Sunteți pe pagina 1din 25

Sherlock the Antihero:

Reflections Through the Lens of Nietzsche

Janet Liu

Greg Watkins

Antonio Aguilar

June 5, 2017
When A Study in Scarlet was published in 1886, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was simply

an odd doctor and Sherlock was just a funny name. Sixty stories and a few centuries later,

Sherlock Holmes, Doyles modern consulting detective, continues to inspire adaptation after

adaptation as the character passes from the pages of the Strand onto the film reel and the

television screen. Regardless of how many incarnations he has undergone, however, one fact

remains constant: Sherlock Holmes is as much of a fan favorite in 2017 as he was in 1890. Has

the Western taste for crime fiction, drama, mystery, and intrigue really remained constant across

centuries? Why did Sherlock capture the minds and hearts of readers in the late nineteenth

century, and why does he continue to do so today?

Sherlocks unique brand of intelligence has been identified by a number of sources, both

casual and academic, as a compelling reason why readers of Doyles work embraced Sherlocks

original incarnation. In his work on this subject, Michael Saler argues that Doyles Sherlock was

written into a world culturally primed to receive its first modern hero. Citing widespread

pessimism and disenchantment following the first world wars, Saler describes an England

hungry for alternate sources of spiritual sustenance in an era that had received the works of

Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche; in other words, an era steeped in progress towards the

rational, where the Christian God could not find his place. In the midst of this cultural moment,

Saler argues, Doyle offered the world a character who used reason in a manner magical and

adventurous, rather than in a purely instrumental, stultifying fashion. Thus, Doyles Sherlock

achieved widespread cultural appeal by merit of his unique capability to re-enchant modernity.

The great detectives intelligence is indeed part and parcel of the character, but this

quality is not the driving force behind the popularity of his most recent incarnation, most

notably, Benedict Cumberbatchs Sherlock Holmes on BBCs popular television drama Sherlock.

Cumberbatchs Sherlock is no doubt intelligent; a Telegraph article with the proposed aim of

deducing how [Sherlock] became a global phenomenon mentions that adaptors of Holmes

have rarely tampered with [his intelligence] and cites the graphic language [Sherlock] has

developed to illustrate the deductive process as one of the shows keenest pleasures. But how

do proponents of this formula for success account for moments in the show when Cumberbatchs

Sherlock fails to deduce the answer? These moments increase markedly after the first season;

in the fourth, cases of failure occur with equal, if not greater frequency than cases of success.

Critics who fixate on Sherlocks intelligence miss a broader reason for his appeal, one that

extends far beyond Sherlocks peculiar facility.

Rather than present another drama centered on its protagonists infallible intellect,

Sherlocks storyline follows the detectives struggle to cultivate principles of positive morality in

a morally relativistic, atheists universe that parallels our own. Like Doyles Sherlock, BBCs

Sherlock is popular because his struggle is a response to a disenchanted audience searching for

alternative moralities in the wake of old ones. However, the alternative moralities that Sherlock

proposes are suited for a modern audience with new concerns, ones which are present in the

fabric of the work and exhibit the detectives anti-heroism, a quality he adapts in accordance to

the moral spirit of the twenty-first century.

I. Setting and Exigence

Modernism and post-modernism are characterized by a crisis of moral relativism

accurately described and partly precipitated by Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously writes, God

is dead.And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all

murderers? (The Gay Science, 125). Nietzschean philosophy captures the alarming, yet

increasingly pervasive modern sentiment that moral notions of good and evil are not

sacrosanct, but subjective and subject to change. In Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche outlines an

incriminating history of morality: the Christian God and his values of submission, patience,

and humility are fashioned by a subsection of the ruling class for the purpose of avenging

themselves against their stronger members, whom they can not otherwise dominate. Any

morality that devalues personal power and strength is the work of counterfeiters anxious to

turn the inoffensiveness of the weak man, even the cowardice[into] virtue itself (1.14).

Religions role in this clever ruse is to keep the remainder of humanity, the slaves, complicit

with their wretched masters moral scheme by virtue of rewards in the life to come. True

morality, Nietzsche asserts, teaches us to how live well in this life, and a morality based on

duplicity and self-denial is fundamentally incapable of accomplishing this. Thus, the philosopher

urges his audience to develop new positive values for themselves in the wake of the inevitable

failing of old ones.

Although BBCs Sherlock is a product of the modern era, the spirit of Sherlocks universe

is tantalizingly difficult to characterize through the lens of Nietzsches philosophy. Sherlock

certainly bears the mark of Nietzsches crisis of morality: the shows atheism and hostile

portrayal of traditional authority, along with its accusation of complicity on the part of the

public, represents as much. However, Sherlocks critique of the strength of high society could

just as easily be interpreted as a slavish tendency.

