November 2017 Print

“Learn from me”: Aspects of Authority in Frankenstein

by Andrew J. Clarendon

In his Order and History, the philosopher Eric Voegelin provides a useful symbolization of the shift from the ancient and medieval worldview to the modern one. The earlier society and order is pictured as a “microcosmos”: man is an element in a great chain of being that is hierarchically ordered and rational. The early modern period—as evidenced by the Renaissance and Reformation—is macroanthropic: man is the center and measure of all things, all order and authority come from the individual who, in Richard Weaver’s words, is now “his own priest [and] his own professor of ethics.”

It is not surprising, then, that the modern era evinces a general rejection of authority and argues against limitations of liberty. With the remarkable advance of scientific knowledge and technological ability that is a further aspect of our age, this modern focus on the individual has no less affected the scientist than others. The headlines provide ample examples of scientists—well meaning, no doubt—whose research nevertheless involves troubling moral questions: from cloning and embryonic stem cell research to various genetic techniques that open the Pandora’s box of eugenics. Implied in the defense of some of these scientific pursuits is that it is up to the individual scientist, or at best the scientific community, to decide if and how a certain technology should be developed. As our culture wrestles with these questions, various literary works provide images of the possible consequences of technology unleashed. One of the oldest is the first science-fiction novel, Mary’s Shelley’s Frankenstein, which after nearly 200 years is still a useful way to contemplate the dangers of scientific hubris.

Man’s Foolish Quest to be Like God

Although originally conceived of as a ghost story to pass the time, Shelley’s tale about a scientist who discovers how to endue flesh with life eventually grew into a short novel that focuses upon the disastrous consequences that result when one takes upon himself god-like powers—the classical definition of hubris. In her 1831 preface that discusses the origin of the novel, Shelley gives the theme:

“[In my imagination] I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life . . . . Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken.”

Frankenstein—who is the scientist, not the monster—begins as an intelligent and ambitious young man, a university student who pursues the relatively new discipline of chemistry. Whatever the fictional aspect of using electricity to endue flesh with life, Frankenstein is an image of a certain type of scientist who makes a great discovery and then as quickly as possible desires to put it into practice; as he says to his friend, Robert Walton, “with how many things are we on the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our enquires.” This is a view that rejects all boundaries, all authority except the individual’s, plunging head long into unknown consequences. For all his intelligence, Frankenstein has a remarkable inability to anticipate the results of his actions; after the monster escapes and is beyond his control, the rest of Frankenstein’s life involves a series of sorrows—abetted by his own decisions—that destroy the people closest to him.

Authority and Parenthood in the Novel

The novel not only depicts a scientist who decides to act upon his own authority, but also involves an examination of the necessity of parents. Frankenstein’s relationship with the monster is not just that of creator and creation but of father and child. He relates that at the beginning of his project, he had thought that “a new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.” Unfortunately, once the monster comes to life, Frankenstein is so filled with horror that he runs from his chamber, only returning when the monster has disappeared. Since the monster’s later ability to speak and reason clearly demonstrates a rational soul, Frankenstein is not the creator of a brute animal but rather an absentee father who leaves his child to fend for himself in a harsh world. Shelley makes her point more poignant by giving the monster a kind and generous disposition before interactions with terrified humans—who can only see the monster’s exterior—lead first to anger and then a desire for murderous revenge. As the monster himself tells Frankenstein, “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam…I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.”

The point is well put by one commentator, Johanna M. Smith, who in her Introduction to the novel writes that Shelley “suggests that society produces monsters not so much by systematic oppression as by inept parenting.” As with the technological theme, a defense of and regard for the true authority of parents is of perennial interest—and increasingly so today when, as Sister Lucia of Fatima told Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, “the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family.”

Anticipating the Great Issues of the Modern World

Whatever the scientific or metaphysical fictions featured in the plot, what is remarkable about Shelley’s novel is how she anticipates some of the great issues of today while also exploring perennial ones. It is increasingly clear that serious discussions need to continue concerning scientific ethics; the question, of course, is how to determine which technologies ought to be pursued and in what manner. Relying on individual scientists to regulate themselves is problematic at best; Frankenstein mentions his “almost supernatural enthusiasm,” a burning desire to experiment until his goal is achieved. It is only after the fact, while recounting his disastrous career, that he says: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”

The global community needs an authority to make judgements on such matters. Gladly, we have one such authority in the Church; all men of good will ought to call on the Church to exercise her God-given authority to teach on faith and morals. It is equally true that families and therefore society would benefit from obedience to the Church’s wisdom in terms of the authority of parents. The Church teaches that true peace—for the individual and society—is that tranquility of order that comes from humility, recognizing one’s place in the universe and acting accordingly. The source of authority that is the solution to our problems and questions is, as Shakespeare observes in King Lear, that “countenance which [we] would fain call master,” that of Christ the King.