Building Sherlock

We all love Sherlock Holmes. From board games to comic strips to legitimate fan fiction, the pipe-smoking, violin-playing private detective has captured our hearts. In honor of the release of the new series of Sherlock, I am attempting to deduce what about this character we find so enthralling.

In 1890, Arthur Conan Doyle published a short detective story entitled A Study in Scarlet, which introduced the public to an eccentric detective named Sherlock Holmes. The story became wildly popular, much to Doyle’s surprise, mainly because of the character he had created. He went on to write sixty more stories featuring Sherlock, including “The Final Problem”, in which he killed off the character in 1893, only to resurrect him ten years later due to popular outrage. To Conan Doyle, Holmes was mainly a distraction, as he wrote to his mother in 1891, keeping him from greater things. However, it is as the creator of his beloved detective character that he is best remembered.

Ever since the first story about Sherlock Holmes was written, nearly any story about him has sold extremely well. Holmes is one of the most recognizable faces of fiction, along with the likes of Darth Vader, Mickey Mouse, and Hamlet. But why is this the case? What about him captures our collective imaginations?

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Sherlock Holmes is his predictability. Throughout his entire literary career, he remains unchanged. When we turn on the television or flip through one of his books, we know exactly what to expect: the precision of his deduction, the astuteness of his observation, and the coldness of his personality. There’s a familiarity to every new adaptation, like getting reacquainted with an old friend.

Another aspect of Sherlock that captivates us is his incredible skill at observation. He can tell at a passing glance a person’s occupation, where they live, and sometimes even their ancestry. Arthur Conan Doyle based Holmes on an actual surgeon who mentored him as a medical student – Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell, like Holmes, was renowned for his astute powers of perception and calculated, scientific approach to life. These qualities captivated the young Doyle, who created Sherlock as a sort of tribute to his teacher. Perhaps it is his eccentricities which engage us and mirror, to a lesser degree, our own personal quirks.

Sherlock Holmes has enriched our lives and our minds since his creation in 1890, and he will continue to do so as long as writers remain faithful to convey the same character we have all grown to love.

My Pick of the Week: January 30-February 4

My pick of the week is Dune, by Frank Herbert.

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While I am not what you could call a fan of the science fiction genre in general, this book resonated with me. It is the story of a young boy named Paul, who is the “chosen one”, and his journey to his destiny in a universe full of intricate power politics. It really is one of the most complex works of fiction I have ever read, and remains one of my favorite books of all time.

Into the Valley of Death: a noble disaster

In the year 1854, Russian Czar Nicholas I decided to expand his territory to include the land of present-day Turkey. The Turks tried desperately to defend their land, but the Russians shattered the Turkish fleet. In desperation, the Turks cried out to England and France, who came to their aid in order to protect their own borders. Arriving just in time to face a freezing, dry winter with few provisions, the combined armies lost many men to cholera and dysentery.

When spring came, supplies reached the starving armies, enabling them to remain in Turkey. The Russians were steadily losing ground and needed to act quickly to avoid total defeat. The Russian army toiled over land to Balaclava, where the allied armies were encamped and engaged in the Battle of Balaclava.

Lord Lucan, commander of the cavalry division of the English army, spotted the advancing Russian army from his lookout at the top of Causeway Heights. He sent the 93rd Regiment of Scottish Highlanders to hold off the main body of Russian military. As the Russians advanced, a thin, two-man-deep, Scottish line formed before their eyes. The brave regiment stood firm, sending volleys down onto the Russians. Eventually, the Russian commander wheeled his horse around and led the army away. This brave resistance by the the 93rd regiment earned them the fond nickname, “the thin red line.”

Surrounding Causeway Heights was a deep, dark valley known as the Valley of Death. On the other side of the valley, tall hills rose from the earth where the Russians were camped. From his position, Lord Lucan spied some Russian soldiers carrying off some of the French guns. He sent a hasty message to another general, Lord Raglan, by way of Captain James Nolan. The message simply stated: “Send men to prevent the enemy from carrying off the guns.”

