A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Betting on God

Some time ago in this blog I made a claim to the effect that theistic philosophers of religion have produced a remarkable number of really bad arguments, arguments so bad in fact, that one must sometimes question the arguer’s intellectual honesty (“The Problem of Evil”, May 22, 2009). I do not wish to retract this provocation. Instead, I wish to give another example to prove my point.

I just finished reading a book by Jeff Jordan entitled Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006). Jordan is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Delaware. Now, since I am about to say some unkind things about Professor Jordan’s book, it is only fair to admit that despite its flaws, I quite enjoyed reading it. It's packed full of stimulating and ingenious arguments, and it is the best single overview I know of that deals with Pascal’s famous “wager” argument in support of theistic belief.

Before proceeding any further, I suppose I should explain the nature of Pascal’s Wager. It is a philosophical argument famously proposed by the seventeenth-century French mathematician and thinker Blaise Pascal. It purports to demonstrate the rationality of believing in God, even on the assumption that we have no evidence one way or another of God’s existence. This last part is important, for it seems to violate the traditional stricture that belief should always be tailored to evidence.

There are quite a few variants of Pascal’s Wager, so I will give a highly simplified version of it. It goes something like this: Let us assume that we have no evidence one way or another of God’s existence. Nonetheless, if He exists and we believe in Him, we stand to gain an infinite reward. On the other hand, if we believe and He doesn’t exist, we sacrifice very little (indeed, Pascal claimed that we would be gainers even here, because of the positive influence of religion in our worldly lives).

If we do not become believers and He doesn’t exist, we neither gain nor lose (excluding whatever meagre rewards accrue to worldly sinners). If we do not become believers and He does exist, we will be subject to infinite punishment. This latter point is unnecessary, for the argument can work quite well without the prospect of Hell: we need only compare the “swamping value” of the infinite heavenly payoff with the relatively neutral expected utility of the other possible outcomes, to see that it is — at least according to Pascal and company — a good gamble to wager on God's existence.

Obviously, we cannot just make ourselves believe something we do not currently believe, and for which there is no evidence. However, Pascal contended, with some justification, that by going through the motions — incense and holy water and all that — one could come to believe.

The “Many Gods” Objection, or OMG

There are many possible objections to the Wager, and Jordan’s book is fairly comprehensive in dealing with them. There is one, however, Jordan’s treatment of which illustrates the sort of intellectual trickery that theists seem all too apt to engage in. It is called the objection of “Many Gods” (let’s call it OMG for short).

In the normal Wager, we bet on either of two possible states: either God exists, or He doesn’t. According to OMG, we can add the possibilities that any number of other kinds of gods exist besides the usual Judeo-Christian one. For example, we might posit the existence of a sort of Nietzschean god who punishes all and only those who worship a deity and rewards those strong-willed enough not to need divine support. In other words, he has contempt for the sort of mortal slaves weak enough to have need of a god. Such a deity would undermine the traditional Wager, because if we wager on the traditional God, we are now faced with the prospect of coming out big losers. Furthermore, because we could invent as many gods with as many qualities as we care to, the prior probability of the traditional God’s existence (in the absence of any evidence one way or the other) shrinks from 0.5 in the traditional Wager, to some infinitesimal probability equal to the probability that any one of the numberless other gods we care to invent exists.

How does Jordan deal with OMG? Very underhandedly, I’m afraid. Remember that in the traditional Wager we’re supposed to bet in the absence of any evidence one way or the other that God exists. Now Jordan tells us we needn’t consider the many invented gods, because the probability of their existence is vanishingly small compared to the probability that the traditional God exists. Really? Based upon what evidence? How can he assign such probabilities?

Jordan has reduced himself to the intellectual trickery of assuming a greater probability that the Judeo-Christian God exists. But if we could have assumed this all along, then we wouldn’t need Pascal’s Wager in the first place, would we? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen theistic philosophers of religion resort to this move — assuming the existence of that (God) which they were supposedly demonstrating.

