The art of detection as practiced in the genre of mystery stories and novels is not just mere entertainment, but quite often an exercise in the foundations and limits of human reason. It behooves us as human beings imbued with the faculty of reason and the quest for meaning to examine the genre of detective fiction in a philosophical vein. We begin with a brief overview of the history of the detective fiction genre, then consider the influence and limits of its Enlightenment style preoccupation with rational deduction. Finally, a review is included from a summit held on the philosophy of Sherlock Holmes by a group of Holmes enthusiasts who just happen to also teach philosophy for a living, as found in The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes (2012), edited by Philip Tallon and David Baggett. As an ode to Holmes, each subsection is introduced with germane quotes from the famous sleuth.
Herrings, Red and Otherwise, in the Global History of Detecting
Historically, detective genre works can be found as far back as the ancient world, and often with a significant philosophical import. Greek plays such as Sophocles’ Oedipus included “all of the central characteristics and formal elements of the detective story, including a mystery surrounding a murder, a closed circle of suspects, and the gradual uncovering of a hidden past.” While the plot involved the unraveling of a riddle of family relations as Oedipus seeks to solve the murder of King Laius, the moral involved not so much prophecies and fate, but the genre of tragedy and how human faults drive our stories. Medieval Arabic culture produced the Thousand and One Nights, which included within it detective stories such as “The Three Apples” in which a crime is presented first then unraveled by detection traveling backwards in time. The Chinese, by contrast, typically presented acts, actors, and even motives of a crime at the beginning of a story, proceeding in the fashion of a morality play to show how the crime is solved. A number of works of such “Gong’an” crime fiction date from as early as the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century, and often included supernatural elements such as ghosts making prophecies or accusations, extensive casts of characters, and the inclusion of philosophical thought. Little is preserved of early Chinese fiction, however, as it was deemed more important to preserve classic literature of poetry and philosophy, as found in the Four Books and Five Classics of the Neo-Confucian tradition which was required learning for schoolchildren and aspiring civil servants alike.
As we move to the modern era, we find a playfulness in crime fiction which owes to the use of misdirections, or false clues, known as red herrings. Although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series would seem to be the most famous detective fiction in which the red herring appears, the practice has a history that predates Holmes. The term itself was first used by English writer William Cobbett in 1807, in telling a story in which a strong-smelling smoked fish was used to distract hounds from chasing a rabbit. That the red herring as a fish does not actually exist (the term actually refers to a butterflied herring, a “kipper,” which has turned red from being smoked or cured in brine, thus becoming odiously pungent while turning red in the process) adds to its mystique of deception. Such a misleading device appeared in the first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet,” in which the murderer writes the word “Rache,” the German word for “revenge,” at the crime scene, misleading police and reader alike to presume a German was involved in the crime. The history of the detective genre shows a number of steps in its development, some false starts or red herrings perhaps, though most of the writers build on the work of those before them.
Edgar Allan Poe (1808 – 1849) produced arguably the most famous early piece of detective fiction with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841. The eccentric but brilliant detective, C. Auguste Dupin, first appeared in this story. Dupin’s name, a nod to the English words “dupe” or “deception,” helped lead to the use of the term “detective” to describe the lead investigator. Poe followed with further Auguste Dupin tales, such as “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844). Poe characterized his stories as “tales of ratiocination” in which the plot involved the unraveling of the mysterious causes of a crime. Poe’s “Mystery of Marie Roget” was, in fact, Poe’s theory for the unsolved murder case of Mary Cecilia Rogers in New York in 1841. A woman (noted for her beauty) working at a tobacco store turned up dead in the Hudson River. Poe was not the first to write detective fiction, however, as nearly a century earlier Voltaire’s Zadig (1748) featured a protagonist who performed impressive feats of analysis in his philosophical wanderings in ancient Babylon; Zadig is considered to have influenced the creation of both Poe’s Auguste Dupin and A. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Louisa May Alcott in turn fashioned her detective, Antoine Dupres, in a parody on Poe’s Auguste Dupin, in V.V., or Plots and Counterplots (1865); Dupres was more concerned with the dramatic flourish of the reveal than in actually solving the crime. Another Frenchman, Elime Gaboriau, pioneered detective fiction in France, particularly with works such as Monsieur Lecoq (1868), in which the title character pioneers the use of disguises and scouring crime scenes for the slightest of clues.
Neither Dupin nor Lecoq entirely impressed Sherlock Holmes. In Doyle’s initial Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, Holmes says of Dupin
No doubt you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin … Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in one his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some genius, no doubt, but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe imagined him to be.
