Determined or Free?: Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh’s Mother, Amadeus’s Salieri, and Sartre’s Orestes

In two places in Part 2 of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Shamash, the Sun God, and father of the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods, is described as one who puts desires in the hearts of men and women. Here is Gilgamesh, praying:

If this enterprise [to go on a journey and kill the dragon Humbaba] is not to be accomplished, why did you move me, Shamash, with the restless desire to perform it?

And Gilgamesh’s mother likewise prays:

O Shamash, why did you give this restless heart to Gilgamesh, my son; why did you give it? You have moved him and he sets out on a long journey to the Land of Humbaba to travel an unknown road and fight a strange battle.

This sense, within Mesopotamian religion, that a god is ultimately responsible for placing desires in the heart, and moving humans in one direction, as opposed to another, is shared by the writer of Exodus 7.3-4 in the Hebrew Bible:

And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.

But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments.

In other words, human beings may not always be ultimately responsible for their actions, but gods may intervene in the human world, and direct hearts, as puppets by a puppeteer.

Is this an intermittent phenomenon, or are all actions by human beings ultimately determined by God? However this is answered, it brings us to the problem of evil, and who is responsible for evil.

The writer of Isaiah 46.7 had a rather blunt opinion about it:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.

In the 1980s film, Amadeus, the Austrian court composer Saliere, played by F. Murray Abraham, worries his way through a process of God-questioning similar to Gilgamesh and his mother. The pious Saliere has long wanted to compose great music to God, but he sees that God has given this gift, not to someone devoted to him, but to an impious, sexual libertine: Mozart. In his prayer, Salieri agonizes before God:

Why have you put the desire in my heart, like a lust in my body, and then denied me the talent?

The five quotes above—two from the Gilgamesh Epic, two from the Bible, and one from Amadeus—all presume that, in some sense, human beings are not ultimately free, and that evil is in the world precisely because God has allowed it, or even directed it, into existence.

But Jean-Paul Sartre had a different take. In his play, The Flies, which is his 20th century response to Aeschylus’s play, The Oresteia, Sartre has an interesting exchange between Zeus and Orestes. Zeus says to Orestes:

Orestes, I created you, and I created all things. . . . See those planets wheeling on their appointed ways, never swerving, never clashing.

But part of Orestes’s response to Zeus is to make a distinction between things that are determined in their course, such as planets, and human beings, who are free. Orestes insists that, to go on being human, he must not submit himself to Zeus’s pleasure:

You are the king of the gods, king of stones and stars, king of the waves and the sea. But you are not the king of man. . . . I am my freedom. No sooner had you created me than I ceased to be yours.

Sartre’s Orestes, in the assertion of his freedom, makes himself ultimately responsible for how things in his life turn out. He, as it were, makes the affirmation of Isaiah with a crucial ammendation: I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I Orestes do all these things.

Once God is removed from the equation, the problem of evil moves from the merely philosophical—something to puzzle about—to the realm of action. Suddenly, if I am free, I discover that I am then ultimately responsible for the evil around me, and I needn’t just talk about it, but can go about trying to fix it.

However one “solves” the problem of evil, all the above characters, in their dialogues with the gods, have something in common. Like Sartre’s Orestes before Zeus, and Salieri before God, and Gilgamesh and his mother before Shamash, they do not check their minds and freedom at the door, and simply submit to divine authority. Instead, they argue with the gods.

In this sense, the felt problems of desire, freedom, love, evil, and death, and how we grapple with them in argument with ourselves and the gods, are at the beginnings of both literature and philosophy. As Yeats once put it:

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart

Here’s one of the opening scenes from Amadeus. Salieri introduces a priest to Mozart’s music, and raises the implicit question of why one person’s life should be so charmed by God, while another person’s life is not:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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