In the words of Cicero, sed nescio quo modo nihil tam absurde dici potest quod non dicatur ab aliquot philosophorum, “somehow or other no statement is too absurd for some philosophers to make” (Cicero, De Divinatione, 2.119). Old time religion can make people say and do some pretty dumb things, and it seems logically-trained philosophers are not immune to this effect.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Custom and Precedent

Stare decisis is the common law doctrine that judges are bound to uphold previous decisions. It is more commonly known as the doctrine of precedent. There is a tendency to think of adherence to precedent as somehow closely related to custom; by binding themselves to precedents, judges are thought to preserve customary ways of doing things. By contrast, legislation overturns precedents and customary law.

However, a precedent is a precedent because at some point in past time it was first established as such. It may even have become established by overriding a previously established precedent or custom.

More interestingly, though, are situations where precedent points in one direction and custom points in another. The following story from the Roman historian Livy (Bk. 27, ch. 8) illustrates what I’m getting at.

The Priesthood of Gaius Flaccus

In 209 BC Gaius Valerius Flaccus, a young and dissolute Roman nobleman was assigned — very much against his will and inclination — to the position of flamen Dialis, a priesthood associated with the god Jupiter. Perhaps it was hoped that the various taboos and constraints associated with this priesthood would have a reformative effect on the young prodigal’s character.

It seems to have worked, for by all accounts Flaccus transformed himself into a serious, diligent, and virtuous citizen. However, a complication arose when Flaccus attempted to claim a seat in the Senate by right of his priestly office. He was opposed by the praetor Publius Licinius, on the ground that no flamen Dialis had claimed a Senate seat in living memory. According to Livy, “the praetor maintained that a right was based not upon outmoded instances from the annals, but in each case upon very recent practice [consuetudinis = ‘custom’].” In short, the praetor appealed to current custom or practice, rather than to ancient precedents.

(Although Livy doesn’t say as much, there may have been a problem with Flaccus’ age: the term senatus is related to senex, or “old man”, implying that the Senate was supposed to be a council of elders, while Flaccus was a mere youth.)

On the other hand, the tribunes defended Flaccus by claiming that the fact that recent priests had neglected to exercise their right should have no bearing on whether or not Flaccus could exercise it. As they put it, “obsolescence due to the indolence of flamens was justly accounted their own loss, not a loss to the priestly office.” In other words, precedent — however old or outdated — trumps custom. The precedent speaks for a Senate seat being attached to the office of flamen Dialis, regardless of the custom or practice of particular holders of the office.

The position of the tribunes was probably the correct one: rights should follow precedent, not custom. If I have, for example, a right to free expression that is constitutionally guaranteed to me by virtue of my status as a citizen, I do not lose that right because my fellow citizens have chosen not to exercise their similar right. Only a change in legislation could have this effect (and if one believes in “natural rights”, then not even then).

So what was the outcome for Flaccus? According to Livy, neither custom nor precedent decided the matter. Rather, Flaccus won his seat, “for it was the opinion of everyone that the flamen had carried his point rather by the uprightness of his life than by virtue of priestly privilege.” Thus, it remains an open question how the case would have been decided if Flaccus had not undergone a reformation of character.

Further Reading

Andrew Lintott. The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Livy. History of Rome (Vol. VII). Frank Gardner Moore (trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Richard E. Mitchell. “The Definition of patres and plebs: An End to the Struggle of the Orders,” in Kurt A. Raaflaub (ed.), Social Struggles in Archaic Rome. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Fritz Schulz. Principles of Roman Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thoughts Occasioned by a Strike

I know I’m going to get some heat for this post, but The Spectacled Avenger is nothing if not intrepid in his pursuit of truth, justice, and the Arcadian way, even if it means that he occasionally ruffles a few feathers.

Outdoor workers in the city in which I live have been on strike for over two weeks now, with no end in sight. Foremost among the services affected is waste collection.

I’m sure that my opinions on labour unions are such as would make most of my personal friends consider me a reactionary wing nut. The subject is too vast and controversial for me to consider in much detail here. I can, however, refer readers to my previous posting “A Tiger by the Tail” (March 8, 2009), as well as to my comments on rent-seeking behaviour in “Are We All Keynesians Now?” (March 16, 2009). Suffice it to say that, while I recognize the legal (not moral) right of unions to exist, and while I recognize that they once may have played a necessary social role, for the most part I despise them, and I generally trust them less than the capitalist exploiters they claim to oppose. As for public-sector unions in particular, their activities drift dangerously close to the boundaries of treason, close enough that such unions should probably be prohibited for the public good.

