Speaking of Smith

Adam Smith and the Creation of Horror in Frankenstein

Shanon FitzGerald for AdamSmithWorks

What makes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein one of the most effective horror novels of all time? The answer would be incomplete without reference to Adam Smith.
Writing this, I'd just finished attending the first session of AdamSmithWorks’ Virtual Reading Group on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and selected sections of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. It was a wonderful, lively discussion carried out by participants from no less than four continents. What a wonder are our digital communications technologies that allow us to do this. (I echo EconTalk host Russ Roberts in asking, where’s the book on how terrifically anti-fragile and flexible services like Zoom proved to be, when vast swaths of the global economy were suddenly shifted onto them last March?)
One of the themes that kept coming up in our first group discussion was the questionable responsibility of Victor Frankenstein in, immediately upon animating his corpselike creature, fleeing from it. Why would a creator abandon his creation? Is creation necessarily an act of fatherhood? Would this change how we view Victor Frankenstein as a moral agent, or how we assess what he did and did not do to and with his “wretch”?
But as I considered this set of questions—and planned to hop into the discussion—I just kept thinking, and went down a path that led me to pull myself from the discussion queue and to take up a pen and notepad instead. After making a few notes, and with the hour almost up, it occurred to me, “Hey, why not write this thought up for Speaking of Smith?” And here we are.
The thought goes something like this, and pertains to how certain necessities imposed by genre can affect the shape of a work’s plot, and even determine some actions of main characters. As I understand the provenance of the Frankenstein story, Mary Shelley intentionally set out to write something scary. The editors of this interesting “science and engineering” edition of the novel put it this way: “Frankenstein is the literary offspring of an eighteen-year old girl ensconced in a romantic yet fraught summer getaway on the shores of Lake Geneva in response to a “dare” to come up with a ghost story.”
Based on this description, Shelley presumably set out to write a ghost story. She ended up with a novel of creation and horror at creation, and the human processes of reckoning with that horror. But the need to answer the original dare was always there, and it produced a need to stay somewhat within the confines of what we today would call the genre of horror.
I think this has consequences, and even helps to explain some of the areas where the novel feels particularly descriptively thin. Shelley can wax eloquent about the passions and sentiments of family life and affection and longing and responsibility, but when it comes to the initial relationship between Victor and his creation, words are sparse. Victor looks the monster in the eyes, feels revulsion, and flees to his bed. When upon waking he sees the "monster," he flees again. No emotional engagement, not even a physical or verbal “fight,” only a dread-filled “flight” from what seems to be a purely aesthetic horror. And this is where the questions about paternal and/or creatorly responsibility come in. When the door seems open to basic engagement with the creature, Shelley has Victor abandon him. Why?
It didn’t need to be that way. Or, it did. And that’s my point: this is how the novel simply had to go to fulfill the original mandate of being, at a minimum, an acceptable alternative to a ghost story. Victor Frankenstein, for Mary Shelley, could not remain the broadly sympathetic figure of Smithian virtue and propriety he is presented near the beginning as quite capable of becoming before heading off to study science at university. Nor could he immediately sympathize with his living research project. Instead, to become capable of inviting such unique dread to his world, he must—and I am speaking novelistically here—become an unbalanced character, a slave of his corrupted passion for vitalist life science. This is precisely what he becomes, as indeed, this is precisely what Shelley needed him to become to advance the plot in a direction suitable for the delivery of terror. Smithian figures don’t cut up bodies to build “new” ones. And even if they did, it is dubious whether they would so quickly take flight from their creations, particularly when it is not yet established whether their recently-animated being is humanity's friend or foe.