Raglan, who was stationed further down Causeway Heights, could not see either the Russians or the guns. As he tried to find the guns the message spoke of, Nolan became increasingly annoyed. Gesturing broadly to the Russians camped on the other side of the valley, he cried, “Here, my lord, is the enemy; here are your guns!” When Raglan pointed out the suicidal odds of attempting such a mission, Captain Nolan refused to listen. Word was quickly sent to Captain Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade. Cardigan, too, found the order ridiculous, but he had no choice but to obey. The disastrous mission, later memorialized as the Charge of the Light Brigade, had begun.

The Light Brigade consisted of 675 determined soldiers who, despite incredible odd, actually did face the entire Russian army unflinchingly. By terrifying the Russians with their bravery, the Light Brigade was able to capture the guns, which Cardigan had thought impossible. Tragically, only one hundred ninety-five men survived the charge. With insufficient numbers, they were unable to hold the guns for more than a few minutes and were pressed to retreat back across the Valley of Death. The entire ordeal took only twenty minutes.

While the charge proved ultimately unsuccessful, the heroic miscommunication threw the Russians off guard. The allied armies continued pressing forward and eventually won the day, preserving Turkey’s liberty as well as England and France’s safety.

Is Change Impossible?

Imagine a world where change is impossible. People do not grow old. Nothing has changed since the beginning of time, and everything will stay the same until its end. In fact, time has no beginning or end. This is the world we see through the Greek philosopher Parmenides’ eyes. “Whatever is, is,” Parmenides stated with finality, meaning that movement and change were only illusions. He held that since truth is unchanging, so is reality. Parmenides believed it is impossible to think about that which does not exist.

In the days of the pre-Socratic philosophers, Parmenides was born in Elea, Italy, to a noble family. He grew up a pampered and educated prince in his ruling family. Although not much is known about his early life, Parmenides began his career as a thinker by studying under Xenophanes and Anaximander, two of his contemporaries. He had probably already been introduced to the great philosophical ideas of his time by childhood teachers, but his interest piqued after learning of the philosophers’ greatest concern: the Arche.

Thinkers before Socrates were primarily interested in discovering what the substance was from which all else came. This substance, or source, they called the Arche. However, they argued hotly over what the Arche was. Thales, one of the earliest known philosophers, believed the Arche was water, since it was powerful and essential to life. Anaximander held that the Arche was not material at all, but something more infinite and spiritual. He called this substance the “apeiron”, which means “without limit” or “the boundless”. Heraclitus, an unconventional contemporary of Parmenides, refined the idea of the Arche. Heraclitus thought the Arche was fire, a symbol of the ever-changing nature of the world. However, he taught that another force worked alongside the Arche to change and shape matter. He called this other force “logos”, “the word”.

Parmenides was greatly influenced by the whirlwind of ideas spreading throughout Greece and the Greek colonies in Italy. He actually began his career as a lawyer, drafting legislation to improve the economy of Elea, but he is better known as the Father of Metaphysics. Despite studying the ideas of Anaximander and Xenophanes, Parmenides ultimately rejected most of their ideas. He documented his ideas in a book written in hexameter. In his manuscript, he attempted to explain that change is impossible, since change causes a thing to transition from “not-being” to “being”. He argued that “not-being” cannot exist and concluded that there could be no coming into existence or ceasing to exist. Nothing changed; change was just a faulty perception of the world. Parmenides believed that the material world had no bounds and would never end.

Parmenides committed a logical fallacy which flowed throughout his entire system of belief, a fallacy we still make today. His arguments were all based on a presupposition, something he believed without explaining why he believed it. His presupposition was that there is no such thing as void or “not-being”. Of course, if this were true, there would be no imagination, no innovation. Every new technology ever created was first imagined, before it actually existed. And from personal experience, we know that change is not only possible, but happens daily, even moment-by-moment.

Parmenides and his method of thought, though flawed, contributed much to the discipline of philosophy. He asked questions such as: What is real? What exists? How do we know? Today the study of ontology continues to ask these questions. Parmenides influenced many later philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who went on to create entirely new branches of thought and study.

When we imagine the world of Parmenides, a purely static and unchanging world, we can realize the importance of change. Every leaf, every flower, every new year of life, all speak to the beauty and value of this concept so central to our human identities: change.

The TRUE Selfish Gene: Socialism’s Devastating Effects

There’s been a lot of talk this past election cycle about socialism. Many younger voters and students support socialism because they believe it is based on altruism, whereas capitalism is based on selfishness and greed. Is this true?