There. I said it.

I haven’t always felt this way. There was a time when I wanted nothing more than to work in a union shop. Since then, I have had experience on all sides of the fence: I have worked in both union and non-union environments, I have managed employees in both union and non-union environments, and I have furthermore had the very enlightening experience of being the employee of a union, thereby having the opportunity of seeing the whole racket from the inside.

Having been “protected” by a union, I can honestly say that I’d rather be protected by the local Mafia crew: in neither case am I allowed to opt out of the “service”, and the Mafia is probably more effective. Nine times out of ten, my union actively worked against my interests.

Having worked for a union, I can say that they care about nothing but their own financial gain and self-perpetuation, and they would think nothing of bringing society to its knees if it means a few extra bucks in their pockets. Indeed, they would not stick at sacrificing those very workers they claim to represent.

Having worked for the government relations department of a union, I can say that unions are just as corrupt, and just as destructive of the public integrity of society, as any large corporation or organized crime group. And yet, they are always the first to cloak their dubious activities in the rhetoric of “rights”, “justice”, and other moral concepts of whose meaning they haven’t the slightest inkling.

The teacher’s union I worked for liked to claim that everything they did was “for the children”, and if you disagreed with them you were automatically denounced as an antisocial monster. It was by far the most intolerant atmosphere I’ve ever worked in. And yet, all their activities seemed calculated to undermine the quality and long-term viability of public education. Something they were successful at was creating more — and better paid — positions for dues-paying teachers. In that sense, I guess they were worth the skim they took. Tony Soprano would approve.

Again, these are all general claims based on my personal experiences, and I have neither the time nor patience to lay out all my personal grievances in their sordid details. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Let us instead return to the municipal strike. In the media war (which, incidentally, the union seems to be losing), the strikers’ case seems most often to rest on two general arguments. There are other arguments made which turn on the specific issues at stake, but to the outsider these issues seem very petty and insubstantial, so I’d like to limit myself to the consideration of the two more general ones. They are: (i) unions protect all of us, by propping up wages, and (ii) those regular citizens who disagree with the strikers’ cause are motivated by mere envy.

I. “Unions Protect All of Us”

This is an old chestnut. The idea is that if there were no unions, employers would be able to ride roughshod over all of us. This is the labour version of the free-marketeer’s cry of “A rising tide floats all boats!”

Let us grant, for the sake of simplicity, that this argument had some validity in an earlier and less regulated era of capitalism. Is it still valid? If public-sector unions raise the wages of their employees, then that raise must come at some equivalent cost to taxpayers (or to their children, as the case may be). It’s simply a zero-sum game: their gain must be our loss.

“But”, the argument goes, “their gain is our gain too, because upward pressure is exerted on wages, which hopefully means higher wages for the rest of us.” Yes, and we’ll need those higher wages in order to pay for the increased cost of public services (which services, incidentally, seem to be ever-expanding, thanks in part to union lobbying). And because the rest of us are now supposedly earning more, producers must pass their increased wage costs on to us in the form of higher prices for goods.

When costs are artificially increased to more than the market would otherwise bear, the result is inflation. And inflation hurts us all. Inflation is not the only way in which unions hurt us all; there are also the countless little injustices they perpetrate, in the form of such things as “closed shops" and restricted access to employment opportunities, as well as their preference for seniority over merit. I could, of course, go on.

II. “The Public is Just Envious”

In the current strike, I keep hearing union advocates making the following claim: “The public’s denunciation of union demands simply represents their envy of those who have union jobs.” I don’t know why the pro-union camp continues to make this claim, because insulting the public like this can’t be gaining them many supporters. But then again, the union doesn’t need to care about the public. After all, the angrier we get, the more pressure there will be on our despicably ineffectual and corrupt mayor to resolve the strike, and the easiest way to do that will be to give the union what it wants. (Even if the dispute is forced into arbitration, past history shows that the union is more likely to get what it wants there, so it’s win-win for them.)

