ENG214 Topics in World Literature: Ancient to Medieval
Prof. E. Joy
Sample Student Essay (Critical Essay 1):
Fate Is Simply Free Will Driven by Ego
The themes of fate and free will permeate the Iliad from the opening sentence through the end of the epic poem. That death is an unavoidable part of human existence is made clear from the outset, when the narrator speaks of “Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous” (I.2). His anger is doomed because it is a characteristic of the man, and the man is doomed – such is “the will of Zeus” (I.6). Apart from choosing immortality, however, the Iliad makes clear that humans have free will in all other regards. The timing of the death that each will suffer, even the type of death, clearly is not predetermined and indeed can be affected by the exercise of free will. Of course, the exercise of free will often is heavily and frequently influenced by other factors, from individual ego to the whims of the gods to social constructs, such as honor. Even the gods exercise their share of free will, also quite often under the influence of their own social constructs, which mostly revolve around Zeus and his ultimate power. Humans, however, do have free will, and can shorten or lengthen their lives or those around them through their exercise of free will. Humans are only burdened by fate or ultimate destiny in one regard – they will in fact die. Otherwise, all of the choices they make between birth and death they are free to make. This free will is indeed free. It is not a sham gift given to man, with an omniscient god knowing what choices will be made before they are made. As will be shown through a close reading of the Iliad, the gods often react to developments, ponder choices of their own and in some instances are not aware of developments on Earth. All together, this demonstrates that free will does exist and that the only fate humans bear is that they are doomed to die at a point which is not predetermined.
The first example of human use of free will and how it can affect the timing of death takes place early on. Agamémnon has taken the daughter of the priest Khrysês, angering Apollo. The god launches “a burning wind of plague rise in the army: rank and file sickened and died for the ill their chief had done” (I.12-14). This passage illustrates aspects of both the free-will issue and of fate. Of the latter, it can logically be assumed that had Agamémnon not taken the woman or otherwise angered Apollo, there would not have been a plague and most if not all of the men who died would have lived longer. This shows that while death may not ultimately be avoided, it can be hastened. If death can be hastened, it logically follows that death can be delayed, showing that its occurrence is not set beforehand. Of free will, this passage shows that Agamémnon made a choice. It can logically be assumed that a general of Agamémnon’s experience knew his choice would have consequences. He might not have been able to forecast a plague, but in this society, with its rampant fears of angering the gods, he must have known to expect negative consequences. He made his choice despite the threat. That is free will.
Even the gods acknowledge the existence of free will among men. As Akhilleus begins to unsheathe his sword during his argument with Agamémnon, Athêna appears, on a mission to change the course of events. “It was to check this killing rage I came from Heaven, if you will listen,” Athêna says (I.234-35, my emphasis). By employing the conditional if, Athêna makes clear the choice is not in the hands of gods, but of a man. Akhilleus – and only Akhilleus – must choose. Yes, the gods can choose to influence or react to his choice, and indeed this possibility influences his choice – but it is in fact his to make. Akhilleus, a human, is aware of his free will, and that his choices can and often do draw or forestall response from the gods. “Honor the gods’ will,” he says in response to Athêna, “and they may honor ours.”
The existence and exercise of free will, however, is not limited to mortals. Its employment among the ethereal is best seen in Book I, when Thetis asks Zeus to intervene in the war on behalf of Akhilleus, and in an exchange between Zeus and Hêra immediately after Thetis departs. Zeus tells Thetis he must think about her request, bidding her to “trust me to put my mind on this” (I.600-1). That he must think before making a decision clearly shows he has a choice, and when he chooses, he will exercise his free will. Hêra enters and asks Zeus to choose to share what transpired with Thetis. When Zeus declines, and accuses Hêra of harrying him in one of the most entertaining passages in the poem, Hêra retorts that Zeus, the bearer of free will, is “quite free to tell what you will” (I.635).
The existence of free will is clearly established in the poem, and many of the characters make clear that free will is connected to destiny. The best display of the interconnectedness of free will and the lack of a predetermined date on each man’s death comes in Book IX, when Akhilleus rejects the emissaries of Agamémnon. Thetis, his mother, has told him “of two possible destinies” carrying him toward death (IX.500). He can fight in Troy and gain honor but die young, or he can return home to a long life with no glory. The choice clearly is his. Has Akhilleus been fated to choose short life? A logical reading of the poem suggests that the anger of Apollo and his plague of arrows could have been avoided, saving many lives. A logical reading of the poem suggests that Athêna would not ask Akhilleus to stay his hand if the decision had already been taken. A logical reading of the poem would also conclude that either Zeus means what he says when he tells Thetis he must think before choosing, or that everything is scripted and all – even the most powerful Zeus, are only going through the motions. With Hêra harrying Zeus so much, it is doubtful he would stick to the script.
Perhaps the best explanation in the Iliad of why the malleability of free will was seen as fate comes while Akhilleus laments the loss of Patróklos. “Zeus will not fulfill what men design, not all of it,” the great runner says (XVIII.383-84, my emphasis). Again, it can and should be logically assumed by reading “not all of it” that some of what men design is indeed fulfilled. Whether fulfillment is granted depends largely on the choices made by humans equipped with free will. Next, Akhilleus says he and Patróklos “were destined to stain the same red earth here at Troy (XVIII.384-85). Akhilleus already has stated he could return home and live a long life. Yet he also is obsessed with glory. The tagging of desire with the label of fate merely is the rationalizing of a man who earlier threw a tantrum and let many men die, including his close friend Patróklos, when a man of true courage would have chosen another way.
Book IX also illustrates the complexity of the web in which the men of the Iliad exercise free will. Akhilleus is aware that “No riches can compare with being alive” (IX.490). But he also is aware that honor and glory are not riches, and indeed cannot be bought. It is also clear, before he says so, that he already has chosen glory over long life. Much as Hektor vacillates in front of Troy’s gates with the mighty Akhilleus bearing down on him, and prefers the threat of death to the surety of shame if he flees, Akhilleus prefers the invaluable intangible of glory over long life. In both cases, the warriors diagnose their woes as fate when in fact the culprit was free will steered by the evil of unchecked and irrational ego.
Homer. The Iliad. In The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Book 1. Ed. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 288-420. Print.