Study Guide

Agamemnon Fate and Free Will

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Fate and Free Will

(Chorus): "Things are now as they are;
they will be fulfilled in what is fated;
neither burnt sacrifice nor libation
of offerings without fire
will soothe intense anger away." (67-71)

Well, of course "things are now as they are." Thanks, Chorus, way to blow our minds. Oh, wait, there's more here: sacrifices won't work. What's the connection between these ideas? The connection is the idea of Fate. Basically, when the Chorus says "things are now as they are," they mean that they are the way they were fated to be, and there is no way of changing that; no prayers to the gods will help. In this context, the Chorus is actually talking about the past; when they say "now," they mean, after the Greeks sailed off to fight the Trojans. Is what they say limited to that context, or does Aeschylus portray it as holding true at all times in the universe of his play?

(Chorus): "[Calchas] spoke,
interpreting the portent so: 'In time
our advance captures Priam's city,
and Fate before its walls will sack
its teeming herds of people, all of them there, in violence;
only let no jealousy from god
bring darkness on Troy's great bridle-bit
if that is stricken first, now it goes
on campaign! Pity makes holy Artemis
grudge her father's winged hounds
the wretched hare, unborn litter and all, their sacrifice;
she loathes the eagles' meal.'" (126-137)

Here, the Chorus repeats what Calchas, the Greek soothsayer, said after seeing two eagles ripping up a pregnant hare. He interpreted this as a sign from the gods that Agamemnon and Menelaus would successfully capture Troy. At the same time, however, Calchas is a bit uncertain about the future, and worried that the goddess Artemis will give them some trouble. He even wishes that the gods' jealousy won't harm them. If Calchas thinks that the expedition is driven along by Fate, what's the point of wishing that things will turn out OK? Can Fate be changed? To answer this question, you'll have to think about all the other descriptions of Fate in the play, and see what picture emerges from their sum total.

(Chorus): "[Agamemnon] spoke, declaring
'Fate will be heavy if I do not obey, heavy as well
if I hew my child, my house's own darling,
polluting her father's hands
with slaughter streaming from a maiden
at the altar: what is there without evil here?
How can I desert the fleet
and fail the alliance?
Why, this sacrifice to stop the wind,
a maiden's blood,
is their most passionate desire;
but Right forbids it. So may all be well!'" (205-217)

Here, it looks like Agamemnon faces a classic situation of "Damned if you do, damned if you don't." On the one hand, if he doesn't sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to secure good winds for the fleet, he will be letting everybody down. On the other hand, if he does sacrifice his daughter, then he will, you know…sacrifice his daughter. Agamemnon says that "Fate will be heavy" either way; is it fair to describe this as an issue of Fate? Does Agamemnon have a free choice in this matter?

(Chorus): "When [Agamemnon] put on the yoke-strap of compulsion,
his mind's wind veering round to the unholy,
the impious, the impure, from then
his purpose changed to hard audacity;
for men get overbold from the cruel derangement
and its ugly schemes that begin their affliction.
So he was hard enough to sacrifice
his daughter, in aid of a war
to punish a woman
and as first-rites for the fleet to sail." (218-227)

The opening words of this passage could also be translated as, "When [Agamemnon] put on the yoke-strap [or, simply, "yoke"] of necessity." The metaphor comes from ploughing; the basic idea is that Agamemnon is submitting to something that compels or constrains or forces him into a certain course of action. (It's pretty easy to see how this is related to the concept of "necessity"; if something is necessary, then it probably compels or constrains or forces you in a certain way, right?) So, once Agamemnon has put on this yoke, he can no longer act freely. But is he free in putting on the yoke? What does it mean if you freely choose to give up your freedom? Find yourself scratching your head? Don't worry, that's just what Aeschylus wants you to do. This is just one of many passages in Aeschylus's play that open up a lifetime's worth of questions, and lead to many sleepless nights.

(Chorus): "Justice gleams in houses foul with smoke,
doing honour to the righteous life;
but gold-bespangled mansions where hands are unclean
she leaves with her eyes turned away,
and approaches those which are pure,
with no respect for riches and their power
when falsely stamped with praise;
she directs all things to their ending." (772-781)

Don't worry if you find this passage, spoken by the Chorus, a little tricky to understand. The most difficult idea is that "Justice" here doesn't just refer to something abstract; instead, the Chorus imagines Justice as a goddess, who leaves houses that are sinful and seeks out houses that are pure. With this in mind, you can probably see how this makes the issue of fate and free will a bit complicated. Think about it: Atreus killed his brother Thyestes's children; this made his house "unclean." Because his house was unclean, Justice left; because Justice left, Agamemnon acts in unjust ways. But if Agamemnon acts in unjust ways because his father drove out Justice, how is he responsible for his actions?