Of Gaboria’s Lecoq, Holmes “sniffed sardonically” in stating
Lecoq was a miserable bungler, he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months. It might have made a textbook for detectives to teach them what to avoid.
By contrast, Holmes declares, however non-self-effacingly, of himself that
Despite its modern origins in France and America, it was the English who perfected the craft of the detective story. Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), which followed his Woman in White (1859), led T.S. Eliot to claim that the work rivaled Poe’s as the first and best of English detective novels; Dorothy Sayers declared The Moonstone to be “probably the very finest detective fiction ever written.” The Moonstone introduced or popularized such elements as red herrings and false suspects, a celebrated and skilled detective beset with bungling incompetent local constabulary, and the device of a final plot twist. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in 1887 with the collection of stories A Study in Scarlet, the first of four novels and fifty-six short stories continuing until 1927.
Despite the enduring popularity of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the detective mystery genre hit its peak in the 1920s and 1930s with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. The era dominated by British authors included such works from prolific writers as G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries (1910 – 1936, fifty-three short stories propelled by the parish priest’s understanding of human nature) and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (beginning with The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920 and populating thirty-three novels, two plays, and more than fifty short stories between 1920 and 1975). Dorothy Sayers was considered one of the four “Queens of Crime,” along with Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. Sayers, a founder and third president of the British Detection Club (G.K. Chesterton was its inaugural president), wrote eleven novels and twenty-one short stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, a dilettante, British gentleman detective; Allingham’s gentleman sleuth Albert Campion began as a parody of Sayers’s Wimsey, while Marsh’s inspector Roderick Alleyn of the (London) Metropolitan Police rounded out the quartet of gentleman detectives.
Detection and Philosophy
He has all the Celtic power of quick intuition, but … he possesses two out of the three qualities necessary for the ideal detective. He has the power of observation and that of deduction. He is wanting only in knowledge.
– Sherlock Holmes, “The Sign of Four”
The art of mystery and detection is a relatively recent phenomena in the world of literature, Philosophers Charles Taliaferro and Michel Le Gall observe, arguing that “the detective novel as we know it has its origins in the nineteenth century.” But it is not Poe’s Dupin or Doyle’s Holmes that they have in mind, but the French philosopher August Comte (1798 – 1857) who advocated an Enlightenment-style application of scientific principles to the study of society, a tradition known as positivism. Comte’s approach influenced the practice of such disciplines as the study of history, the social sciences, and philosophy; in fact Comte is known as the father of sociology. However, the relevance of Comte’s positivism for the detective novel is rarely appreciated, Taliaferro and Le Gall claim, as it can be seen even in the works of Poe. Poe explored the limits, however, of deductive reasoning found in the detective genre, explaining in an essay titled “Instinct vs. Reason – A Black Cat” that
The leading distinction between instinct and reason seems to be, that, while the one is infinitely more exact, the more certain, and the more far-seeing in its sphere of action – the sphere of action in the other is of the far wider extent.
Poe thus echoes Aristotle from two millennia prior, as the ancient Greek philosopher admitted that logical reasoning can only go so far, however laser-focused to avoid fallacies. Admitting further knowledge into one’s premises can expand the reach of one’s axiomatic deduction, such as by observation and induction. Aristotle went so far as to claim that “Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic” (his term for logic), adding that proper persuasion is a function of not just the logic of a case (logos) but of the matters of character (ethos) and emotion (pathos) More recently, German philosopher Joseph Pieper, in considering where the once devout and philosophically advanced Germans went wrong vis-à-vis World War II, cited the myopic focus on rationality, the unquestioning acceptance of bureaucratic directives and economic efficiency, as the root cause of the Nazi plague. Germans had forgotten that culture derived from the root word of cultus or divine worship, thus neglecting to mix their industry with holidays (originally ”holydays”) to observe the transcendental foundations of culture. This mistake reflects the loss of their medieval heritage, Pieper claimed, as the practice of ratio, the foundation for ratiocination or logic, was understood by the medievals to be balanced by intellectus, a contemplative “activity of the soul” which takes in the larger picture, or “conceives that which it sees.” Thus, Pieper continues, true intellectual activity, the act of intellectus, requires man to become “a being open to wonder who did not create himself or the world in which he dwells” (italics added). Christian scripture makes the same point over and over, reminding us that God has “set eternity in our hearts,” and imploring us to use both our reason (“come now, let us reason together says the Lord, though your sins be as scarlet they will be as white as snow”) and sense (“taste and see that the Lord is good”), something Poe might have classified under the term instinct.
