Monday 28 May 2012

Somewhere East of Eden

Are we free or are we simply the playthings of fate?  Can we ever be free or does or life follow a predetermined pattern?  Are we cause or are we effect?  The supposed conflict between free will and fate is a problem as old as philosophy itself.  It’s a problem that has engaged so many minds, those far greater than my own.  It’s a problem, it would be wise to conclude, that has no solution and will never have a solution, a sort of dialectical chicken and egg. 

But there is a third way of looking at the issue.  It seems to me that the age old problem of fate and free will is based on a wholly false dichotomy.  Free will is what we have in the immediacy of our circumstances; we have choices to make for good or ill which, in turn, impact on fate. 

Fate or karma, if you prefer, consists of the wider variables, the things that we cannot control, those things determined by the actions of God, of history and of other people.  But we are not marionettes; we do not perform an invariable dance.  Life, rather, is an unscripted play.  You and I and everyone else has a part, though it is not predetermined.  You are only a puppet if you think you are a puppet. 

Take the example of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, a brilliant dissertation on the interplay of fate and freewill.  Hamlet’s father has been murdered.  He has been chosen, by fate and by circumstances, as the instrument of vengeance.  But the whole tragedy then focuses on the tension between this fate and Hamlet’s doubts and uncertainties.  He fights against fate “O, cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.”  He even considers suicide as a way of avoiding fate – “To be or not to be.”  Contrast him with his erstwhile friend Laertes, a pure instrument of fate.  It is he who, in the end, propels Hamlet into action, a fusion of free will and fate in a given set of circumstances. 

Shakespeare is good on these issues but John Milton in some ways is even better.  There is God in Paradise Lost contemplating the fall of man, a perfect illustration of the clash between fate and freedom, and, it might be said, the limits of divine power;

So will fall
He and his faithless progeny. Whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate! He had of Me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.

There is God, angry at his own creation, angry that freedom means freedom, contemplating a Fall that has yet to happen!  Ah, free will, where would God be without it?  After all; it serves as a perfect alibi.  Yes we are free, free to struggle with fate, free to struggle with an allotted role, free to travel to the Land of Nod, somewhere east of Eden. It’s a perfect definition of the human condition itself.  I for one cannot think of any better.  


  1. Ana, fate may be character and the ability to overcome personal weakness. Nietzsche posited amor fati against eternal return while we inhabit dichotomies.

  2. Perhaps the universe is a machine for exploring every option.

  3. "I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act."

    GK Chesterton.

    1. I've really got to get round to tackling Chesterton soon, seriously, I mean.

  4. An unscripted play. Brilliant.

    You are as adept a philosopher as you are a historian., miss

    and btw - temporarily being a muse of the Anastasia is more than adequate payment for me. ;)

  5. In 1968 when I was very young, there was a world fair held here and the Czech exhibit was a film theater called "Keno Automat". The theaters featured film was a story line which would stopped at certain situations and the audience would vote via push button panels on the seats as to which actions the characters would take. In the end they would come to the same conclusions through different choices, interesting but fabricated. In life intelligent choices are best but the end result has a lot to do with what odds you are facing.

    1. That sounds absolutely fascinating. I must see if I can track it down.

  6. we can at best prolong that which is ultimately inevitable " Nothing Lasts Forever "

    1. ...dead men rise up never, and even the weariest river winds somewhere safe to sea.

  7. That was "Kinoautomat" I sent a Video on this on YT.

  8. We Hindus believe that the life that we are living is fruition of our good and bad karmas done in our previous lives. I find it hard to believe since the very idea of previous and future lives seems to be unrealistic. I believe that it is the lives of our ancestors or effects of the karmas done by them which give us our peculiar tendencies and our unique character. We inherit our fate from them. I know it does not explain everything but it certainly give us a clue in to the puzzle of fate and fate.

    1. Yogendra, my friend, that makes a lot of sense.

  9. You begin with some deep eternal question the Sufis and mystics have grappled with in time. I've probably mentioned this before but a man once came to Ali, the fourth Caliph of Prophet Muhammadand his cousin and son in-law asking whether we were the chess-pieces of Destiny or whether we were free to act as we willed. The Caliph asked the man to raise one leg and stand on the other and when the man did so the Caliph said 'This is your Tadbir' [volition]'. He then asked the man to lift his other leg and stand and when the man said he couldn't do that, the Caliph said 'This is Taqdir' [destiny]. Here is another Shakespeare quote on the subject:

    All the world's a stage,
    And all the men and women, meerely Players;
    They have their Exits and their Entrances,
    And one man in his time playes many parts,
    His Acts being seven ages. At first the Infant,
    Mewling, and puking in the Nurses armes:
    Then, the whining Schoole-boy with his Satchell
    And shining morning face, creeping like snaile
    Unwillingly to schoole. And then the Lover,
    Sighing like Furnace, with a wofull ballad
    Made to his Mistresse eye-brow. Then, a Soldier,
    Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the Pard,
    Jelous in honor, sodaine, and quicke in quarrell,
    Seeking the bubble Reputation
    Even in the Canons mouth: And then, the Justice
    In faire round belly, with good Capon lin'd,
    With eyes severe, and beard of formall cut,
    Full of wise sawes, and moderne instances,
    And so he playes his part. The sixt age shifts
    Into the leane and slipper'd Pantaloone,
    With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
    His youthfull hose well sav'd, a world too wide,
    For his shrunke shanke, and his bigge manly voice,
    Turning againe toward childish trebble pipes,
    And whistles in his sound. Last Scene of all,
    That ends this strange eventfull historie,
    Is second childishnesse, and meere oblivion,
    Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.

    (William Shakespeare. As You Like It).