It was a freaky night at Lake Geneva in Switzerland: chilly for a summer evening, relentlessly rainy. Then again, most nights were rainy that year. A volcanic eruption the previous year in Tambora, Indonesia, in 1815 had spewed tons of ash into the atmosphere, disrupting the climate all the way to Europe.
On this particular night, four English folk were hanging out together on vacation. It was an esteemed group. Dr. John Polidori, a wiz kid who had become a doctor at the age of 19; the great English poet Lord Byron; the up-and-coming poet Percy Shelley; and Shelley’s girlfriend, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.
This was before the age of TV or radio or even board games. So the group sat around and talked. And talked. They talked about new ideas and scientific discoveries, especially the exciting prospects of electricity. They speculated that electricity could change the world, that it might even be used to reanimate human corpses.
Then the conversation grew ghostly. Byron produced a rare copy of the book of German horror stories, Fantasmagoriana. The group read aloud from it, then talked of gothic things. The discussion got so intense, Percy Shelley couldn’t take it any longer and ran from the room, shrieking.
But before Shelley freaked out, the group had decided to write their own ghost stories. Shelley’s girlfriend, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, started hers, using the idea of reanimating a corpse with electricity as her starting point. The focus of her story: An 8-foot monster created from the parts of corpses. Although she did not give the monster a name, the fictional person who created him was named “Victor Frankenstein,” so today we know the monster as “Frankenstein.”
And we know the author as “Mary Shelley.” Before she finished the book, she had married Percy Shelley so most people forget that she was known as “Wollstonecraft Godwin.”
Her previous last names, though, are significant. Mary’s mom was Mary Wollstonecraft, who was one of the very first feminists. When you hear your school teacher say something ludicrous like, “Girls can play basketball just as well as boys,” you’re hearing the intellectual descendant of Mary Wollstonecraft.
Her father was William Godwin, one of the most esteemed English philosophers in the period before the French Revolution . . . and a radical guy. By the time he first met his future son-in-law Percy Shelley, he had been discredited by his support of the French Revolution, which we discussed in the first chapter.
The problem with the French Revolution was, it went horribly wrong. The American Revolution just 14 years earlier had launched a promising republic. The French Revolution, on the other hand, went terribly wrong. After a few years, it gave rise to the Reign of Terror, a scary time in which the French government created the guillotine for purposes of killing lines of people efficiently. The Reign of Terror, in turn, created even more unrest. Eventually, the army took over to instill order, and one of its generals, Napoleon Bonaparte, took control of the entire country. He later started a war against the rest of Europe. Great Britain led the resistance to Bonaparte.
Between the Reign of Terror and Napoleon, pretty much all of England hated the French Revolution. The French Revolution’s early English supporter, William Godwin, was then vilified. Eventually, he was simply forgotten.
But in his heyday, he was famous. He had written An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, a book of radical political philosophy.
What made it so radical? Precisely this: Godwin ignored (implicitly rejected) the cornerstone of most political philosophy of the previous 2,000 years: the idea that mankind was stained by Original Sin.
You have probably heard the story about Adam and Eve, about how they disobeyed God, with the result that God punished them by casting them out of the Garden of Eden. The story of Adam and Eve highlights one of the most important philosophical truths of our existence: we are limited creatures. We get sick, we die. We can’t kick bad habits. We make good resolutions to be nice or to help others, then we don’t follow through. We tend to be selfish. We, in short, sin. We are stained by Original Sin, and we commit sins because it is etched in our nature. It’s unavoidable, all because of the moral taught by the story of Adam and Eve.
Godwin didn’t accept that. According to his theory, we sin because society makes us sin. It’s not a matter for personal guilt. Someone else makes us do it: in particular, the problems in society make us do it. If we improve society, he taught, humans would become better people. In fact, the potential to create a society of super-virtuous persons was unlimited. He thought we could transform society’s structures in a way that would let us overcome Original Sin.
Of course, someone has to shape and mold that society. Someone needs to get rid of those human imperfections and institutions that make people selfish and sinful. The person who does that would need a lot of power, which means only the government can do it. Indeed, it would have to be a powerful government because it would have to be a government that controls many parts of society in order to produce the desired outcome.
Godwin didn’t actually teach that government should take over like that. He thought human perfectibility would occur naturally, but thinkers that followed him took his idea of human perfectibility to the next logical level: the idea that government should impose the good societal conditions. It’s no surprise that the French Revolution, which shared Godwin’s idea of the perfectibility of mankind, resulted in the Reign of Terror. It was trying hard to impose the good society on the French people and executed those who resisted such a higher good.
And what about Mary Shelley? Where does she fit into all this? Didn’t she simply write a famous horror story?
The thing about Mary is, she took those ideas of her parents and applied them to her personal life. Her boyfriend, Percy Shelley, wasn’t just a boyfriend. He was a married man who left his pregnant wife to date Mary Shelley. His distraught wife later committed suicide over the whole affair, thereby leaving Percy free to wed Mary.
Percy Shelley, an atheist with no patience for Christianity, was a huge fan of Godwin’s ideas, which he implemented in his own life.
Shelley rejected the idea of personal guilt for sin. He often incurred debts an didn’t repay them. He treated people like animals. When he saw the young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and thought her prettier than his wife, he felt justified pursuing her. When his wife committed suicide over it, he accused her parents, not himself. He was a vile man with horrible morals, but he never felt guilt. He thought all the norms of morality that he violated were merely outdated and crusty teachings of Christianity and corrupt social institutions.
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein’s mom, was his accomplice in all that.Bookmark it: del.icio.us | Reddit | Slashdot | Digg | Facebook | Technorati | Google | StumbleUpon | Window Live | Tailrank | Furl | Netscape | Yahoo | BlinkList