Detectives and Philosophers

I picked up a new set of the Bantam two volume edition of Sherlock Holmes to replace the tattered copies acquired during my college days. I started with “A Study in Scarlet” a  novella length story, published in the 1887 volume of Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Conan Doyle would not pen his last Holmes story until four decades later. The opening chapters are, in my opinion, the most enjoyable. The often humorous preliminaries describe the beginnings of Holmes and Watson’s association at 221B Baker Street.

Sherlock Holmes seemed delighted at the idea of sharing his rooms with me. “I have my eye on a suite in Baker Street,” he said, “which would suit us down to the ground. You don’t mind the smell of strong tobacco, I hope?”

From that point on Dr. John H. Watson is established as the faithful chronicler and companion of the most famous detective in literary history. In the next tale, “The Sign of Four,” I came across this mordant Holmesian aphorism: “What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. The question is, what can you make people believe that you have done?” The famous literary detective is referring to the fact that Scotland Yard inspectors will frequently take the credit for the results of his intrepid sleuthing. Later, however, he consoles himself by saying that “I claim no credit…. My name figures in no newspaper. The work itself, the pleasure of finding a field for my peculiar powers, is my highest reward.”

These fictional introspections are a nice segue to some recent philosophical reading. Inner peace has been the quest of all the great thinkers going back to Pythagoras and Socrates. It was later popularized in the ethical systems of Epicurus and the Stoics. I include the Epicureans, despite the fact that their outlook was not spiritually minded. According to Anthony Gottlieb (author of The Dream of Reason):

[T]he real Epicurus – in contrast to the crude sybarite invented by his detractors – denounced the rapidly rotting fruits of dissipation and excess. The constant pursuit of intense pleasures will in fact backfire, according to Epicurus, because it leads to the psychological hell of enslavement to unsatisfiable appetites….

While it is unlikely that Gottlieb will convert me to his brand of post-modern Epicureanism, the self-restraint urged by even an obvious materialist thinker is striking. Also cited in The Dream of Reason is Heraclitus’ famous adage: “A man’s character is his fate” (also rendered as “Character is destiny”) which is a nice way of saying that we are not blindly led by things outside our control; rather, our repeated actions reveal our inner disposition toward virtue and vice, and it is this which forms the real thread of our lives.

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