A final nail in the coffin of Comte’s positivism can be found in the criticism of Auguste Comte’s own (adopted and intellectual) father, which can help us better understand the limited scope of pure rational deduction. Comte was a disciple and adopted son of French utopian Henri de Saint-Simon (1760 -1825), who, inspired by the emancipatory winds of the French Revolution of 1789, envisioned a new social order based on merit and the spiritual values of the arts to replace the old order of medieval hierarchy and privilege. Leading this charge for Saint-Simon was the arts, “exercising over society a positive power, a true priestly function” and forming an advanced guard, the avante garde as it came to be known in artistic circles, which yet sought to both reflect and lead the popular audience. For Saint-Simon, art came to perform a role similar to that of the Old Testament prophets, guiding society into greater social, if not spiritual, awareness; in his final works, he preached a form of Christian socialism centered on the “sublime principle” of Christianity that “men should treat one another as brothers.” But Comte’s rational analysis of society, which centered on social relations emanating from industrialization, disturbed Saint-Simon, who criticized Comte because he “had neglected the religious, or imaginative and sentimental, side of human nature” in his analysis and suggestions for the shape of society. We can see the same interplay between that which we can deduce and what we can only intuit by some other means, as we turn next to consider Sherlock Holmes, the literary world’s greatest detective.
Sherlock Holmes the Not Entirely Rational Philosopher
When it comes to detection and mystery, key insights on the art of detection may be found from a 2012 symposium on the philosophy of Sherlock Holmes, in a book of the same title edited by philosophers Philip Tallon and David Baggett. The conference reportedly convened at the University of Bern in Switzerland, near the famous Reichenbach Falls where Holmes and his evil nemesis Moriarty reputedly fell to their demise while embraced in mortal combat in The Final Problem. Observations and deductions about Holmes’s methods, and their limits and implications, are presented in the volume and here reviewed, though not all of its chapter discussions are included.
Dorothy Sayers: “Aristotle on Detective Fiction”
Just as we ended the history of the detection genre with a group headed by Dorothy Sayers, Sayers provides a thorough introduction to the philosophy of Sherlock Holmes by comparing his methods to those of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, in the lecture “Aristotle on Detective Fiction” she gave at Oxford in 1935. Sayers draws on Aristotle in analyzing the genre of detective fiction by applying principles presented in his Poetics. According to Sayers, “in his heart of hearts,” what Aristotle “desired was a Good Detective Story,” though it was “not his fault, poor man, that he lived some twenty centuries too early to revel in the Perepities of Trent’s Last Case or the Discoveries of The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Instead, Aristotle had Greek plays, typically tragedies like Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, to study. Cathartic emotional release was one objective of such plays, Aristotle claimed, so that we may feel the tragedy of human fault and the horror of evil. A meaningful plot was another objective, not just a series of CGI-enhanced episodes, but developments which occurred “in consequence of one another.” Aristotle went so far as to claim that plot is more essential than the characters, as it is “the life and soul” of a story, so that a story “is impossible without action, but there may be one without character.” The effective tragedy would further require “an action that is serious” (murder easily qualifies), be “complete in itself” (no loose ends) and contain “incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”
Catharsis, the “purification and purgation of emotions through dramatic art,” is the reason that Sayers enjoyed the detective genre so much. “Of all the forms of modern fiction,” Sayers declares, “the detective story alone makes virtue ex hypothesi more interesting than vice, the detective more beloved than the criminal.” Instead of promoting crime (how many people have, inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, murdered their uncles? she asks), the well-written detective novel deters it. One does well to recall that Sayers was part of the Oxford-based literary group of Christian apologists (some of whom were known as the Inklings) along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien among others, whose fictional works (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings respectively) illustrated mythical and heroic qualities relevant to “real life.” Thus, Lewis declared that
The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores them to the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savoury for having been dipped in a story.
Sayers explains, in a similar vein to Lewis, that the effective mystery novel may “excite evil passions” but only “to sublimate at the same time by the contemplation of emotional or intellectual beauty” co-opted in their detection.
Aristotle further elaborates on effective plot devices relevant for the detective novel: suffering, reversal of fortune, discovery, and, most interestingly, the role of the improbable. Suffering (pain, in the extreme, murder) engages the audience, but should not distract from the plot. Reversal of fortune (or Peripety) aids the plot, but is due to a defect in the character, in the vein of a morally instructive work of the tragedy genre. The characters who suffer or have their fortunes reversed must be realistic, characters with whom we can empathize, though with faults that lead to their misfortune, as
Aristotle presents a variety of modes of discovery, the worst being that by the author himself, better alternatives being those by learning facts, using memories, and reasoning. A final form of discovery, through faulty reasoning of another party, is highly adaptable by the detective novel, as it encompasses bluffing as well as the modern device of the red herring, misleading clues; Sayers thus declares:
There is your recipe for detective fiction: the Art of Framing Lies. From beginning to end of your book, it is your whole aim and object to lead the reader up to the garden; to induce him to believe a lie.
