Monday, December 15, 2014

Freedom from Fate Pt I: The Tragic Hero

The mythological Moira, or the three Fates of Greek Wisdom, were responsible for assigning to each man his destiny, the fixed course to which his life would follow. According to Plato, these were the daughters of Ananke, Necessity, the symbol par excellence of the orderliness of the cosmic order, and who maintained the laws that control our reality. This was the rigidity of their cosmological vision, something very logical and very just, but for those reasons also very harsh, unforgiving. Man struggled to find freedom in a world dictated purely by law and order, and where often those very ideals were undermined by the frequent occurrence of seemingly random or arbitrary events that worked to dispel the conviction of the world being lawful at all. Why should a good man suffer, they justly asked, and a bad man receive fortune? The following essay will seek to show in two parts how the best of the pagan world coped with this issue, but more importantly how the Christian world solved this issue, with particular respect paid to the questions of tragedy, fate, and free will.

'Adapt yourself to the things among which your lot has been cast and love sincerely the fellow creatures with whom destiny has ordained that you shall live' (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations).

Prior to the Gospels which triumphantly announced God's Incarnation in our presence, the civilized world was muddled and confused. Hints of Christ's coming manifested themselves in Hellenic philosophy, in Virgil, in Cicero, in the life of Caesar Augustus, but this happened as the spiritual climate was being seduced by superstitions and overrun by a sentimental hedonism masquerading as mystical cults. Without the universal belief in a transcendent benevolence that organized the higher principles of reality, there was a general distrust of the Classical deities, which were more often things to be placated or warded off than truly worshiped or loved. The same could be said for the multitude of Eastern creeds which were imported, most of which failing to survive more than a few generations. Whatever genuine initiatic practises these religions once possessed were degenerated and obsolete, leaving their adherents with a mystical shell that was completely hollow, completely empty of spiritual life.

There was moreover a growing and seemingly irreconcilable divide between Fate and Chance, a philosophical problem that exemplified the pagan frustrations in determining the role of the divine in the domains of men. Is it the will of the gods, they asked, that men should suffer so, or is it just the arbitrary cruelty of a fundamentally disorganized cosmos? Furthermore, it was undecided whether it was better to submit to divine will, it being of a superior nature, or whether to fight against it, since fate frequently revealed itself to be as capricious as the laws of a godless, atomized universe would be. By ascribing so much of our activity to the agency of fate and fortune, the ancients denied man a large part of his personal responsibility, his freedom - something happened either because it was destined to happen, or because it happened by chance, and not because man chose for it to happen. An interesting exception to this, the proto-Miltonian myth of Prometheus Bound, is a telling example of how the will of the gods is separate from the welfare of man, and how the defiance of a divine ruling, rather than being seen with contempt, becomes instead something heroic and tragic.

Fate was viewed with deathly reverence by the Graeco-Roman civilization, largely because it was
commonly equated with death. To 'meet your fate' more often than not meant to 'die with dignity'; to cowardly avoid death meant the surrender of one's honour, like Paris retreating before Menelaus to comfort himself in the arms of a woman. He chose lust over dignity, and, instead of dying in a duel, Paris was more ignominiously vanquished by the poison of an arrow. To the ancients, fate was something implacable, inexorable, something which you could not avert; you could either embrace it stoically and heroically, or you could run from it until it inevitably catches you, weeping and alone. Every man has an end, a fate, a death; what defined a man to posterity and possibly in the afterlife depended on how he responded to his fate, his response to what the gods had decreed.

Death was moreover classically perceived as a 'cleansing', as something that purifies ignoble conduct or the soul of a man tied to a terrible fate. If a man's life has left him with a permanent stain of wretchedness, the natural action, the only action that could yet salvage some fragment of his self-worth, would be suicide. This would lend to his story a satisfying pathos that shows those who would judge him that he at the very least realized the extent of his shame and did the right thing at the last, like a Samurai committing Seppuku upon the loss of his honour. Suicide therefore served as a willingness to meet the gods of judgment on his own terms, that they did not have to chase after him like a miserable thief. Such a man dies, and thereby helps the abrogation of his shame by the radical decision to terminate his life; he has already judged himself, making anyone else's judgment seem superfluous.

