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Frankenstein & Philosophy

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein & Moral Philosophy

Raymond Boisvert explores prominent ethical facets of Frankenstein.

Sir Walter Scott wrote one of the few favorable reviews of Frankenstein. He described the story as “philosophical and refined.” Following Scott, we can examine Mary Shelley’s novel for the ways it intersects with philosophical and refined positions dealing with good and evil. These fall into three categories:

(1) Positions that are alluring and pervasive, but misguided.

(2) Those that, although criticized, deserve rehabilitation.

(3) Doctrines rooted in ancient thought, which, when properly understood, have contemporary relevance.

Elaboration is possible by associating each with a major character in the novel:

(1) The creature, created and brought to life by Frankenstein. He is made central in film adaptations.

(2) Victor Frankenstein, brilliant scientist. He is the true central character, the ‘modern Prometheus’ after whom the book is named.

(3) Captain Robert Walton, arctic explorer who rescues Frankenstein. He is the author of the letters that make up the novel’s text. Often overlooked, Walton deserves recognition as a sort of anti-Victor.

The Creature: Mani, Rousseau

A recent Sun newspaper headline was meant to be provocative: “Flakensteins: Snowflake students claim Frankenstein’s monster was ‘misunderstood’ – and is in fact a VICTIM.” Commentators pointed out that, had the headline writers actually read the book, they would have retracted their pretend outrage. The creature brought to life by Victor Frankenstein is a murderer, and he is a victim. That’s how Mary Shelley wrote the story.

However, the Sun’s headline writers indicate one commonplace way of dealing with good and evil: contrast them in sharp either/or fashion. This approach is tempting, especially to those identified by Mary Midgley as ‘tidy-minded’, who have trouble dealing with the tangled complexities of life. With regard to the headline, tidy-mindedness emerges as a simplistic bifurcation: either a ‘monster’ – vicious, evil; or a ‘victim’. If one claim, ‘monster’, is true, the other, ‘victim’, must be false.

Such neat categorizations fit one religious movement particularily well. It was started by a Persian named Mani (216-274). Central to Manicheanism is a straightforward separation: there is good, and there is evil. No mingling. Good is good. Evil is evil. There is no third, composite, position. Purity rules. It all makes good sense, at least to tidy-minded types. They dwell on well-scrubbed, and mutually exclusive, concepts. What they overlook is how life experience involves mixings and blendings.

Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley
Portrait © Clinton Inman 2018. Facebook him at clinton.inman

At first glance, it would seem that Shelley’s treatment of the creature marks a sharp break with Manichean inclinations. A closer look, however, reveals a surprising affinity.

When relating the creature’s story, Shelley draws on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) ‘noble savage’ paradigm, in which individuals are born wholly good, and evil is an after-effect, the result of a society that corrupts. The creature Shelley depicts is initially a decent sort: generous, helpful, innocent and naïve. At the same time, he is rejected by his creator, shunned, treated violently by strangers, forced to live in isolation. He was not born evil. He was made evil by circumstances.

The Sun’s headline writers channel Mani. Mary Shelley channels Rousseau. Two seemingly different ways of envisioning good and evil. There are contrasts, to be sure. One says that some individuals are simply manifestations of evil. The other says all individuals are by nature good. Still, the positions share a common source. Each succumbs to a basic temptation: fascination with purity, and a concomitant unease with mixture.

There is also something to be said for each position. Mani admits the fundamental reality of evil. Rousseau encourages generous and sympathetic attitudes when dealing with those who commit evil deeds. Both, however, overstate their cases and suffer from similar drawbacks. They are blinded by a prior commitment to initial unmixed purity. They live, not in the world of ordinary experience, but in a conceptual realm populated by carefully purified concepts. More dangerous is an inevitable accompaniment to such conceits: the dream of utopian resolutions. Once the world is described Mani-like, as a battle between unalloyed good and unalloyed evil, a simple solution emerges: eliminate the manifestation of evil and thereby enact the triumph of unmitigated, everlasting good. Or if corrupt society is the source of evil, á la Rousseau, then once the right kind of society has been put in its place, all evil will disappear. It’s not surprising, given the tug of tidy-mindedness, that straightforward Mani- and Rousseau-inspired positions prove to be tempting. Temptations, though, are meant to be resisted, especially when they draw us to reality-distorting oversimplifications.

Victor (The True Frankenstein): Banality & Absence

When we examine good and bad in relation to how Shelley describes the creature, things remain within the Mani and Rousseau perspectives. However, good and evil in the novel do not begin and end with the creature. The book’s title Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus, identifies the major character. And with Victor Frankenstein, the discussion gets more complicated.

