Playing the Game– With Gratitude to Msgr. Ronald Knox

And Holmes himself?  What were his politics?  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; with a parallel social-scientific approach, Mycroft advanced Her Majesty’s empire through what he referred to, archly, as “accounting.”  I find no specific reference, but I assume that Holmes supported the Boer War.
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.   In many ways, he was quite close to today’s neocons.  Though he subscribed to the Illustrated London News, I have no doubt that he flipped impatiently past Chesterton’s articles on his way to the agony notices at the end.

But the classicism, the Enlightenment rationalism, implied by his methods, were belied by his life: the cocaine, his seeking out of the company of criminals even as he held himself apart from them, his fear of women and his refusal to admit the nature of his feelings for Irene Adler, the isolation that culminated in his bizarre decision after Reichenbach Falls to cut himself off even from Watson… He was both Jeckyll and Hyde at the same time, both the Enlightenment and its Gothic reaction.  And he knew this.  The time he spent in Tibet “studying with a lama” after Moriarty’s death points to a haunting sense of lack.

That he came back and embraced again the empiricism of his youth shows that the irrationalism and rejection of material reality in Buddhism could not satisfy.  One can only hope that, at some point (in his Sussex beekeeping days– surely a pursuit that shows certain Chestertonian tendencies?) he did begin to attend to one of the controversies going on in the London papers that he devoured like they were his daily bread.  Chesterton’s philosophy would– if Holmes could have been convinced to give it a chance– have satisfied his Aristotelian soul.  Holmes’ love of induction, his commitment to the moderate realism that his method entailed, his delight in the concrete details of material reality, would have found a home in Chesterton’s Thomism.  And he would have found other things there, as well.

5 responses to “Playing the Game– With Gratitude to Msgr. Ronald Knox

  1. Holmes’ mystical tendencies might reflect Sir Arthur’s own dabbling in spiritualism and seances, I suppose, but I like the idea of Holmes finally emerging as a kind of pagan precursor to Father Brown.

  2. Michael Crowe has a new book out – Ronald Knox and Sherlock Holmes, Gasogene Books – which looks at the links between Sherlock Holmes and the Catholic Church. We’ll have a book review on our blog in a few weeks … stay tuned!
    Vicki McCaffrey
    Pres., Ronald Knox Society

  3. Victoria– veeeery belatedly– that sounds wonderful; can’t wait! I was at a dinner with Dale Ahlquist of the American Chesterton Society a couple of weeks ago, and he held forth a bit about how he thinks that there’s a Ronald Knox rediscovery brewing.

  4. Pingback: Beekeeping for Detectives: Holmes’ Politics Redux | Radio Free Thulcandra

  5. Pingback: The Theodicy of Sherlock Holmes | Charles Kenneth Roberts

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