the current one. The questionis whether or not a life of freedom is worth the risk, and most men answer thisas “no.” Oedipus, unlike most people, answered “yes”, and because he his escapefailed, he suffered much more greatly than most people.


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