Sherlocks characterization of a villain from its fourth season, Culverton Smith, captures

these conflicting qualities. Smith, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and serial killer, thrives

under a combination of incompetence on the part of the authorities and elective ignorance on

the part of the people. In The Lying Detective, he boasts about his ability to go anywhere he

likes, referring to a certain hospital wing that he had sponsored and funded. They presented [the

keys] to me. There was a ceremony.The Home Secretary was there, Smith brags. Smith takes

advantage of his privilege to service his compulsion, insinuating that society itself shields him

from having to face the repercussions of his crime. Imagine if the Queen wanted to kill some

people, he explains, All that power, all that money, sweet little government, dancing

attendants...A whole country, just to keep her warm and fat. Money. Power. Fame. Some things

make you untouchable. God save the Queen! She could probably open a slaughterhouse and

wed all pay the entrance fee! At best, the authorities in Sherlock are incompetent; at their

worst, their opaque and vaguely sinister mode of operation invariably shields criminals at the

expense of their victims. But is Smiths example a critique of traditional moral authority, or a

slavish demonization of the strength of high society?

Perhaps Sherlocks eerie resemblance to Nietzsches slave morality is vindicated by its

blatant allusions to the atheistic spirit, which are clearly sympathetic to the irreverent modern

skeptic. When asked during the fourth season whether he would be a childs godfather, Sherlock,

without looking up from his phone, mutters, God is a ludicrous fiction dreamt up by

inadequates who abnegate all responsibility to an invisible magic friend. During the baptism,

Sherlocks attention is diverted to the ever-present phone, and its voice-recognition software

interrupts the ceremony in a uniquely millennial fashion when Apples Siri robotically chirps,

Sorry, I didnt catch that. However, Nietzsche firmly asserts that the slave morality can persist

in spite of atheism and survives the death of God in the form of the ascetic ideal, a form of

truth-seeking that destroys morality itself and precedes utter nihilism.

Nietzsche himself is often misread as being a nihilist, but in fact, he advocated for the

construction of a new positive morality out of the remains of the old one. The world is doomed

to undergo a catastrophe of nihilism, Nietzsche writes, but the strongest among us will be able to

posit an alternate moral code to live by, saving ourselves from inevitable moral despair. Thus, his

enduring query: How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? Nietzsche

himself posits a version of positive morality in the character of the Ubermensch, or superman. In

an article published by Philosophy Now, Eva Cybulska characterizes the Nietzschean superman

as a being who is no longer a plaything in the hands of God or gods, but a master of his own

fate, a self-creator and a self-destroyer. He [will] not succumb to the herd mentality [or]

become a nonentity in some monstrous super-state. Released from the chains of tradition and

ideology, such an individual [is]... free to create new values with a sense of uniqueness and

passion for life.

However much Sherlock dismisses traditional sources of morality, it recognizes, as did

Nietzsche, that finding or fashioning an alternate moral code is necessary, if only to

counterbalance the destructive force of nihilism. In The Final Problem, Sherlock confronts the

caricature of a nihilist, Eurus, who toys with moral relativism and its logical conclusions in the

absence of any redemptive positive values. Good and bad are fairy tales, Eurus comments,

We have evolved to attach an emotional significance to what is nothing more than the survival

strategy of the pack animal...Good isnt really good, evil isnt really wrong.You are a prisoner

of your own meat. When her psychiatrist asks, Why arent you?, she replies, Im too clever.

To prove it, Eurus performs tests to demonstrate instances when strategizing around a largely

intuitive moral code appears to create a counter-intuitive result -- tests which almost always

involve homicide, filicide, or suicide. The show emphasizes that with Euruss moral vacuum

comes a blatant disregard for human life, one which ends in insanity and murderous tendencies.

It is against this modern backdrop of mistrust and vague moral despair that BBCs

Sherlock emerges as a character uniquely poised to confront the existential dilemma posed by its

universe and echoed by our society. It seems appropriate to reflect on Sherlock through the lens

of Nietzsches philosophy with that suspicion that the post-modern incarnation of the detective

may in fact be popular for his ability to identify and respond to the philosophers moral crisis.

