Asking for Wisdom

In James’ letter to the early churches, he makes the claim that God will, without fail, give wisdom to any who ask without doubting. This is a staggering claim. What does it mean? Here’s the main passage (James 1:2-7):

2 Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord. 

There are apparently three conditions for receiving free wisdom from God:

  1. That those suffering through trials should be seeking moral perfection rather than mere relief.
  2. That God gives wisdom to those who lack it is the next. More on that later.
  3. Third, that they pray without doubting.

What does he mean by doubt? In this passage doubt appears to be more than “intellectual uncertainty.” Its more like “entertaining duplicitous thoughts about moral progress.” James elaborates by saying that such a man is double minded and unstable which is basically a hypocrite or a sloth. Or less damningly, such a man is an immature Christian who has little resolve in his pursuit of Christian virtue.

More proof of this may be found in James 4:2-3:

2 You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

In other words, unanswered prayer is due to requesting blessings which one will not use for good.

Back to the second condition. It reveals a profound reason we don’t find our requests for wisdom answered. We ask for wisdom which we do not lack. 

Often, as we face life’s trials and moral struggles we know exactly what we ought to do and what would benefit us most. Yet, we act as though we did not know. So we pray for God’s will and for wisdom, not because we don’t know, but because we do, yet, will not obey to the truth already in our minds. 

And so we ask for wisdom and we receive no answer because we ignore our wisdom, buried, as it were, like a coin receiving no interest, wondering why the master has nothing for us.

There is a fine line in the Bible between the fundamental goodness of man’s divine image and inbuilt moral intuitions and man’s deep moral corruption. But part of that corruption is that we look in the mirror of God’s natural and Biblical law and act as though we have nothing to change or as if God owes us specific advice when we don’t practice the wisdom we have.

On making America great again

Together we will make America Great Again, better than ever before.

This political slogan is usually viewed as either a Nazi bigot’s racist screed against all truth and goodness or as an aspiration to be achieved in the unholy walls and halls of DC.

It’s a phrase and sentiment that is not unique to Trump and I recall hearing Bill Clinton say it several times and saw a Reagan speech in class in which Ronald Reagan also said it:

we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again.

As a campaign slogan it’s genius as it looks to a mythic past, removes the politician from your psyche, and puts the voter in the driver seat toward a brighter future.

But how does it function, or how could it function as a Trump-Reagan-Independent piece of American moral and political philosophy? First, let’s look at the rhetoric of the phrase: “Great again.”

It’s a visionary phrase that needs no basis in historical fact to be helpful. A platonic vision of an ideal America can galvanize political pursuit toward a brighter future. But America does have a great past: the Internet, baseball, football, the constitution, Texas, space travel, etc.

So my view then, obviously, is that the phrase is a great piece of rhetorical  Americana. But how could individuals work to make America great again without specific reference to policies or voting? For this I call upon Teddy Roosevelt. Let us ask, how can America be great again, Teddy?

Make Americans Great Again or Pursue Positive Virtues and Encourage them in others

As I have already said, our first duty, our most important work, is setting our own house in order. We must be true to ourselves, or else, in the long run, we shall be false to all others. The republic cannot stand if honesty and decency do not prevail alike in public and private life; if we do not set ourselves seriously at work to solve the tremendous social problems forced upon us by the far-sweeping industrial changes of the last two generations.

The Bible always inculcates the need of the positive no less than the negative virtues, although certain people who profess to teach Christianity are apt to dwell wholly on the negative. We are bidden not merely to be harmless as doves, but also as wise as serpents. It is very much easier to carry out the former part of the order than the latter; while, on the other hand, it is of much more importance for the good of mankind that our goodness should be accompanied by wisdom than that we should merely be harmless. If with the serpent wisdom we unite the serpent guile, terrible will be the damage we do; and if, with the best of intentions, we can only manage to deserve the epithet of “harmless,” it is hardly worth while to have lived in the world at all.

It is character that counts in a nation as in a man. It is a good thing to have a keen, fine intellectual development in a nation, to produce orators, artists, successful business men; but it is an infinitely greater thing to have those solid qualities which we group together under the name of character–sobriety, steadfastness, the sense of obligation toward one’s neighbor and one’s God, hard common sense, and, combined with it, the lift of generous enthusiasm toward whatever is right. These are the qualities which go to make up true national greatness, and these were the qualities which Grant possessed in an eminent degree.