There are various literary archetypes for treating good and evil, some fairly prominent:

(1) The Oedipus prototype: “I’m hunting down the source of evil. Oops, it’s me.”

(2) The Moby Dick prototype: “I am on a quest to rid the world of evil. In the process, my single-mindedness turns me into an evil figure. I end up destroying myself and people around me.”

(3) The Jekyll and Hyde prototype: “Mixture is not for me, I will outsource my evil side.”

Of these, the Moby Dick scenario most approximates the case of Victor. Like Captain Ahab, Victor Frankenstein is resolute, single-minded, and the occasion of ruin and loss, including his own.

“But,” some readers are surely thinking, “Victor is a decent sort. He’s had a good upbringing. He’s not violent, or even mean. He’s not an embezzler, or any kind of thief. Unlike the creature, Victor murders no one. He has good intentions.”

True, Victor is neither evil by nature, nor corrupted by society. Mani and Rousseau offer little help here. Fortunately, philosophy provides alternative ways of thinking. Two emerge as most pertinent in Victor’s case. One comes from St Augustine (354-430). His outdated language has little resonance today. Still, the heart of his claim can be rehabilitated: evil is defined by absence (of good). The other position comes from Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). It’s her famous assertion of ‘the banality of evil’.

Both of these – absence and banality – suffer from a major weakness. They can appear quite insensitive to the horrors of evil: horrors that are that are all-too present; and cause suffering that is anything but banal. There is nothing in either position, however, which necessitates minimizing the reality of the suffering associated with evil. Their focus is on understanding evil so that appropriate steps can be taken to limit its very real horrors.

The two positions are interconnected. Both Augustine and Arendt deny relativism. They assume that there are attitudes and behaviors that characterize virtuous human behavior. The absence of those attitudes and behaviors define wickedness. Both also allow us to recognize evil in ordinary circumstances, and not only in those caused by conspicuously vicious, rabid, cruel fanatics. Villainy can result from ordinary folks carrying out certain roles with mind-numbing banality; a banality defined in part by absence, a deficit which ignores, overlooks, or purposely occludes considerations that ought to be taken into account.

What does this have to do with Frankenstein, with Victor? He ends his life, Captain Ahab-like, as a revenge-consumed monomaniac, isolated and cut off from all possibilities for love. Yet the novel depicts Victor as a decent sort who was raised in a loving, caring home. For Shelley, the good life is characterized by an important presence, domestic affection, and Victor’s father, Alphonse, together with his wife Caroline, represent a concrete model which defines the combination which most fully exemplifies a good life.

‘Combination’ is the key term here. The separation fascination associated with Mani or Rousseau distorts the human condition. Goodness, by contrast, is defined by getting a mixture right. Alphonse Frankenstein got the public/private mix right. Victor, too, could get it right. But Victor does not. He is driven by Promethean temptations – temptations made attractive by promising the ability to rise above the opportunities, limitations and norms of ordinary lives. He loses his sense of proportion; it is replaced by obsession and single-mindedness. In turn, the single-mindedness pushes aside other considerations. It occasions disaffiliation and disconnectedness. It brings about a rigidity which makes Victor immune to pleas from his father, his teacher, and his fiancée. Absences dominate: absence of openness to others; absence of compassion; absence of responsibility toward the creature; loss of joyfulness in experiencing nature’s beauty; an inability to forgive; a blindness to his own culpability.

All of this results from a basic absence associated with the Promethean spirit: a lost sensitivity to human limits. Victor aims to create life without a female. What results is an offspring deprived of maternal affection, and Victor’s reaction does nothing to fill the void. It’s more on the order of, “Wow, you’re big and ugly, I’m outta here!” What emerges is anything but Promethean success; rather, a shrunken version of what Victor could have been, a transformation of him into an increasingly isolated figure dominated by vengefulness. His actions are wicked and reprehensible. His path toward them, by contrast, is rather pedestrian. Here is where absence and banality help us understand evil. There is no need to look for evil elsewhere. Its possibility lies within each of us; even within someone with all the advantages of a Victor Frankenstein.

Captain Walton: Virtue Is Knowledge

That it did not have to turn out this way is evidenced by the contrast with the novel’s third main character, Captain Robert Walton. Because his letters offer the source of information in the novel, he may seem to be just a literary technique. This would miss Walton’s significance as Victor’s alter ego.

The two men have a lot in common. Each is driven to make a great discovery. Both are disciplined, willing to endure hardships in pursuit of their aims. They belong to a certain social class. After meeting, they bond quickly.