A definitive proof of Sherlocks morality as being the reason for his popularity is beyond

the scope of this paper, which can only firmly disprove that BBC Sherlocks popularity is limited

to his intelligence. However, this discussion can and will evaluate whether Sherlocks morality is

a viable source for his popularity by assessing whether it warrants a postmodern audiences

following. As of now, it is unclear whether Sherlocks brand of moral relativism, not to mention

his solution, is characteristic of the Ubermensch (who accepted and transcended nihilism), or the

slave (who is destined for nihilism). If Sherlock responds to the moral crisis in a slavish way,

then either the twenty-first century is still in thrall with the slave morality, or Sherlocks morality

is not a reason why he is popular.

In light of this goal, the sections that follow continue to elucidate and evaluate Sherlocks

morality by tracking the titular characters development in the course of the shows fourth

season. Certain episodes are referenced in order to place events within the chronology of

Sherlocks story arc. For readers unfamiliar with the fourth season, they are as follow: His Last

Vow (episode 1), The Lying Detective (episode 2), and The Final Problem (epsiode 3).

II. Sherlock Past, Sherlock Present

Modern audiences rally behind a re-imagination of Sherlock Holmes that is distinctly

removed from Doyles original superhuman, heroic conception of the detective. BBCs

representation of Sherlock emphasizes the detectives antiheroic qualities while deemphasizing

his intelligence. The next two sections demonstrate that BBCs Sherlock is more anti-hero than

detective, a demonstration which clears the way for a re-evaluation of his popularity by

definitively disproving that postmodern Sherlocks intelligence is what makes him popular. The

analysis of Sherlocks anti-heroism simultaneously elucidates several ways in which the

detective responds to the moral relativism of his time.

Readers may disagree with, or at least be suspicious of, a characterization of Sherlock

Holmes as antiheroic. However, it is clear that Sherlocks cast of protagonists are at the very

least atypical characters, often reappraised from their literary roles into culturally deviant,

flawed-yet-relatable versions of themselves. For instance, one of Sherlocks friends, owner of an

adorable dog, is also described as a brilliant hacker who incurred legal penalties for

compromising the Pentagons security system. Awkward Dr. Hooper performs autopsies at St.

Bartholomews morgue; Mary Morstan, mother and wife, is a retired super-agent with a

terrifying skill set. Dr. John Watson, who functioned as Doyles literary everyman, is

diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and, of course, the detective himself is a high

functioning sociopath. This particular quality is frequently underscored by dramatic visual

elements that associate Sherlock with darkness: the cover of the fourth seasons disc case

features the detective hunched in a blackened, bombed-out version of 221B Baker Street. A skull

and a soot-covered violin lie among the wreckage, which frames a frowning, brooding Sherlock.

Even the scowl on his face is set in deep shadow. Mrs. Hudson, whose transformation is second

only to that of Sherlocks, deserves particular mention. In BBCs modern retelling, the innocuous

landlady, who embodied the epitome of domesticity in Doyles stories, becomes the quick-witted

ex-wife of a drug dealer, a woman as clever and sharp as the detective himself. With handcuffs

in the salad drawer and an Aston Martin at her beck and call, she lovingly mixes artifacts of anti

heroism into common everyday living, a quality that never fails to endear Mrs. Hudson and her

tenants with the shows audience.

Thus, the qualities that BBCs Sherlock assumes in place of Doyles older ones are

consistent with A.W. Eatons characterization of an antihero in her work on Hollywood

protagonists, Rough Heroes of the New Hollywood. An antihero, Eaton explains, is a

protagonist marked by frailties and moral complexity that render him more human than the

traditional hero. The Antihero typically lacks traditional heroic qualities like conviction, courage,

physical prowess, or intelligence, and is frequently lead astray by her weaknesses.Despite

these flaws, the Antihero is revealed to be at core decent, albeit misguided and sometimes


In line with Eatons definition, BBCs Sherlock is certainly flawed. He is self-centered

and demanding, impulsive and irritable. His bursts of temper are fueled by arrogant impatience

and frequently accompanied by cold dismissiveness. Sherlocks brusque behavior in front of his

clients often provide the best examples of this bad behavior. Whereas the literary Sherlock treats

his clients with a certain level of Victorian decency, BBCs Sherlock frequently uses his

intelligence to bully and insult them, reserving his most humiliating and insensitive comments

for unfortunate clients who manage to insult his intelligence. In His Last Vow, Sherlock lashes

out against a man who suggests that the detectives deductions are simple. His wife left him

because his breath stinks and he likes to wear her lingerie, Sherlock loudly announces in

retaliation, before dismissing the client. Sherlocks flaw, as Eaton put it, is born of arrogance

and a strictly self-centered view of the world, one which, in fact, interferes with his ability to

solve his problems. Thus, the shows enhancement of Sherlocks anti-heroism is accompanied by

a simultaneous and oftentimes pointed deemphasis of Sherlocks intelligence, as the next

example acutely demonstrates.