Sayers finds Aristotle surprisingly relevant for interpreting detective fiction, such as that of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Most surprising of all, however, is that Holmes’s dictum regarding the improbable and impossible can be found in Aristotle fully two millennia earlier. While Holmes is famous for stating that:
Sayers finds Aristotle declaring similarly that:
Aristotle thereby limited the use of highly improbable and random plot twists, though the probability of a development was tied to the fathomable nature of the character. Nevertheless, Sayers finds Aristotle supporting the creation of the impossibly talented Sherlock Holmes, explain the great philosopher,
the impossible-probable is better than the improbably-possible; for (says Aristotle again) “if a detective such as Conan Doyle described be impossible, the answer is that it is better he should be like that, since the artist ought to improve on his model”
Sayers’s use of Aristotle to explain Holmes and the genre of detective fiction, which he would have to wait two millennia to see, is instructive. The copious references to detective mysteries involving Holmes and others has been suppressed in this summary, though to the knowledgeable reader of especially English detective fiction, they make Sayers’s discussion all the richer.
David Baggett: “Sherlock Holmes as Epistemologist”
David Baggett affirms the limit to rational deduction-crunching, as did Poe et. al. above, arguing in “Sherlock Holmes as Epistemologist” that Holmes is more than a mere “myopic logic chopper devoid of emotion.” Instead, Baggett claims that Holmes “exhibits traits that make the most ardent feminist proud: passion, instinct, and artistry,” the joke on Holmes made apparent by author A. Conan Doyle’s comment that “Holmes is as inhuman as a Babbage calculating machine and just as likely to fall in love.” This is despite Robert Downey Jr.’s depiction of Holmes as a romancer of Irene Adler in the Guy Ritchie film productions, Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011). Beyond the matter of love, however, Baggett shows Holmes as surpassing Doyle’s dismissive comments of the humanity of the famous sleuth.
Baggett shows Holmes driven by the quest for purpose and beauty not found in the sterile circles of cold reason. Holmes’s drug-induced depressions stemming from the “insufferable fatigues of idleness” highlighted his melancholic quest for meaning, as did his questioning. “Is not all life pathetic and futile …. We reach. We grasp. And what is life in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow – misery.” Of goodness and beauty, Holmes declared in “The Naval Treaty” that:
There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science, by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for the existence in the first place. But this rose is extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope for from the flowers.
Baggett further fleshes out the humanity of Holmes in various ways. There is a slight bit of the derring-do of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk that balances out the myopically logical Mr. Spock or Data: Holmes could not solve every case (Irene Adler, among others, evaded his skills), though he optimistically manufactured hypotheses which did not always prove correct. For instance, in “A Study in Scarlet” Holmes is initially misled in his theory of the Germanic origins of the term “Rache,” and in “The Blue Carbuncle” chides Watson that “you are too timid in drawing your inferences” when speculating about the traits of the owner of a hat. The passion for justice would often lead Holmes to forgo food and sleep for days while he contemplated a case, though he would occasionally compassionately set a perpetrator free due to moral or mitigating factors. Despite Holmes’s attention to minute detail, he also possessed superior instincts, and such instinctive knowledge is often hailed by feminist epistemologists as an ineffable or nameless quality of how we obtain knowledge, in contrast to typically male-oriented rational deduction. The artistry of Holmes’s use of reason, Baggett further claims, draws from his love of music and art, and his grandmother being the sister of a famous artist. Holmes was thus not a reasoning machine devoid of humanity, though Baggett suggests that “he needed to get more in touch” with it.
