By Horus Alas
Shortly after his first encounter with his father’s ghost, the astonished Prince of Denmark says to his best friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (“Hamlet” I.5.168-169.) What ensues is one of the most profound, reverberating meditations on being and volition to have been written in the western world.
“Hamlet” of course wasn’t the first work of drama to study these central themes of human existence. Sophocles’ “Antigone,” a production of which one of my colleagues adroitly reviewed this week, analyzes the bends and scope of justice while questioning whether humans can escape their fate.
The characters in both works see themselves thrust into circumstances far greater than themselves as individuals. Prince Hamlet sees an obligation to avenge his father’s murder at the expense of his own life, while Antigone exercises her autonomous will in burying her brother Polynices at detriment to herself and those around her.
In nearly every instance of our own day-to-day lives, we can observe a tension between things which seem within our control, and those which are clearly beyond it.
Will you arrive on time to your 3:00 doctor’s appointment?
If you leave home early enough, maybe. But perhaps en route, you’ll encounter heavy traffic, or your car will break down unexpectedly. Those latter possibilities aren’t really things you might be expected to control—so are you fated to be late to your appointment?
Philosophers and writers have long debated whether our lives are chiefly governed by ourselves, or by abstract, external forces outside our control.
Should we take Glaucus at face value when he tells Diomedes in the “Iliad,” “As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity. The wind scatters the leaves on the ground… so one generation of men will grow while another dies” (“Iliad.” VI.146-150. Trans. Richard Lattimore.)?
Or, as Cassius tells Brutus in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” is “the fault… not in our stars, but in ourselves” (“Julius Caesar.” I.2.6.)?
Earlier today, I sat at a hotel bar on Columbia Road NW working on this essay. There were things I could have been doing for my job at the time, sure. But I’d already blown my deadline, and I had specifically chosen to write about this topic for The Writer’s Bloc this week.
Upon examination, my situation seemed saturated with choices, and I was deliberately choosing one thing over another throughout.
I chose to work on this essay rather than do menial work for my day job. I chose to not have this piece finished by its deadline yesterday. I chose to write about whether or not humans have free will, having pitched it at our Sunday meeting.
Did anyone other than me execute any of my actions?
Of course not. It seems like all I was doing in this particular situation was exercising my free will and deliberative choice.
At the same time, however, the very beginning of this apparent sequence of free choices was altogether out of my control.
I didn’t control my arrival into this world. I didn’t choose to emerge here, nor to which family, nor under what kind of circumstances, nor could I control things like my sex, skin color, eventual height, intelligence, etc.
The compendium of factors that determined who I was at birth underwent a natural progression in the course of my life. Had any of those initial attributes been different, I probably would have turned into an altogether different person today. If I’d been born in Paris to Algerian immigrants, for example, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.
By and large, the same potential ethical framework applies to all human beings. Yes, we do have choices. Yes, we are capable of rational thinking, and hence, of thinking through each of our actions before executing them.
But the essential foundations of who we are as individuals are completely out of our hands. You might want to be rich, and being rich would most likely make you a different sort of person, but perhaps you didn’t have the good fortune to be born into a rich family. (Unless you did, in which case, congratulations.)
My response to the original problem discussed here is called compatibilism, and was originally put forth by Enlightenment philosophers Thomas Hobbes and David Hume. Compatibilism acknowledges that human beings do have free will, and are free to act according to their deliberations. But the circumstances that lead to the choices presented to them are largely out of their control.
In response to this question that plagued Hamlet, Antigone, and so many others, I’ve chosen a solution that fits with my ideas and firsthand observations. But just as there are other people, there are other possible solutions. Each individual presents their own microcosm of choice and possibility.
Each of us is a possible world, with its particular laws and structure contingent upon no one but ourselves.
… Or maybe not.
Featured Photo Credit: Featured photo courtesy of Flickr user Akash Kataruka.
Horus Alas is a freelance writer and can be reached at email@example.com.