Of course the all-important thing to keep in mind is that if we have not both strength and virtue we shall fail. Indeed, in the old acceptation of the word, virtue included strength and courage, for the clear-sighted men at the dawn of our era knew that the passive virtues could not by themselves avail, that wisdom without courage would sink into mere cunning, and courage without morality into ruthless, lawless, self-destructive ferocity.

Encourage Masculinity

I do not believe in mischief-doing in school hours, or in the kind of animal spirits that results in making bad scholars; and I believe that those boys who take part in rough, hard play outside of school will not find any need for horse-play in school. While they study they should study just as hard as they play foot-ball in a match game. It is wise to obey the homely old adage, “Work while you work; play while you play.”

A boy needs both physical and moral courage. Neither can take the place of the other. When boys become men they will find out that there are some soldiers very brave in the field who have proved timid and worthless as politicians, and some politicians who show an entire readiness to take chances and assume responsibilities in civil affairs, but who lack the fighting edge when opposed to physical danger. In each case, with soldiers and politicians alike, there is but half a virtue. The possession of the courage of the soldier does not excuse the lack of courage in the statesman and, even less does the possession of the courage of the statesman excuse shrinking on the field of battle. Now, this is all just as true of boys. A coward who will take a blow without returning it is a contemptible creature; but, after all, he is hardly as contemptible as the boy who dares not stand up for what he deems right against the sneers of his companions who are themselves wrong. Ridicule is one of the favorite weapons of wickedness, and it is sometimes incomprehensible how good and brave boys will be influenced for evil by the jeers of associates who have no one quality that calls for respect, but who affect to laugh at the very traits which ought to be peculiarly the cause for pride.

Of course the effect that a thoroughly manly, thoroughly straight and upright boy can have upon the companions of his own age, and upon those who are younger, is incalculable. If he is not thoroughly manly, then they will not respect him, and his good qualities will count for but little; while, of course, if he is mean, cruel, or wicked, then his physical strength and force of mind merely make him so much the more objectionable a member of society. He cannot do good work if he is not strong and does not try with his whole heart and soul to count in any contest; and his strength will be a curse to himself and to every one else if he does not have thorough command over himself and over his own evil passions, and if he does not use his strength on the side of decency, justice, and fair dealing.

Take Personal Steps To Create American Comraderie

Any healthy-minded American is bound to think well of his fellow-Americans if he only gets to know them. The trouble is that he does not know them.

Hang on the the highest ideals even when you can only achieve “good enough”

He must have high ideals, and the leader of public opinion in the pulpit, in the press, on the platform, or on the stump must preach high ideals. But the possession or preaching of these high ideals may not only be useless, but a source of positive harm, if unaccompanied by practical good sense, if they do not lead to the effort to get the best possible when the perfect best is not attainable–and in this life the perfect best rarely is attainable.

But when we come to the countless measures and efforts for doing good, let us keep ever clearly in mind that while we must always strive for the utmost good that can be obtained, and must be content with no less, yet that we do only harm if, by intemperate championship of the impossible good, we cut ourselves off from the opportunity to work a real abatement of existing and menacing evil.

Avoid Pathological Altruism

Anything that encourages pauperism, anything that relaxes the manly fiber and lowers self-respect, is an unmixed evil. The soup-kitchen style of philanthropy is as thoroughly demoralizing as most forms of vice or oppression[!], and it is of course particularly revolting when some corporation or private individual undertakes it, not even in a spirit of foolish charity, but for purposes of self-advertisement.

We must possess the spirit of broad humanity, deep charity, and loving-kindness for our fellow-men, and must remember, at the same time, that this spirit is really the absolute antithesis of mere sentimentalism, of soup-kitchen, pauperizing philanthropy, and of legislation which is inspired either by foolish mock benevolence or by class greed or class hate. We need to be possessed of the spirit of justice and of the spirit which recognizes in work and not ease the proper end of effort.

Biggering and transposition: more thoughts on fatherhood

I was talking to a friend a friend about marriage, couples’ counseling, and parenting and she told me that her test for whether she’ll be on board with a friend’s relationship is whether or not the both parties become more or bigger than they were without each other. Her comment reminded me of a line in the Lorax, in which the Onceler rhymes:

I meant no harm,

I most truly did not,

But I had to get bigger,

So bigger I got.