There is no clearer example of this than in Greek tragedy, where death is the natural consequence of just about anything, virtue or vice, but it is especially reserved for the expiation of guilt. In Sophocles's Oedipus Cycle, for instance, the twin themes of fate and death are horribly intertwined, the one intersecting with the other in a deviously symbiotic relationship. As the story goes, an oracle unveils the fate of Oedipus to his parents, that he will kill his father and marry his mother. They make an effort to kill him and preclude the prophecy from coming to pass, and live for a time in the belief that chance rules this world, not fate. That Oedipus survives, however, means that the entire prophecy becomes reality. Fate had ruled that these grievous errors must happen, and that their final consequence could only be death. Antigone in the third drama laments its invincibility: 'dreadful is the mysterious power of fate - there is no deliverance from it by wealth or by war, by towered city, or dark, sea-beaten ships'. The will of the cosmos, whether governed by gods or something less personal, was unchanging and cruel, immune to the tragedies and sorrows of its inhabitants, no matter how they pleaded for mercy.

It is for this reason significant to note how the major players of this play are rather the victims of fate than the autonomous causes of their own ruin. As with the sons of Atreus, the cursed house that stretched back to Tantalus, Laius dooms his own family by violating the sacred laws of hospitality in sodomizing the son of King Pelops, his host. His wife and children and his children's children are all made to pay for Laius's crime while they are, to varying degrees, innocent. In learning of his son's destiny, Laius orders his wife Jocasta to kill Oedipus, who reluctantly obeys, only to lack the will to do it herself, which of course leads to his survival. Oedipus himself is wholly ignorant of who he is, and is not morally culpable for the killing of his father, who provoked the incident, or for the incestuous relationship with his mother, of whose real nature he is unaware. Oedipus is made to pay not for his own sins, but for the sins of his father. While in Oedipus Rex he takes responsibility for what he has done, exiling himself in a frenzy of grief, in Oedipus at Colonus he is more reflective, and eschews his guilt by the argument that he had done what any man would have done with the knowledge he had: 'I slew who else would me have slain; I slew without intent, a wretch, but innocent in the law's eye I stand, without a stain'. Oedipus further rationalizes what he has done by the plea that no man in history has averted the course of fate, and seeks to thereby remove himself from personal responsibility for his actions.

His attempts, however, are ultimately ineffectual in cleansing his reputation in the public perception and in the eyes of the gods; the sins of patricide and incest are simply too powerful to slip off by his own cogitation, regardless of how much truth there might be in it. There needs to be penance paid for what he has done, at least in the pagan understanding of 'penance', especially if Oedipus honestly seeks absolution for forgiveness from posterity as well as the end of his family's suffering for Laius's crime. His exile from Thebes and the sufferings that accompanied it accounts for some of this, but only his death could possibly atone for his wretched life; dying would moreover be a boon to whichever city he was buried in, assuring it a divine protection. This represents the pagan philosophy par excellence, or at least the one in which the wisest action consists in submitting to fate, corresponding to one's destiny, kneeling to the gods who rule. Fate's final favour to Oedipus, providing he performs the sacred rituals and offers his life to Zeus's tempest that signals his time to die, is to convert the terrible ignominy of his life into a sacrificial heroism that shines all the more brilliantly for his tragic destiny. Oedipus's end is illustrative of this redemption: 'there fell no fiery bold that reft him in that hour, Nor whirlwind from the sea, but he was taken. It was a messenger from heaven, or else some gentle, painless cleaving of earth's base; For without wailing or disease or pain He passed away - an end most marvelous'. Like the ascension of a Biblical prophet, Oedipus departs this world in a passage of mystery and salving light.

The Oedipus Cycle serves as an exemplary instance of Classical fatalism. First of all, it is clear that Sophocles swiftly disposes of the notion that chance dictates the course of reality; Jocasta desperately holds on to this belief, but more out of her desire to delude herself, to avoid the consequences of what has transpired. The fact that she pleads with her husband/son to forsake his search for the truth corroborates this claim: Jocasta becomes increasingly aware that that the oracle's prophecy is coming true and, out of her inability to face reality, clings to the futile hope that chance overrules destiny. When this fantasy is shattered, when the tyrannical arm of fate shows itself to be the sole authority, Jocasta has nowhere to flee - except into the empty haven of death. According to Sophocles, the failure to recognize the role that fate plays in our lives only contributes to the crushing pain that must eventually arrive; whatever illusions we create to comfort us instead become our enemies when we collide with objective fact.

