The danger in Sherlock’s ‘unconquerable soul’

Josh Pease

Season 3 of BBC’s Sherlockhas finally begun in the United States. Mentioned on many 2013 top 10 lists (including mine), Sherlock offers a contemporary spin on the titular detective. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as his faithful sidekick, Watson, the show features great acting, perfect chemistry, innovative cinematography and writing that’s generally top-notch. But as I watched the premiere episode Sunday, something in the back of my mind was bothering me.

The show’s philosophy is partly reflected in the following lines:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

That stanza comes from Invictus, written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley. Perhaps most famous is Henley’s closing statement: “I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.” The poem is a declaration of the triumph of the human spirit - the refusal to bend to a universe Henley called “a place of wrath and tears.”

About 10 years later, in 1886, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes story – A Study in Scarlet. Holmes was an unprecedented sort of hero. Emerging from a culture enthralled by scientific progress, he was a superhero who relied almost entirely on his powers of deduction.

Holmes was and is the sensationalized personification of Henley’s captain of the soul. His powers of deduction are presented as the triumph of reason, a triumph open to all of humanity if we’d only try a little harder. In this way, Sherlock Holmes is Nietzsche’s “superman” (a term coined in Thus Spake Zarathustra, written a few years before A Study in Scarlet). He is the moral, observational and logical evolution of mankind.

What gives me pause about the series is how it preys on our inherent narcissism.

And herein lies the problem. Steven Moffat  - the brilliant showrunner behind both Sherlock and the last few years of the cult classic Doctor Who– is fascinated by Sherlock’s fundamental enjoyment of his superiority over those around him (this is true of both shows, actually). And while the series occasionally reveals the alienation that comes from Sherlock’s arrogance, it comes across as a mild slap on the wrist and a knowing wink. The truth is, we want Sherlock to be superior because - as we place ourselves in his shoes - it makes us feel superior.

What gives me pause about the series is how this preys on our inherent narcissism. The promise of Sherlock Holmes is that we can be infinitely smarter than the people around us - trafficking in a detached intellectualism that looks down upon the mentally inferior. It also claims that if we were just a little more scientific, a little more aware of our surroundings, a little more in tune with our senses, life would be safe and controllable. We would then truly be masters of our fate.

But the truth is that humans who believe in their intellectual superiority don’t end up as charmingly anti-social superheroes. They end up like Jordan Belfort, the central figure in the Oscar-nominated The Wolf of Wall Street, a remorseless, sociopathic corporate thief.

This is why we are told in the Bible that God “shows favor to the humble.” It’s not that following Jesus requires a rejection of reason. It’s that revering reason as a god turns to pride. And pride always leads to destruction, first of others and ultimately of us.

So while I like Sherlock and will certainly keep watching it, I’m also going to keep examining why I like it - and how comfortable I am with what I deduce.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Philosophy, Arts & Leisure