In Seuss’s yarn, BIGGERING is bad. But I think that in the context of relationships and parenting, biggering is good. For instance, being a father tempts me to want to sleep in, watch more television, read less, and learn less new skills. Why? Because I’m tired all the time. But there’s a deeper more fully-human desire to “bigger” myself. It’s like Jack Donovan said, to be a dad you’ve got to be big. And so being a father has made me conscious of a truer, but still biological aspect of myself, to which I am spiritually accountable.

It’s a weird experience, but I think it is one to which all our biological impulses point if you interpret them with reason. For instance, sexual impulses lead us to pursue an experience that exacerbates how incomplete we are without another, but that only lasts for moments. And so sexuality causes us to seek transcend our finitude. Our biology can hide our spiritual nature from us or be ennobled by it. It’s as Paul says in Romans 6. At every moment you can choose to use your members (the components of the flesh) as instruments of righteousness or tools of sin and destruction. The process of eliciting transcendent supernatural value from mundane realities is what C.S. Lewis calls transposition or what I’ve called, in reckless abuse of Seuss’s own meaning, ‘biggering.’

I’ll need to reflect on it more, but being a spouse, a parent, a child, an employee, a manager, a friend, a cancer patient, or just a person is to have a wide field of opportunities for biggering that could just as easily be used as opportunities to give up on anything transcendent.

Teddy Roosevelt on Masculinity

A former student texted me out of the blue something like this, “Why isn’t there anything specific about masculinity taught at the school?”

It’s a problem I’ve thought about for a while. There are, at the high school level, many pitfalls. The first is the significant danger of shaming young boys for non-masculine behavior with girls in the room. Pastors like Mark Driscoll were famous for this at their churches and it was stupid pageantry. Obviously this wasn’t meant. 

But all that aside, I think that the best president said it best:

The boy can best become a good man by being a good boy—not a goody-goody boy, but just a plain good boy. I do not mean that he must love only the negative virtues; I mean he must love the positive virtues also. “Good,” in the largest sense, should include whatever is fine, straightforward, clean, brave, and manly. The best boys I know—the best men I know—are good at their studies or their business, fearless and stalwart, hated and feared by all that is wicked and depraved, incapable of submitting to wrong-doing, and equally incapable of being aught but tender to the weak and helpless. A healthy-minded boy should feel hearty contempt for the coward, and even more hearty indignation for the boy who bullies girls or small boys, or tortures animals. One prime reason for abhorring cowards is because every good boy should have it in him to thrash the objectionable boy as the need arises.

Now, there’s more to masculinity than this, but not less. 

A Spiritual Exercise From Genesis 4:1-7

The Introduction to Cain’s Story

Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.” And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering;  but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? “If you do well [make the best of it], will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:1-7 NAS)

 

The Lord tells Cain the best thing a resentful person could hear and he says it in two ways:

  1. You’ll feel better about your lot if you seek to improve things around you. 
  2. If you aren’t improving or don’t improve your circumstances, then it’s because there is sin inside of you and you must conquer it. 

In the rest of the Bible, these two instructions are the necessary  responses to the personal realization that we inhabit a catastrophically tragic world. The failure to enact them leaves the bitter soul in a downcast state. The story goes on to say that this resentful and spiteful attitude leads to murderous, dishonest, and sacrilegious ways of being in the world. 

Below are a series of questions meant to help you enact God’s counsels to Cain. They are generally philosophical and could be helpful to anybody reading the Bible. In other words, they aren’t just for Christians, but for any who see the value of the Bible.

The Exercise

I recommend first rereading the passage above. Then you should spend a minimum of 20 minutes writing your answers. This is the sort of thing that could take much longer. I spent 20 minutes on just the first two questions of section one. It might take a few days or weeks to finish. That’s okay. Your answers, if you are totally honest, may make you feel pretty weird or anxious. This is because you’re engaging in deep introspection and perhaps encountering your soul. 

  1. Questions pertaining to the first counsel
    These questions are about your circumstances which aren’t necessarily your fault. I wrote them to get you thinking about the circumstances in which you find yourself, how those circumstances impinge upon your interior life, and what the Cain and Abel story challenges readers to do in the face of their own troubles. 

