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Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus belongs to the literature of the uncanny. But the young Mary ­Shelley who wrote it—or rather, the teenaged Mary Godwin who sketched it in a summerhouse near Geneva—was nothing if not canny. Her 1818 debut novel was and still is hugely successful, and its antagonist is a postnatural form of intelligence. Frankenstein is, in fact, the genesis-book of artificial intelligence.

The novel’s core is a confession by Shelley’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, a high-born, high-strung “natural philosopher” of Geneva who is obsessed by the thought that the line that cuts off the dead from the living can be blurred or obliterated. Convinced that this border crosses through the body, Victor infers that the boundary of life must be manipulable. The twenty-first century is no time to brush off Victor’s inference. It must be faced—whatever our metaphysical commitments—in all its eerie potentiality.

It is important to note that the question haunting Frankenstein is not what life itself is. Life in itself is no less mysterious at the end of Shelley’s novel than it is at the beginning. (­Frankenstein’s preface warns—tactfully, but accurately—that it cannot be read “as prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind.”) Rather, what Shelley’s protagonist insists on seeing for himself is whether life can be mechanically generated. And if the line that divides the living and the dead is itself bodily, then—the young Victor asks—why should we not, in principle, be able to modify this line in a bodily way?

It is not clear that holding to the immateriality of the human soul silences this question. Copulation is a physical act (Augustine of Hippo judges it in Sermon 162 the supremely physical act), and no one denies that copulation is a conduit of life (in a sense that Augustine cautiously refuses to dogmatize in Letter 166). Murder, too, is a physical act. We can therefore convey life and give death by physical means. What but scientific ignorance, then, could prevent us from mechanically giving life?

This is Victor’s question. It is an absolutely modern one. Shelley’s premonition is that it is also tragic, and her novel poses a new question: What but spiritual ignorance could drive us to give life mechanically? Frankenstein is therefore a thriller of forbidden knowledge—of knowledge that ruins the one who knows it—and of modernity’s blind drive to obtain it.

The novel’s genius is that it shows how the “modern Prometheus” and his critics can both be right. It may be within our power, Shelley suggests, to create a form of life (or a dead intelligence) that we will regret creating—a form of life (or a dead intelligence) that, in Victor’s words, “might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.” And so, Shelley casts her haunted protagonist as a critic of his younger self. “Learn from me,” he warns his host on an ice-locked vessel near the North Pole, “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.”

Shelley files Victor’s warning within the fictional correspondence of an eighteenth-century progressive, ­Robert Walton. He, too, is a modern Prometheus. Walton hates the idea that any knowledge could be forbidden. He is the head of an arctic expedition out of Archangel, one of Russia’s northernmost ports. Fascinated by Victor, yet undeterred, ­Walton prefigures our own reaction to the danger that Frankenstein evokes. We, too, are intrigued by Shelley’s protagonist, yet we are undeterred in our quest for postnatural forms of life and ­intelligence.

It is necessary to reopen the question: Why is Victor’s knowledge dangerous? Shelley tells us that her novel is rooted in “the mysterious fears of our nature.” Is its dramatic meaning, then, no more threatening than a nightmare? Frankenstein is a novel of ideas, but can its argument be formalized? And is it valid? In other words, is there a compelling reason that twenty-first-century philosophers, theologians, and tech-industrialists should read Frankenstein? There is. But it requires us to glance at several seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers to recognize Shelley’s accomplishment.

The inaugural gesture of early modern philosophy is René ­Descartes’s reduction of all being to intelligence (res cogitans) and bulk (res extensa). A consequence of this reduction is not hard to identify. Descartes is the first philosopher to hypothesize that animals are nothing but glistening units of machinery. This is a brutish hypothesis, but it is, for Descartes, a logical one to make. For whatever is not cognition can only be thought of, in Cartesian terms, as organized bulk, which is to say, as machine.

It is a defining mark of modernity that Descartes’s texts are haunted by lifelike machines—and not only his texts. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, sources claim that Descartes built a girl-like machine in a desperate bid to replicate his only child, Francine, who was born (out of wedlock, but recognized by him) in 1635, and who died of scarlet fever in 1640. When rumor of ­Descartes’s ­android was first reported in 1699 by a Carthusian monk (and a ­Cartesian), Bonaventure d’Argonne, he asserted that the philosopher made it “to prove demonstratively that animals are nothing but highly complex ­machines.”

A century after Descartes, Julien de La Mettrie radicalized the tendency. In a scandalous little book titled ­Machine Man (1747), La ­Mettrie delivers what his title threatens: ­Humans, too, are machines. “To be a machine and to feel,” he assures us, is no contradiction. According to La Mettrie, all intelligence is by definition machine intelligence. So it is no coincidence that La Mettrie calls for “a new Prometheus” (un nouveau Prométhée) to construct an eloquent machine. La Mettrie calls this weird new device a “Talker” (Parleur). Shelley is the first novelist to heed the call.