A modern analogy will allow me to make the same genre-necessity point with greater ease. We all know how cheesy and unrealistic horror movies can feel. Bad vibes and foreboding symbols tend to predominate, usually leading one or more characters into a key moment of decision: to enter the remote cabin or not? To descend the creepy stairwell into darkness, or to get back to the safety of the still-nearby party or group?
Often, when watching such scenes, we cannot help but to note how we would react differently if we were placed in such a situation. “Of course I wouldn’t keep talking with the clown-faced man in the sewer!” None of us would enter the remote forest cabin, either, and we’d all prefer the party to the creepy basement. 
But if we reflect on what we’re really saying there—characters, don’t do those foolish things that so obviously seem fraught with danger!—we see how, if our advice were to be followed, there wouldn’t be much of a story for us to watch at all. The sensible, prudent path is incompatible with the desired horror arc.
So too with Frankenstein. If in contemporary horror some kind of folly or naiveite is often the cause of the story going “awry” (or, from the genre perspective, of the story going right on track), in Shelley the prime mover is the main character’s initial adherence to, and subsequent loss of, a balanced sense of virtue, propriety, and family. Only in the protracted absence of these things—which stems from his frenzied passion for experimental creature-construction, even at the expense of his own physical and mental health—does Victor Frankenstein become the kind of man who can give rise to a monster and treat it rather monstrously, thereby galvanizing the creature's status as such.
It is very Smithian, come to think of it. Mutual relationality is key. I see better than ever why the powers that be decided these books should be read together. If “Kindness is the parent of kindness; and if to be beloved by our brethren be the great object of our ambition,” Shelley did Smith a great service by illustrating what we can expect to happen when kindness gets replaced by casual cruelty, and the possibility of being beloved gives way to an overwhelming sense of rejection. (TMS VI.ii.I.19)
Reading Frankenstein alongside the Theory of Moral Sentiments gives one a lot to think about, and both books continue to have a lot to say to the contemporary world. If, to harken back once again to the recent EconTalk conversation between Russ Roberts and Tyler Cowen, we are in the midst of a “biomedical moment” on account of things like CRISPR and mRNA vaccines, then it strikes me that more biologists, chemists, and thought-leaders in related fields should be reading and discussing Frankenstein and, more importantly, the moral and ethical questions it raises.
This cannot be done without understanding what is behind the horror in Frankenstein, and it would be quite the mistake to think that it is “the science” of animating corpses. The true horror of the work can only be grasped if one understands the Smithian flipside, better known as sympathy-based virtue, because the horror consists in its being undermined, betrayed, lost, and abandoned. A murderous, inhuman creature is only one result.
Shelley’s act of genius was committing to novel form Victor Frankenstein’s trajectory in this regard: his descent from family-loving, duty-fulfilling intellectual to isolated, twisted pursuer of dark arts. It is a story that properly should serve as a warning to those engaged in similar pursuits of that which is far beyond. Fear most not what you make, but how you made it, particularly if the result begins to horrify. Do the Victor Frankensteins of our world—in biology, technology, and genetic medicine most especially—understand that the monster, so far as they might be able to make or enable one, lies not outside of, but fundamentally within them?
Fortunately, I think that many do. (There is even an AI ethics researcher in our discussion group.) But with bioinformatic power and possibility more democratized than ever before, requiring only the Internet to access and readily-available computing power to process, certain dark potentialities a la Frankenstein are perhaps more probable than ever. Not all innovators will conduct their work with the best intentions (advanced hackers come to mind), or in the best frames of mind. There might be consequences.
This is one reason why, wherever mighty powers are being leveraged at the frontiers of contemporary technology and science, caution and care are not enough. Nor is “superior” knowledge. Humanity is required, and a broad capacity for sympathy is essential. 
In other words: Victor Frankensteins of today, I really hope you will read Mary Shelley. But as you do, don’t lose sight of Adam Smith.

