In July 2010, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s spectacular new television series, Sherlock, aired in the UK. The three 90-minute episodes gave the public a much needed reminder of why Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are so timeless, and why his greatest character is still a hero in modern times.
Benedict Cumberbatch takes up the legendary role, with Martin Freeman in tow as Dr. Watson, and the pair are thrust into 21st century London, taking up their residence at 221B Baker Street. Holmes is infused with his usual intelligence, charm and charisma, and makes his deductions with characteristic ease. The series truly brings to light how rationality and logic are still valid today, and shows how elements of Holmes’ character can be of a benefit in the modern world.
Rationality, as Holmes displays throughout the classic stories and modern episodes, is much misunderstood in today’s world. Holmes himself comments in “A Study in Pink” (the first episode of the BBC series, a play on the title of the first Holmes story A Study in Scarlet), “I am not a psychopath, Anderson, I am a high-functioning sociopath.” This perception of the rational mind as cold, unemotional, and therefore somehow evil pervades into modern times, perhaps left over from society’s deeply irrational past (even in Holmes’ time, brandy was used as something of an all-purpose cure by medical professionals). The truth, as Sherlock so elegantly reminds us, is that a rational mind, undeterred by emotional consequences and well-schooled in deductive reasoning, can accomplish a lot.
The sad truth is that in the modern world the general public’s irrationality is often manipulated. Whether it is a completely unjustified scare-story in a newspaper, politicians making unfeasible promises or pseudo-scientists trying to sell you homeopathic cures, people are trying to exploit you all the time. Sherlock Holmes, thanks to his mercilessly rational mind, is able to see through mystery as if it wasn’t there. His careful unpicking of the cipher in “The Blind Banker” (the second episode of the TV series, based loosely on the Doyle story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”) serves as a perfect analogy. There are coded messages coming at you all the time, and just like Holmes, you have to make your own sense of them, and see the truth behind the mystery.
Holmes makes these skills seem fantastical, but the truth is they are absolutely attainable. Rationality is as easy as asking questions, and thinking in terms of evidence, rather than conjecture. The original Holmes stories are beautifully-aged gifts to the student of rationality, and Sherlock presents them in a modern and humorous package. For more information about Sherlock Holmes and rationality, see Taz Rai’s eBook, The Art of Deduction.