The celebration of human reason in science began in the 18th century. The period was also known as the Enlightenment, and the works and achievements of its brightest representatives such as Luigi Galvani, Voltaire, Erasmus Darwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant changed the lives of millions of people. It was necessary to know more and use the knowledge gained as the main power that could contribute to progress and perfection. The Age of Enlightenment was also defined as a period of scientific revolution when philosophers tried to oppose, or alternatively, cooperate with scientists. The Marquis de Condorcet was one of the brightest and most controversial representatives of that epoch. Mary Shelley was another interesting figure in the Enlightenment period. Though those two represented different worlds, they are credited with developing the best ideas and discussions that could be used to comprehend the historical significance and essence of science and the importance of human reason in any kind of scientific discovery. In this paper, Condorcet’s opinion on human happiness, the destruction of prejudice in science, and progress through human happiness and enjoyment will be discussed and compared with Shelley’s perspective on the role of science in human life and the development of human relationships.
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There are no doubts or uncertainties about the obvious growth of science and the progress of human reason in the Enlightenment. It was not enough to combine science and humanism, but it was deemed necessary to discover what people had to gain from science in order to achieve the required perfection and satisfaction. At the same time, those living at the time considered it necessary to clarify whether people deserved the right to personal satisfaction and enjoyment. Condorcet was one philosopher who tried to explain why the Enlightenment was the perfect period for people to establish new rules and follow new standards. He believed that “in this progress of industry and prosperity… each generation… is destined to fuller enjoyment… no one will fail to see how far removed from us this time is.”1 Condorcet was known to be a passionate and true supporter of liberty and equality. He tried to prove that gender or racial issues, social status, and history could not define human destiny. “Education cannot become general, even among men, without the cooperation of mothers… the human race should be regarded as capable of ultimate progress.”2
This progress as envisioned by that philosopher was in the power of the thought that only cooperation and mutual respect could save people and make use of progress and science for mankind’s good, wealth, and prosperity. The peculiar feature of Condorcet and his thought was the possibility to speak freely and rely on personal attitudes and intentions. It was the beginning of the Enlightenment, and philosophers were free to destroy old boundaries and create new rules.
The Age of Enlightenment can also be compared with the era of scientific awakening. When people are asked to share their opinions on how they define this awakening, many might mention Shelley’s Frankenstein. No scientific discovery of that time brought such terror nor made such an impression as the work by young Mary Shelley. “I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation,”3 were the words of Victor Frankenstein in the novel. Still, it appeared the author wanted to expound the same words and achieve the same goal.
The novel was written at the beginning of the 19th century when the Enlightenment had already changed the way people viewed their world and opened new scientific opportunities. Progress was evident: People could use science as an excuse for their mistakes or the explanation for their decisions. During the creation of Frankenstein, Shelley relied on experiences described by Galvani and Darwin to explore the possibility of using reanimated corpses and to reconsider the principle of life. She was confident that her imagination and the possibility of combining science, people, and dreams in one novel could open a new door in the Enlightenment. However, in contrast to Condorcet, Shelley was ready to draw on the experience of other revolutionaries and prove that progress and science were unlikely to lead only to positive outcomes.
The end of the Creature, like the outcomes of numerous scientific attempts, was terrible. “All men hate the wretched,” was the truth of life during the Enlightenment, leading to, “how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet, you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.”4 The end of the story ventured far from the expectations established by Condorcet half a century earlier.
In fact, it is hard to find common features in Shelley’s and Condorcet’s works. Still, their efforts to combine science and human feelings cannot be ignored. The achievements of Dr. Frankenstein as described by Shelley were similar to the achievements of Voltaire or Rousseau. People wanted to believe that their achievements, discoveries, and creations could change the quality of life and help all who might be in need. At the same time, it was impossible to predict the results and be confident that all people could be satisfied with the scientific outcomes offered. Science was not as positive and motivating as had been expected.
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Despite these expectations and the necessity to promote freedom and equality, people did not possess the requisite power. Science was dangerous because it opened new doors and provided people with perspective, but failed to give explanations and offer support. That was the main difference between Shelley’s and Condorcet’s perspectives on the relationship between science and human progress: Condorcet wanted to believe in improvement, and Shelley knew that improvements could be of differing types. Scientific progress as opposed to people’s enjoinment and human progress differed from human satisfaction. Shelley had enough time to comprehend the threat science could offer, and Condorcet did not get a chance to improve his position regarding the realities under which people were forced to live.
In general, the historical circumstances and the differences in the personal experiences of Shelley and Condorcet helped to create the lines of thought of these two powerful authors. Both tried to introduce science as it appeared to them at the moment. It was hard, even impossible, for Shelley and Condorcet to predict the outcomes. It may have been wrong and inappropriate for them to reconsider a history and write about something of which they were unaware. They shared their dreams and imagination with their readers and helped to create a perfect picture where science, progress, and human reason were connected with and opposed to each other at the same time.
Condorcet. “The Future Progress of the Human Mind.” Fordham University. Web.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus. New York, NY: Cala Editions, 2016.
1 Condorcet, “The Future Progress of the Human Mind,” Fordham University, Web.
3 Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (New York, NY: Cala Editions, 2016), 35.
4 Shelley, Frankenstein, 92.