    1. What do I wish was better in my life?
    2. What do I mean by ‘better’? 
    3. What are the sources of sorrow, anxiety, regret, or resentment to me? Explain why.
    4. Can I change any of these things?
    5. Of those which I can change, which are most important to me?
    6. Of those which are important to me, which circumstances can I act to improve today, this week, this month, and this year? 
    7. What could I add to my life, as Abel added shepherding, to improve my sense of meaning (think hobbies, exercise, Bible studies, starting written correspondence with a friend, etc)?
    8. What action will I do as soon as I can? 
    9. What actions will I do in the coming hours, day, weeks, and months? 
  2. Questions pertaining to the second counsel
    In the story, Cain is downcast because of God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice. Cain refuses to follow God’s advice and so does not experience an uplifted countenance, improved attitude, or an elevated vision of the world. Instead, he carries on as before in the ways that led him to his lamentable state. The result is that Cain resents his brother so thoroughly that he murders him. The psychological tragedy underneath the murder is that Cain so resents the good he wishes to obtain for himself (God’s favor) that he simply aims to destroy it.
    Many of us desire some good for ourselves like a happy marriage, a disciplined child, a full bank account, a healthy body, or just one day of a cheer and good experiences. But despite those desires, we do not ‘make the best of it’ where we are. This leads us to destroy that which would be our good and like Satan in Milton’s Paradise lost we proclaim, ‘evil, be thou my good.’ 
    Back the story. God tells Cain that there are internal issues with which he must deal. He must master sin, lest it rule him. God challenges Cain to pay attention to what tempts him away from what he sees as good. In Cain’s case, the good is the divine approval.
    At this point in the Bible, sin is that which prevents us from obtaining that which we know to be good. For this exercise don’t think of sin merely as ‘doing things people do not approve of.’ Think of sin as ‘missing the mark of my best self.’

    1. What keeps me from making the best of things? Are there traits, possessions, relationships, or desires which distract me from the good?
    2. Is my understanding of good actually good? Am I desirous of things which are bad for me, impossible to acquire, or out of proportion with reality?
    3. With what must I part to master sin so that it cannot master me?
    4. What can I do to distract myself from temptation (chores when I want to wallow, sing went I want to curse, etc)? 
    5. What would happen if I let myself be mastered by sin? How much would I hate that version of myself? Would I befriend such a person?
    6. Are my sinful desires capable of being used for good (like aiming the desire for too many possessions at designing your home for kindness and hospitality)?
    7. What would I be like and how would I feel if my inner life were so arranged that only major changes of circumstances tempted me to sin? Would I enjoy the company of this genuinely good version of myself?
    8. What will I do today to master my sin?

Concluding Thought

This isn’t a ‘safe’ exercise. It requires that we look to our understanding of the good. But, what do we know? Nevertheless, the very idea of leaving our current way of being and going after what we perceive to be God has a pedigree going as far back as Abraham. I believe in the presence of Christ, who enlightens every man who comes into the world. And, like Abraham, when we mess up in our pursuit of the good, it isn’t catastrophic. Instead, it’s covenantal. In pursuing the good, we reach after God, who designed the world that we might feel after him and find him. It is he who overlooks past sins and calls all to repentance through Jesus Christ.

Science Fact of the Day #2: Teacher Somatotype

As in all cases “science fact” is used loosely.

The Main Claim About Teacher Somatotypes

In Nonverbal Behavior in Interpersonal Relations the authors observed that:

“Teachers who are ectomorphic are usually perceived by students as anxious and less composed but perhaps intelligent. The endomorphic teacher is generally perceived by students as slow, lazy, under-prepared, and not dynamic in the classroom. The mesomorphic teacher is perceived as credible, depedable, likable, and competent but possibly tough and dominant.” Virginia P Richmond and James C McCroskey, Nonverbal Behavior in Interpersonal Relations (Boston: Pearson/A and B, 2004), 269

For those who don’t know:

  1. Ectomorphs are lanky body types
  2. Endomorphs are dad-bod types
  3. Mesomorphs are beefy (muscly) types

teppelin: “ Three common male body types: Endomorph (often “chubbier” men) • Soft and round body • Gains muscle and fat very easily • Is generally short and “stocky” • Round physique • Finds it hard to lose fat • Slow metabolism Mesomorph (the...

Is that a reasonable claim? What is the evidence?