Massimo Pigliucci: “Sherlock’s Reasoning Toolbox”
To see Holmes as more in touch with his humanity, and less the passionless calculating machine, Massimo Pigliucci offers a first step by examining “Sherlock’s Reasoning Toolbox.” Holmes’s methodology throughout his four novels and fifty-six short stories “is certainly not deduction, as so often maintained Dr. Watson or by Holmes himself,” Pigliucci claims, citing Holmes’s own admission: “when a fact appears to be opposed by a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation.” Instead, Holmes augments deduction with induction, claiming that “we balance probabilities and can choose the most likely” as “it is the scientific use of the imagination.” Induction alone, however, is not an adequate tool: Pigliucci reviews the history of the problem of induction, namely that there will can always lurk some counterfactual, as admitted by such philosophers as David Hume (1711-76), John Stuart Mill (1806-73), Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and Karl Popper (1902-94). Even Charles Darwin’s (1809-92) theory of evolution is susceptible to this problem inherent to induction, and Pigliucci notes that recent philosophers of science admit that there are a great deal of human intentions underlying scientific research and which facts are studied. This imagination opens Holmes up to consider all manner of human behavior, for good or ill, as once he surmised that “we must look for consistency. Where there is a want of it, we must suspect deception.” Holmes thus practices neither solely deduction nor solely induction, but a pragmatic mix of the two. Prying Holmes from the caricature of an engine of deduction is only a first, however small, step in his humanization.
D.Q. McInerny: “Artist of Reason”
The case that Holmes is not a mere (deductive) reasoning machine is furthered by D.Q. McInerny’s in his chapter, “Artist of Reason.” McInerny notes that despite Watson’s claim that Holmes is “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen,” even Holmes admits that Inspector Gregory would “rise to great heights in his profession” if only he were “gifted with imagination,” the lack of which Holmes even once faulted himself, as “wanting in that mixture of imagination and reality which is the basis of my art.” In “The Valley of Fear,” Holmes dignifies his guesswork with the question “how often is imagination the mother of truth?” and shortly after, he admits that “some touch of the artist wells up within me” in his sleuthing. The passion of an artist shines through as well, as Watson can see the “fiery soul behind the cold gray face.” Finally, McInerny shows that the passion of Sherlock Holmes is not just limited to the artistry of his reasoning, but to the quest for the knowledge of greater causes, with statements such as:
From a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having heard or seen of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it.
What is the meaning of it, Watson? What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else the universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.
Kyle Blanchette: “Eliminating the Impossible: Sherlock Holmes and the Supernatural”
Kyle Blanchette examines the metaphysical side of Holmes even further in “Eliminating the Impossible: Sherlock Holmes and the Supernatural.” At least two specific instances of the supernatural can be found in the Holmes canon: the numinously glowing and ostensibly demonic beast in The Hound of the Baskervilles and the miraculous resurrection of Lord Blackwood in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes (which is not based on any of Doyle’s stories). In the film, Watson prods Holmes with “you have to admit, Holmes, that a supernatural explanation to this case is theoretically possible,” though Holmes replies that “it is a huge mistake to theorize before one has data” since “inevitably, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” In The Hound of the Baskervilles, to Dr. Mortimer’s suggestion that “there is a realm in which the most acute and the most experienced of detectives is helpless” (the supernatural), Holmes admits that if “we are dealing with forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature, there is an end to our investigation.”
Philosophically, the methodology of Holmes – deduction, induction, a thorough knowledge of facts – runs against the explanation of “the God of the gaps,” as articulated by theistic philosopher William Draper, “the search for natural causes should continue until the best explanation of the failure to find one is that there is none.” Similarly, Richard Swinburne makes the point that natural laws may undergo revision upon discovery of new facts, but to contort them to account for the apparently miraculous does them a disservice and resort to explanation by way of the miraculous becomes sensible, while waiting indefinitely for further facts may not be. Blanchette thus proposes the thought experiment that what if the Baskerville Hound had a round of gunshot fired into him which passed through his ghostly being, or Lord Blackwood had turned out to have had his neck truly broken upon hanging and resurrected from an airtight coffin twenty-four hours later: in those cases, the miraculous explanation would have been preferred. Holmes would then have been forced back to his declaration regarding the supernatural, that:
He would also be forced back to Blanchette’s conclusion that:
Charles Taliaferro and Michel Le Gall: “Passionate Objectivity in Sherlock Holmes”
In “Passionate Objectivity in Sherlock Holmes,” philosophers Charles Taliaferro and Michel Le Gall portray the differences between the humane (Captain Kirk- or Dr. Bones- like) Watson and the logical (Spock- or Data-like) Holmes as reflective of the philosophical ethics debate between truth and loyalty to one’s friends. In The Sign of Four, Watson muses on the pleasant ways and “singularly spiritual and sympathetic” eyes of Miss Mary Morstan, while Holmes retorts that “emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.” The philosophical problem boils down to “would you turn in your friend?” or instead hope to help them otherwise reform, or escape, on their own later? Holmes is easily cast as someone who would value the virtue of honesty over that of loyalty, though Watson does state of Holmes’s concern for him after being shot and wounded that “for the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.” Taliaferro and Le Gall also credit Holmes with an observation on love made by C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves and The Great Divorce in which “love, becoming a god, becomes a devil,” as well as by Augustine who warned that improper love can become an idol. To wit, in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” “the child’s grasping, rapacious love for his father … manifests itself in jealousy and cruel hatred,” so that Holmes describes it as “distorted” and “maniacal exaggerated love.” Tagliaferro and Le Gall thus show that Holmes honors the virtues of both truth and loyalty, or logic and love. Holmes’s sympathy sneaks out when he reflects on the explorer Dr. Sterndale’s murder of his wife’s killer in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,”
Even more explicitly, Watson attests to the duality of both natures dwelling within the very human, and humane, Holmes in “The Red-Headed League,”
My friend was an enthusiastic musician … all the afternoon he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his log, thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes, the sleuth-hound … as it was possible to conceive. In his singular character the dual nature alternately asserted itself, and his extreme exactness and astuteness represented, as I have often though the reaction against the poetic and contemplative mood which occasionally predominated in him.