Although Doyles Sherlock was not infallible, the intent of Doyles short stories, as

Watson himself once described, was to showcase Holmess often uncanny intelligence and

deductive capacity. However, Sherlock is more interested in the effect of the detectives failure

to make adequate or appropriate use of his logical facility. In The Last Vow, Sherlock, no doubt

good-heartedly, nevertheless brashly swears the eponymous vow to protect Mary, Johns wife,

from an assassin intent on killing her. I will keep you safe, Sherlock insists, But it has to be in

London. Its my city; I know the turf. Come home and everything will be alright. I promise you.

However, Sherlocks arrogance interferes with his ability to keep his vow. When

Sherlock and Mary confront Norbury, the villain of episode one, she trains a gun on the pair and

suggests that Sherlock allow her to escape peacefully. Mary is furious, but wisely declines to

charge the armed woman. Sherlock, however, refuses to surrender and engages in a traditional

battle of wits with Norbury, risking both his, and more importantly, Marys life in the process.

Dissecting the minutiae of her appearance, Sherlock rips into Norburys private life, casually

extracting and commenting on painful and humiliating details. Sherlock, dont, Mary warns,

but Sherlock continues to demean the woman, despite its being unreasonable that he should have

expected to achieve more than the usual transient satisfaction of retaliation from the brutal

examination. Angry and past sensibility, Norbury fires at Sherlock; Mary intercepts the bullet.

Ironically, it is in London that Mary is killed: not, in fact, by her assassin, but as an unintentional

victim of Sherlocks egoism.

Even though Sherlocks definition of good remains under construction in His Last

Vow, it is nevertheless clear that his flaws are not good in the moral sense -- they clearly

interfere with his ability to live well.

III. So, who loves you? Im assuming its not a long list. (Mycroft Holmes, The Final Problem)

So BBCs Sherlock is a flawed hero, but it is precisely the shortcomings and

imperfections, as Eaton describes, which offer glimpses into an anti-heros humanity and render

him sympathetic. In this sense, the de-emphasis of Sherlocks intelligence, much as it represents

a character flaw, also serves to underscore the detectives relatability and precipitate the

necessity of a moral maturation that he, much like his postmodern audience, is slated to undergo.

In the fourth season of Sherlock, Holmess intelligence is often portrayed as simply

unnecessary, and the intricacies of his reasoning, rather than contributing to a heroic or

superhuman quality, are deployed as richly humanizing comic relief. When Mary asks Sherlock

how he found her in His Last Vow, he replies, Mary, no human action is ever truly random. An

advanced grasp of the mathematics of probability mapped onto a thorough apprehension of

human psychology and the known disposition of any given individual can reduce the number of

variables considerably. I myself know fifty-eight techniques to refine the array of seemingly

infinite possibilities down to just a few feasible variables. Mary nods grimly. But theyre really

difficult, so instead I just stuck a tracer on the inside of [your] memory stick. Even Mary laughs.

In the fourth season, common sense and forethought often prevail over Sherlocks logic.

In other moments, Sherlocks mental capacity is not only overqualified, but outright

limited by its lack of a practical or emotional dimension. In yet another scene from His Last

Vow, Sherlock, appearing to address John in his typical didactic, dismissive fashion, explains,

Watson, to you, the world remains an impenetrable mystery, whereas to me it is an open book.

Hard logic versus romantic whimsy. That is your choice. However, the camera reveals that

Holmes is actually speaking to Johns infant daughter, demanding that she refrain from throwing

her rattle to the ground. Naturally, Rosie cant help but throw the toy again, this time into the

detectives face. By poking fun at the detectives misapplied methods, which in fact resemble

romantic whimsy in the wrong context, Sherlock invites its audience to recognize what the

detective himself does not yet understand: that despite his self-assurance, logic is nevertheless

limited when it comes to comprehending the worlds mysteries. But once again, although the

scene represents a minor mishap rather than a success, Sherlocks character doesnt suffer from

its newly realized limits; rather, the detectives flaws humanize his character.

Failure, which engenders the aforementioned humility and humanity, is not afforded to

Sherlocks villains, who, despite their moral depravity, meticulously cultivate the aura of

heroism. Its not about hatred, or revenge, Smith, the serial killer, explains. Im not a dark

person. Killing human beings...Its just makes me incredibly happy. Smith believes that the

very worst thing you can do to your friends is to be open and emotionally vulnerable. If you

tell them [your secret], he muses, and they decide theyd rather not know, you cant take it

back... Once youve opened your heart, you cant close it again. However, in a universe

characterized by moral relativism, it is paramount that a character confronts his own moral

imperfection, if only because failure to do so, as Smith acutely demonstrates, corresponds to an

utter inability to exercise ethical reasoning.

