Fate vs. Free Will Puzzle in Oedipus the King
In the play, Oedipus the King, by Sophocles, the titular protagonist, Oedipus, finds himself caught up in the midst of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which he unknowingly carries out despite his best efforts to avert his preordained tragedy. Though Oedipus humbly accepts what happens to him in the end, the question of whether some sort of higher power (in this case the Greek gods) orchestrated his misfortunes, or the simple bad luck of unfortunate circumstances strung together by chance, lies in the tragedy. Though many of the characters in the play, including Oedipus himself, believe that the gods are primarily responsible for his gross misdeeds, Oedipus nonetheless acts upon his own series of bad choices, each of which leads to his realization that his immoral life was, at least partially, of his own doing.
The issue of whether predestination & free will are compatible is explored by Sophocles, in the play, where the question of Oedipus’ culpability in everything, arises. If predestination was the root of all his problems, then Oedipus is guiltless and becomes a martyr for trying to escape his predetermined life. His act of attrition at the end, where he chose exile over execution, was due to his belief that he caused his own downfall and must pay for his sins, fated or not. But if it was free will that led to his demise, then he’s guilty and becomes just another flawed individual whose conceit brought on his fall from grace, and instead of being a martyr, he’s a fool.
Chance is the idea that nothing is fixed, or written in stone, that everything is the result of cause & effect, self-determination, and free-will, and is often used in contrast to the concept of fate in plays in order to allow room for the tragic hero to make his own mistakes without having them blamed on the gods or other supernatural forces present in the story, to maintain a level of realism and human error that the audience can sympathize with.
The concept of chance, particularly bad luck in the case of Oedipus Rex, is the complete antithesis to fate. The idea that the universe does indeed play dice with each person’s life and that individuals must play whatever hand they’re dealt, was considered heretical to the ancient Greeks, which is why Sophocles thought it appropriate for the larger-than-life Oedipus to think his life the product of his own cache of good luck, up until the end when he blames his misfortunes on acts of the gods, who punished him for his hubris. Jocasta, mother-and-wife to Oedipus, thinks that fate is nothing but nonsense and that the world they live in runs on chance alone: “What should a man fear? It’s all chance, chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark” (p. 599, lines 1070-1072). Her disbelief in the ruling power of fate haunts her when she comes face to face with her sins, Oedipus being the fruit of them, and commits suicide because the truth was too much to bear.
Oedipus, too, thought his good fortune was just that, not because of the gods, fate etc.: “…but I, I count myself the son of Chance, the great goddess, giver of all good things—” (p. 602, lines 1189-1190). This was prior to the peripeteia of the story, as afterwards his luck takes a turn for the worst and chooses to believe that the gods had woven his unfortunate life. The moment of revelations serves as the turning point, not only for the story, but also for Oedipus’ pseudo-conversion from his belief in good luck to a dark fatalism.
It’s not until Oedipus slowly begins to suspect that his “perfect life” may not be as it seems, that there’s more to it, does the story behind everything tie into each other. The plague that struck Thebes was the insigating factor that unraveled the lie that Oedipus was living. Fate begins to take precedence by the nonbelieving populace, especially when old prophecies are coming true.
Fate is an integral part of, not only Greek tragedy, but contemporary tragedy as well, being used by dramatists to add a sense of supernatural thrill to the storyline, with mythical gods/ goddesses having influence over the lives of mortals tends to look fantastical on stage and capture the crowd’s attention.
In such plays, Fate is often determined by the gods, and is a plot device used to engage the audience, who are privy to the “secret knowledge” of the gods before the characters themselves, and patiently await the moment of truth to come out in a dramatic fashion. Sophocles desired to use Oedipus as an example of how fate can play into peoples’ lives. Its illustrated best when he and Tiresias argue over the prophecy: “What will come will come. Even if I shroud it all in silence” (p. 583, lines 388-389), meaning that fate will have its way with Oedipus whether he tells him the truth or not, and that sometimes ignorance is bliss.
Also, soon after the shepherd tells him the truth, he cries in agony: “My destiny, my dark power, what a leap you made!” Oedipus reflects on how his destiny had turned on him in the end, with sheer Chance no longer being a part of his “success”. Oedipus uses Fate as an on-again off-again scapegoat in the story to avoid any real blame on himself, though prior to his exile, he accepts the part he played in his tragedy.
Fate’s hand in Oedipus’ tragedy is unquestionable, as the presence & prophecies of the blind prophet Tiresias come to pass when his introduction in the story is accompanied by his confirmation that Oedipus unconscientously fulfilled the prophecy already and the plague a sign of the gods’ displeasure at his crimes.
Oedipus ultimately fulfills the prophecy he struggles to avoid in the first place, and so becomes both a victim of the hand of fate, and a slave to his own sins. Either the gods did an excellent job in piecing together the details of Oedipus’ wrongdoings, or the conditions and circumstances of Oedipus’ life just happened to be precise enough for everything to unravel according to the prophecy. His dilemma, whether fate or free will played a role in it, concludes with his inevitable demise. Oedipus’ conflict in believing whether or not his tragedy was caused by the gods or himself is never resolved, since in the end, the consequences of his actions unfold and his will shatters as he succumbs to the burdens that accompany truth.