Grace, Works or Predestination

Phaedra (1677)
by Jean Racine (1639-1699)

A common dilemma in P-B has been answering the First Great Question in the context of an unfriendly universe. In the religious sub-paradigm where anthropomorphic divine beings can manifest anything from unconditional love to capricious hostility: Where am I? becomes a question of fundamental importance. Can we earn salvation, is it freely given, or has our fate been decided in advance?

One of the worst possible answers to that question has been: Your fate as a human being is predetermined. Neither “good works” nor “the grace of God” is going to be available to you to offer hope for salvation. “The issue of free will, predestination, and grace that interested Racine in the seventeenth century constituted a restatement, in theological terms, of a problem of universal concern. Emphasis on the dignity of man and on his potential for choice [P-A] often coincides with optimism regarding human behavior. Conversely, a belief in man as a depraved and irresponsible creature will be found in conjunction with a distrust of man’s ability to act in a positive and meaningful way [P-B].”[i]  In Phaedra, a tragedy set in ancient Greece, Racine’s worldview about the human condition is one of a predetermined destiny.

What events in Racine’s life caused this point of view? Racine was raised by Jansenists at Port Royal who believed in determinism. The dominant position in the Catholic Church at this time (in France at least) was that of the Jesuits which was that salvation could be earned by good works. Jansenists, on the other hand, believed that after the “Fall” of Adam and Eve, their “Original Sin” had deprived humanity of free will and that out-of-control passion could only lead to self-destruction. Grace, God’s mercy, was reserved for those who had been elected or chosen in advance and salvation was beyond human control or influence.

In Phaedra, human passion is controlling reason. In P-B we know that the false self to creates human suffering through the pursuit of security, sensation and power. The influence of the True self or intuition is not acknowledged and cannot therefore help Phaedra who is doomed by predestination—not because of any divine fate but because of her own fatalistic beliefs. In P-B we are at the mercy of a predetermined fate because the beliefs, attitudes and values of that story give us an identity that causes self-destructive behavior. “[The] pattern of temptation and defeat developed in the play eliminates entirely the possibility of free will. Although Phaedra wishes to overcome her passion, all of her efforts are in vain.”[ii]

As long as we choose the narrative of P-B, we are powerless to change our experience of an unsustainable future no matter how many “good works” we offer in atonement. “She [Phaedra] made numerous but ineffective attempts to overcome her love for Hippolyte [her stepson]: She built a temple to Venus, sacrificed innumerable victims, and attempted to surmount her passion through prayer.”[iii]

In P-A, we transcend all of the tragic conflict and confusion depicted by Racine in Phaedra and in his own life. There is no monstrously unfair Jansenist predestination. There is no need for Jesuit “good works” or even God’s “grace” since there is no damnation, therefore, no salvation needed either. The tragedy of P-B is something that we can choose to experience and most of us do so every day, or we can opt out of that sad, sad story and shift our identity and our behavior to a new and radically different paradigm. In doing so, we leave behind all of the complex philosophical dilemmas associated with jealous and angry or loving anthropomorphic gods and goddesses, and rest in the joy and peace of Simple Reality.

Grace, Works or Predestination

[i]     Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 667.

[ii]     Ibid., page 668.

[iii]    Ibid.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.