Oedipus Rex, Free Will and Carpe Diem

So, I’ve been struggling to decide on what I wanted to write about. It’s only been a month since graduating with my bachelors and I suppose I’ve been a little written out (Having been a lit major, the last thing I wanted to do with my first taste of freedom fresh off of Hell Week/Finals Week was more writing). But here I am on a hunt for inspiration, which ended up with my digging through old notebooks and reading through old papers. I’m sure that I’m not alone when I say that I do not like to read my own work, let alone work that has already been picked apart and criticized nearly to death, but I actually came across some writings that had me thinking “Hmmm. This ain’t so bad. I think I can work with this.”

One such paper that grabbed my attention was on Oedipus Rex and the idea of free will and whether our life paths are really of our own making or that of some higher being sitting on a cloud somewhere watching their will be done. There are many who believe in one or the other, but I think that it’s a bit of both. Whatever being you choose to believe in gave us free will. By incorporating free will into the lives of men, this higher consciousness is still, however indirectly, determining our fate. With the innumerable possibilities regarding the outcomes of our lives, whatever beings we believe in still know the path that they want us to follow, acting more as an aide to guide us to our ultimate destination just like in, you guessed it, Oedipus Rex.

If you don’t know and don’t care to find out for yourself by reading it, Oedipus is finally confronted after several years of living in the lap of luxury as the foreign king of Thebes by a previously made prophecy about his fate as well as the fate of his biological family. Blissfully unaware that the prophecy had actually been unfolding despite his best efforts to prevent it, he curses the person responsible for the misfortune that had fallen upon his followers. When he finally realizes that he himself was the cause of the downfall of Thebes, Oedipus willingly takes responsibility for his actions and accepts his fate as was predicted at his birth. From his grief and shame he decides to blind himself before exiling himself from Thebes to become a simple wanderer who will forever be hated for his misfortune. At this point in the play, Oedipus declares that the god Apollo “brought my sick, sick fate upon me. / But the blinding hand was my own!” making it clear that while he does believe in the control that the Greek Gods and Goddesses were believe to have, he also understood that his own choices also influenced his ultimate undoing. (11. 112-13)

To me, the story of Oedipus proves that free will and predetermination are really just two halves of a bigger picture as far as who controls our fate. That the people of Thebes, including Oedipus, even believe in Apollo shows their use of their free will because it is their choice to believe in him. Not once does Apollo actually appear and demand that everyone in Greece worship him. We actively determine the various situations that we get ourselves caught up in with free choice while the “Creator” anticipates and acts as necessary around them to ensure that we get to where we’re meant to be. I like to think of this in terms of a classroom: A teacher on the first day of class tell the students that some will pass with As and some won’t. The teacher then describes the things the students will have to do in order to be in the group who will pass with an A. At the end of the school year, just as the teacher had said, some students got As and some didn’t. Since the teacher more or less knew the end result from the beginning, does it mean that he caused each individual to either pass or fail and there was nothing they could do about it?

One of the most interesting things that I came across related to this topic is that the coexistence of free will and predetermination (and spiritual tolerance) can be found in Christianity. While there are definitely quotes in the Bible that promote predetermination (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” – Joshua 1:5 NIV), there are also quotes that support free will:

“But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
(Joshua 24:15)

I think that there is something to be said about living your life to the fullest in this. Oedipus’ fate had been decided before the beginning of his physical life. While he tried to prevent the predestined sequence of events that would lead him to his ultimate destination, he still came face to face with his fate. The play suggests the futility in trying to “change” our fate and that any choices we make will still bring us all the closer to the path that was already paved for us, leaving this world under the control of the Created, under the supervision of the Creator. So, if we’re going to end up where we’re meant to anyway, why not have the most fun that you can on the way there? I suppose what I’m getting at is that, if all of this is planned, then take more time out of your day to revel in those things that make your heart beat a bit faster, make you laugh a bit harder, and make you smile until it hurts. Because, really stressing over every little decision is for the birds.

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