7 Theme

*  *  *  *  *

*  *  *  *  *
Speaker L

Award-winning broadcast journalist...political consultant...writer...photographer...pilot



Diogenes Club
of Carmel-by-the-Sea

March 12th 2011


Click for audio

Sherlock Holmes and the Question of Evil

by Tony Seton

I was hoisting a couple of Sierra Nevadas with my pal Doc Watson, and he finally let down his skirts enough to tell me about his latest e-pistle from his dear friend Sherlock Holmes. I pressured him to let me see the whole thing for myself, and ultimately he relented and showed it to me on his Android. After I read it, he emailed it to me so that I could share it with you. Here is that email:

The report of my demise was premature. Or as the brilliant American author Mark Twain put it, "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

Anyway, I'm quite well, thank you. I'm in a facility – what we used to call an old-age home – but is quite different from the Dickensian hellholes of yore. I'm in a place where the food is quite good and I can come and go as I please. It's more like a fancy residential community, except that they keep an eye on those who need one. They mostly stay away from me though I do feel watched over in a sense.

Sometimes, though, I feel like I'm living in that village depicted in that brilliant television series, The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan; Number Six, remember? And Leo McKern? Of course they don't know who I really am. I'm here under an assumed name, backed by all the appropriate manufactured documents, and I never looked like any of those screen portrayals. I'm much better looking, of course, with a fuller face and form. Not nearly the ectomorph of Rathbone and Brett.

I have heard that it is believed by some people here that I am a former higher-up intelligence officer, either CIA with a bad accent or MI-6. They don't pry. I don't think they even want to know who I really was, perhaps they are concerned about the people whose lives I've crossed deciding they might seek vengeance. I certainly don't behave in any manner that they might think that I am still involved in that world.

* * * * * * *

This aging process...it isn't the golden years that the insurance companies and mutual funds tout. The body isn't so keen on repairing damage to it, at least not as quickly. The medical industry is ready to pour chemicals into us to cover the symptoms, but that only dulls the mind and sometimes not the pain.

Most of the people here have a few good years left, before they are shuttled off to some place less elaborate when their minds cease to function. In their pre-departure state, as a result of their medications, one finds some of them without the conversational faculties we have always appreciated. They tend not to remember what they've told you, so the more polite residents are condemned to hear the same stories, over and over again.

I'm not so polite. I dash off saying I'm late for my rugby scrum. No one seems to mind. They don't remember what happened when we meet again.

I suppose it's like many of the meetings of the Baker Street Irregulars. Bless their ancient souls. You could probably deliver the same papers every meeting and they would listen excitedly each time.

* * * * * * *

Excuse me, Watson, I have had my train of thought briefly derailed. Mrs. Hudson is also here as an inmate; excuse me, they prefer the term guest. I think she would be happier were she still cleaning our rooms at 221B. As you know, I put considerable sums that were seized from criminal enterprises into a fund to make sure that not only were you and I assured as much reasonable comfort as for which we might ask in our later years, but for her.

She decided to follow me here to – I'm not mentioning the name of this place for fear you might try to track me down, too – because she was convinced that no one could provide the care and attention that she had. I was alerted to her intentions in advance of her arrival and met with her. I told her she could stay at the facility but she would have to take another name and only look out for me peripherally, as over-attention might jeopardize my safety, and hers. She scoffed, as she is wont to do, but relented.

An amusing aside, when we were discussing what name she might take, I noted that Henry Hudson was an historic British explorer whose name was on a river and a bay here in North America, so she decided to call herself Mrs. Henry. Not that it mattered, for I still wouldn't use it, but she kept her Christian name, Martha.

Mrs. Hudson, because she is not spending her days cleaning, has had to find other sources of distraction, and you will be, I think, not surprised to learn that her favorite pastime now is shuffleboard. It's so much like the activity of that vacuuming device that I gave her for one of our last Christmases together. I tried my hand at it – the shuffleboard, not the vacuuming – and found that it was more of a challenge than one might expect. I didn't have to labor very hard to provide her with regular victories. She has also taken up chess, and is challenging a number of the more veteran players here. She just came into my apartment to ask me about the Run Lopez gambit.