For the 76% or so of the public that is opposed to the strikers’ demands (according to a Toronto Star poll conducted in the day or two following the beginning of the strike), the union and its supporters “reason” with us by telling us we’re just motivated by vicious envy. Where I might like to take one of those jobs at a fraction of the pay, I am told that I am just jealous. Nice.

In any case, you don’t have to be a philosopher to see that this is not really an argument at all. Rather, it’s an ad hominem attack, so I feel justified in fighting fallacy with fallacy. Mine will take the form of a tu quoque (“you also”) attack: When it comes time to negotiate a new contract, unions are always the first to justify their outrageous demands by appealing to some other sector of workers — however inappropriate the comparison — that earns more than they do. Now that sounds an awful lot like envy to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a return to the bad old days when children worked in mines and strikes were broken by the cracking of heads. But common sense must prevail. We should question the need for public-sector unions, at least. And more should be done to expose the dubious motives and the crooked day-to-day activities of unions, much as we are so wont to do with corporations.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Frankenstein" Continued

Having gone through the plot of Frankenstein, I now intend to cherry pick some passages from the text that illustrate several deeper themes of the novel, most of them having to do with the question, What gives meaning to life? But before I do so, a couple of preliminary clarifications are in order.

First, notice that the full title of the novel is Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. We might wonder what the significance is of this subtitle. Prometheus was a Greek god, and there are two traditions surrounding him, which later became fused into one. The first tradition says that Prometheus gave fire to man, against the will of Zeus, who chained him to a rock, where an eagle would peck out his liver, which every day would grow back. In the second tradition, Prometheus made man from clay. In the fused version, Prometheus made man from clay and then stole the sacred fire to infuse life into his creation.

The parallels with Victor Frankenstein are obvious. Less obvious is the fact that Prometheus was also a god whose name in Greek means “forethought”. This is ironic, as there didn’t seem to be much forethought going on when Victor created his Monster.

Next, on the title page, Shelley provides a quote from John Milton’s great epic poem Paradise Lost, the subject matter of which is Adam and Eve and the Fall. The quote she chose occurs after Adam has eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He’s bewailing his fate, because God is going to find out what he’s done, and He won’t be happy. Adam is cursing his own existence. But at the same time he’s blaming God for his predicament: after all, he didn’t ask to be made the way he is, weak and given to temptation. If God doesn’t like him the way he is, then God shouldn’t have made him that way, only to blame him later.

Again, there’s an obvious parallel here with Frankenstein. Victor made his creature, and then, in a sense, he punished him for being the way he is. After all, the Monster couldn’t help being ugly. On this interpretation, Victor can be equated with God. At the very least, he’s been playing God.

Another parallel with Paradise Lost and the Fall is this: For his sin, Victor has his own Garden of Eden — his idyllic upbringing and family life — taken from him. Now he must wander until death. On this interpretation, Victor can be equated with Adam.

Here’s another parallel: In Paradise Lost, Satan is kicked out of Heaven for wanting to take over and be God. Similarly, in the novel Victor Frankenstein has usurped God’s power and is punished for it. On this interpretation, Victor can be equated with Satan.

Now onto the deeper themes of the story, of which I will pick out six.

I. “Thrownness”

At pages102-103 the Monster narrates his birth. He is bewildered by new sensations. He has no idea who he is or where he came from. He feels the pains of cold and hunger. Think of a new baby, just born. Now ask yourself the following question: Why do babies always wail when they’re born? We are tossed kicking and screaming into this breathing world.

The Monster naturally wonders who he is and what is his purpose (p. 128). The Monster also has abandonment issues (p.131). Deserted by his creator, his situation is actually worse than Adam’s. With some justification, the Monster curses his creator and wonders why he continues to live (p. 135).

The general idea here is that we are all the Monster, in that none of us has any choice in whether or not we are born. We are created out of the actions and motives of others, with no say in the matter. We are thrown into this life.