Capitalism is a system that believes individuals, working from a point of self-interest in the free market system, can raise themselves to success through effort and innovation. Socialism denies this claim, and instead attempts to create income equality by taking all profits and distributing them equally among the public.

Socialism sounds like a good idea, but the results are staggering. Even if you discount Hitler and Stalin’s regimes as distorted forms of this ideology, socialism’s effects are deadly. Socialist states produce laziness and entitlement beliefs. After all, if you will get a handout whether you work for it or not, why put in the effort? In small, socialist European countries such as Denmark and Sweden, people who become moderately well off through their hard work and drive are looked down upon. Many move to the United States or other countries to avoid the hatred and unfairly high taxes of their home countries.

Socialist governments that give handouts to everyone produce citizens who expect these privileges and demand them as rights. Instead of working and innovating their way to success, these people believe the government owes them something. This is pure selfishness.

Capitalism has its own failings. There can be greater volatility in a free market, and sometimes abuses happen. Overall, however, capitalism produces a society of hard workers who take care of themselves and their communities. It is a system based on self-interest, but self-interest does not equal selfishness. Selfishness says, “I will get what I want even if it causes others to suffer.” Self-interest says, “I will find a way to increase my quality of life without cost to others.”

Socialism is a deeply flawed system with devastating effects. It fosters selfishness and entitlement, and ultimately destroys any society which embraces it.

My Pick of the Week: January 23-28

My pick of the week is Mastermind, by Maria Konnikova.

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This nonfiction book is a fascinating look into the psychology of everyone’s favorite consulting detective. Konnikova guides the reader through the various stages of observation and inference and explains how to think clearly and creatively, just like Sherlock Holmes. Her tips and suggestions are supported by excerpts from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.

My College Search Story

In tenth grade, I knew I wanted to go to college. For the past few years I’d been systematically testing out of core classes. I had CLEP credits in history, biology, sociology, composition, and literature. Some of my advisors were telling me to study at an online college, but I decided against this. I wanted the experiences and social opportunities of a brick-and-mortar school.

My top picks at the time were Harvard, Brown, MIT, and Berkeley. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get into any of them, so I added a few backup choices such as Brandeis and Boston College. I had no idea what I might major in.

As I researched, another college kept coming up: John Brown University. I was really looking to leave the South, but I was intrigued. The honors program was exceptional. After visiting the school, I was convinced of its academic prestige. Only its location held me back.

Then November of 2016 came, and with it, the election. I hadn’t expected or prepared for a Donald Trump presidency, so while others raged and protested, I researched. I set about learning all I could about Trump’s ideas and policies, and what they might mean for me. After all, it’s always better to be ahead of the curve. One thing was clear – if Donald Trump was able to implement some of his ideas, small U.S. businesses would become even more profitable.

It’s a well-recorded phenomenon that small businesses tend to thrive more in areas with other small businesses, rather than big business areas. In looking into the locations I was interested in living, Boston and the area around John Brown both stood out as the best options as far as starting a business was concerned. This left JBU, Brandeis, and Boston College as my top three choices. (I had already eliminated the Ivy Leagues for personal as well as financial reasons.)

I applied early to John Brown because they offered to waive the application fee for me, and I was accepted. I seemed to be a good candidate for some of their largest scholarships also, but still I hesitated. I really love Boston.

That’s when I learned about so-called “safe spaces”. Safe spaces are areas on college campuses where students are supposed to go to feel included and free from discrimination and “hate speech”, but they have become the scourge of higher education. Students and faculty use these safe spaces as bastions of ideology, places where they can go to avoid hearing any differing opinion from their own. In many colleges, particularly in the Northeast, students’ rights to free speech are in jeopardy. Censorship is rampant.

This was not what I wanted out of a college experience. I didn’t want to be sheltered from new and different ideas. I embraced opportunities to debate and challenge my beliefs and assumptions. I wanted to engage intellectually while in college, not check out. This left me one viable option which stood out among all the data: John Brown.

I learned several valuable lessons from my college search journey. Many times, things aren’t what they seem. Even good ideas can be abused and have dangerous consequences. Sometimes, to gain the outcome you desire, you have to do the opposite of what you originally think.

I feel very confident in my college decision and excited for the future.