Philip Tallon: Sherlock and Friends – “Watsons, Adlers, Lestrades, and Moriarties”
That the humanity of Holmes can be seen in his various loves, his friends, as well as in his rivals is discussed by Philip Tallon in “Watsons, Adlers, Lestrades, and Moriarties.” Tallon cites both Aristotle and C.S. Lewis in declaring the invaluable nature of friendship,
In all of modern literature, Tallon claims, friendships such as that of Holmes and Watson are “often overlooked,” though theirs “is surely better known now than the rest of the great romances of the Elizabethan stage” save “the exception of Romeo and Juliet,” though Tolkien’s Samwise and Frodo might come close. But it is to Aristotle that Tallon looks for the defining characteristic of friendships, “reciprocated good-will,” though it is found in three grades: friendships of use, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of virtue.
Useful friends of Holmes include the Baker Street Irregulars, “the street urchins who perform surveillance and run legally questionable errands on behalf of Holmes,” or his landlady Mrs. Hudson. Friendships based on the pleasure of each other’s company, which last as long as the pleasure lasts, are actually scarce for Holmes, as he admits that in his university days, “I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson, always rather fond of moping in my rooms.” Holmes did admit to an aberrant friendship of mutual pleasure with Victor Trevor, “the only friend I made during the two years I was at college,” though their friendship resulted from the ironic bond that “he was as friendless as I.” Holmes’s brother Mycroft, however, took the practice of friendlessness to an entirely surpassing level, as his Diogenes Club was formed of the
Many men in London, you know, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows . . . It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubable men in town. No member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one. Save in the stranger’s Room, no talking is, under any circumstances, allowed, and three offences, if brought to the notice of the committee, render the talker liable to expulsion. My brother was one of the founders, and I have myself found it a very soothing atmosphere.
The most perfect form, the friendship of virtue, “is based on mutual appreciation and respect for the friend’s good character” as Tallon summarizes. Aristotle’s full definition is instructive as well:
Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other good, and they are good themselves. Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends … therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good – and goodness is an enduring thing.
Watson and Holmes prove to be both “alike in virtue” as well as “wish well” of each other. Watson claims that Holmes was “the best and wisest man whom I have ever known,” and detected in return the “glimpse of a great heart” (though “only for a moment,” when Watson was shot). Such friendship is not quite the same as romantic love, however, as Tallon reminds us of Lewis’s description,
Thus, friendships may be multiple as they enjoy mutual activities together, like cheering on World Cup soccer teams, favorite chess players, or fighting crime and unraveling mysteries, while lovers are instead “focused on their love for each other.”
The opposite of friendship, enemies to whom one would reciprocate not good will but ill, can also be seen with Holmes. Tallon identifies three varieties: the competitor, the rival, and the foe. Irene Adler, who outwitted Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” was Holmes’s competitor, as only one of them could win the game of securing the embarrassing photo of the Bohemian monarch, though Holmes did receive the consolation prize of a photo left by, and of, Adler herself. Inspector Lestrade qualifies as a rival, with whom Holmes is competitive in the exercise of their skills, though they work for a similar purpose and thus do not harbor ill-will towards the other; Tallon suggests the term “frenemy.” Holmes’s description of Scotland Yard detectives illustrates this:
Gregson is the smartest of the Scotland Yarders, he and Lestrade are the pick of a bad lot. … They have their knives into one another, too. They are as jealous as a pair of professional beauties. There will be some fun over this case if they are both put upon the scent.