Now, here’s where things might get interesting. In this social-psychology text, several paragraphs per page will be riddled with citations. But this particular paragraph cites no studies. Is this just a personal observation? Is it an impression?

I don’t know.

I think that it’s probably partly true. There is some research that shows similar stereotypes in the broader population toward the somatotypes (which, since they’re based on eye-balling, are basically observational, not genetic categories).

I did find a study from the eighties showing that one class of students rated, based on photographs, attractive teachers and female teachers higher on scales of competence, organization, and imagination.* Of course, to extend this finding further seems like a hasty generalization. But that’s the only one I could find about teacher somatotypes and it wasn’t referenced in the textbook.

One study checked for stereotypes on the three body types and differences between the sexes both in stereotype attributed and in stereotype attribution. In this particular study, ectomorphs were perceived favorably despite historically negative stereotypes.** But over all mesomorphs were still perceived most favorably except in terms of intelligence and meanness. Big muscles can make you look stupid and mean. In this particular study, there were some gender differences: female mesomorphs didn’t suffer on the perceived intelligence or kindness rating. And female endomorphs weren’t perceived as more sloppy compared to male endomorphs. These generalized stereotypes could be applied to teacher somatotypes. 

It’s important to remember that none of the observations above are about stereotype accuracy. That’s a different cake to bake.

But I will make a suggestion here: If you are of a somatotype about whom certain stereotypes are made, it is important in a professional setting to put those stereotypes to rest if your workplace requires merit. If people assume you’re a stupid jerk because you lift, but your boss expects you to be kind as a part of your job, you have to break the stereotype. If you’re not in a merit based job, then those stereotypes may not matter to you. I would suspect that these stereotypes apply to all fields. 

References

*Stephen Buck and Drew Tiene, “The Impact of Physical Attractiveness, Gender, and Teaching Philosophy on Teacher Evaluations,” The Journal of Educational Research 82, no. 3 (January 1, 1989): 172–177.

**Richard M. Ryckman et al., “Male and Female Raters’ Stereotyping of Male and Female Physiques,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 15, no. 2 (June 1, 1989): 244–251.

 

Reflections on Fatherhood

This is just a stream of consciousness about the experience of fatherhood:

  1. When the struggles with Avery and Margot began toward the end of the pregnancy, I had never felt so defeated, alone, or weak. I didn’t handle it well, and I suspect I’m still recovering from that. 
  2. That’s not a complaint, it’s just a shift in perspective. Before fatherhood, I easily recovered from sorrow due to death or the fear thereof. Other things got me down. But rarely the near death or sickness of people I knew.(not sure why, I was just wired that way)
  3. The stresses of parenthood are like those of every life change. The passions of the body and soul find new ways to tempt you to sin.
  4. I’ve never been big on sleep, but my sleep is so shallow these days it’s finally catching up to me.
  5. I’ve always been very protective of children and been very aggressive to bullies. But with my own daughter that instinct has multiplied so vastly. When I read ancient literature, the insane lengths of revenge for hurt family suddenly makes sense to me (not that I endorse that). But I have rethought several aspects of my politics and ethics. 
  6. I do more fully understand wha Jesus meant when he said you couldn’t follow him without hating your family. Here’s how: if I had to choose between the whole world and my daughter, she wins every time. I’d build a space ship, turn the moon into the Death Star, and blow up the sun if it would keep her safe. Anyway, Jesus seems to be saying to put that sort of devotion beneath your devotion to him and adherence to his teachings.
  7. I find watching somebody sleep is now a deep joy.
  8. Few processes are more fun than watching somebody learn to be a person from scratch. 
  9. When Jordan Peterson says, “you have to know that you’re a loaded gun, especially around children, or you’ll harm them irreparably” is good counsel. It’s weird how you can suddenly and accidentally get mad at a person who doesn’t even have a will yet.
  10. I make up songs all day now. That’s weird.
  11. Since discovering the pregnancy, I’ve read so many parenting books and so much psychology and evo-psych literature that I’m actually forgetting author names (never done that before…could be sleep deprivation).
  12. Having a child wakens you, profoundly, to the value of a dollar and the beauty of nice neighborhoods. 
  13. Few moments are so heartbreaking as watching my daughter’s pristine worldview get shattered by bumping her head or suddenly getting hungry.
  14. She recently started emulating “I love you.” She makes a weird three syllable sound with her tongue floppping about. It’s the best.
  15. Unless you’re a terrible person who would definitely be a bad parent, you should get your life together and have kids in order to experience meaning in life.