Moreover, it is the very quality of anti-heroism itself that enables Sherlock to respond to

and challenge the moral fabric of his universe.

Sherlock may be self-centered and arrogant, but these qualities occasionally put him in

opposition to social authority, and, by consequence, its aforementioned sinister and suspect

qualities. During a Top Secret meeting with Mycrofts colleagues, Sherlock telegraphs his

disregard for the governments secrecy and formality by tweeting on his phone and provoking a

physical scuffle with his brother. Distracted by a plate of ginger nuts, the young man presents a

sharp contrast to the panel of prudish officers when he sucks cookie crumbs off his fingers,

behavior that mocks their sober setting. Moreover, Sherlocks rude impulsivity allows him to

voice frustrations and concerns that his audience may share: when Mycroft uses the

governments surveillance technology to keep track of Sherlocks whereabouts, the detective

takes the opportunity to trace a particular route for the intrusive helicopter: F-k off, it reads.

When high-ranking members of the British government demonstrate their ability to doctor

security footage, adding that this is the version anyone we want to will see, it is Sherlock who

voices the everymans accusation: Thats not what happened at all.

Even after Sherlock matures a bit beyond arrogance, his status as a cultural deviant

nevertheless keeps him at odds with what is typical, a quality that renders him immune to

societys elective ignorance, which protects Culverton Smith. In The Lying Detective, Sherlock

realizes that Smith is a serial killer when he experiences a drug-induced hallucination in the

middle of a busy street. Dazed and tripping, he stumbles down the road, literally opposing the

flow of traffic, a circumstance that emphasizes the extent of the detectives alienation. What

would otherwise be a flaw is also a trait that enables Sherlock to observe what nobody else

seems capable of even seeing.

However, many of Sherlocks villains embody similar traits.

For instance, the anti-authorial, millennial relatability seemingly essential to Sherlocks

character is in fact shared by BBCs conception of Sherlocks archnemesis, Jim Moriarty, who is

equally atheistic, irreverent, and cool. I wrote a version of the Nativity where I was a child,

Moriarty muses on Christmas Day, The Hungry Donkey. It was a bit gory. But if youre

gonna put a baby in a manger, youre asking for trouble. In another anti-authorial moment that

parallels Sherlocks Top Secret meeting scene, Moriarty, arriving at the site of a rendezvous

with a high-ranking official, descends from a black helicopter dressed in a fitted black suit, his

hair gelled and slicked back. Big G! he yells at the stern official who greets him. Big G means

governor, he explains. Street speak. Im a bit down with the kids, you know. Im relatable that

way. Thus, it can not be BBC Sherlocks youthful rebelliousness alone that endears him to an


Neither can it be the acute mental facility championed by Doyles Sherlock. Aside from

BBC Sherlocks persistent failure to reason appropriately, his enemies simultaneous

appropriation of the detectives once-signature trait also make it highly unlikely that intelligence

alone truly endears him to the shows audience. For instance, Eurus, the nihilist, is described as

an era-defining genius beyond Newton who is somehow aware of truths beyond the normal

scope, a description that resembles one which Watson may have used to characterize Doyles

Sherlock. However, Eurus is a criminally insane murderess. Moreover, when she describes how

she remember[s] everything, every single thing, since she just needs a big enough hard

drive, the show is alluding to another one of literary Sherlocks memorable lines about saving

space in his brain for important facts, as if memory were a storage device with limited capacity.

Considering Euruss example, the inability for intellect to act as the basis for Sherlocks

popularity, along with the demand for a trait capable of turning the logician into a morally

sympathetic human being, is made manifestly clear.

But even if anti-heroism and its implications cannot fully account for Sherlocks

popularity, it is evident that Sherlock is only capable of engaging with moral questions absent

from Doyles work by rejecting a morally uncomplicated role for the detective. In the old stories,

Watson gleefully allows Holmes to describe any logical process by which hed arrived at a

solution to a particularly challenging problem; in The Lying Detective, however, John is

infuriated that Sherlock managed to predict which therapist he would choose to see and at what

time. Rather, it is Mrs. Hudson who asks, How? Nevermind how, hes dying to tell us how,

John hisses, I want to know why. Underlying concerns for privacy and respect are evident,

challenges not broached by Doyle.

