Can you help me understand the following quote from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein:
"It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world."
"The secrets of heaven and earth" have to do with the creation of life. It is a secret that science still does not understand. Shelly reveals that this is the quest on which Victor Frankenstein embarks.
"and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me" is a reference to the confusion and the debate over whether your concern should be over the physical or the spiritual to discover the truths of life. Is science or scripture right? Are they at odds with each other? Do they work against or with each other?
"still inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world." Metaphysics is, according to dictionary.reference.com, is...
philosophy concerned with abstract thought or subjects, as existence, causality, or truth, concerned with first principles and ultimate grounds, as being, time or substance.
The point here is that ultimately the topic of origins and "life" belongs in the realm of Philosophy, not science.
In one of his final letters to his sister, the explorer Robert Walton, having rescued from the frigid Arctic Ocean the physically and emotionally exhausted Victor Frankenstein, and having found in this unexpected encounter a kindred spirit of sorts, offers an interesting prelude to the philosophical discussions that will follow as Mary Shelley's narrative shifts from Walton's travails to those of his guest:
One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race.
Walton's obsession with his expedition, despite his despondency at having become mired in the frozen wasteland of the Arctic, suggests that he and Frankenstein have more in common than one might imagine based upon the little we know of Frankenstein at this stage of the story. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, is a far more complicated story than the many cinematic adaptations that have been produced over the decades would suggest. While a classic of gothic literature, Shelley's novel is also a serious meditation on the nature of man and of the consequences of unchecked intellectual ambition. The quote provided in the student's question is made by Victor early in his story, and serves to capture the essence of this individual. He has not yet departed for university in Germany, and relates his fascinations with philosophy and science. The quote in question is immediately preceded by the following observation offered by the young, aspiring student regarding his own character:
My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some law in my temperature they were turned not towards childish pursuits but to an eager desire to learn, and not to learn all things indiscriminately. I confess that neither the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states possessed attractions for me.
Victor is declaring that his interests—obsessions, really—lie in the unknown questions about life and death that have baffled mankind throughout the ages. He yearns for knowledge regarding not just the physical world, but the one beyond the known world. As Victor continues to explain to Walton his sudden presence, as well as that of a mysterious and abnormally large figure who preceded him, he further illuminates the struggles within his psyche to understand the universe:
I have described myself as always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature. In spite of the intense labour and wonderful discoveries of modern philosophers, I always came from my studies discontented and unsatisfied. Sir Isaac Newton is said to have avowed that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great and unexplored ocean of truth.
The quote in Shelley's novel—"It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn . . ."—suggests the inner struggles that Victor experienced. And, the quote illuminates the motivating factor that propels his commitment to experimentation. As he further relates regarding his journey of discovery, "Under the guidance of my new preceptors [i.e., the myriad authors and philosophers whose writings he devoured] I entered the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon obtained my undivided attention." It is no accident that Victor references Newton, one of the most important figures in the history of the study of science. Newton laid the foundation for the modern study of physics, and he is seldom, if ever, confused with philosophers more interested in exploring the nature of man in the universe.
While the pursuit of knowledge was a part of his character, it was the death of his mother prior to his departure for the University of Ingolstadt that compelled Victor to intensify his search for the secrets of life. He is so determined to discover a way to reanimate dead tissue, to bring life back from the dead, that he makes the tragic mistake that will cost him everything he holds dear. Victor Frankenstein's story, as told to Robert Walton, begins with him torn between two almost dialectical directions of inquiry. The tragedy of his story is inherent in his decision to play God—a clear entanglement of the spiritual and the physical.