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Übermensch Candidate 2: Sherlock Holmes

Welcome to the second in our series on characters from popular culture who may or may not constitute examples of the Nietzschean Übermensch. This time we look at the deerstalker-sporting detective extraordinaire, Sherlock Holmes.

A creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the original Sherlock first greeted the world in 1887, in a short story featured in The Strand magazine. Coincidentally, this was the same year that Nietzsche published Genealogy of Morals, which many believe to have been his masterpiece.

What was immediately striking about Conan Doyle’s pipe-smoking denizen of 221B Baker Street, was his incredible mind. He possessed prodigious intellectual abilities and almost superhuman powers of observation. These singular gifts make him a suitable object of comparison with that other hypothetical superhuman, Nietzsche’s Übermensch.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Sherlock Holmes holds the record for the most portrayed character in movie history and, though he was originally a literary creation, it is one of these movie portrayals that will be the focus of this examination. Specifially, we will be looking at Robert Downey Junior’s version, for no other reason than it is a highly entertaining one. Downey Junior’s Sherlock was seen in two celluloid outings: Sherlock Holmes in 2009 and the sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in 2011.

In these films, Sherlock displays all the breathtaking characteristics that we expect from the great detective. He is unpredictable, unconventional and super high-performing. He has an uncanny ability to predict immediate chains of events, which, for example, he puts to good use when engaging ruffians in physical combat. See the clip, below, as evidence.

Yes, though we may consider Holmes a cerebral type, for the most part, he does not shun physical combat – indeed the original Holmes of Conan Doyle was an expert at boxing.

A willingness to fight might accord well with the traits of the Übermensch. This latter individual knows the value of Agon– strife, competition, adversarialism and war of all kinds. It is true that it is mostly ‘war’ as creative, psychological or intellectual enterprise that most concerns the Übermensch, but as the primacy of the body is so fundamental to the Niestzschean worldview, the necessity of occasional physical conflict cannot be eschewed.

In a further respect, Downey Junior’s Sherlock is very much like the Übermensch. He craves all-consuming projects. Without them, in fact, he begins to deteriorate mentally and physically, secreting himself in his increasingly disordered quarters, curtains drawn, sealing out the daylight, experimenting on himself with narcotics.

Sherlock is clearly an obsessive personality and in the absence of any meaningful project to completely occupy him, he generates his own programme of experiments. Examples include inventing a silencer for a revolver, synthesising a new anaesthetic and designing indoor urban camouflage. Some of these researches have less obvious scope for practical application – as when he develops a theory of the effects of musical scales on the flight patterns of house flies.

Without worthwhile projects, Sherlock is in danger of dissipation. At one point in the first movie, he pleads with Dr Watson to help him find a project: ‘my mind rebels in stagnation. Give me problems, give me work.’

Similarly, the Übermensch requires outlets for his or her creative energy, but the dynamic is different. Whereas Sherlock is a genius with a need to have his great mind occupied, the Übermensch subordinates their very self to their creative projects. For the Übermensch to be without a project seems almost unthinkable. It is of their nature that their great projects spring from them – that is, perhaps, one of the defining features of their kind.

Certainly, Sherlock generates his own projects if none are offered to him, but they seem unsatisfying and trivial. Here’s a key difference. Sherlock is given his projects from outside. His force is called upon by others. The Übermensch, in contrast, tends to generate his or her own personal projects as an expression of their nature. (This shouldn’t mean, I think, that the Übermensch does not take inspiration from the world around them, or that they cannot work as part of a group project, contributing to a shared vision.)

Let us consider another parallel. Nietzsche placed a high value on courtesy – for him, it was simply a matter of good taste. Likewise we should expect the Übermensch, his eidolon of human perfection, to be similarly well-mannered, yet plain-speaking. Sherlock shares this impeccable courteousness but heavily barbed with a frankness that others find offensive.

Sherlock is educated and cultured, and one would expect the same from the Übermensch, but in another respect they deviate. We must remind ourselves that perhaps the most singular and remarkable characteristic of the Übermensch is his or her propensity for creating their own values. Without question, Sherlock is unconventional, independent and aloof, but he does not create his own values. He subscribes (more or less) to the conventional values of his society - at least in the Downey Junior films.

In the first film, we see him fighting to defend the British parliament from the evil machinations of Lord Blackwood. Let's be honest, parliament is a democratic institution that the Übermensch would likely have little time for.

In the second film we see him combatting the evil Professor Moriarty to prevent a world war being sparked off in Europe. I think it is safe to say that the Übermensch’s feelings with regard to this prospect might be somewhat more complex than Sherlock’s (there’s not room here to explore that idea in full).

In fact, there is quite a ‘Nietzschean’ moment in this scene when Professor Moriarty argues that there is an unavoidable inevitability to human aggression (In Geneaology of Morals, Nietzsche writes of these ‘half animals who were happily adapted to wilderness, war, roaming about, adventure’) so why should one not profit from it. Sherlock looks positively perturbed by this. I think we can expect that the Übermensch would, in contrast, unhesitatingly concur with the assertion of the learned professor, though I doubt that the inevitability of a drive would be accepted unquestioningly as a reason to necessarily support it.

In this same scene, having assessed the situation regarding his standoff with Moriarty, Sherlock concludes that he cannot prevail against the professor and in fact is likely to be defeated, to the ruin of all. He then effects to sacrifice both himself and Moriarty by hurling both bodily from the balcony on which they stand into the roaring depths of the Reichenbach Waterfalls.

This could be interpreted as both Judeo-Christian, in terms of the willingness to sacrifice oneself for others, but also from a Nietzschean perspective, in terms of the conviction to realise one’s purpose at any cost. As Nietzsche writes in Twilight of the Idols:

‘That one is prepared to sacrifice human beings for one's cause, not excluding oneself.’

Indeed, as the pair fall to their apparent doom, Moriarty screams in fury or terror or both, while Sherlock appears almost transcendentally serene. One cannot help but recall the line from Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

‘Die at the right time: so teacheth Zarathustra.’

To conclude, there are definite parallels between Sherlock Holmes and the Übermensch in terms of their extraordinary abilities and the intensity of their commitment, but they differ significantly with regard to their values and motivations. The Übermensch is the personification of the next stage in human cultural evolution, and Sherlock is merely a charming, but flawed, genius.

Sherlock Holmes’ Übermensch Score: 6 out of 10

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