Dante’s Spiritual Journey

Dante Alighieri lost the true path, as he called it, toward the middle of his life. Wandering without direction, he stumbled on the spirit of the poet Virgil, who promised to lead him through hell and purgatory to visit heaven. Dante described this journey as a dream or vision, but it held an extraordinary significance to his own waking life. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy toward the middle of his life, after he was exiled permanently from his homeland of Florence, Italy. He was, spiritually speaking, without a direction. So he set out to write a poem that would eventually be the masterpiece for which he became known.

Dante described the journey as one of discovery, led by his favorite poet Virgil. Virgil had written the Aeneid some centuries before, and Dante patterned his Divine Comedy after Virgil’s work. The idea of a journey, of a guiding spirit who helps the traveler through difficulties – these ideas were straight from the Aeneid and the tradition of epic poetry. Dante also incorporated many mythological figures into the Inferno, including Minos, Theseus, Cerberus, and Aeneas, perhaps as another homage to his literary predecessors. Dante continued his story by having his character descend into hell, which was a highly structured domain of nine circles, with punishments equivalent to the relative seriousness of the crimes the damned spirits had committed in life.

As he traveled, Dante learned about the people in hell and the crimes they had committed. Virgil led him through a river of blood, a city of heretics, and a lake of fire. Dante saw how God’s divine justice was tempered by a measure of mercy even in hell. He spoke to many lost souls who warned him not to make the same mistakes they did. He learned to let go of his anger and bitterness and embrace the love and wisdom of God.

Dante’s journey through hell changed both the character and the man. As he wrote of the horrors and punishments, his own life was filled with turmoil. The same war which forced him from his homeland continued to rage on between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Neither side was friendly to Dante, and most cities in Italy were controlled by one or the other. This hostility made it difficult for Dante to find a city willing to receive him. He was thrown into a deep depression and clung even more closely to his work as a means of expression and comfort.

As Dante the character descended deeper and deeper into hell, he described the increasingly serious crimes and punishments. In the last circle of hell, he described traitors and blasphemers being punished with fire. Perhaps he was thinking of his own life, when traitors overtook Florence and cast him out of his home. He placed many of his political enemies in the flames as a sort of poetic justice. After descending to the depths of hell and learning all God allowed him to know, Dante emerged through the firm ground, followed by Virgil. Finally, he could, as he put it, “behold the stars” (Canto XXXIV, final line).

Dante himself was soon to see the stars. A prince from Ravenna invited him to live at court and become a diplomat as he finished his manuscript. Dante gratefully accepted and his life became more stable. Throughout his poem, both he and his character experienced hardships but ultimately triumphed. His spiritual journey mirrored his physical journey.

After completing The Divine Comedy, Dante journeyed as a diplomat for Ravenna. On one of these journeys, he passed through a town where a plague of malaria was wiping out all the citizens. Dante contracted the disease and died shortly after returning to Ravenna. He had completed his poem and his true journey.

Machiavelli on the Power of “Virtue”

What is virtue? Some might say goodness, morality, and character. Aristotle, one of the greatest Greek philosophers, said virtue consisted of four elements (prudence, temperance, courage, and justice) and was the foundation for any effective action. Machiavelli, the author of the notorious and controversial book The Prince, believed otherwise.

In The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli consistently used the Italian word virtu, a word for which there is no direct translation in English. Virtu is derived from the Latin word virtus, which means “manliness” or “power”. Most English editions translate the word as “ability”, “skill”, or “ingenuity”. His idea was that virtue is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

To Machiavelli, the ultimate goal was power, both political and social. He argued that a strong leader knows when to use virtue and when to use strength, and his use of the amoral term virtu reflects this. A leader who successfully exercises virtu sometimes shows the traits of goodness, morality, and character, but when it is not to his advantage, he can also be cruel, violent, and vicious. Virtu in Machiavelli’s eyes was the ability to distinguish when to use Aristotelian virtue, and when to use force.

Machiavelli was an incredibly skilled political mind, and many of his ideas and observations in The Prince still hold true and useful today. However, when implementing his style of power, a leader should use discretion. The concept of virtu is a dangerous philosophy. If the ends justify the means, as Machiavelli seems to have implied, then is anything truly wrong? And if there is no absolute morality that cannot be changed from situation to situation, who is to say that the great moral tragedies of the world, from slavery to the Holocaust, are tragedies at all?