Friday, January 9, 2009


All the good that won't come out of me
And all the stupid lies I hide behind.

Rilo Kiley

Well, it's Friday and most of us are relatively free for two days, but if you're like me (and you may not be, at all) you're wondering whether your will is free as well. Interesting word, will, denoting the power of volition, the future tense, a posthumous bequest. Potent stuff.

I'm as big a booster for individual empowerment as anyone, but on the other hand, somewhere Nietzsche wrote that the notion of free will is a terrific means of controlling others, by inducing them to comply with our expectations of how they ought to be able to behave. Nietzsche was full of perverse ideas like that--how can the great good of free will be a method of social control? Well, free will is a heuristic that guides any individual's behavior, and by implication, no viable social group can do without it. If you really think about it, only determinism can be true, but only in the way that only nihilism can be true--you can't really live that way; every natural impulse cries out against it.

That's all tonight really, except for some quotes from old Will Shakespeare--man, that guy could write. Interestingly, he seemed mightily preoccupied with the conundrum of free will, but while he was no determinist, only his most heinous villians were implacably insistent upon the power of self-determination, whereas his heroes advocated a more nuanced and lenient view of what Homo sapiens is capable of.

So here's the psychopathic Iago (Othello):

'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.

And the equally appalling Edmund (King Lear):

This is the excellent foppery of the world: that when we are sick in fortune--often the surfeit of our own behaviour--we make guilty of our disaster the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treacherers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence, and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of stars!

In stark contrast, here is the forbearing Portia (The Merchant of Venice):

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway.
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthy power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

I couldn't have said it better.


Anonymous said...

'Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant....weed.... supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many [!]....'

I do think Will speaketh of pot here...

(sorry for the desecration -- Satan made me do it!)

Determinism is our prison cell; free will is the dice throwing we do to bide our time while God and the Devil fight over a key that opens nothing.

'God does not play dice'

Retriever said...

Good quotes,except that Portia's speech sounds better out of context. In fact, in the play, she wanted to show no mercy whatsoever to Shylock. Just another lawyer making an impassioned and convincing (but hypocritical) speech to get someone out of a hideous punishment. It's forensic oratory. This link on it (couldn't find the article I was thinking of, but the internet search is close enough for government work to expand the point): Off your original topic, I guess but relevant to the quote.