Related Links:

Shannon Chamberlain, Adam Smith and the Eighteenth Century Novel in Letters
Alice Temnick, On Gulliver, Swift, and Adam Smith
Lecture by Dr. Caroline Breashears, Adam Smith and the Horror of Frankenstein 
Add a comment
Never shown anywhere
Sign in

Adam Smith y Política Fiscal

Thelmo Vargas-Madrigal for AdamSmithWorks

Costa Rican economist Thelmo Vargas-Madrigal explains the relevance of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations to modern discussions of public policy and the provision of public goods. 

Adam Smith on Fiscal Policy

Thelmo Vargas-Madrigal for AdamSmithWorks

Costa Rican economist Thelmo Vargas-Madrigal explains the relevance of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations to modern discussions of public policy and the provision of public goods. 

Adam Smith on the Interests of Labor and Business

Alex Aragona for AdamSmithWorks

According to Smith, to understand business economics we need to see that both labor and business should be recognized as classes, and that both pursue separate interests and agendas that sometimes conflict.

Adam Smith on Political Parties

Max Skjönsberg for AdamSmithWorks

Smith had both understanding of and insight into political parties, and while he spoke candidly about their harmful effects, he also believed that they could play an important role in reforming abuse and securing tranquility and happiness in the state.

Benevolence, Beneficence, and Beneficialness

Daniel B. Klein for AdamSmithWorks

What do these "three B's" have to do with the sentiment of gratitude? Daniel B. Klein explains. 

How to Read a Book Inspectionally

Art Carden for AdamSmithWorks

Inspectional reading is a tool that can make us better readers, scholars, and lifelong learners.

Devoured by Wild Beasts or Drowned Like Puppies? With Markets, Neither

Maria Pia Paganelli for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith understood that prosperity decreases desperation and spares the lives of many infants, older persons, and vulnerable others who cannot participate directly in production. Have today's critics of markets forgotten this lesson?

Smithian Exchange Among Non-Human Animals

James E. Hanley for AdamSmithWorks

Smith wrote about the human propensity to "truck, barter, and exchange," but the modern science of animal behavior suggests that we are not exactly alone in this capability. 

The Moon Phase Watch and Adam Smith’s Philosophy of History

Graham McAleer for AdamSmithWorks
Does Smith's philosophy of history give in to the apocalyptic temptation to "immanentize the eschaton"? A clue it does not is the moon phase watch. 

Adam Smith, Francis Fukuyama, and the Indignity of UBI

Thomas Koenig for AdamSmithWorks

UBI does not speak to the demands of dignity, nor to the Smithian needs to be seen and respected. 

Bargaining with the Butcher, Baker, and Brewer: A New Look at Smith’s Most Famous Sentences

Jacob Sider Jost for AdamSmithWorks

Our desire to persuade each other is not reducible to our pursuit of self-interest in a narrow material sense; it is rather a deep feature of human nature, one we share with the men and women whom we rely on for our food.

Profitable Business: Adam Smith’s Moral Assessment

Gregory Robson for AdamSmithWorks

What we get in Smith is not a utopian view of profitable business, but a humane and realistic assessment of the power of firms and the markets in which they operate to do good in the world.

What Adam Smith Ate: Christmas Punch

Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

Smith would have enjoyed his favorite claret, what we would call Bordeaux today, as well as, perhaps, a Christmas punch. 

Adam Smith Wishes You a Mereology Christmas

Graham McAleer for AdamSmithWorks

Aristotle’s proposition that individuals belong more to the republic than to themselves folds the part (individual) into the whole (polity). This mereology collapsed, argues Strauss, when people adopted the Christian belief in a personal transcendent destiny and a loyalty to a kingdom beyond this world.

Happiness in Times of Crisis

Garret Edwards for AdamSmithWorks

By François Topino-Lebrun - Public Domain

"In highlighting the anecdote of Pyrrhus and Cineas, Smith moves away from an answer to the happiness question that is merely economic or material."

Adam Smith Wants you to ENJOY the Holidays

James E. Hartley for AdamSmithWorks

...the holidays are coming and the goose is getting…dropped from the menu. Multiply that by all those things you used to do and will not be doing this year, and it all seems rather bleak. But, why? Why aren’t you excited that your forthcoming celebrations are going to be novel and different?

Adam Smith’s Readers in Eighteenth-Century Libraries

Max Skjönsberg for AdamSmithWorks

One way to investigate the broader impact of Smith’s writings is through the lens of eighteenth-century subscription libraries. 

Adam Smith on the Emergent Meaning of “Stuff”

Lauren Hall for AdamSmithWorks

While it’s not in the nature of Smith to wax too philosophical over human meaning, I think his treatment of property, combined with the themes of spontaneous order and emergent meaning that thread their way throughout his work, can help us come to terms with and understand the role that property or “stuff” plays in our lives and why it matters.