In yet another case, Sherlock holds its flawed characters accountable, all logical

considerations aside, to interpersonal responsibility. When Sherlocks mother learns that Mycroft

Holmes had imprisoned his Eurus in a secure facility for the criminally insane, she exclaims,

Im not asking how you did it, idiot boy! Im asking, how could you? I was trying to be

kind, replies Mycroft. Kind? You told us that our daughter was dead! she continues,

Whatever she became, whatever she is now, Mycroft, she remains our should

have done better, she accuses (The Final Problem). These underlying concerns become the

foundation for an alternative morality that Sherlock posits in place of the lack of moral guidance

from his universe.

III. An Alternate Moral Code

An analysis that ends at an affirmation of Sherlocks anti-heroism may sufficiently

explain his character concept and his appeal, particularly in the context of Nietzsches critique of

traditional forms of the good, but the prevalence of antiheroic qualities in the show, even

among its villains, suggest that it is nevertheless worthwhile to illuminate how Sherlock

successfully posits new moral values in place of those it tears down.

As previously mentioned, Holmes is fallible, and his fall from grace in the fourth season

extends beyond inconsequential accidents. As if to punish him for his failure, the show subjects

its anti-hero to a program of physical, psychological, and emotional turmoil in the fourth season,

an agenda of suffering that forces him to confront the consequences of his mistakes. Following

the accident that kills Mary, Sherlock reappears in The Lying Detective wrapped in a bathrobe in

lieu of the customary suit. His pale, sunken cheeks are covered in stubble. Hands shaking, he

blinks wearily when a client requests assistance and appears to have lost control of his mental

faculties. Im at the bottom of a pit and Im still falling...Im a mess, Im in hell, Sherlock


In addition to physical weakness, Sherlock confronts paranoia, guilt, hostility and grief in

The Lying Detective, so titled because no one believes Sherlock when he accuses Culverton

Smith of being a serial killer. Trembling and incredulous, even Sherlock begins to suspect

himself in a vulnerable moment and tries to stab Smith when the man mocks his incapacity. It is

Watson who grabs Sherlock and knocks the knife from his hand. Stop it! Stop it now! he yells,

driving him against a wall. Wake up! Is this a game to you? A bloody game? John pounds and

kicks him, while Sherlock lies passive, his saliva and blood dribbling onto the floor. Let [John]

do what he wants, Sherlock croaks as hes beaten, Hes entitled. I killed his wife. Yes you

did, John chokes. Thus, throughout the fourth season, Sherlock is psychically and visually

forced to suffer and confront his roughest demons: selfishness, arrogance, and their


Suffering is not absent from Nietzsches philosophy either. In Will to Power, Nietzsche

writes, To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation,

sickness, ill-treatment, indignities I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with

profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have

no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth

anything or not that one endures. Suffering is necessary in order to prove ones worth and

presumably to achieve a life worth living and lived well. Since this is also the aim of a good

moral code, Nietzsche may be suggesting that endurance of suffering is a critical part of the

journey towards creating a good morality; in fact, Nietzsches Ubermensch was someone who

necessarily endured if he was to confront and rise above the despair of nihilism.

Thus, the prevalence of suffering in Sherlock certainly makes sense through Nietzsche's

lens: by forcing the detective to confront the destruction of his prior notion of the good, he is

prepared, should he survive, to temper a better and stronger moral code in lieu of his old one. For

example, despite its being painful to watch, and no doubt to experience, Marys death impresses

a life-affirming and empathetic quality upon the detective, qualities which Sherlocks nihilistic,

dispassionate villains lack. When Sherlock deduces that his client is suicidal, he staggers after

her in spite of his drug-induced ennui, screaming, Stop! Wait! Your life is not your own. Keep

your hands off it!, an act of decidedly positive morality by the otherwise antiheroic figure. Life

affirmation is a quality that Nietzsche claims for his Ubermensch as well; moreover, in

Genealogy of Morals, living for the afterlife is a quality of the slave morality that Nietzsche finds

incredibly damning.

Despite these similarities, the alternative morality that comes out of Sherlocks suffering

does not entirely parallel that which Nietzsche envisioned for his Ubermensch, perhaps because

Sherlock's anti-heroism and arrogant independence already encapsulates many of the

Ubermenschs positive qualities. Rather, Sherlocks maturation, along with its life-affirming

quality, also involves a growing consciousness of the self in the context of others, an evolution

beyond that which Nietzsche envisioned for either the superman or the slave. Your own death

is something that happens to everybody else.Once its over, its not you wholl miss it,

Sherlock warns his client, Your life is not your own. Keep your hands off it.

