Study Guide

The Eumenides Fate and Free Will

By Aeschylus

Fate and Free Will

(Prophetess): "Next, with invocations to Pleistus' waters, to mighty Poseidon and to Zeus most high, the fulfiller, I go to take my seat on the throne as prophetess. And now I wish they may grant me better success by far than at my entrances before. If there are any here from among the Greeks, let them come as the lot assigns them, in the normal way; for I give my prophecies as the god may lead me." (27-33)

In these words, the Prophetess reveals that her prophecies are in accordance with the will of the god. Does this mean that she gives information about what is fated? If so, do people have free will in choosing to obey, or disobey, her?

(Apollo): "The fact is, I did persuade you to kill your own mother! Remember that; do not let fear overcome your mind." (84, 88; in some editions and translations of the play, these two lines are separated by Orestes's words at 85-87; in the Collard translation we use, however, they're brought together.)

Here, Apollo reminds Orestes that he "persuaded" Orestes to kill his own mother. What does this statement say about Orestes's free will in the matter? How would this be different if, instead of "persuade," Apollo had used a word like "instructed" or "suggested"?

(Chorus of Furies): "A prophet with pollution sitting at his hearth,

he tainted its inmost place at his own urge, at his own call;

his honour of men against the gods' law

has also destroyed the Fates so ancient in birth." (169-172)

Now things are getting complicated. The Chorus of Furies is talking about somebody who has "destroyed the Fates" (172). But how the heck can you do that? Well, it helps if you're a god—and it just so happens that the Furies are talking about the god Apollo, giving him a hard time because he welcomed "pollution" (i.e. Orestes) into his temple (169). If gods can act against the Fates, does that mean that ordinary mortals can too?

(Chorus of Furies): "Lord Apollo, hear me in my turn. You are yourself no mere accomplice in these things, but you have been the single agent completely, as taking the whole responsibility."

(Apollo): "How so then? Extend your speech that far in length."

(Chorus of Furies): "Was it your oracle's injunction for the stranger to kill his mother?"

(Apollo): "It was my oracle's injunction to bring vengeance for his father. Of course!"

(Chorus of Furies): "And then did you promise to give refuge to the murderer with the blood still fresh on him?"

(Apollo): "It was also my order to turn to this temple in supplication." (198-205)

Here, the Furies take Apollo to task for helping Orestes in his revenge plot. Or, rather, instead of helping him, they think he has "been the single agent completely, as taking the whole responsibility" (199). If that's so, then it sounds like Orestes didn't have any free will when he killed his mother. But then why are the Furies hounding him so much? Is it just because Apollo is too strong, and they want to pick on somebody smaller than their own size? (This sounds convincing to us.) Or do the Furies simply not care whether Orestes acted freely or not? Is their attitude simply "You did the crime, you do the time"?

(Chorus of Furies): "This role was allotted, spun off

by Fate in a piercing blow, for us to possess securely:

mortal men whose own wanton acts cleave fast to them,

these are ours to accompany until each comes down below the earth;

and after death he is not too free." (334-340)

Here the Furies offer an interesting new perspective on the idea of free will. They show how the free will of people later in life becomes limited by the actions they committed earlier in life, which then "cleave fast to them." Now, if anyone warns you against "closing doors on yourself," you can tell them that they are hounding you like the Furies. Still, just because they're the Furies doesn't mean they don't have a point, right?

(Athena): "Is it flight like that with which you howl and harry this man?"

(Chorus of Furies): "Yes; he saw fit to shed his mother's blood."

(Athena): "When no necessity overcame him, or did he fear someone's rancor?"

(Chorus of Furies): "What can be great enough to goad a man into killing his mother?" (424-427)

Even in modern courts of law, "necessity" is a standard criminal defense (426). For example, if you were charged with burglary because you had to break into a pharmacy after hours to get medication to save someone's life, you could claim that you were acting out of necessity, instead of free will. Compare Athena's views here with those of the Furies from the previous section. Is it just a coincidence that Athena's matches up more closely with modern notions of responsibility?

(Orestes): "And when I came back home myself, an exile for the time before, I killed the mother who bore me. I shall not deny it, in retribution for the killing of my dearest father. For this, Loxias shares a common responsibility, for he warned me of pains to pierce my heart like goads if I should take none of this action against the guilty ones. But whether I acted justly or not, it is you who must decide the case; for however I come out of it, I shall accept your decision." (462-469)

Here, Orestes says that he isn't responsible for killing his mother because Apollo threatened him with a ton of bad things if he didn't do it. Is this the same as saying that Orestes acted without free will? In any case, does the question of free will versus fate have anything to do with whether an action is just or not?

(Apollo): "I have come both to give evidence—for this man is legally a suppliant and refugee at my hearth, and I am his purifier from bloodshed—and to support his case myself. I am responsible for the killing of his mother." (576-580)

Now, typically, Apollo, if you take responsibility for somebody killing somebody else, that means that you have to suffer some punishment as a result. But that doesn't seem to be happening in this case. In the next quotation, Apollo says that he only prophesies what Zeus tells him to. Does that mean that Apollo thinks that neither he nor Orestes was acting with free will, and that they're both off the hook?

(Apollo) (to the jurors): "I shall say to you, who are here by Athena's great ordinance, that [the blood of Clytemnestra] was shed justly; and as prophet I shall not lie. I never yet said at my prophetic throne, not about man, not about woman, not about city, except what Zeus the Olympian Father might command. I tell you plainly: understand how strong this just plea is, and heed the Father's will; an oath is in no way stronger than Zeus." (614-621)

Here we see how adept Apollo is at passing the buck. It looks like he's saying that he can't be blamed because he just carries out Zeus's will, and since Zeus is the king of the gods, that's pretty much like saying he doesn't have any free will, right?

Well, not exactly: notice that Apollo says that he prophesies the sorts of things that Zeus "might" command. So… is Apollo really just sitting around scratching his head, trying to figure out what Zeus might say?

(Chorus of Furies) (to the jurors): "Our company here is very heavy for the land! I advise that you do it no dishonour in any way."

(Apollo) (also to the jurors): "I too command you, to go in dread of my own and Zeus' oracles, and not to render them fruitless." (711-714)

Aha! Just when you thought you had this fate and free will business all figured out and were ready to go have some dinner… Aeschylus sends some trouble your way. Look at what Apollo says at the very end of this quotation here: respect my oracles and the oracles of Zeus, and don't "render them fruitless" (714).

But wait a second: if oracles are predictions about the future, and hence of what is fated, how would it even be possible for somebody to invalidate them by acting against them? Notice that Apollo isn't even talking to gods here: he's talking to the mortal jurors. Does this mean that the free will of mortals can overcome Fate? Yikes.