Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Theodicy of Sherlock Holmes

Theodicy, in theology, is the question or defense of God’s existence and, more specifically, His goodness and power in the face of evil (as the word suggests – from theos dike, literally “God justifying”). This is a significant problem for Christianity. If, as Christian doctrine teaches, there is a God who is both good and all-powerful, how can we understand the existence of pain and evil in the world? The general Christian response has been that, generally speaking, sin is our own fault and perhaps necessary or even good for us. St. Augustine of Hippo believed that evil was the result of falling away from God, a corruption of free will. Evil is but the absence of good, a misuse of free will going all the way back to Adam and Eve’s original sin. Similarly, Gottfried Leibniz looked at the question and concluded that this must be the best possible world, since a good and just God would not create a bad world if a better one could exist; it is only the necessity of human free will which leads to pain and suffering. Other responses, like the idea that suffering is only temporary compared to the infinity of God’s future judgment and reward, or a Jobian notion of our inherently limited view that makes even asking such questions pointless and presumptive, seem less satisfying and less common.

The most interesting question in the Sherlock Holmes mythos, to me, is why exactly Holmes decides to become a detective in the first place. “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” implies that Holmes turned to detective work in college, getting involved with the situation of a classmates’ father. This explains more than how than the why, though. There are other possibilities – Holmes likes the adventure of his job and he is (rightly, it seems) arrogant, and satisfaction of the ego has motivated less. But why detective work, in that case, if Holmes prefers to let the police take credit for his work, to the exclusivity of all other pursuits? The real reason, I suspect, is that Holmes is of his period, Victorian England, and simply takes for granted the appropriateness of upholding the existing social and legal hierarchy.

Holmes certainly demonstrates that he accepts and internalizes the limitations of the time. Much has been made about the racism or lack of it in Holmes’s behavior, but that’s not all. Holmes is decidedly a Victorian, a point Susannah Black makes (see also SMBC):

Well, an imperialist, with his VR monogram blasted into the sitting-room wall, and his uncritical sympathy with Mycroft’s projects. A rationalist, of course; his approach to domestic law enforcement and Mycroft’s to international politics rhymed. He saw scientifically-grounded ‘criminal tendencies’ in handwriting, in the shape of a head; he was much more comfortable asking questions of cigar ash than of humans […] His shelves carried Francis Galton’s monographs on fingerprint analysis, and Galton, a eugenicist and fervent proponent of a scientific criminology based on the work of his cousin Charles Darwin, certainly influenced some of Holmes’ approaches. If he had been prone (which he was not) to social activism of any kind, he would certainly have given a favorable ear to the eugenicists.

Holmes is clearly motivated by a concern for the common good. He tells Professor Moriarty that if it meant stopping Moriarty, Holmes “would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept” Moriarty bringing “destruction” on him. And yet outside of Moriarty, Holmes rarely addresses serious threats to the large public; it’s important to get a murderer off the streets, of course, but murderers take far fewer lives than does tuberculosis or influenza. Antibiotics, x-rays, insulin, and vitamins were just a few of the medical discoveries made about the time that Holmes was working.

Even if we ignore medicine (many of those discoveries and advances were accidental or built on decades of others’ work), surely Holmes could do something about the social problems of the time. It’s asking a lot to solve a problem like poverty singlehandedly, but couldn’t Holmes do more for the urchins and street children of London than hiring the Baker Street Irregulars? Couldn’t a man of Holmes’s genius reduce the horrors of imperialism, expand the opportunities for education, or make industrial employment less dangerous and destructive?

If there is a Sherlock Holmes, why does he allow evil to exist?

Recent depictions of Sherlock Holmes recognize the problem and solve in a typically modern way, by assuming some deep psychological or social problem. The Guy Ritchie Holmes movies, set in the Victorian period, depict the already-bohemian Holmes as borderline mentally ill. John Watson, while still a close friend to Holmes, also can’t stand him. The BBC’s Sherlock, set in the modern day, has Holmes describing himself as a “high-functioning sociopath” who, like Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes, constantly irritates but also amazes Watson. Elementary, also set in the present day but moved to New York City, depicts Holmes as a drug addict with little regard for the law or morality. House, which was inspired by the Holmes stories, makes Gregory House a misanthropic drug addict with a near-total lack of empathy for other people.

The excellent Mr. Holmes solves the problem by emphasizing the artificiality of the image of Sherlock Holmes the detective while also reinforcing Holmes as a man of his time, then ties it up with a (very) late emotional realization on the part of Holmes. This ending, while perhaps not terribly satisfying, suggests some of the problems of creating a character with such immense capacity (a problem the writers behind Superman also wrestle with): at a certain point, someone like Sherlock Holmes spending his time running down burglars and other common criminals becomes sinfully wasteful.

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