The Concepts of Predestination and Free Will in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy

Both, Sophocles in his Oedipus Rex and Boethius in his The Consolation of Philosophy reflect about the nature of destiny and the way it affects people. They explore relations between determinism and a free will, but do it in different way. This theme was an object of great interest and great controversy during that time. Philosophers and writers have always tried to give their own answers to these questions.

Oedipus Rex is a play written by Sophocles almost 2500 years ago but it’s still relevant today. Sophocles was a talented dramatist because all his plays present real individuals with strong characters and usually tragic fates. Each phrase of his narration is significant because it makes the contribution to the whole play. Boethius (AD 480-524) was a Roman philosopher and political thinker. He was arrested on a charge of treason and later executed. In prison he wrote his famous book The Consolation of Philosophy. In his book he makes an attempt to explore the changeable nature of destiny and understand what the reason of so changeable favor of monarch is. At the same time his work goes further than the reflections on his difficult destiny. Boethius explores universal moral and philosophical notions.

Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex also explores the themes of destiny, free will, human responsibility and chance. The main character of the play is Oedipus, the King of Thebes. He is admired by people and people believe in him as in God although he isn’t and they pray him to save the city from the plague:

You are not one of the immortal gods, we know;
Yet we have come to you to make our prayer
As to the man surest in mortal ways
And wisest in the ways of God (Sophocles).

Oedipus is intentional to solve this problem and to find the roots of the problem. In the end he gets to know that he has killed his father and is married to his own mother and the plague is a severe penalty for this. This is the main plot of the play and we can see that Oedipus’ fate is really very dramatic.

Sophocles uses these play in order to past universal questions, such as: Can we change our fate, are we free as humans or is everything predicted by the supernatural powers? There is no escaping fate, is it? Some people think that they can change their fate but may be that’s their real fate”¦ May be, we are just puppets on a string ruled by God or any other power. No one can answer this question. Are we strong another to accept all the misfortunes in our life?

Are we able to follow our own path or will we “close our eyes on bad things” and be “blind”? Oedipus Rex is devoted to all these universal questions and Sophocles tries to answer them.

From the very beginning of the play Oedipus feels that some higher power influences his life and his people. At first Oedipus tries not to think about this question, about his fate, he is “blind”. Oedipus doesn’t believe the oracle that he will kill his father and marry his own mother. He leaves his native town and doesn’t communicate with his relatives.

He becomes the king, people love him and everything is good but all in all there is no escaping from the fate ”“ everything happens as the oracle has predicted. When the true begins to reveal, Oedipus isn’t afraid, he wants to know the truth at all costs. It takes him a real courage to know the truth because he can predict what kind of truth it can be but he’s ready to accept the hurt and answer for the consequences. The only thing he has at the end of the play is his human dignity but that is the most important thing.

Knowing the truth Oedipus suffers very much, he is not a King any more and must leave his favorite city. The chorus describes terrible plague, which finally leads to the disclosure of Oedipus’s fatal past. “Wasted thus by death on death / All our city perisheth. / Corpses spread infection round; / None to tend or mourn is found. / Wailing on the altar stair / Wives and grandams rend the air – / Long-drawn moans and piercing cries / Blent with prayers and litanies” (Sophocles, 119). Oedipus makes a number of mistakes when he wants to avoid the oracle’s predictions: he leaves his native town, kills an aristocrat and marries an elder queen. “More generally, Sophocles goes out of his way to present Oedipus as an extremely capable, beloved administrator. Conspicuously, Sophocles never suggests that Oedipus has brought his destiny on himself by any “ungodly pride” or “tragic flaw” (McManus, 1999). Sophocles wants to show that not following the will of the oracle Oedipus does not follow his destination and this results in a tragedy. Oedipus is driven by the desire to uncover the truth about his birth by any means. His curiosity has bad consequences and finally destroys Oedipus. Sophocles does not reject the concept of free will completely. On the example of Oedipus we can see that he does things despite the predictions of the Oracle. From the others side Sophocles implies the concept of fate which can not be escaped. Despite we can see that Oedipus is completely destroyed by the end of the play, we can not say that he becomes a victim of the blind fate. It is necessary to take into account that Oedipus does a number of mistakes, which finally result in Oedipus final falling. Sophocles does not question the inevitability of fate, but he gives his character free choice whether to follow their own fates or not. In the case when the characters do not see sings and try to escape their fate, like it happens to Oedipus, they get a severe punishment. At the beginning of the play Oedipus is sure in the free nature of his actions. Very often individuals are not aware of their own fate and even in the rare cases when they are, they do not follow it.

