Someday I might ask you for advice. There will be some circumstance that I can’t really change but I will want a work around. Inevitably, you will give me sound counsel – telling me to bend my will to necessity. And, after some hemming and hawing, I will agree that that’s what I should do. But then I will say, “but I don’t want to do that.” Chances are 50/50 that I will heed the advice I sought. It won’t be your fault if things go blazingly wrong. You don’t have to take my word for this. Ask my family, friends, and colleagues. They have all encountered what they might, in a moment of candour, describe as bull-headed stubbornness, but which I like to think of as a sweet dedication to freedom – my freedom from arbitrary circumstances and the dictates of nature. I might ask you, for instance, if -35 degrees Celsius is too cold to go running in. And you will probably tell me that it is. And I will probably nod, go running, and come back with just a hint of frostbite around the ears. “It’s part of my outfit,” I will then declare to your knowing and pitying looks. Frostbite – a sign of my sweet dedication to freedom.
As envisioned in the Trojan War, the ancient Greeks had a similar dedication to freedom. The efficient cause of the war is that Paris (Trojan) has “stolen” Helen from Menelaus, a Greek king, and he and all of his comrades descend on Troy to get her back. All of the men of Greece freely leave their cities and their families, to fight for ten years in a foreign land for another man’s wife. Seems absurd. Yet, these men had all previously freely sworn an oath to stand behind and protect Helen’s marriage to whichever man she, at that time, freely chose. That all of these men had hoped she would pick him, makes their willed dedication to this oath even more remarkable. They did not get what they desired. They, in all likelihood, do not want to risk their lives and die in a Troy. They are not moved to this end by the force of emotion or desire. And while they do desire to be honoured for their bravery, the basis of this honour will be their commitment to a freely chosen oath.In effect they have freed themselves from their natural inclinations, including those to be with and protect their families and, indeed, to in its purest form, their inclination to live.
Everyone imagines that Achilles is the greatest of the Greek heroes. After all, he practically single-handedly wins the Trojan war, battling the greatest of warriors, taking on, in his greatest of rages, even a river (XXI). Nothing gets in Achilles way (save that tendon). He is as free as one imagines a person being.
And yet, before, the Greeks even made it to Troy, before Achilles became Achilles, there was Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, king of all the Greeks, and the woman whose sacrifice gave wind to to Greek sails, allowing them to make it to proud Ilium.
By most accounts, Iphigenia is counted among the most saddest of casualties of the war and, indeed, the quest for freedom. The Greeks, having decided to set out for Troy, find themselves land locked. There is no wind and so their ships cannot sail. To honour their oaths, they need to be freed. Turning to the gods for a sign, Artemis, virgin goddess of the hunt and child birth, declares that Agamemnon has to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. Philosophically, it seems, that Agamemnon has to demonstrate his absolute freedom from the ties of nature, and declare that the willed and objective, if abstract, good of Greece means more to him than his natural and blood relationship. In this, he is to prove that he is unlike his wife, Clytemnestra, who “obeys only nature”(Iphigenia in Aulis, 458).
Of course, in accepting this decree, Agamemnon wills something contrary to what is reasonable and objective, and thus, contrary to his freedom. A point demonstrated by his later fate of being stabbed to death in the bathtub upon his return from Troy by that slave to nature, Clyemnestra. In this moment, Agamemnon imagines he is freeing himself from the ties of a natural relationship in favour of a willed and free choice, and ignores the smallish point that he is doing this to make the wind that he is absolutely dependant on to blow. Artemis is tricky goddess. Agamemnon, we see, is not free. He is caught in self-contradictions that his feeble little mind can’t sort out.
But, as it turns out, at least as imagined by Euripides, the choice is not Agamemnon’s to make. He brings Iphigenia to the ships under the guise that she will marry the yet unknknow but soon to be great Achilles (IoA, 710). She is to walk down the isle imagining herself to be married to the son of a goddess, only to be sacrificed upon the altar. To his credit, Achilles knows nothing of this plan and swears (with a little honour-hogging hedging) to defend her. He, however, like Agamemnon is not given this first opportunity for heroism.
Instead, Iphigenia, realizing that the circumstances are such that they cannot be changed, that the goddess has decreed her fate, and, moreover, that the freedom of the Greeks from the invasion and plunder of foreign empires depends on her, accepts her destiny, and freely wills her fate. Iphigenia, we understand, recognizes that some limits, some circumstances are such that not only can they not be avoided. Instead, as rational and good, they should be accepted and even freely willed. Not every limit is opposed to our freedom, some, it turns out, are essential to its actualization.
Iphigenia thus declares to her mother, “All Greece turns/Her eyes to me, to me only, great Greeece/In her might-for through me is the sailing/Of the fleet, through me the sack and overthrow of Troy” and, in the face of the young, not yet battle proven Achilles, this, the greatest of all lines, “I, saviour of Greece”(IoA, 1375-85).
Iphigenia, not the stupid and arrogant Agamemnon, not the still wet-behind-the-ears Achilles, Iphigenia, a young, maybe thirteen year old woman, is the saviour of Greece. Through her, “They are bondsmen and slaves, and we … are Greeks and are free”(IoA, 1405). Iphigenia takes agency from the Kings of Greece and even from the goddess Artemis. She is not sacrificed, instead, she freely offers herself as the saviour of freedom. And, in so doing, if we are to believe Euripides other play, Iphigenia in Tauris, she is rewarded, for Artemis secretly saves her from her death.
So now, when faced with seemingly arbitrary circumstances, like minutes ticking away on deadlines that I can’t possibly meet, or, and worse, the need to account for the wills and desires of others that differ from my own, I can rail against necessity. I can tell you, “that’s what I should do, but I don’t want to.” Or, like Iphigenia, I can freely accept my fate, willingly go along with the dictates of time and space, and even the seemingly unnecessary wills of others, and in so doing, still dedicate myself, of so sweetly, to freedom. (I could….)