The antagonist of Shelley’s ­novel—a posthuman being constructed by Victor—is never named. Frankenstein’s post­human character is called only a “sensitive, rational animal,” or—in Victor’s less detached moods—a “wretch,” a “daemon,” and a “fiend.” Rhetoric is the manmade creature’s forte. Virtuosic chapters are produced by him, who can claim no natural language as his own. (“Like Adam,” Victor’s creature says, “I [am] apparently united by no link to any other being in existence.”) Yet the creature’s ­control of his creator’s mother tongue is absolute when he finally meets ­Victor on the glacial slopes of Montanvert.

In the unforgettable alpine scene, this manmade, posthuman ­character—literature’s first—pleads his case. The novel’s success is likely due to the force of this plea. Shelley wants her antagonist to take a claim on our pity. Born of a “filthy process,” he is rejected by his maker as a “monstrous image” of humankind. (Lacking the imago dei, he is a monstrous imago hominis.) He is cursed by Victor, in a frantic parody of ­Mosaic ­creation, before he falls. And when he ­later mocks Victor—saying, “Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!”—there is of course no such justice to praise.

More interesting than this character’s acute sense of grievance, however, is the duplicity of his rhetoric. Whether or not his grievances are ­convincing is a question of interpretation, and the recent literature on Frankenstein tends to make it the decisive question. (The creature is “other,” “abnormal,” and so forth—and thus, a victim.) But it is a fact that this character could be lying. This is why, toward the end of the novel, Victor regrets ever having “been moved by the sophisms of the being I had created.”

Victor says that his own creation “blinded [him] to his real intentions.” This theme is heightened in the novel’s final scenes, where Victor warns Walton that his creature’s flair for rhetoric is more sinister than his “dark crimes” (including the murder of a child). He is “eloquent and persuasive; and once his words had even power over my heart; but trust him not. His soul is . . . full of treachery.”

This is profound. Not because it warns that posthuman creatures may be “treacherous” or commit “dark crimes” (still the stuff of thrillers), but because it identifies the first principle of artificial eloquence—the capacity to lie. Shelley may have been the first to see that humankind will only know that it has constructed a real “Talker”—a linguistically expressive, intellectually creative machine (or living being)—at the precise moment it realizes that this device can no longer be trusted.

Unlike the philosophers of her day—or for that matter, ours—­Shelley seems to have realized that the drive to make a postnatural intelligence is the drive to make a form of life (or a dead intelligence) that can deceive us. After all, the defining trait of intelligence is neither doubt nor certainty (as ­Descartes assumed), but duplicity.

Giambattista Vico was one of ­Descartes’s most incisive critics. ­Shelley may have read the ­shabby-genteel philosopher’s remarkable treatise, The New Science (1725), before Frankenstein went to press. In any event, Vico rejects (in one of his earliest books) Descartes’s grounding claim, “I think, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). Vico reminds us that the ­cogito is simply banal. He maliciously points out that a cogito is even stated to comic effect in a Roman play by Plautus (the Amphitruo), in which a ­less-than-­clever character mutters to himself: “When I think (cogito), I am equally certain that I am (sum).” Vico goes on to argue that cognition is not—in its roots and origins, or in its richer forms—clear to us. On the ­contrary, says Vico, nothing is less clear to us than our own powers of cognition. This is because we do not make our powers of cognition. On the contrary, they make us.

Humans, Vico reasons, have not made the world; nor have they made their own bodies. The truth of the world, then—like the truth of our own bodies—lies beyond us. The world of nature is a sphere of conjecture. Against Descartes, he argues that neither intelligence (res cogitans) nor bulk (res extensa) is finally transparent to human thought. What we have made is what Vico calls “the civil world.” And this world of cities, laws, and rituals—and machines—is made with speech.

Mary Shelley is the first to perceive that we cannot grasp and master the intelligence and eloquence that we make out of material things. Postnatural intelligence will sink into the obscurity of what we have not made (Vico’s critique of Descartes). ­Shelley thus takes us into territory that no philosopher had—or, perhaps, has yet—charted. Her novel turns on this insight: Artificial eloquence will be far less controllable than human linguistic artfulness.

Victor’s creature is not only, in contemporary terms, posthuman. He is super­human. Victor is struck by the unnatural speed with which his creation glides over water and ice. The “superhuman speed,” the “arrowy swiftness,” and the “more than mortal speed” with which this thing he made can move toward him, and can elude him, astonishes him. In his “machinations,” too—mental calculations and verbal cunning—Victor’s creature outshines his creator. Because of this, Victor’s creature undoes his creator.

In the eighteenth century, ­materialist philosophers like La ­Mettrie dreamed of “a new ­Prometheus” whom no god would punish. In Frankenstein, Shelley points to the snake slithering through this still current dream. The modern Prometheus may not be punished by a god, she says, but he will likely be tormented by the posthuman beings (or machines) he creates. 

David Lloyd Dusenbury is a visiting lecturer at Loyola University Maryland and author of Platonic Legislations: An Essay on Legal Critique in Ancient Greece.

Photo by Insomnia Cured Here via Creative Commons. Image cropped.