* * * * * * *

My esteemed friend, I am writing to make you aware of a subject that has captured my attention for some time. We certainly discussed it on many occasions over the years, as we encountered it all too often. I'm thinking of penning a monograph on the subject...the question of evil. I won't rehash the back and forth of our myriad conversations about it but will instead offer you my thinking as I have been outlining this article in my mind. I would welcome your comments, as I know you will have some, and you have always contributed to my final products.

The first point about evil is...Is it a force of its own? Is the world made of good and evil, and is evil its own power, or is it only the absence of good? I have not wavered from my belief that evil is a dis-ease, a corruption of the norm. In most cases, I would suggest it is produced by circumstances, most often unhealthy childhoods, but in some much more rare cases it results from a physical malady, perhaps a malformation of the brain, damaged genetics, a head injury, poisoning as from drugs or alcohol.

This description both adheres to all available evidence and is in conflict only with the ravings of those besotted with Manicheist religious views. Indeed, most of the world's evil over the millennia has been instigated in the name of various deities.

There is very good news in this premise. If we make a healthy life for succeeding generations, we will likely eliminate most of the evil that plagues us in current times. Further, a greatly healthier society will be better able to identify and quarantine as necessary those damaged individuals who might pose a threat to the common weal.

A second point is in the definition of evil. Evil is human behavior. We don't think of disasters as evil. Nature isn't evil. What carnage is incurred by animals isn’t prompted by evil but by hunger or territorial instincts.

Evil is action against the morals of a community. This is a key issue because what we see as evil today was not always considered so in earlier societies. I'm thinking of slavery and abuse of women, children, and people of different skin color or age, or infirmity.

Were the people who practiced often-brutal discrimination on these bases centuries ago evil? I think not. And I rush to insert that such brutality is extant in many – perhaps the majority – of the nations today. But the conclusion is this: The higher the level of consciousness we achieve, the more acute are our sensibilities of our humanity and the more refined are, and will become, our attitudes toward our fellow man.

Those healthier attitudes develop in communities, promulgated by individuals; think about the one hundredth monkey. Even in such insidious backwaters as Central Asia – I'm thinking of Pakistan and Afghanistan – people are beginning to break free of the centuries of religious oppression. Girls are now going to school in places where women were valued below farm animals. Surely that is a path away from evil.

The upheaval in the Middle East is the same thing. How amazing, and wonderful.

* * * * * * *

I truly wish that I had been able to capture Professor Moriarty. I know that under proper circumstances he would have opened his mind to me. Was his mind evil? Is evil necessarily criminal? No. Is criminality always evil? That would be a harder issue to parse. Certainly violence and causing fear and hatred, pushing innocents into destitution...those are evil acts.

But you have to think that many people today would think that stripping the robber barons of their wealth wouldn’t be evil but its antithesis.

What would Moriarty have said? Where would he have drawn the line? He caused great pain, and death, to many people. Did he avoid hurting individuals when he could? We have no evidence of that, of course, but it is a question that I would have put to him.

You know, I remember when we captured John Clay as he broke through the floor of the bank at Saxes-Coburg square in search of the 30,000 Napoleons. His first act upon our seizing him was to shout to his cohort, Archie, to run. That was an act of camaraderie, not evil.

I think of Jonas Oldacre, the Norwood builder, and his housekeeper, who tried to frame a man for murder. There was pure spite involved in that case, as evil as anything I've smelled.

Dr. Grimesby Roylott, who killed one daughter and tried to kill another, using a venomous snake to bite them. He was an awful man, who suffered his own awful death, but I think he was clearly non compos mentis. However, does that mitigate his crime? It certainly didn't lessen his hatred and his violence. It explains it perhaps, but certainly doesn’t excuse it. And still, was it evil?

So we are handed a third critical facet to evil...rational intent. A madman versus an angry or simply greedy man. Take Mortimer Tregennis, who killed his siblings with Devil's Root. Or Dr. Sterndale who killed Tregennis to avenge one of his victims. It's hard to say that Sterndale was evil for executing a double murderer.