Adam Smith: Myths and Realities

Brianne Wolf for AdamSmithWorks

LF capitalist.jpg 36.33 KB

August 31, 2020 

The Sympathetic Businessman

Jon Murphy for AdamSmithWorks

July 17, 2020

Maugham's story is worth a read for entertainment, but it also highlights an important aspect of commerce: the necessity of sympathy. 

Adam Smith and the Costs of the Division of Labor

Alex Aragona for AdamSmithWorks

July 3, 2020

One shouldn’t be satisfied with any discussion of the division of labor that leaves consideration of the costs off the table. 

The Hopeful Vision of Saint Augustine and Adam Smith

Kenly Stewart for AdamSmithWorks

June 22, 2020

Here I use Tertullian’s formula to ask a different question, “What has Glasgow to do with Hippo?”

"Saving Adam Smith" Saves My Economics Class

Leah Kilfoyle for AdamSmithWorks

June 19, 2020

Saving Adam Smith hit the bullseye for my most recent search for a book that not only covers a number of my state’s standards, but demystifies the broader understanding of Adam Smith’s economics.

Joseph Banks

Carl Oberg for AdamSmithWorks

June 15, 2020

"...Banks, perhaps instinctively, knew more about economic change than his educational and scientific background let on."

Adam Smith and Jane Austen

Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

June 5, 2020

The similarities in Smith’s descriptions of moral weakness and Austen’s descriptions of people were undeniable. It was as if I could assign a different character in the book to each of Smith’s passages on moral philosophy.

The East Asian economic miracle: An iron hand, or an invisible one?

Rob York for AdamSmithWorks

May 18, 2020

A great leader isn’t necessary for great results, and an invisible hand beats an iron one any day. 

Fighting COVID-19 with Pretty Machines

Rachel Lomasky for AdamSmithWorks

May 4, 2020

Today’s machines are even prettier than the cleverly rigged piece of rope Smith admires. They are robots that help enable the prosperity of modern society. And during this time of global epidemic, their result is more than mere diversion.

The 18th Century and Social Networking

Carl Oberg for AdamSmithWorks

April 27, 2020

“...The mirth of … company is highly agreeable to him, and he regards this correspondence of their sentiments with his own as the greatest applause.”

Pro-Slavery, Anti-Smith

Timothy Sandefur for AdamSmithWorks

March 16, 2020

It’s unlikely that Burke imagined, when sneering at “economists” in his Reflections, that his defense of feudal hierarchy would later serve as the foundation for a bloody rebellion aimed at perpetuating chattel slavery.

What Would Adam Smith Say About Fasting?

Nathanael Snow for AdamSmithWorks

March 9, 2020

To become willing to share bread with the hungry and to enter into solidarity with the suffering of others requires the activation of what Adam Smith calls sympathy, the ability to enter into another person’s sentiments through imagining one’s self in her place.

Adam Smith in the Car and in the Classroom

Andrew Smith for AdamSmithWorks

February 24, 2020

“Dad, what if there were no money? What if we could have everything we wanted and not have to pay for it?” 

The Future of Farmers – Adam Smith Weighs In

Paul Schwennesen for AdamSmithWorks

February 17, 2020

The ailment, clearly, is not affecting farming, but farmers, historically understood. Our issue is a social one, not a technical one.

The Imitative Arts: Some Fun with Adam Smith’s Artistic Opinions

Maryann Corbett for AdamSmithWorks

January 13, 2020

In his essay on the arts, Smith says much that now looks wrong, but his questionable claims might be the most interesting things he has to say.

Adam Smith and Slavery

Matthew Lowenstein for AdamSmithWorks

December 2, 2019

...is he right on the economics? That is, are there instances when slave labor could, at least conceptually, more effectively mobilize and accumulate capital than free labor? 

Can We Become the Impartial Spectator?

Nir Ben-Moshe for AdamSmithWorks

November 11, 2019

To what extent did Smith believe we can become the impartial spectator?

A Modern Lawyer and Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence, Part 2

Clark Neily for AdamSmithWorks

October 7, 2019

Ensuring justice in a complex world is a daunting task. But it is the fundamental duty and the true raison d’etre of every sovereign, every elected body, and every legitimate political regime of whatever character or constitution.