The foe, such as Moriarty, is the complete opposite of the friend, an enemy who wishes ill will. Foes thoroughly distort friendship by matching in their virtues while yet wishing ill for the work, if not the person, of the other. Observe Holmes’s description of Moriarty in “The Final Problem”:
He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.
The foe may in fact bring out the best in oneself, Tallon observes, explaining that Holmes is forced to draw on all his skills in the “moral crusade” to oppose him, though at the expense of his own life; the foe can thus not be turned into a friend.
Gregory Bassham: “The Industrious Sherlock Holmes”
While Tallon humanizes Holmes by his friendships, Gregory Bassham imbues a sense of moral purpose into the detective’s obsessive crime-solving pursuits, but asks if Holmes was a workaholic. Characteristics include obsession with work, having few friends, perfectionism, and health issues due to poor personal care, both physically and emotionally; Holmes qualifies on each count, as descriptions of his “fits of blackest depression” and sleepless nights when on the case attest. Holmes’s relentless energy on the job spoke to Doyle’s Victorian audience, heirs of the Protestant work ethic, which replaced ethics of contemplation (and leave the work to the slaves or non-spiritual) of Ancient Greek aristocrats and philosophers as well as Medieval mystics. Today, by contrast, the notion of a spiritual sanctity to work has largely disappeared, and trends towards socialization and simplification of lifestyle have replaced it. Lacking a religious context, the tradeoff becomes “working to live” versus “living to work,” as bemoaned by thinkers secular and religious alike, from Henry David Thoreau in Walden (1854) to Joseph Pieper in Leisure, The Basis of Culture (1952), respectively.
So, was Holmes a workaholic? Bassham admits that by many standards, his full life as a college professor might classify him as such as well. Given that both his and Holmes‘s causes serve a social function, they would both be at worst “benign workaholics.” One measure that one has their work under control, and not the reverse, is the ability to stop, which Holmes demonstrates when he claimed that “the supreme gift of the artist” is “the knowledge of when to stop.” Another is the ultimate purpose of one’s work: if it is to get the “gaudier Rolex than your neighbor” that is unhealthy, whereas fighting injustice, like Batman, would be good. Holmes thus most likely mimics Mother Teresa, despite his obviously manically obsessive ways, in the spirit of the Billy Joel song, “Holmes may be crazy, but he just may be the sort of lunatic we’re looking for.”
Conclusion: Sherlock Holmes and C.S. Lewis
Holmes has been shown by this panel of philosophers to be much more than a merely deductive machine. His openness to the complexity of human motives and the wonder of life itself peeks through nearly every chapter review presented. Holmes’s unflagging quest for justice implies the value he places on salvaging the humane and recognizing a cosmic order beneath the madness. Holmes thus echoes C.S. Lewis, who displayed the same questioning of injustice and rage at evil in his essay “De Futilitate,”
There is, to be sure, one glaringly obvious ground for denying that any moral purpose at all is operative in the universe: namely, the actual course of events in all its wasteful cruelty and apparent indifference, or hostility, to life. But then, I maintain, this is precisely the ground which we cannot use. Unless we judge this waste and cruelty to be real evils we cannot condemn the universe for exhibiting them. Unless we take our own standard of goodness to be valid in principle (however fallible our particular applications of it) we cannot mean anything by calling waste and cruelty evils.
Lewis cites a similar argument in the opening of Mere Christianity, declaring in Book I, titled “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe,” that most every human dispute reduces to both parties having in mind “some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality … about which they really agreed.” The problem of evil, and that we can discern it by way of a universally recognizable sense of morality, was a key realization leading Lewis to his belief in the existence of God. Lewis makes the case for such morality being recognized across the span of human cultures in his Abolition of Man.
Lewis makes elaborates the point poetically, with an artistry and passion worthy of admiration by Holmes himself,
Unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn it. The more seriously we take our charge of futility the more we are committed to the implication that reality in the last resort is not futile at all. The defiance of a good atheist hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage to something in or behind that cosmos which he recognizes as infinitely valuable and authoritative … I cannot and never could persuade myself that such defiance is displeasing to the supreme mind. There is something holier about the atheism of a Shelley than about the theism of a Paley. That is the lesson of the Book of Job. No explanation of the problem of unjust suffering is there given: that is not the point of the poem. The point is that the man who accepts our ordinary standard of good and by it hotly criticizes divine justice receives the divine approval: the orthodox, pious people who palter with that standard in the attempt to justify God are condemned.
