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D.T. Suzuki, a renowned expert on Zen Buddhism, called attention to the
topic 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, Man
versus Nature, Nature versus Man1.” These six battles constitute an ultimately
greater battle: the battle of free will versus determinism. Free will is that
ability for a human being to make decisions as to what life he or she would like
to lead and have the freedom to live according to their own means and thus
choose their own destiny; determinism is the circumstance of a higher being
ordaining a man’s life from the day he was born until the day he dies. Free
will is in itself a far-reaching ideal that exemplifies the essence of what
mankind could be when he determines his own fate. But with determinism, a man
has a predetermined destiny and fate that absolutely cannot be altered by the
man himself. Yet, it has been the desire of man to avoid the perils that his
fate holds and thus he unceasingly attempts to thwart fate and the will of the
divine.. Within the principle of determinism, this outright contention to divine
mandate is blasphemous and considered sin. This ideal itself, and the whole
concept of determinism, is quite common in the workings of Greek and Classical
literature. A manifest example of this was the infamous Oedipus of The Theban
Plays, a man who tried to defy fate, and therefore sinned.

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

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They both had unfortunate destinies: Laius was destined to be killed by his own
son, and Oedipus was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. This was
the ominous decree from the divinatory Oracle at Delphi. King Laius feared the
Oracle’s proclamation and had his son, the one and only Oedipus, abandoned on a
mountain with iron spikes as nails so that he would remain there to eventually
die. And yet, his attempt to obstruct fate was a failure, for a kindly shepherd
happened 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 he
thought 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 thus
resolved to leave his land and never return, so that the prophesy may not be
fulfilled. 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 his
rudeness. Oedipus killed the man without the knowledge that that man was indeed
his father Laius and ultimately, half of the prophecy had been fulfilled. And
when he came to Thebes, the remaining portion of the prophecy was fulfilled as
he became the champion of the city with his warding off the Sphinx, hence
winning the hand of his own mother Jocasta in marriage. Together they bore four
children, and Oedipus’ dire fate had been fulfilled, all without his knowledge.

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

According to some scholars, this was the retribution he paid for his crime, but
others would argue that Oedipus had no choice in the matter and simply had
fulfilled his destiny. The latter argument seems to be more convincing because
Oedipus 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 no
more than one can realistically condemn good intentions, for Oedipus was both
truly unaware of what he had done and of no desire to harm whom he had thought
to be his parents. In the aspect of ignorance, Oedipus purely lacked a
consciousness of his actions. This particular consciousness is described as a
“sensory element3 “-that which affects one’s decisions. The senses are what
pull people to make the choices they do, e.g. the sensing of danger causes a
fearful retreat into hiding. At times, these sensory elements can constrict the
true inhibitions of humans, as they tend to alter the decisions that humans make
and pull them from doing what they truly want, i.e. Oedipus sensed from the
Oracle that he was to commit a grave sin and thus went against his inherent
desire to remain with his parents. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, free will
is the acting without interference of sensory elements in total regard to one’s
own inner psyche4. Oedipus and Laius both had sensory elements, namely a fear
of their fate, and they acted in accordance to their sense of fear, thus they
did not have free will,. In consideration of good intentions, Oedipus meant well
in his leaving his country and defeating the Sphinx; but as it turned out, in
his departure he killed his father, and in his conquest of the Sphinx he won
Jocasta’s hand. In fact, it seems as if he was, shall we say, “in the wrong
place at the wrong time,” for obviously, had he known that the man he was about
to kill was his father, and the woman he was about to marry was his mother, the
events that followed would most likely never have taken place. With this in
mind, free will in Oedipus’ case is altogether unlikely as he would have never
willed to commit those crimes. Determinism again scores a victory with proof
that one simply cannot run from nor thwart fate.

If one can imagine the unbelievable agony and fear that consumed Oedipus
upon his hearing of his own fate, of how he was to kill his own beloved father
and have bear children with the very woman that bore him, perhaps the sin of
running from fate may seem somewhat understandable. His fate was not one that
can either be swallowed or simply pushed aside, for even the mere thought of
such 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 severe
consequences. His town suffered the punishment for his physical crime, and he
himself was the incarnate sufferer for the spiritual crime. Determinism
maintains that Oedipus, as a man subject to the will of the gods, whether it be
right or wrong, should not have attempted to outwit them for he cannot. But
perhaps the premise of free will managed to unearth a tiny, though dramatically
enticing piece of itself to Oedipus. With such a thing as free will, “no matter
how strait the gate, or charged with punishments the scroll,” he was the
ultimately the “master of his fate, and the captain of his soul.” 5 That
proposition seemed entirely the more attractive to Oedipus than what he had been
offered, and so he took it. He went against the gods for he willed his own end
and the means by which to achieve it6. His suffering is a portent to any man
who would try to do things beyond his own means for he is doomed to fail in the
attempt and will consequently suffer some type of repercussion for it. A nice
little analogy would be an attempt to escape from prison. The situation at hand
is this: if the escape is successful, a life of freedom awaits, but if it is a
failure, additional punishment shall be added to the current one. The question
is whether or not a life of freedom is worth the risk, and most men answer this
as “no.” Oedipus, unlike most people, answered “yes”, and because he his escape
failed, he suffered much more greatly than most people.


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