II. Science Can’t Give us the Meaning of Life

Victor Frankenstein has discovered the “ultimate principle of generation and of life”, and he has created a human being. And yet, although he can create life, he can’t seem to create meaningful life.

At page 40, Victor refers to “final causes”, of which the scientist is ignorant. A thing’s final cause is, roughly, the reason or purpose for that thing’s being. Victor is what philosophers would call the Monster’s “efficient cause”, much as the baseball bat is the efficient cause of the ball’s being driven out of the ballpark. But Victor can never be the Monster’s final cause. So, what is the Monster’s final cause? We do not know; he must find out for himself, and in a sense we are all in the same predicament.

III. The Will of Another Can’t Give Us the Meaning of Life

Victor created a new species, much as God is claimed to have done. We are supposed to bless God for this. What reason does Victor’s new species have to bless him? Victor created life with the goal of fame in mind. Why should Victor’s fame be of any concern to his creatures? Victor created the Monster for his own selfish purposes. Those purposes cannot become the Monster’s reason for living. Think in the previous post of some of the possible reasons I gave for your parents’ conceiving you: can any of those reasons give your life meaning?

The Monster wanted Victor to make him happy by creating a wife for him. Assuming Victor had carried through on this, would this goal of making the Monster happy have given any meaning to the Monster Bride’s life? Should she be satisfied with being told that her purpose for living is to make the Monster happy?

Whatever gives my life meaning, it must be my meaning. Somebody or something else cannot give my life meaning. A life must be lived from the inside.

This poses a difficulty for those who would explain the meaning of life by appealing to the plan of a Deity. What if God’s plan is not my plan? It’s perfectly conceivable that God could see some meaning in my life (or have some plan for my life), while I do not, because:

· I don’t identify with God’s plan, or
· I don’t have knowledge or access to that plan.

Again, the Monster is all of us: Your parents’ plans and goals for your life might not be your plans, in which case, becoming a doctor because your parents want you to become one won’t provide meaning to your life unless you too identify with the role of doctor.

IV. Relationship with Others, and with Community

We gain much of our identity and meaning for our lives by reference to those around us, to our relationships with family, friends, and community. In his Politics, Aristotle rightly said something to the effect that he who can live a life of solitude, apart from his fellow human beings, is either an animal or a god.

In the beginning, Victor’s family life is idyllic (pp. 33-34). He is happy because he has others. It’s interesting that, as he starts keeping secrets from them, he becomes estranged and alienated from them, and his life becomes progressively more miserable. It is tempting to wonder whether much of Victor’s misery is a result of having no one he can share the true nature of his secret to? His integrity is eaten away by shame.

Victor describes the birth of his creature in the following terms (p. 58): “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?... but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” Imagine that this was your parents' attitude to your birth and existence. Could you live a decent life if you knew that your parents hated you and wished you had never been born? (Incidentally, compare the Monster’s situation with Justine’s: the latter’s mother hated her, but she at least found happiness with the Frankensteins. No such luck for the Monster.)

Victor’s idyllic family life was ripped apart by his mother’s death (p. 43). She played the role in his life that he should have played for his own “offspring”. Instead, all Victor succeeded in giving his creature was bare life, a life whose meaning is difficult enough to divine from our perspective, let alone the Monster’s.

What’s worse, the Monster is able to discern the value of relationship, and he can feel its lack in his life (p. 121). Human beings are naturally social. In this light, we can begin to understand the Monster’s reasons for wanting a companion, a wife (p. 147). With a companion, the Monster believes he can have a meaningful life, can “become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded” (p. 147). This latter observation of the Monster’s brings us to the next theme.

V. We Need to be Respected as Persons

Victor seems to have trouble respecting others as persons. He even speaks of loved ones as if they were mere possessions. For example, at page 36, Elizabeth is spoken of as if she were a pet or a possession.

And as for the Monster, Victor never treats him with the respect of a person. He always refers to him as “it”, “the thing”, “the monster”, the “filthy wretch”, etc. He never gives it a name, and he never uses the pronoun “he” to refer to it. Such impersonal and objectifying language is de-humanizing. Imagine what effect it would have on you if your parents referred to you in such terms.