Like Lewis, Holmes admits the existence of a realm beyond himself, unforgiving of evil, ruled with power and by design, though he could only confine his work to the causes he found in this world, His methods of deduction could posit this greater reality from a mere drop of water or scent of a rose, his methods of induction would allow for it, and his passion would drive him towards it. His appetite for artistry, beauty, and preserving the humane amidst chaos and evil are perhaps a final hidden clue or a bold hypothesis away from finding behind the shadows a masterful and benign deity who could preserve and ensure all that he so clearly held dearly. Holmes could reason deductively, inductively, experientially, aesthetically, and even historically towards finding his Man. He might come to find, like Lewis, that he “was allowed to play at philosophy no longer,” that cosmic evil could turn to love, and that such words as
compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them … properly understood … plumb the depth of Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.
We may very well find that Sherlock Holmes can indeed be considered an apologist, however witfully unwitting, for faith in God.
Seth Myers, “An Elementary History of Deduction,” An Unexpected Journal: Mystery 6, no. 1. (Spring 2023), 27-66.
Charles Taliaferro and Michel Le Gall, “Passionate Objectivity in Sherlock Holmes,” in The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes, ed. Philip Tallon and David Baggett (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2012), 133.
Edgar Allan Poe, Poetry and Tales, ed. Patrick Quinn (New York: Library of America, 1984), 371. Cited in Charles Taliaferro and Michel Le Gall, “Passionate Objectivity in Sherlock Holmes” in The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes, 133.
Keith Taylor, ed. and trans., Henri Saint-Simon: Selected Writings on Science, Industry and Social Organization (London: Croom Helm, 1975), 281. Cited in Daniel A. Seidell, God and the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 42.
Editors Phil Tallon and David Baggett explain further in a footnote that “this account is not totally true,” and it appears that much of the work in fact occurred in the wily Professor Tallon’s basement on a Windows-based device. Something about “Holmes’ unchronicled encounter with the giant rat of Sumatra” is offered as illustration for the nature of truth in fable. The collection of edited papers appears as The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes, ed. Philip Tallon and David Baggett (Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 2012), 5, 197.
Dorothy Sayers, “Aristotle on Detective Fiction” (lecture, Oxford University, Oxford, England, March 5, 1935), as reprinted in The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes, ed. Phillip Tallon and David Baggett, 167 – 179..
Though Sayers was not part of the original Oxford literary circle, she is included in a group of “Seven Literary Sages” of Oxford. See www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-7/inklings.html, and “Seven Literary Sages,” Christian History Institute, Issue 113. https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/issue/seven-british-sages/.
Watson did declare of Holmes’s thoughts towards Adler, in “A Scandal in Bohemia” in which Adler evades Holmes’s traps, that “it was not that felt any attraction for her” as “all emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind;” Holmes yet admired her, as Watson further noted that “in his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.” Doyle,”A Scandal in Bohemia,” in The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 161.
Admitting that he could no longer live the ideal life in his own strength led Lewis to admit that instead he found within himself “a zoo of lusts,” C.S. Lewis, “Checkmate” in Surprised by Joy (New York: HarperOne, 2017), 276.
Aesthetically: Lewis claimed that “the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them … they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of the worshippers C.S. Lewis, “Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2017), 30-31 Lewis also came to find on his path to faith that even his love of literature led him to the Divine, as writers “who did not suffer from religion … all seemed a little thin … seemed to no depth in them,” while religious writers like John Donne, George Herbert and the medieval poem The Dream of the Rood “deeply moved” and even “intoxicated” him, leading him alter a line from a medieval poem to “”Christians are wrong, but the rest are all bores” C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, “Checkmate”, 261, 262. See Alex Markos, “Christ, Our Hero, at Calvary: Meaning and Metaphor in Beowulf and “The Dream of the Rood” (AnUnexpectedJournal, Advent 2019, vol. 3, issue 3) in AUJ’s special Medieval Minds issue. Online https://anunexpectedjournal.com///christ-our-hero-at-calvary-meaning-and-metaphor-in-beowulf-and-the-dream-of-the-rood/.
Historically: Before coming to faith, Lewis found G.K. Chesterton to “have more sense than all the other moderns put together” 171 260-61 then read his Everlasting Man “and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense” C.S. Lewis, SUrprised by Joy, 260-61, 273. See also Seth Myers, “Chesterton at the Movies” (AnUnexpectedJournal, Advent 2019, vol. 2, issue 4) in AUJ’s special Chesterton issue. Online https://anunexpectedjournal.com///chesterton-at-the-movies/.