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The Golden Mean as the Path to Happiness

Too much exercise destroys strength as much as too little, and in the same way too much or too little food or drink destroys the health, while the proportionate amount increases and preserves it. The same is true of temperance and courage and the other virtues, for he who is afraid of everything and does not stand firm becomes a coward, and he who fears nothing and rushes into danger becomes foolhardy. And in the same way the man who indulges himself in every pleasure becomes self-indulgent, and the man who abstains from every pleasure becomes boorish. Temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by too much and too little, but are preserved by the mean.

– Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics

Aristotle was clear that living in the ‘golden mean’ would retain the most balanced way of life. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the main characters display the repercussions of what living life in excess can do. Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton behave irrationally for the sake of personal glory. Likewise, the beast that Victor creates is immediately shunned and turned away from society, causing him to fear and be feared. These excessive behaviors could only lead these men to failure, but, according to Aristotle, if they had been able to find that middle road of reason, perhaps they would have succeeded.

The archetypal criticism approach says both the writer and reader share memories of the unconscious. A writer may incorporate these memories into his or her tale, which in turn may affect the reader. The reader is allowed to compare his or her own experiences, as well as other works, with the writer and the tale to receive a more distinct understanding of the piece. Commonalities in archetypal plots are the recurring archetypal characters such as the Scapegoat, the Hero, the Terrible Mother, and the Wise Old Man (Barnet, et al, 2004).

Aristotle felt that every moral virtue lies between extremes of pleasure or action. For instance, he said that too little confidence created cowardice and too much caused rashness, but that courage was the proper mean. Likewise, he felt that proper pride was the mean to having too much honor or undue humility. This is what he called the ‘golden mean’. In the Greek language, udaimonia means “well-being”. Aristotle believed that every person should seek udaimonia, or goals and happiness, in his or her life. He believed it was our duty to exercise our ability to think and reason and to flourish in the most practical manner possible. Contemplation, Aristotle also believed, was important to a having a good life. It is displayed in Frankenstein how the lack of these virtues leads the main characters to ultimate failure.

Both Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton are seeking immortality by accomplishing the impossible. We learn that Walton is a sea captain on a journey in the North Pole to discover a passage connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. He explains, “I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle… I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death…” (p.10.12-19) Walton desires to feel invincibility through this mission and seeks it out zealously. If Robert had chosen moderate courage over rashness, he may have avoided his coming failure.

Walton’s journey through the North Pole is stopped when their ship becomes stuck in the ice. Instead of rejoicing when the ship is freed and their lives are spared, he is bitter and resentful that his dream has failed. He shares this with Margaret in another letter. “I have consented to return… Thus my hopes are blasted by cowardice and indecision; I come back ignorant and disappointed.” (p.213.17-19) He remains arrogant even after hearing Victor’s horrendous tale and this is again seen in a letter to his sister. “I have lost my hopes of utility and glory.” (p.213.22-23) Walton’s true desire from this mission is not to better the world, but to achieve personal glory. His idea of being a part of a wondrous discovery that will make him famous is of more concern than the lives of himself and his crew and his excess vanity leads him back home empty-handed.

Victor Frankenstein also attempts to conquer mortality by achieving the unachievable. He becomes fascinated with natural philosophy, but even more with trying to defy it. He excels at his studies, especially anatomy, and his imagination and desire for knowledge helps him create the unthinkable. Frankenstein relates, “I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body…(p.46.34-35) I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” (p.47.27-28) He becomes so enthralled with his creation that he severs contact with his family and is taken ill from not eating. Victor expresses to his friend Henry Clerval, “‘…I have lately been so deeply engaged in one occupation, that I have not allowed myself sufficient rest…’” (p. 55.32-33)

Victor Frankenstein spends effort relaying his tragic story to Robert Walton. He forewarns Walton throughout his story to beware of the attraction for new knowledge and claims to have learned his lesson. “Think not, Walton, that in the last moments of my existence I feel that burning hatred, and ardent desire of revenge…” (p.214.27-29) However, even on his deathbed, Victor can’t help but still want to carry out his revenge. He feels this so strongly he goes so far as to ask Walton to take over his quest. “The task of his destruction was mine, but I have failed. When actuated by selfish and vicious motives, I asked you to undertake my finished work; and I renew this request now, when I am only induced by reason and virtue.” (p.215.10-13) Amazingly, Victor realizes his egocentricity was the factor that lead to his own failure, but yet is still blind and willing to pass the cup to his naive friend.

The daemon, whom Victor creates, is shunned immediately upon its birth. Victor conveys his loathing of his masterful fabrication, “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe… I had worked hard for nearly two years… deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it… but now that I had finished… breathless horror and disgust filled my heart”. (p. 52.12-53.2) Victor’s cowardice causes him to abandon his creation, leaving the daemon no way of learning how to act or behave. The daemon is deprived of love and happiness, which according to Aristotle is the end of the excess. The daemon’s insensibility and meanness ultimately lead him to failure. He expresses this to Walton, “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible to love and sympathy; and, when wretched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture… I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion. But now vice has degraded me beneath the meanest animal.” (p. 217.26-28, 219.5-6) Conceivably, if the daemon had been taught proper pride and liberality his life may have been more agreeable.

Throughout the tale of Frankenstein, Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and his daemonic creation all demonstrate how living life in the extreme can lead to ruin. Aristotle believed that behaving morally is a matter of practical reasoning and that this would lead one to definitive success in life. The three main characters in Frankenstein choose rashness or foolhardiness over courage, insensibility or self-indulgence over temperance, and undue humility or empty vanity over proper pride. By making extreme and excessive decisions, Walton assures his failure, Victor loses all of his family, and the daemon is destined to a miserable and wretched existence. Perhaps, if each had obsessed over Aristotle and his ‘golden mean’, they would have lived much happier and more successful lives.

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