Burke believed that “sympathy must be considered as a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected; so that this passion may either partake of the nature of those which regard self-preservation, and turning upon pain may be a source of the sublime; or it may turn upon ideas of pleasure; and then, whatever has been said of the social affections, whether they regard society in general, or only some particular modes of it, may be applicable here” (41). Burke’s theory of sympathy hinges on us putting ourselves in the shoes of someone else to be similarly affected. Only then can we truly understand this passion, which he refers to as sympathy.

The passage I chose from the novel was:

“I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery. Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Shelley 57).

From this passage, it is easy to see Victor’s attempt to warn of the dangers and misery associated with science. The juxtaposition of eagerness, wonder, and hope – emotional states that are normally indicative of optimism – with destruction and misery highlights an important paradox that is central to Victor’s caveat. Greater knowledge and understanding of the world will not lead to happiness; au contraire, it will only lead to one’s demise. This complete inversion of the benefits that we associate enlightenment with is similar to Rousseau’s conception of the “noble savage”, a natural man who remains completely untouched by the corrupting influences of civilization. The tragic irony of all of this is that happiness is associated with ignorance, while misery is associated with education and science.

The “secret” that Victor claims to know is not some arbitrary mathematical equation but instead a discovery of the truth in his lifetime. Victor’s pursuance of this knowledge causes his own undoing. His discovery that nature, an ambiguous term yet possibly denoting an all-powerful force which shapes the world, shall not be reckoned with is indicative or a larger conflict between man and nature. Victor’s desire to become greater than nature would allow not only shows that nature is a self-actualizing, active force in the world, but also that any attempts to interfere with its hegemony could very well be fatal.

Victor does have sympathy in this warning, as he doesn’t want others to have to learn this lesson the difficult way. His ability to put himself in the shoes of another lends an air of affection to his request. Even nature can be said to be sympathetic to Victor, for it regards the self-preservation of humanity an important matter and has decided to have this secret known to prevent any further misery among man. A central theme of this passage is Victor’s message, namely that ignorance is bliss. The intrusion of civilization into the realm of nature, the interference of human cognition with the ambiguous, synchronous ways of nature may result not in erudition and happiness, but inevitable misery. Victor’s dire message, in which he implores others not to err just as he did, is based on a sympathetic and affectionate notion of self-preservation for the rest of mankind. 

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