Neuroscientist Sam Harris claims that free will is only an illusion that does not exist. Fatalism, Free Will, and Determinism and how, Shakespeare (author of Macbeth), and Sophocles (author of Oedipus Rex) would respond to Sam Harris’ argument that the concept of free will is a delusion. If one looks deeper into William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex there are some coincidences. Fatalism is about destiny. Free will exists and it is real, it is not just something you see.
Whatever is destined to happen, will happen, even though free will happens, so the event may change a little but in the end, it will happen anyway. Harris states that fatalism is absurd, however; thinking things will just happen without making any decisions simply does not happen. In determinism there is no free will. With determinism, if something happens, there will almost always be an effect. In determinism we may consider free will an illusion. The term “free will” has been discussed over the past two millennia by many famous philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. It is the idea that one has a significant kind of control over one’s actions. If Shakespeare and Sophocles were sitting at a table discussing free will, fatalism, and determinism with Harris they would have a lot to talk about and would probably agree on most thoughts.Order now
Fatalism is a belief that all events are already decided and that event will definitely happen. The Chorus at the conclusion of Oedipus Rex tells the people of Thebes that Oedipus is a great man with power that people envy. He ends up fulfilling the fate of his childhood prophecy: that he will kill his father and also marry his mother. The quote was at the end of the play where Oedipus realizes his fate and calls for his daughters and stabs his eyes out. The Chorus says,
People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus.
He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance,
he rose to power, a man beyond all power.
Who could behold his greatness without envy?
Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him.
Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last. (Sophocles. 1678-1685)
The tragic themes of fatalism are one of the most important elements of Oedipus Rex. Fatalism is a belief that all events are already decided and that event will definitely happen in people’s lives. In a person’s life, no matter what they do, the end result will be the same. This quote means Oedipus rose to power but falls because he rose too high and now has sunk into a black sea of terror. For Oedipus, this is a state of deep depression, self doubt, and self-mutilation.
This explains that Oedipus could not avoid the predetermined events in his life. The chorus is telling the audience he rose and then falls because it is Oedipus’ fate. Shakespeare also believed in fatalism, which is shown through many of his plays. Some very good examples of fatalism are found in his play, Macbeth. Macbeth shows that once a persons destiny is predetermined, it is not in one’s power to change it. Macbeth’s destiny is told to him by the Weird Sisters: ‘All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!'(1.3.53).
In this quote, Macbeth realizes that for him to become king, he has to kill the current king. Although, he has a hard time accepting this and decides to do his plan anyway. The tone of the play is fatalistic, Macbeth does not want to kill Duncan but does to rise to the throne, but feels great guilt afterward. By the end of the play, Macbeth is a hollow shell of the man he used to be. He is now hopeless, stops fighting and lets fate take its course. Both Sophocles and Shakespeare believed in fatalism and believe that all events are settled. This is also the same belief as Harris; he believes that free will does not really exist, that all things that happen are supposed to happen because of past experiences we have had.
Free will is the ability to choose between different courses of action and nothing can get in its way. In Oedipus Rex one example of free will is in the beginning when there is a plague in Thebes that can only be stopped by finding King Laius’ killer. Oedipus tells Creon that he curses Laius’ killer to go and live in exile: “Now my curse on the murderer, Whoever he is a lone man unknown in his crime or one among many, let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step” (Sophocles 280-283). This is showing us free will because he tells Creon that the killer of Laius will be sent to exile. Instead, he could have said he would kill the killer of Laius or send him to prison, meaning he had choices and he chose exile. In Macbeth, King Duncan names his elder son, Malcolm, the Prince of Cumberland and heir to the throne, Macbeth says,
“The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step
On which I must fall down or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies.” (1.4.29)
Earlier, Macbeth had expressed his hope that by ‘chance’ he would be crowned king without having to do anything special to make it happen, just as he was named Thane of Cawdor without trying to acquire the title. Now, Macbeth says that if he wants to become king, he will have to find a way to become king without being Duncan’s heir. He has to choose either to ‘fall down’ at this step – in other words, he must give up – or he must ‘o’erleap’ this setback and claim the crown for his own. This sounds very much like free will, as he is given a choice of what direction he will choose in his life. This can also be an example of fatalism as predicted to happen does happen.
Determinism is a belief that all events are already determined by events that already happened. Some philosophers, like Harris, have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions. Harris touches on this very exact thing in his talk as he said that a murderer is not legally responsible for the murder. That means if someone were in the murder’s shoes, with his same background, and the same experiences they too would have committed murder too. Macbeth says, ‘If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, without my stir'(I.iii.143-144).
Macbeth seems content to leave his future to’chance.’ If ‘chance’ will crown him king, then there is no reason for him to ‘stir’ or go against King Duncan in order to make things happen. He is just letting life run its course without trying to shape it himself. Shakespeare would agree with Macbeth and does not hold him responsible for his actions. For Oedipus Rex, the force of determinism is expressed by what the oracles had told his father when he was newborn. Oedipus’ father, King Laius, receives the prophecy that he will die by the hands of the newborn son.
The Oracle and her prophecy serve as the primary motivation for many of the actions of the tragedies in this play. For example, when King Laius of Thebes goes to the Oracle to consult on why he and his wife are having trouble conceiving a child, the Oracle tells Laius that if he has a son, that son will kill him and marry his wife. Laius does try and change his destiny by leaving his newborn to die alone, but Oedipus does go on to live. Because of determinism, he does what the Oracle said he would do – kill his father and marry his mother and go on to have children with her. Shakespeare and Sophocles most likely agree with Harris’ views. Criminals and murderers are not morally responsible for their crimes but a product of their environment.
Harris does believe that criminals and murders should be removed from society if they are a danger to others. Looking at the national news, I am having a hard time believing I, or you, or any of my friends would have killed George Floyd the way that the Officer did. Harris would argue that yes indeed you or I would have acted the same way as officer Chauvin if we had the same genetics, same experiences, same family, and school life we would have murdered George Floyd too.
This is a very disturbing thought and makes me wonder what we can do as a society to reach these criminals as they are growing up and developing to stop these horrific events from happening. Is government intervention, or parenting classes, or school classes, or doctors, or religious leaders responsible for educating and guiding kids and people through their lives so they don’t end up as a criminal or a murderer?