“Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” is the most recent addition to the series of novels published by Open Court Press that take a philosophical approach to pop culture. Previous editions looked at the philosophical content of movies and TV shows like “The Simpsons,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Star Wars.” Before too long, the subjects of these anthologies expanded their reach to other aspects of pop culture like baseball, Harley Davidson motorcycles and the iPod.
I was fortunate enough to be asked to contribute to “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” and chose to examine the philosophical element from the perspective of how Jeremy Brett’s celebrated portrayal in a series of British TV shows and movies transforms the great detective into an excellent example of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Uberman.
In an entry published in “Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies” author Ramona Hosu asserts that the ultimate effect of the book on the canon of existing literature about Sherlock Holmes is that it brings a readily identifiable cultural construct from the past commented and analyzed for more than a century firmly into the 21st century by a group of authors who make the subject contemporary and appealing both from a pop culture perspective and philosophical perspective.
I would forward that the book is well worth the purchase or borrowing whether you read my contribution or not. To give you an example of what to expect, however, my only access is to offer here an excerpt from my original draft. Consider this a kind of “extra” that you might get on a DVD; a deleted scene if you will. Although, truth be told, it is more accurately a scene in which some parts were deleted while others can still be found in the final published draft in the book. The book, by the way, is available for purchase at all major online book outlets or you buy it directly from Open Court’s web site.
Excerpt from “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” chapter two: Calculating Humanity:
“This fellow rings true every time.”
With his pronouncement that God was dead, Friedrich Nietzsche unleashed the floodgates of nihilism and existentialism. If a perfect God was a myth created by man then by definition that means that all morality is an invention of imperfect man. Absent the presence of a superior being sitting in judgment of our ability to conform to His morality and the subsequent knowledge that all those moral laws can be traced back to a very fallible culture of men, well, why should it be taken seriously at all? It would be like taking the Ten Commandments seriously even if you found that it really had been written by the Charlton Heston of his day instead of having been touched by the hand of God. Nietzsche puts it a little more elegantly: “A morality, a mode of living tried and proved by long experience and testing, at length enters consciousness as a law, as dominating.” He goes on to suggest that the origin of any morality is eventually forgotten, but the morality itself becomes holy and unassailable. It dominates the culture; dominates the members of the herd.
The suggestion that the predominant moral codes of the Judeo-Christian society that came to dominate much of the world is actually the work of man eventually, inconsolably, leads to the reality that if there’s no such thing as God then that must mean that there is no such thing as absolute morality. Even worse, it means no reward for doing the right thing. Of course, it also means no eternal punishment for doing the wrong thing, but there’s a certain inescapable hollow quality to that upside of a life that ends forever at the moment of death on this planet.
Coming face to face with this knowledge initially creates a sense of fear, confusing and nausea, but ultimately the situation calls for some kind of response. I think the British post-punk band Gang of Four put it best in their song “We Live as We Dream, Alone.”
“We live as we dream, alone
To crack the shell we mix with the others
Some flirt with fascism
Some lie in the arms of lovers.”
If Nietzsche were alive today he would probably refer to those who repond to the nausea and despair by tying their self-esteem to a sports team, and those who define their falsely rebellious non-conformity to the social norm by painting their skin and piercing selected body parts, and those who put their faith in any organized religion, and those who respond to the lack of any absolute morality by declaring that there is no morality at all as “the herd.” Sticks and stones may break Holmes’ bones, but words will never herd him; at least, not Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock.
Not this Sherlock.
Look for “Jeopardy and Philosophy” to come out sometime next year. I was also fortunate enough to be allowed to contribute to this entry in the continuing Popular Culture and Philosophy series of books.