(Agamemnon): First I address Argos and the land's gods: it is my duty to these accessories in my return and in the justice I exacted from the city of Priam. The gods heard a case without speeches, which brought men death; they cast their votes for Ilion's destruction into the bloody urn without division; the opposed vessel had Hope approach it, but no hand began filling it. The city was taken; its smoke even now makes it a clear mark; the storms of Ruin live on; the ash of its dying sends out rich puffs of wealth. For this the gods should be paid very mindful thanks, since we punished an arrogant robbery, and it was for a woman that Troy was ground into dust by the Argives' beast of destruction – the offspring of the horse, shield-bearers in a body, launching their leap at the Pleiades' setting. (810-825)

These are the first words spoken by Agamemnon after he gets back to Argos; in them, he emphasizes that it was the gods who crushed Troy when they voted for "Ilion's destruction." (Ilion is just a different name for Troy.) But he also says that he is carrying out a duty in thanking the gods. Let's try to think this through. A duty is something you're supposed to do, but you have to choose to do it, right? (That is, you don't just automatically find yourself doing it, like breathing or blinking, do you?) But how can Agamemnon think he is acting with free will by praising the gods, yet also say that he was carrying out the will of the gods when he made war on Troy? Is he contradicting himself? We actually don't think these two ideas have to contradict each other, but we don't need to go into that right now. A more basic point is that the Greeks didn't see fate and free will as necessarily opposed. As an earlier Greek poem, Homer's Iliad, makes clear, even if something was fated to happen, people and gods still had some leeway over how it would happen. Could this idea be relevant to some of the tricky passages in Aeschylus's Agamemnon?

(Chorus): "Were not one man's status in life
set by heaven, preventing
another's from greater advance,
my heart would have anticipated
my tongue in pouring this out;
but now it grumbles
in the darkness, with my spirit grieving and not hopeful
ever of winding all to its end
effectively; my mind is ablaze." (1025-1033)

This passage, like so many in Aeschylus's play, is a little tricky to understand. The basic idea is that they would say something to warn Agamemnon that Clytemnestra isn't all she appears to be, but their low social status prevents them. But they go a little bit further: they also say that people's social status is determined by the gods, or, as they put it "set by heaven." So, they make a question of social status into a question of free will. Do you think that the Chorus really believes that its social position is determined from above, or are they just using that as an excuse for not doing anything?

(Cassandra): "And it's all the same if nothing of mine persuades you, of course: the future will come; and you will soon be at my side to pity and call me too true a prophet."
(Chorus): "I understood Thyestes' feast upon his children's flesh, and shuddered, and fear possesses me now I have heard things that truly are no images; but when I listen to the rest, I stumble and run off track."
(Cassandra): "I say that you will look upon the death of Agamemnon."
(Chorus): "Still your tongue, you wretched woman! Say nothing inauspicious!" (1239-1247)

Cassandra's opening words could be interpreted as implying that we don't have any free will. If so, they could be rephrased like this: "I'm going to try to persuade you, but even if I don't persuade you, it won't matter, because whatever is fated to happen will happen anyway." But do they have to be interpreted that way? After all, even if you do believe in free will, it still makes perfect sense to say "the future will come," right? Just being able to predict what will happen doesn't necessarily mean we don't have freedom, does it? It looks like Cassandra's words are actually ambiguous; we'll need more information from elsewhere in the play to figure out whether she believes in free will or not. The Chorus's words at the end are also ambiguous; when they tell her not to say anything "inauspicious" (unlucky), that implies some belief in free will (because they want her to choose not to say anything unlucky); but things are unlucky if they inspire the gods to meddle in human affairs. If the gods meddle in human affairs, doesn't that place a limit on humans' freedom to choose? This short exchange looks like another Aeschylean brain teaser.

(Chorus): "And so to this man here the blessed gods granted the taking of Priam's city,
and he has come home with the gods' honour;
but now if he is to pay for the blood of those before,
and by his death to ordain vengeance
for the dead in other deaths,
who of mortal men, when he hears this,
would boast of birth to a destiny without harm?" (1335-1341)

The Chorus speaks these words just before they hear the death-cries of Agamemnon from inside the palace. But clearly they have taken some of the hint from Cassandra's prophecy. Here, the Chorus's basic idea is "what goes around comes around." The gods let Agamemnon capture Troy (Priam is the king of Troy), but now the time is come for him to pay the price for "other deaths." But which deaths are they talking about? It can't just be Iphigenia, or they would have said "death" not "deaths," right? So they must mean the deaths of the children of Thyestes, who were killed by Agamemnon's father, Atreus. But Agamemnon wasn't responsible for those deaths. What does the Chorus's statement here say about fate and free will? How do their words relate to one of Agamemnon's other main themes, that of "Justice and Judgment"?

(Chorus to Clytemnestra): "Great indeed and heavy in its anger
for this house is the demon you praise –
no! no! it is wrong, this praising is wicked – insatiable for ruin's success –
oh, grief indeed! – through Zeus
the all-causing, the all-doing.
For what is fulfilled for mortals without Zeus?
What is there in things here which god has not ordained?" (1481-1488)

Here, the Chorus is arguing against Clytemnestra's excuse for killing Agamemnon and Cassandra: "A demon made me do it." The Chorus says that Zeus is the cause of everything. But if this is true, that would mean that Zeus is the cause of the killing. Can the Chorus really mean this? If they do, why do they keep blaming her? Are they simply confused?

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