Such similarities only serve to highlight the differences. Victor (whose name indicates the Promethean desire for power) has lost the sense of balance and proportion that defines goodness. As we saw, his life is more and more characterized by absences. He comes to be closed off from feelings of pity and compassion. He sequesters himself from responsibilities toward his creature.

With Walton, the Promethean impulse to power, although present, does not totally dominate. It is balanced, first by a sense that there are limitations, boundaries, which should not be crossed; and second, by a disposition that rejects idealistic purity. Instead, Walton seeks the right mix; specifically, combining personal ambition with concern for those around him.

Frankenstein on ice
The creator corners the creature in the cold. But who has the coldest heart?

Shelley has structured her story following the pattern of a poem written by an acquaintance of her father: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There is an initial transgression. For Coleridge, it is killing the albatross; for Victor, it is a particular combination: circumventing nature by creating life without a woman; then compounding this by failing to care for that life. What follows in both The Rime and Frankenstein, is retribution, suffering, death. At that point the novel and the poem part ways. The poem offers religion-inspired stanzas leading to forgiveness, reconciliation, survival for the mariner, all culminating in the celebration of a wedding. The novel, by contrast, follows the pattern of Greek tragedy. Transgression brings a response from the Furies, the guardians of limit who visit retribution on those who transgress. In Shelley’s novel, the creature takes on the Furies’ role. Without the forgiveness/reconciliation moment of The Rime, Shelley’s story remains within a mutual entanglement of retribution/ revenge. It ends with the murder of a bride and the death of Victor; a death which releases the creature from his Furies-like role and allows him to undertake his own end.

The parallels with Coleridge’s Rime are signaled in a reference in an early letter from Walton. Responding to his sister’s worries, he offers comfort by insisting that he “shall kill no albatross.” In other words, he recognizes norms not to be transgressed.

Identifying such norms is never easy. There are no formulae or algorithms that guarantee success. Walton can only base his judgement on what he describes as a blend of “prudence and considerateness,” especially when “the safety of others is committed to my care”.

‘Prudence’ itself indicates a connection with ancient philosophy. In contemporary usage ‘prudence’ has lost much of its original force. It signifies being careful, taking no risks. For Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the root term phronesis – practical wisdom – was at the very heart of virtue, understood as excellence in action. Such excellence, at times, requires risk. Virtue as phronesis involves a particular kind of judgment that leads to engaging in proper actions at proper times. Excellence in action meant knowing when to take risks and when not to. That is why Socrates insisted on linking virtue to knowledge, best understood as phronesis. Socrates did not mean (as he is often taken to mean), that knowing the good is sufficient for being good. What he wanted to indicate was how persons of virtue, in challenging situations, had a knack for knowing what to do. An excellent general – one possessed of military virtue – would know when to press the attack and when to retreat. An excellent (virtuous) parent knows when to be strict with a child and when to be forgiving.

Victor’s Prometheanism sets him apart from Walton. A ‘modern Prometheus’ believes himself above what phronesis seeks to discern: criteria, norms, warnings from one’s circumstances. A Prometheus fixated on fame and greatness would also dismiss the importance of flexibility and balance, thus blocking ancient philosophy’s goal of achieving the best proportions among multiple goods.

Flexibility and balance are associated with the other key term in Walton’s letter, ‘considerateness’. Walton is no slouch when it comes to courage. He, like Victor, has grandiose ambitions. He is also willing to push his men beyond what would normally be the upper limit of endurance. At the same time, such factors do not stand alone. They are part of a mix that includes ‘considerateness’: a sense of understanding and regard for the men under his command.

Victor, gripped by the purity of thought, is single-mindedly driven. He has no patience for the complaints of Walton’s sailors. He chastises them. He wants Walton to ignore their entreaties. In the end, Walton, guided by prudence and considerateness, opts against the cold, inflexible harshness advocated by Victor. His decision is based on care for and attentiveness to others. Matching imagery with action, Shelley has ice melting away as Walton’s ship heads for warmer waters and what the seamen recognize as a good life: home where loved ones await. In a final reversal, Walton, confronted with the creature, does not carry out Victor’s vengeful quest. Instead, using his better judgment, and resisting the creature’s hideousness, he listens.

Walton is the anti-Victor because he possesses a kind of practical wisdom that’s absent in Victor. That wisdom involves seeking the right kind of proportionality: between the goals of a mission and the feelings of those engaged in it; between reacting to physiognomy alone and paying attention to character; between commanding others and heeding their entreaties. Practical wisdom negates the desire always to be a victor. It blends the dynamics of heart and head. It is resolutely human. It is no friend to the aspirations of a modern Prometheus.

© Raymond D. Boisvert 2018

Raymond D. Boisvert is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Siena College, NY.

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