The Invention of Reason

On the 1st February 1851, the English novelist Mary Shelley died. She was just 53 years old and had succumbed to brain cancer, an illness that she had endured for many years. She was buried alongside her beloved mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had passed away shortly after her birth and with the heart of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley who had drowned on an Italian boating trip in 1822.

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Mary Shelley conceived the story of “Frankenstein” at an alarmingly precocious but also prescient stage of her life. It was 1818, a year when political and social conventions were being tested across Europe. The old order of feudalism and natural hierarchy was clashing with a new, enlightened philosophy which maintained that human reason must triumph over superstitious beliefs.

However the proponents of pure reason censured any notion of human sentiment, in fact they could not conceive that the human soul existed as there was no scientific evidence to prove its physical existence. This radical, progressive ideology that spawned the French Revolution, meant that individual human life had no real significance beyond his or her material manifestation on Earth. This was how, in the wake of the Terror, these supposed rationalists could coldly dispatch any ideological enemy beneath the blades of the Guillotine if they were deemed inimical to the cause.

The rationalists maintained that society was the primary influence upon human character, and if society became more ethical human beings would behave more ethically. They seemed unaware of other elements that shaped the character, namely inheritance which could never be altered whatever society that person lived in, but it is difficult to prove whether this ignorance was wilful or real. Coincidentally new scientific ideas emerged alongside the political foment, and these ideas were a source of fascination for the Shelleys and their contemporaries.

Science conjectured that human life was a purely physical process and that there was no divine intervention involved. Mary Shelley argued that if a human being had no soul then his body was merely expendable. She imagined that a scientist like Victor Frankenstein could be so swayed by his own hubris to create a human being, not in the traditional way, but through his own experimental methods. The fact that the “creature” proves to be a destructive force suggests that the application of science and rationality cannot create perfection.

All human ideas are our own invention, something that we frequently ignore, often due to our own arrogance and complacency. The trope of “Frankenstein” has become embedded within our cultural consciousness. It is cited whenever a crude and unethical science is engendered. It is sometimes necessary to heed Shelley`s warnings for the future.