The Monster of Babel

frankenstein_excitedIn the annual Torah cycle, we Jews always read the story of the Tower of Babel shortly before Halloween. This year we read it last Saturday. A strange coincidence. Although it’s not quite a horror story, the story of Babel is about evil.   In particular, it is about the evil that men might do when they all speak the same language. So empowered, Genesis informs us, men seek to glorify themselves rather than serving God. Frankenstein, the quintessential modern horror story, tells the same tale.

Consider the story of Babel. It’s a short, and in some ways obscure text:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. . . . They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” . . .

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” . . . the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

It is not entirely clear what the people did wrong. They built a city (and the Bible has mixed feelings about cities. As Leon Kass reminds us in his fine book on Genesis, Cain founded the first city), and a tower “that reaches to the heavens.” Why did they do that? They did it “to make a name for ourselves.” The sin seems to be that people are seeking to worship themselves and their works, rather than worshiping God.   They want to reach heaven themselves, and they don’t want to be scattered over the earth, either literally or, perhaps, metaphorically. It’s a form of idolatry. Moreover, the fear is that “nothing they plan will be impossible for them.” That would be bad—somehow human limitations are part of the goodness of Creation. (Recall that in Genesis 1, the Lord says that each thing he created is “good,” except for man. After completing Creation, the Lord declares that it is all good. But man is not good in and of himself. The most logical reading is that it is good for man to have a choice about being good or bad.)

As the modern age was dawning, two giants of the Enlightenment, Leibniz and Voltaire, debated the meaning of the phrase “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Leibniz sides with the Bible, maintaining that the tragic elements of life are somehow part of the world’s goodness. Voltaire, by contrast, looked at events like the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and thought it made a mockery of the idea that the Creation is good. Perhaps, Voltaire hoped, modern science and engineering could make it good.

That brings us to Frankenstein. By giving the book the subtitle ”the Modern Prometheus,” Mary Shelly was suggesting that the very same science which could make life on earth easier—curing disease, rending food less scarce, perhaps even ending famine, etc.—could, quite possibly, be a danger.   Prometheus is most famous for stealing fire from Zeus, and giving it (returning it to man, in some versions) to man. In some versions of the myth, Zeus sends Pandora, and all the evils she brings with her, as punishment. The moral? Technology is a problem. (In Genesis, recall that a descendent of Cain, Tubal-Cain is the first man “who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron.”)

When Francis Bacon and others invented and promoted the modern scientific method, they did so to turn men away from worshiping God and to encourage them to focus instead on “relief of man’s estate”—making life easier on earth, and worrying less about the world to come. (Bacon also spoke of using science for the “glory of the Creator.” But “Creator” in this context is an ambiguous term, and later scientists grew to be less focused on that side of things). Bacon had seen how the wars of the Reformation had torn apart England and much of Europe, leaving thousands and thousands dead in its wake. Why fight over doctrine? Surely that was not God’s wish. Why not cooperate for the good of all men?

In turning away from the Bible, Bacon turned to the universal language of science. This new science functions by creating a universal, mathematical, and strictly logical language that all reasoning men and women can understand and by following a determined, uniform method that all can understand. All of us, whatever our native tongue, can understand Newton’s account of gravity, or how the steam engine works, or how to make smallpox vaccine. There is, however, a downside. Explaining how to create nuclear bombs or how to weaponize diseases is also explained in such universal, scientific language. That’s our modern Pandora’s box.

That returns us to both Frankenstein and Babel. The story immediately before Babel in Genesis is the story of Noah. When Noah leaves the ark, the Lord declares, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” So long as men live on earth, the evil inclination will be present. That inclination is natural. The challenge is to minimize or even to guide it, and not to end it or to assume it away. That’s what makes universal cooperation such a danger. The stakes are too high. It gives too much power to a being that will often misbehave. Truly to change the world entails changing human nature—a fool’s errand.   As we know from the sad experience of the past couple of centuries, there is a fine line between idealism and misanthropy.

The modern effort at universalism is no less fraught with danger than was the ancient. Henry Adams put it this way, “Man has mounted science, and is now run away with. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of men. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control.” In creating modern science, with its universal language and method, we may have created the monster that the babel of tongues was designed to prevent. Happy Halloween.