Critical Evaluation

The issue of free will, predestination, and grace that interested Jean Racine in the seventeenth century was a restatement, in theological terms, of a problem of universal concern. To what extent is one free to create one’s own existence and to be responsible for one’s actions? Are the terms of human existence within the arena of human control, or are the terms established by some external force? Can human suffering be justified as the result of one’s actions, or is suffering the imposition of a capricious deity?

The specific manner in which these questions are answered depends upon one’s view of human nature and human potential. When one chooses between predestination and free will, one is either asserting or denying a belief in one’s ability to make wise and ethically sound decisions. Emphasis on the dignity of humanity and on the potential for choice often coincides with an optimism regarding human behavior. Conversely, a belief in humanity as depraved and irresponsible will be found in conjunction with a distrust of humanity’s ability to act in a positive and meaningful way. This view of the human condition is presented in Phaedra by Racine and presents humankind as predetermined or predestined.

Racine was reared by the Jansenists at Port-Royal in France and he returned to Port-Royal after completing Phaedra. The Jansenists held ideas on the problem of free will and predestination in opposition to the dominant position of the Catholic Church as set forth by the Jesuits. The Jesuits attempted to bring salvation within the grasp of all humanity, whereas the Jansenists emphasized a rigid determinism. They rejected the Jesuit doctrine that people could attain salvation through good works and insisted that humans were predestined to salvation or damnation. This denial of free will was based on the conviction that humankind was left completely corrupt and devoid of rational control after the fall from God’s grace suffered by Adam and Eve. Humanity was incapable of participating in the process of regeneration because Original Sin had deprived it of its will. The passions had gained control, and they could only lead to evil. Human passion was considered capable of leading to falsehood, crime, suicide, and general destruction. It is inevitable that the Jansenists would regard with alarm any doctrine that allowed for the activity of human free will. Only God’s gift of mercy could save humanity, and that mercy was reserved for those who had been elected to salvation.

The basic ideas in Phaedra present a similar distrust of the passions, a similar curtailment of free will, and a consequent emphasis upon humanity’s lack of control. Human passion is depicted as controlling reason. The area of human choice and responsibility is severely limited. Phèdre is pursued by an overwhelming sense of fatality.

In the preface to...

(The entire section is 1190 words.)