As a man who prides logic about all else – some scholars believe that he was actually a Vulcan – Sherlock Holmes strives to keep emotions out of the equation. But once in a while his cold venire cracks and we see the emotions beneath. Thus, at the end of a particularly sad case called “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” Holmes breaks out with a cry of the heart:
“What is the meaning of it, Watson? What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”
This is indeed a puzzling question, one that philosophers and theologians have been tackling for centuries. The great detective only asks the question, he doesn’t offer his own solution. He does, however, in another place give his viewpoint on how to deal with situations like the one that provoked his outburst. In “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” he advises the horribly disfigured title character against taking her own life. She wonders what use it is to anyone. “How can you tell?” he responds. “The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.”
In theological terms, that’s called redemptive value of suffering.
This very realistic view of the world does not leave Holmes without hope. That much is clear in a story called “The Naval Treaty.” We find him in a particularly philosophical and theological mood here, perhaps because Arthur Conan Doyle believed when he wrote it that it would be the penultimate Holmes short story. In the next one, Holmes was slated to die. At a decisive point in the story, the great detective pauses to pick up a rose and muse about its meaning to Watson:
“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
If Sherlock Holmes – who Watson considered “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine the world has ever seen” (SCAN) – can take time to smell the flowers, shouldn’t the rest of us?