VI. A Meaningful Life Must Contain a Sense of Purpose

By the end of the novel, with all his loved ones gone, and all the things that gave his life meaning destroyed, the only thing keeping Victor going is his thirst for revenge. Now, only his need to hunt down and destroy the Monster can give his life any semblance of meaning (p. 201). With this minimal purpose accomplished, Victor will resign from life. His previous ambitions have come to naught. All he has left is revenge (p. 212).

Ironically, this desire for revenge is remarkably like the one that the Monster expressed earlier on: to destroy everything that means anything to Victor. Now, in a way, the Monster has succeeded in bestowing a kind of life on Victor: a melancholy life devoid of community, of relationship. They have traded places, and Victor has become his Monster.

Thus, it is only at the end of the story that Victor and the Monster have a kind of “relationship”: Each lives to destroy the other, and thus their lives have become intertwined. They prop each other up like ivy propping up a ruined edifice whilst it eats away the very stone.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus"

It’s about time that I presented another of my favourite books. This time, it’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus. A couple of things to note. First of all, I anticipate this being a long entry, so I’ll be separating it into two parts. Second, all page numbers given refer to the paperback Oxford World’s Classics edition. Third, for those who are more familiar with one or another movie version rather than reading the original novel, I’d suggest that you erase the movies from your memory; every movie version of the book I’ve seen bears little resemblance to the book.

I’ll begin by summarizing the plot, so that the order of the main events is in everyone’s minds, and so that we’re all on the “same page”, as it were. Then, I’ll discuss the themes that the book brings out, of which there are six, generally speaking.

Plot Outline

The story begins in the form of an exchange of letters between an English ship’s captain named Robert Walton, and his sister Mrs. Margaret Savile. We don’t have Mrs. Savile’s side of the correspondence. Walton is sailing near the North Pole when his sailors spot the mysterious figure of a huge man off in the distance travelling by dog sled.

Some time later, his crew rescue a man near death. This man’s name is Victor Frankenstein.

Robert Walton relates to his sister the story of Frankenstein and the events leading up to his presence in the Arctic.

Frankenstein’s Narrative

Frankenstein is Swiss by birth, from a well-off merchant family in Geneva. By his own account his upbringing was rather idyllic. He was loved, and he experienced no material want. During his childhood, his parents adopted an orphaned “sister”, Elizabeth, who — rather creepily — would end up being Frankenstein’s wife. He also has a brother, and a best friend named Clerval.

He doesn’t experience his first brush with sadness and tragedy until his mother dies, shortly before he goes off to university in Germany. There, he develops an interest in the new sciences, and his research focuses on the “principle of life and generation”. He figures that he can actually make new life, and he does this by reanimating a person put together from body parts collected from graveyards and tombs. Shelley is vague on the science here, and for our purposes it’s not important.

He creates this creature, and gives it life. When it opens its eyes, Victor takes one look at it and flees in horror, at its ugliness. He then has a nervous breakdown and is nursed back to health after some months by his friend Clerval.

When he recovers he decides to return to Geneva, after receiving a letter from his father about the death of his little brother, William. William has been murdered, and the family’s servant Justine has been accused of the crime. (It turns out that Justine has a back story. She was taken in by the family after her father died, because for some reason, Justine’s mother conceived an irrational dislike of her. Sound familiar? It’s much like Frankenstein’s visceral dislike of his own “offspring”.)

Approaching Geneva, Victor catches a glimpse of his creature off in the distance, and realizes he is being followed and that his creature is responsible for the crime.

To cut a long story short, Justine is tried, convicted, and executed for the murder of William. To escape from their recent travails, the family travels to the mountains for a while. While on a hike, Victor runs into the monster. The monster tells the story of his experiences since his creation.

The Monster’s Narrative

We began with Walton, the English sea captain, who tells Victor’s story, and Victor now tells us the Monster’s story. So we have a story within a story nested within a story.

The Monster’s Tale begins at page 102. He describes all the events from the moment he opened his eyes to his meeting with Victor. He poignantly describes the moment when his creator retreats in fear and disgust, a creator who should have treated him with love.