Thus, it is within the context of empathy, suffering, and an acknowledgement of mutual

codependence that Sherlock achieves its moral victory: a perspective that accepts weakness

without devaluing individual well-being. When Sherlock, weak and vulnerable, is left alone with

Smith after being beaten and rejected by John, he stutters, I want you to kill me. Smith is only

too happy to acquiesce and moves to suffocate the detective on the hospital bed. How do you

feel? Smith suddenly asks. Sherlock, who had once been prone to gambling away his life and

health for any inconsequential cause, replies, Ifeel scared. He seems perturbed by his own

answer. Scared of dying. I dont want to die. Sherlock begins sobbing, his voice garbled and

choked, I dont want to die. It is not until Sherlock is reduced to a shadow of his former

superhuman self that he understands not only the value of another mans life, but of his own as


So Sherlock endures, and alongside the life-affirming doctrine, he adopts a sensitivity to

the fallibility of the self-in-isolation. His alternative morality is fashioned on this tenet of

imperfection, upon which rests codependence and socio-communal support. Sherlock illustrates

the rich interplay between these complementary qualities in the scene from The Lying Detective

which marks his reconciliation with John. After John saves Sherlock from Smith, he confesses

bitterly, She was wrong about me, referring to his departed wife: [Mary] thought Id rescue

you or something. But I didnt. Not until she told me to. And thats how that works, thats what

youre missing. She taught me to be the man she already thought I was.Im not that guy. I

never could be. But thats the point, he sobs, Thats the whole point. Sherlock embraces him,

rubs his back, clasps a firm hand on his neck. He shelters John with his body. Its okay, the

detective murmurs. Its not okay, John insists. No, Sherlock admits, But it is what it is.

It is what it is, a principle that becomes the pairs mantra, is critical of the perfectibility

of the self-in-isolation. Its not a pleasant thought, John, but I have the terrible feeling from time

to time that we might all just be human, Sherlock states, dryly. Even you? John asks. No.

Even you, he replies. In His Last Vow, John made Mary a better wife; in turn, Mary makes John

a better husband. John made Sherlock a better friend, and Sherlock offers John the grace of

forgiveness in a moment of vulnerability and self-doubt. Positive morality, Sherlock suggests,

cannot be arrived at through an understanding of the self, however thorough. Instead, the self

must be perfected in relation to others, and indeed, it is the socio-communal structure that is

responsible for cultivating all that is morally righteous in Sherlock, namely loyalty, love,

forgiveness, communication, and support. It is what it is is also a statement of moral neutrality

and resignation: however, as both Nietzsche and now Sherlock posit, resignation does not

invariably prescribe a descent into nihilism, but a chance to relinquish an outdated way of being

for a new, promising one.

IV. Summary and Final Evaluation

Sherlock Holmes is an appropriate hero for the twenty-first century. When he came to

BBC from Arthur Conan Doyle, he slipped perfectly into the information age, where he became

a representation of the twenty-first centurys preoccupation with logic and data, daring to

characterize something as elusive as intuition as data processed too fast for the conscious mind

to comprehend. If you could attenuate to every strand of quivering data, the future would be

entirely calculable. As inevitable as mathematics, Sherlock states in His Last Vow. As our

scientific capability continues to advance, the world seems like even less of a mystery than it did

in the twentieth century, and Sherlocks spirit is in tune with our conviction that its remaining

secrets simply represent yet-to-be surmounted limits of our human ability. There is nothing

mystical or incomprehensible about it.

And yet -- we are tired of rationalizing a world without moral sense: a world that seems

to make less sense with each increasing rationalization. Sherlock both experiences and

personifies this tendency. When the detective hears The Merchant of Samarra, a story about a

man who fails to outwit his predestined death, he is uncomfortable with its conclusion despite his

willingness to embrace predestination as the consequence of his vision of a rationally foreseen

future. His frustration represents our own persistent source of modern moral discomfort: our

desire to understand and master our world simultaneously presents us with troubling ethical

inquiries and consequences, and logic, despite being a harbinger of those dilemmas, is an

insufficient tool for addressing them. From How should we conduct mechanized warfare? to

Should we legalize physician-assisted suicide? to Should genetically modified food be

labeled?, our capabilities increasingly lead to places lacking not only moral sense, but moral

precedent. Under these conditions, Nietzsches crisis of morality is no longer a one-time

catastrophe, but something that must be confronted and conquered every moment of every day,

which each new advance, with each step forward. Sherlock, the master of logic, is incapable of

offering an answer to the merchants problem and writes an alternate story instead, one in which

he goes to a different city and successfully escapes death. Maybe we are just a little bit

comforted when logic fails after all.

