Free Will and Henley’s “Invictus”

William Ernest Henley young.jpgWilliam Ernest Henley (1849 – 1903)

William Ernest Henley had a difficult life. His family was poor, his father died when he was young, and at age twelve tuberculosis necessitated the amputation of one of his legs below the knee. His other foot was later saved only after radical surgery. Henley was in and out of the hospital from the ages of eighteen to twenty-six, including a continuous three-year span from 1873-1875. He wrote “Invictus,” which is Latin for unconquered while recovering in the infirmary. It is one of the most memorable poems in the English language.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

The stirring finale of this poem is as fresh as the day it was written, still acting as a buttress against encroaching determinism. I have studied the philosophical issue of freedom enough to know that a sustained defense of free will is nearly impossible, but neither can its reverse be definitely established.

So we might as well believe in freedom. For if we have no choice but to believe in the freedom of will, then by necessity we will believe in it. And if we have a choice to believe in freedom of will, then by definition we are free. There is little to lose and much to gain by acting as if we are free as if we are masters of our fate and captains of our souls.1


  1. Note that this is a vast oversimplification. And so there is obviously a lot more to say about all this. I’m simply proposing that there are some advantages to believing in freedom of the will. There are also many disadvantages since we typically hold people responsible for things that are beyond their control. As I said there is so much more to say about all this.
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3 thoughts on “Free Will and Henley’s “Invictus”

  1. I am not as well-read as I would like—in either sense of the meaning. Still, working on all of it. Everyone, almost, knows that powerful closing-I admit, I had not read Invictus. Free will is contentious, certainly. My take on it suits me and my life, so far. Free will entails choice, even though we may not always be free to make the best ones. That is how the dice fail: chance favors the prepared mind. One of my guide posts is this: a totality of circumstances may decide whether a thing is best viewed in the cool, dim shadow of abstraction, or, the warm, bright light of reality. As far as I know, those are my words. I have never seen them anywhere else. Henley knew it, I suspect…

  2. Very good. A doctor I went to for more than thirty years always said of health issues: it is all connected. This was not radical. He was a DO, respected and affiliated with Ohio State University…now THE Ohio State University. When Socrates said I know that I know nothing, he was trying to forestall compulsory suicide. It did not work. Now, there is some ludicrous, postmodern drivel, soft-peddling his compelled self annihilation. What a crock of horse manure.

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