How to pass any exam

I’ve told my students this exact advice so many times:

Here are some posts I’ve written about serious study strategies:

  1. Lecture to the wall
  2. Thomas Aquinas on Memory
  3. Study Space
  4. The Bible’s Study Pattern

But wait, what’s a 4chan?

Adler’s Moral Axiom

As far as I can tell, there are three major problems in ethical thinking today:

  1. Disconnecting ethics from happiness and therefore thinking that personal well-being and pleasure have nothing to do with ethics.
  2. Hedonism: The idea that right and wrong is only a matter of what leads to the highest personal pleasure. In social ethics, this means allowing people to do whatever they think/feel will make them feel the best. We might call this unscientific utilitarianism (because it isn’t based upon actual knowledge of what is good for the individual or collective human organism.
  3. The is/ought problem: That since knowledge is all descriptive, no understanding of what is can lead to a conclusion about what one ought to do.

In my opinion, all three of these problems are solved in one way or another by Mortimer Adler’s one self-evident moral premise: We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

Below are the paragraphs where he introduces the axiom in his book, 10 Philosophical Mistakes:

The two distinctions that we now have before us, distinctions generally neglected in modern thought—the distinction between natural and acquired desires, or needs and wants, and the distinction between real and merely apparent goods—enable us to state a self-evident truth that serves as the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

The criterion of self-evidence, it will be recalled, is the impossibility of thinking the opposite. It is impossible for us to think that we ought to desire what is really bad for us, or ought not to desire what is really good for us. The very understanding of the “really good” carries with it the prescriptive note that we “ought to desire” it. We cannot understand “ought” and “really good” as related in any other way.[1]

While Adler’s claim is presented as an axiom, a truth about which one cannot accept the opposite proposition, it can probably only be accepted once it is properly understood. Here are some questions to help us think it through:

  1. Is it possible for there to be desires that are bad for us?
  2. Are there desires that are good for us but desired wrongly?
  3. Are there desires that are more important than others?
  4. We desire food, but is there a reason to desire food?
  5. We desire to live, but is there a reason we desire to live?
  6. We desire pleasure, but is there a reason we desire pleasure?
  7. We desire sex but is there a reason for sex?

If Adler’s axiom is axiomatic, we have a proposition upon which to build our ethics, dispute them as our understanding of human nature advances, and upon which to build theological ethics for those who accept divine revelation about the purpose and nature of humanity.

References

[1] Mortimer Jerome Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 90-91

 

Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty, and the Devil

In the three most recent adaptations of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock, Elementary, and the Game of Shadows) at crucial moments Holmes is deceived by Moriarty into making a tactical error and in the mean time a song about demon forces is played.

There Are Spoilers Below

In the movie, Holmes is fooled into thinking Moriarty intended to bomb an Opera house during Don Giovanni. Upon Holmes’ arrival, the chorus of demons is played as the main character is received into Hell. 

In the American procedural, Holmes is fooled into thinking a serial killer is Moriarty (when indeed the real Moriarty’s identity remains opaque to him) and Gil Scott-Heron’s, Me and the Devil, plays:

And in BBC’s version, Sherlock rides to the court house to function as an expert witness, and Nina Simone’s Sinnerman plays in the background:

 

Now, is this all just a coincidence or does something in the source material lend to this interpretation? No, it is not a coincidence. Yes, there is one reference to Moriarty as an evil on a diabolical level:

“[He] has, to all appearance, a most brilliant career before him. But the man had hereditary tendencies of a most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumours gathered round him in the university town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and to come down to London…” – Sherlock Holmes on Moriarty in The Final Problem

 

I doubt that anybody I know was interested enough in that confluence of media and Sherlock Holmes source material. I had wondered to myself, “why had they utilized that sort of theme in these modern versions of Holmes, particularly when he’s portrayed as an atheist in two of them?” Since I hadn’t read the Final Problem in a while, the answer was unknown to me. When I went back to it, there it was.

I think part of the appeal of Holmes today is that his intelligence is used in fighting evil, I hope people go back to the books and read them though. Holmes is portrayed more humanely, more philosophically, and though I love the modern adaptations, more excellently in the originals.