More importantly, Sophocles constructs a fatalistic dynamic in which the question is raised whether man has any choice whatsoever in the determination of his fate - Oedipus becomes aware of his prophecy and yet, in spite of the radical decisions he makes to prevent it from happening, unwittingly fulfills it. This initially encourages the conviction that we do not have any freedom at all, but subsequently, in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus finally realizes that only death can be the payment for his life - this is a conscious choice he has made, but it is in accordance with his fate, and he is redeemed for it. Our freedom consists in according with fate. Whereas in the first drama Oedipus quite naturally did his utmost to change his destiny, and failed miserably, in the second he succumbed to it, and succeeded beautifully. This is how he becomes the paragon of Aristotle's tragic hero: the harsh circumstances that defined the crucial period of his life were unavoidable, and represented the cruelty that is often imposed on seemingly innocent human beings through the misfortunes of life; by accepting the necessity and even the blessing of his dying, Oedipus met his fate manfully and heroically. Ignorance led him to disastrous consequences, but enlightenment enabled Oedipus to see the path he needed to take, and took it.

When Christ was crucified and rose again two things happened: (1) Death was conquered, and, no longer having dominion over the possession of souls, was made into a servant of life, not something to be feared but understood as the natural conclusion of this life and the gateway to the next; and (2) the ally of Death, Sin, was overthrown, its authority in the world of men was no longer absolute. Christ descended into hell, but death has no power over the deathless, and it could not receive him. Sin likewise cannot afflict one who does not willfully give into its temptation, and it too was forced away. In his sacrifice upon the cross, Christ freed man from the totalitarian bonds of Death and Sin, and ensured that he shall have the liberty to join him in Paradise. The fallen Adam caused man to slip into the shackles of the serpent; the risen Christ broke the chains and crushed the serpent:

'I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman [St. Mary],
and between your seed and her seed [Christ];
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.' (Genesis 3:15)

For all of the proto-Christian elements that peek out of Grecian arts, philosophy, and religion, the fact remains that the Athenian dramas were still fundamentally pagan, an admirable but inseparable part of the Classical epoch. The Aristotelian ideal, for example, that claims how the hero of any which tragedy should be innocent might accord with the Book of Job, in which God's most faithful servant is tested in the most crippling ways, but that accordance ends in the aftermath of the Incarnation and the introduction of the New Testament. Jesus Christ fulfilled what both Plato and Aristotle proclaimed: he was the perfectly just, blameless man who was executed for the crimes of others. He is perfect Love, perfect Justice. He is the ultimate tragic hero, surpassing Prometheus, Orpheus, and Oedipus, who showed glimpses of the coming Messiah but never his wholeness. Christ simultaneously completed and made obsolete the Classical idea of the Classical hero: 'The Gospels are the last and most marvelous expression of Greek genius, as the Iliad is its first expression' (Simone Weil). From the New Testament emerged the blueprint for Christian idea of the suffering hero, the man who suffers not because he is innocent, but because he is guilty.

The Christian tradition formulated the doctrine of Original Sin, which explained that men are fallen creatures, isolated from a state of grace but innately yearning to return to it: 'Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men for all men have sinned' (Romans 5:12). As Adam brought sin and therefore death into the world, so Christ, in eschewing sin and therefore destroying death, is able to offer us eternal life. He achieved this by suffering, by the purely selfless act of sacrificing himself for the errors of someone else; even though he was himself without sin, Christ accepted the burden of humanity and died for it. The stench of sin persists so long as we are immortal beings dwelling in a mortal world, defining us into conflicted, struggling, adversarial creatures, but spiritually there is now a certain freedom, one that consists in the awareness of one's own sin and the potential to transcend it. The old fear of death has been converted into a hope for life.

While Christ represents the extraordinary reality of being at once God and Man, and therefore not subject to the sin that adheres to the fallen part of our nature, his story nevertheless provides the template for the post-pagan 'suffering hero'. Christ may not have possessed our sin, but he was most assuredly human, and was thereby able to show sinful man the path to absolution and redemption: through a violently submissive meekness, through a painful contrition for our wrongs. The ugliness of our selfhood must be submerged into selflessness; the self must kneel before the Other. This cannot be something predetermined, something dictated by the forces of fate or the caprice of chance, but a conscious choice to make one decision and not another; if Christ fell in the desert or succumbed in Gethsemane the selfhood would remain intact and death undefeated. But Christ did not fall; he yielded his will to the will of God, and that is the freest, most powerfully independent choice possible. This is what Sophocles inherently understood when Oedipus and finally blameless Antigone died to this world in accordance with the will of God, but which was not fully recognized until Christ performed his work, until Christ lived the tragedy himself.

'I cannot of myself do any thing. As I hear, so I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not my own will, but the will of him that sent me' (John 5:30).

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