He leaves (with Victor’s papers) and wanders abroad. At one point he is chased by villagers. Finally, he finds a dwelling place in a shed attached to a cottage. Through a chink in the wall he can observe the goings on of the family; the father of the family is blind. In a sense, this is the closest the Monster gets to an education, and though one might find this passage boring, it is actually quite interesting. The Monster describes how he learned language by listening to the family, and how he learned to read by watching them read and teach language to the Turkish woman named Safie.

He listens to them as they read works of literature. In so doing he has natural aversions to depictions of vice, and natural attraction to depictions of virtue. There is an underlying philosophical idea here, which is that morality is innate: The Monster is born good, and must learn to be evil.

The Monster decides to make himself known to the family. He waits until the blind father is alone, hoping to make a connection with one who won’t immediately be horrified by him, hopefully to prepare the rest of the family to accept him. Unfortunately, the family returns, are horrified at the Monster, and attack him, driving him away.

Even this does not completely twist the Monster’s character, for he subsequently helps rescue a drowning girl. However, a farmer sees him and shoots at him. From this point on he is twisted. He has made it his life’s sole meaning to destroy everything Victor loves, to reduce Victor to the condition of the Monster. Perhaps in a twisted way, it’s also an attempt to communicate with his father, to make his father understand how he feels. In any case, he tracks Victor down, using the papers he has taken with him from Victor’s study and that he has learned how to read. He travels to Geneva, where he kills Victor’s brother and frames the servant girl Justine for the deed. That brings the Monster’s tale up to date. We now return to Victor’s narrative.

The Monster tries to make a deal with Victor: If Victor agrees to make another creature, a female, the Monster promises to take his bride and depart from the habitations of man. There is something ironic in this: The Monster proposes to have another created like him, in the same predicament. He would in a sense be guilty of the same hubris and egocentricity as Victor, having another human life generated for his own selfish reasons.

It might be useful to note that in this the Monster is not that much different from other parents. I imagine that if we could all find out what were the exact reasons and motivations our parents had for conceiving us, we might not be all that impressed. Here are just a few possibilities:

* To keep their marriage together.
* Because they were bored.
* Because it was what was expected of them, and to be honest they didn’t really want a child.
* Because they weren’t really thinking about it at all.
* Because they wanted someone to look after them when they were old.
* Because they wanted to leave something of themselves behind when they died.

Anyway, to return to the story, Victor agrees to the Monster’s proposal. He goes to Britain with his friend Clerval. From there he travels to the Orkneys, where he begins work on a bride for the Monster. However, at the last minute he destroys his work. He can’t bring himself to complete the project. Unfortunately, the Monster was watching through the window and saw Victor destroy his intended bride.

The Monster continues his project of destroying everything Victor loves. He kills Clerval and almost succeeds in having Victor framed for it.

I will be with you on your wedding night…

It is decided that Victor shall marry Elizabeth, partly as a way of healing the grief in the family caused by so much misfortune. Before the wedding the Monster confronts Victor and issues the following ominous warning: “I will be with you on your wedding night.” When the wedding night comes, the Monster kills Elizabeth.

Now, Shelley repeats this warning several times throughout the book. What is so significant about the threat?

First, notice that the Monster has referred to the wedding night, not the wedding day. Although there is no indication in the text that the Monster has raped Elizabeth, I think the Monster is referring to what would have been expected to happen on a wedding night, namely sex.

The sense of foreboding could be a natural reaction of a woman to the (first) act, in which a man could be expected to be at his most animalistic. The idea is that on his wedding night Victor will be reduced to a state just as bestial as the Monster’s. On his wedding night, Victor will be no better, no more human, than his Creature. Whether it is by Victor, or by the Monster, there will be a violation that night.

Note too, that the sex act is necessary to procreation. It may be implied that the wedding night will be just as much a violation as Victor’s act of creation when he created the Monster. The Monster’s very creation was an act of violence.

To cut a long story short, the Monster murders Elizabeth. Victor vows vengeance and decides to track the Monster to the ends of the earth, to kill him. By the end of the novel both are dead.

So much for the novel’s plot. In my next posting I will go through some of the deeper themes that Shelley’s masterwork explores.