 Boethius wrote a book, which conditioned many ideas of philosophy for several centuries. The Consolation of Philosophy is written in a form of a dialog with the Queen of Science of Lady Philosophy. This Lady gives Boethius her explanations of the reason of his misfortunes. She underlines the transitory nature of all material things and states that thoughts make the only “true good” thing. She defines happiness as some inner property, which can be neither gained nor lost with the help of external objects. As she states: “Why, then, O mortal men, do you seek that happiness outside, which lies within yourselves?” (Boethius, I, 13)

Boethius reflects on the nature of predestination and the role of free will in the personal destinity. Other important topics discussed in the book are reflections on the theme of good and evil, true human nature and definitions of virtue and justice.  Boethius contrasts free will to determination.

Boethius states that: “The coming-into-being of all things, and the entire course that changeable things take, derive their causes, their order, and their forms from the unchanging mind of God. The mind of God set down all the various rules by which all things are governed while still remaining unchanged in its own simplicity” (Beothius, Book IV, prose 6). So, all thing that exist in this changeable world derive from the mind of God and live according to his rules. Things which come to this world not always see God’s divine purpose and call his order a “Fate.” At the same time we call it pure and simple order “Providence” in order not to doubt the divine source of all things. Providence sets an original order of all things. As soon as this original order is established, Fate puts these things in motion.

Despite these two notions are different, they depend on each other and contribute to each other.

The Providence proves that everything exists at the same time. Thanks to the Providence God knows of all things, which happen, had happened or will happen in the future. In this way God knows all our actions in advance. In this case human creatures have no choice and all their actions are predetermined. At the same time Boethius does not reject an existence of free will completely. Different things happen by some extrinsic rule, which is the property of all things.  Boethius regards the problem of good and evil as relations between Divine Providence and human free will.

 He uses the notion of necessity in order to explain these types of relations. As he states: “In order to prove that foreknowledge can exist, we first need to prove that all things happen through necessity, since foreknowledge indicates such a necessity. If necessity did not govern things, then no foreknowledge could exist” (Book V, prose 4).

From the other side, he states that not all things that happen are determined by the necessity. The implementation of the notion of necessity assumes the absence of free will. At the same time Boethius states that there is a free will. He explains that not all things are determined by necessity. In some things people are free do decide how to act. God knows about all possible choices but does not interfere with them. “If you consider divine vision in this light, it follows that divine foreknowledge does not change the nature or the properties of individual things: it simply sees those things as present which we would regard as future” (Book V, prose 6). In this way God knows of all things happening, but he does not regard them as future or past events because he exists in one ultimate present. “God is like a spectator at a chariot race; He watches the action the charioteers perform, but this does not cause them” (Boethius, preface).

According to Sophocles everything is predetermined. His characters can not escape their fate and whatever they do, they are influenced by the will of whimsical gods, who decide their destinies and run their lives. Despite Boethius also states that there exists a predetermination, he also gives people a chance for free will. He states that God exists beyond time. Being eternal, God knows of all events, but he does not divide them into future, past and present. For him all things happen at the present moment, He does not know things “in advance” in our usual human understanding, he is just aware of all things during the entire eternity.

Leave a Reply