You can see then, the complexity we're working with.

I have raised this matter with my brother Mycroft, whom I've more than once credited to you as being of greater capacity and scope of intellect than I. Yes, he is here, and of course under a new name. I was told to call him Sydney, but I have never asked him why. For that matter "Mycroft" and "Sherlock" were never adequately explained.

Mycroft has been exploring different planes of existence over the past few years. He was behind the curtain for a number of Sir Arthur’s writings through Professor Challenger about the outre side of life. Perhaps I told you, or not, that my brother was at the site "When the World Screamed". That account was not pure fiction.

Of course his view of evil is more esoteric. He believes that we will rise to a higher level of consciousness where the subject comes up only in a discussion of history. His view is that we are intrinsically good. Moral, in the sense that we are nobly invested in a better community and we do that by being the best human beings we can. Naturally, he says, the causes of evil in the environment will be eradicated with proper parenting. And those few who are the victim of unusual circumstances will quickly be repaired or otherwise managed for their care and to protect society.

That will be a far cry from what we have today, with our mental institutions filled mostly with people who decided they couldn’t – or simply wouldn’t – function in today’s world. The horror of it, of course, is that they are locked up, often in too close quarters, with people who are out of control. And now they face the slashing of public funding for their continued refuge.

Mycroft was, as you might imagine, familiar with Calhoun’s experiments with overpopulation of rodents. When the population was increased, at some point there were too many of them and some of them started going visibly and destructively crazy. Mycroft says that’s what’s happening to the people of this world. He thinks Earth has a comfortable carrying capacity of about two billion. We’re at seven billion.

He thinks our species is going crazy. I can’t disagree with him. He says the bizarre forms that evil has taken over the past sixty years are evidence that our moorings have been cut. That we can’t count on people to do the right thing, even when it is good for them. America, he says, is the perfect barometer. They don’t take care of their problems. They let them fester and they grow worse. Guns, teen pregnancy, aging infrastructure, failing education, polluted lakes and rivers. There were all problems that might have been addressed effectively, but now their leaders don’t even talk about them.

That’s madness, but it isn’t evil. Or maybe it is. Maybe there is a force of evil, but let us say that it only comes to power when it is unopposed. Recall Burke’s warning in 1770, "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."

Truly, sadly, I fear that we are in for a dark time because good men have been falling one by one. Abraham, Martin and John, Robert and too many others. Perhaps during the coming cataclysm – let us call it a transition – we men will be drained of our anger. Then I would see more reason for hope, and to cheer a world that doesn’t need consulting detectives.

* * * * * * *

My dear fellow, here I've gone on and on about myself and with my ravings about evil. I have neglected the common courtesy of asking about you and your lovely eighth wife. Last I heard she had recovered from Lasik surgery and had immediately decided that your house needed a thorough cleaning. You might remember than Mrs. Hudson got a little manic after we had gotten her new glasses.

Please send her my warmest regards. I would invite you to visit but I think that unwise, which is why I have never shared my address, or new name. I appreciate you respecting my need for privacy; that you understand it is as much for your security as my own.

I must end this letter now. A friend has shown up unexpectedly. You might remember that I was a witness to her marriage. I had heard she might be heading this way. Apparently her husband was framed in a political shift that needed a scapegoat. She just escaped with her life. He did not survive.

While I greatly rue her loss, I am on the verge of emotion over the fact that she has chosen to come here for her refuge and recuperation. I shall, of course, be at her constant service.

With respect and appreciation to the greatest Boswell of our language,

I am, your friend, Holmes.

* * * * * * *

So there you have it. As a journalist, I must say that I continue to be amazed how many secrets get revealed after a couple of beers. It’s why I get you fellows to by me drinks. In the ensuing conversation is revealed great fodder for my novels.

Thank you.

PO Box 7281, Carmel CA 93921 Email 831-747-1918

© 2009-2011 Tony Seton Communications