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Lessons from the Aether: Sherlock and the Ubernmench


Tweet of the Day: My Kingdom for a Parking Lot (or Car Park)

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For all the talk about rooting for the underdog or siding with the little guy, we read stories to experience vicariously the deeds of those better than ourselves whether they are stronger, faster, richer, more famous or any other superlative that raises them above the average. We might watch the rise to their current position in envious longing or their fall from grace with undisguised glee.  At the very least we want to know that our characters have ability to overcome the challenges that come their way.

Frederick Nietzsche came up with his own concept of a man who stands above the rest, one who frees himself from the ethical bindings of society and finds his own moral center. He called him the Übernmench . Which brings us to the character of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC show Sherlock. Based on the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Like his progenitor, Sherlock posses a superhuman intellect that makes him stand above the rest, even the experience detectives of Scotland Yard or his friend Dr. Watson. Due to this ability, he ignores basic social graces, is blunt to the point of insult and lives his life with little regard to what others think. In essence he is both sides of the equation, a superlative character who is also not bound by the ethical web of society.

Yet, such a character would be boring and as it is pointed by a detective to Dr. Watson, easily play the role of the villain, due to the fact that he does do what he does (solve crimes as a “Consulting Detective”) for the usual moral reasons, such as helping the helpless, but does it simply to stave of boredom.  It is a difficult character to sympathize with: too smart for everyone’s good and too anti-social to be relatable. But by playing his social ineptness against his titanic intellect, the show creators (and the actor that plays Sherlock) create an interesting mix, a character capable of solving the thorniest of crimes but also stumbling over basic social interactions. The third aspect that makes Holmes an example of the super man is that his intellect allows him to pierce the veil of society’s norms and see them for what they are, a veneer that allows basic human interaction used more often than not to lie, cheat, and steal. He is the “fettered” someone who chooses to follow a moral code of his own and is bound by it even as he breaks through the social boundaries of antiquated morality.

His counterpart, the dastardly Moriarty, is equally as clever, if not more so, and has a similar motivation, thrill of the challenge. Yet he is someone who does, when it is convenient, appear to follow social convention. More than that, while Holmes acts superior to everyone, Moriarty often plays the part of the inferior, submissive, deferential and unobtrusive which allows him to be ignored by the likes of Holmes until it is too late. But Moriarty follows no code, is bound by no moral consequence, the only thing he seeks is to prove how clever he is, nothing more. He is therefore an example of the Unfettered, the super man who has abandoned morality all together.

The show adds an interesting wrinkle in Mycroft Holmes, older brother to Sherlock. He too has the gift of a superior intellect, but unlike either Sherlock or Moriarty, he is bound by the very rules that the other two seek to ignore. Mycroft follows protocol, dresses in perfectly tailored suits and lives the life of an upper class government servant (and spy master).  However, he is not the picture of moral superiority, his allegiance is to Queen and Country, not basic human morality. He is not above dismissing the dead or the living if they do not fit his vision of the defense of the realm.

Each character plays on the archetype of the super man, both in the ethical as well as physical world. The shows does what many other stories fail to do, gives us compelling super heroes by showing them warts and all. It also explores a tricky philosophical view without oversimplifying it.

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