Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sherlock Holmes, the Country, the City, and Law

From "The Cooper Beeches," by Sir Arthor Conan Doyle

"All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and gray roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

'Are they not fresh and beautiful?' I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

'Do you know, Watson,' said he, 'that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject.  You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty.  I look at them and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.'

'Good heavens!' I cried.  'Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?'

'They always fill me with a certain horror.  It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.'

'You horrify me!'

'But the reason is very obvious.  The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish.  There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard's blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock.  But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law.  Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.'"

I think Sherlock Holmes is correct, and that he's getting at two principles.  The first has to do with those who want to keep their deeds in the dark, and the second has to do with how the law governs.

When there is a contrast in society between those who, at varying levels, know the law, and those who reject the law, the latter will want to keep their deeds hidden from the former.  They will want to stay in the dark lest their deeds are exposed and brought to judgment.  This group is aware of the law, but does not believe that the law leads to what is good.  In this sense they do not know the law.  By "law" I am speaking of the moral law, the subject of my recent book, and only secondarily of the civil law.

By way of contrast with those who do not know the law, the group that does know the law can form a life together and this kind of life is expressed as a city.  In this city the law governs because the people know it themselves, it is part of public opinion.  When the people know the law, life together is a blessing.  Even in such a place, Holmes notes where evil deeds are done, they are still attempted in dark alleys where they can be hidden.  Yet, because the public knows the laws, those who do not and try to keep secret are easily exposed.  This city is an accomplishment greatly to be longed for.

However, what if the size of each group is reversed?  What if public opinion is no longer aware of the law?  What if the deeds otherwise done in the dark can be done in the open with little or no comment, perhaps even with praise?  Lawlessness becomes noticeable in terms of outward acts, and these are generally what receive the most attention.  However, such lawlessness begins in the failure to know the good and the law that leads to the good.  When this culpable ignorance is the norm it will be justified in the eyes of the masses and become no cause of concern.

Holmes spoke of specific kinds of crimes that get attention.  I suspect the scream of a tortured child will always raise concern (or at least I hope), but what if the child can be dispatched before he/she can cry out?  What if, because such children cannot cry out they are not even given human status?

Or, what if what was once understood to be abnormal, not of the normal union and origin of humanity, and only done in the darkest alleys of London during Holmes's day, becomes the normal conduct and must be praised on pain of censure?  In such a case, the city becomes a source of difficulty and conflict, and it is little wonder that people will want to flee to the country.

So I believe Holmes is correct about his principles, but that his best efforts did not keep public opinion from inverting on itself.  Although his efforts at crime prevention and detection were admirable, I do wonder if he himself knew the moral law very well, and could identify the good.  Watson remarked that Holmes so dedicated himself to the study of crime that he knew little else, including the ordering of the solar system and the political conditions in Europe.

I take this as another example where we can learn but also press further.  If public opinion becomes such that the public can readily identify the good and the law leading to the good, then such a city will be bring peace.


  1. I think this stands as a wonderful vision statement for Christianity at large and with rational presuppers in particular.

  2. I'm very glad you are relating these ideas to more common literature. It's a great way for a simple introduction into a larger idea.

  3. Sherlock Holmes lay back in his chair, reading the paper. "It's been ages since my last case. I wonder when we'll have a crime worthy of me." This sets you thinking about the late Professor Moriarty and the remnants of his organization. Suddenly, Holmes speaks up, as if reading your thoughts, "Why it's _________ my dear Watson, They've fled the country, but where?"

    please answer this....