Besides, the tendency to interpret the world as a series of ones and zeros seems to either

eviscerate questions of morality altogether or suggest that they have a correct answer; both are

premises that Sherlock explores and rejects. Sherlocks villains, often mighty and economically

well-off, nevertheless suffer from a dispassionate disconnection with reality, which manifests

itself as a tendency to interpret the universe in terms of gains and losses, correct and incorrect,

black and white. On the other hand, Sherlocks cast of antiheroes may be protagonists by merit

of the plot, but they derive moral sympathy from their shades of gray. Mycroft, a government

official and law-abiding man, is for all intents and purposes a protagonist, but he too is accused

of unfeelingness when he prefers to hijack the machinery of the state to look after [Sherlock]

rather than reach out and give him a call. Love and human connection is messy, illogical, and

imperfect, and Sherlock suggests that there is wisdom to embracing this view in relation to

ourselves and our universe. It is what it is represents the only way to transcend our moral

imperfectability: embrace it, learn from it, and move on.

The answer to the question posed in Setting and Exigence, as to whether Sherlock is a

slave or an Ubermensch, is neither. He fails to fit either mold. Like the slave, Sherlock is

flawed and triumphs because he is flawed, but Sherlock stops short of claiming flaws as features

of the good. Instead of defending their moral high ground, Sherlocks antiheroes claim moral

ambiguity, and in so doing they transcend their moral imperfection. However, Sherlocks

transcendence does not represent a transformation into the Ubermensch. What Sherlock

ultimately derives from his experience, and impresses upon his audience, is not a lesson on the

importance of individual strength, suffering, or power, but the value of a strength derived from

interpersonal love and codependence. This is a strength that authorities and villains of

Sherlocks upper class cannot access by merit of their having to live according to a normative

and ultimately flawed version of the good, which, with its emphasis on maximizing individual

strength, might, and power, rather resembles the Ubermenschs positive morality. Nietzsche may

have detected a note of self-denial in the villainization of the rich and powerful, but Sherlock

asserts, rightly so, that the burden of being impeccable presents a bigger threat to the well-being

of the self. Perhaps the show is witnessing a new moment in the genealogy of morality: a

movement away from flawlessness and toward a vision of the self made stronger in association

with another.

Thus, Sherlock speaks to an audience eager to invite fallibility back into their lives, not as

a means of condoning it, but in order to acknowledge its place in reality. The impulse is closely

tied to themes of disenchantment with numbers, logic, and reasoning. Why does everything

have to be understandable? John asks in The Lying Detective, Why cant some things just be

unacceptable? And we can just say that. Ultimately, Sherlocks rejection of moral absolutism

and corresponding acceptance of imperfectability embraces a vision of morality that is flexible

and capable of growth, capable of relinquishing outdated ways of being and living for better,

more promising ones in a refreshing cycle of innovation and evolution capable of keeping pace

with human progress. The result: a vision of moral relativism enshrined in an antihero

well-suited to the twenty-first zeitgeist.

And that seems like a pretty good reason to love him.

Works Cited

Anderson, R. Lanier, "Friedrich Nietzsche", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer

2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =


Cybulska, Eva. "Nietzsches bermensch: A Hero of Our Time?" Philosophy Now: A Magazine

of Ideas. N.p., 2012. Web. 04 June 2017.

Eaton, A.W. Rough Heroes of the New Hollywood. Revue Internationale De Philosophie, vol.

64, no. 254 (4), 2010, pp. 511524.,

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900. The Gay Science; with a Prelude in Rhymes and an

Appendix of Songs. New York :Vintage Books, 1974. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich W, Walter A. Kaufmann, R J. Hollingdale, and Friedrich W. Nietzsche. On

the Genealogy of Morals. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Print.

Popova, Maria. "Friedrich Nietzsche on Why a Fulfilling Life Requires Embracing Rather than

Running from Difficulty." N.p., 14 Oct. 2015. Web. 28 May 2017.

The Six Thatchers. Sherlock. Writ. Mark Gatiss. Dir. Rachel Talalay. BBC, 2017. MP4 video.

9 May. 2017.

The Lying Detective. Sherlock. Writ. Steven Moffat. Dir. Nick Hurran. BBC, 2017. MP4

video. 9 May. 2017.

The Final Problem. Sherlock. Writ. Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss. Dir. Benjamin Caron. BBC,

2017. MP4 video. 9 May. 2017.