OedipusThe miserable King Oedipus of Thebes and his woeful story is a rather significant thought experiment for those of us struggling with this “fate or free will” problem.

Known primarily through the ancient plays of the Athenian, Sophocles, Oedipus is a mythical Greek King
who, despite his attempts to avoid it, is destined to kill his father, marry his mother, and bring disaster and shame upon himself and his city. A classic Greek tale, the story of Oedipus deals with the themes of fate, moral ambiguity, and the miseralbe outcomes that sometimes faces those who oppose their destiny.

We will return to Oedipus momentarily. For now, let us transition to Aristotle and his concise examination of fatalism in the text De Interpretatione.


At first glance, we might think that Aristotle’s De Interpretation, also known as On Interpretation, deals primarily with the philosophy of language.
How does language relate to the truth of an idea? Can an idea exist if there is no word that represents it? Are words arbitrarily created or do they have any significant relationship to the idea or object which it is meant to represent?

These types of questions are considered by Aristotle early within the text. And while this all is rather interesting, we will only briefly discuss Aristotle’s ideas on words, sentences and their relation to truth.

Suffice it to say that Aristotle tells us that spoken sounds are symbols of affections in the soul. They represent some idea, place, or thing. Written words represent spoken sounds and similarly are symbols of ideas, places or things. While spoken and written language may differ dramatically, the ideas which they represent do not change. A chair is a chair no matter the language we may use to describe it. Socrates is still Socrates whether his name is written in english or ancient Greek.

More importantly for us, Aristotle continues by telling us that every statement is, out of necessity, either true or false. This seems agreeable and fairly obvious. Believe it or not, the acceptance of this simple rule is the root of much of the concern regarding our “free will vs. fate” debate.

You see, a certain problem arises when we apply this rule to statements of events that will occur in the future. Consider the following statements:


Statement 1: X will occur

Statement 2: X will not occur

According to our previous rule, one of these statements must be true and the other one must be false. For the sake of argument, let us say that 1 is true and 2 is false. That means that the statement “X will occur” is true. More precisely, statement 1 was ALWAYS true, even before X actually occurred.

A curious thing happens then. If statement 1 was always true, then X was always going to occur. But if X was always going to occur then it is impossible for X not to have occurred. This means that X could not have not occurred. That which cannot not occur must necessarily occur. And so we see that X occurred out of necessity and not because of chance, luck, or human decision.

“…If it was always true to say that it was or would be, it could not not be, or not be going to be. But if something cannot not happen, it is impossible for it not to happen; and what cannot not happen necessarily happens. Everything, then, that will be will be necessarily.” -Aristotle (De Interpretatione)

Perhaps this idea could best be explained with the example of the damned King Oedipus.

Oedipus mask If Oedipus does indeed kill his father and marry his mother then that means that the statement “Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother” was true even before the events took place. And if that statement was true before the events took place, then Oedipus cannot not kill his father and marry his mother. And that which cannot not happen happens out of necessity. And so it would seem that it was predetermined that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother.

In situations like these, phrases like “determinism”, “theological determinism”, and “causal determinism” are often used interchangeably, although often incorrectly. Perhaps the best term we can use to label this line of thinking is “fatalism”, or the belief that all events are predetermined but that we ought not to simply submit to our fate.

A popular counter argument to the idea of fatalism is to suggest that statements about events in the future are neither true nor false. However, this leads to a logical inconsistency. Aristotle uses the example of a sea battle.

If two generals are in disagreement, one says that there will be a sea battle tomorrow and the other says that there shall not be, then how can we say with any conviction that neither of them are correct?

Let’s say that the sun rises and there is indeed a sea battle. Can we really say that the first general was wrong when the very fact of the matter is that he was very right? Aristotle rejects this as absurd.

Aristotle Portait
The implications of this argument are rather staggering. This would seem to suggest that everything we do is predetermined, that we have no control over what we do or what happens to us. It would seem to suggest that our idea of free will is merely an illusion.

It would also seem to suggest that the miserable Oedipus is not to blame for his actions, that he is merely a pawn that is being moved by the necessity of the universe. This type of fatalism would also seem to absolve all of us from any type of responsibility. For if all of our actions are predetermined, how can it be said that we are truly responsible for any of our actions or shortcomings?

“Hence there would be no need to deliberate or to take trouble, thinking that if we do this, that will be, and if we do not, it will not be; for it might be that ten thousand years ago one person said that this would be and another denied it, so that which it was true to affirm at that time will be so from necessity.” -Aristotle (De Interpretatione)

This type of thinking is downright incompatible with Aristotle’s later philosophies. It is in The Nichomachean Ethics that Aristotle lays out what type of actions deserve praise and what type of actions do not. However, this would suggest that we are in some way responsible for our actions, that we are not merely destined to do what we do.

And so, if Aristotle wants to avoid a logical inconsistency, he will have to make a rather compelling argument for the existence of free will. At the very least, he will have to persuade us that we possess even a fraction of control over our actions and the course of our lives. This is something that Aristotle is more than willing to do.

Aristotle bust The philosopher claims that we make a fatal mistake when constructing our argument for the existence of a predetermined universe. It seems clear to Aristotle that not all things happen from necessity. We do not always see things that are in actuality, but we are capable of understanding the potentiality. This includes the potentiality for being as well as not being. This would also include the potentiality for happening and not happening.

By this, Aristotle means to tell us that we take the existence or the occurrence of something to mean that the thing exists or the event occurred out of necessity. However, we are overreaching our bounds in this regard. We must understand that everything being from necessity when it is is not the same as everything being from necessity without qualification.

To apply just a bit of formalized logic; we can infer that when X is, X is. However, we can not infer from this that when X is, X necessarily is. X is conditionally necessary, it is not necessary on its own. This is what Aristotle means when he tells us to recognize that X is not necessary without qualification.

When we consider the two generals, one who claimed that there would be a sea battle while the other claimed there would not be, we see that both of their statements have the potentiality to be either true or false. That isn’t to say that both of their statements are wrong or both are right, instead we must understand that both statements have the potentiality to be either.

To be put plainly, it is necessary for a sea battle to occur or not occur. However, it is not necessary for a sea battle to occur. And it is not necessary for a sea battle to not occur.

When considering our damned King Oedipus, we realize that the statement “Oedipus will murder his father and marry his mother” has the potentiality to be true and it has the potentiality to be false. It is only once Oedipus actually goes through with the deeds that the statement enters into the actuality of being true or false.

While Aristotle would seem to make a convincing case for the existence of free will, there are other schools of philosophy who adhered to this fatalistic theory and incorporated it into their ethical philosophy.

The Stoics were one such group. They believed that the universe was predetermined and that we as rational human beings should acknowledge this and accept whatever events may befall us.

However, the Stoics also believed that a fatalistic universe was not such a bad thing. Rather, they believed that our universe was operated perfectly rationally, and that whatever pains we may endure, despite what we may think, are actually perfectly agreeable within the grand scheme of things.

This is summed up in the old Stoic adage, “That which practices reason is more perfect than that which does not practice reason. There is nothing more perfect than the universe, so the universe practices reason.”

This topic has fascinated philosophers for millennia. Is our free will an illusion? Are all events predetermined? Am I really free to choose the course of my life? The answers are far from certain.