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Sherlock Holmes: Detective, Linguist, and Scholar

Classical Literature

Sherlock Holmes: Detective, Linguist, and Scholar

Statue of Sherlock Holmes, London


By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB


We are all familiar with Conan Doyle’s greatest character, the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. In the following article, I will be pointing out an aspect of this character you may have missed, that he wasn’t just a master detective, but he was also a man who cared about classics and literature. Originally, Doyle meant Holmes to be a man who cared about nothing but the art of deduction. In his first adventure, “A Study in Scarlet”, Holmes is presented as a complete ignoramus in subjects unrelated to criminal investigation, such as astronomy and gardening. However, his creator soon realized that something essential was missing in the character. In my opinion, Doyle realized Holmes could not be an intelligent man and know nothing about classics and literature. That’s why the Holmes of the later adventures is a man well-versed in classical and modern literature.

Holmes as a Classical Scholar

At the end of the first novel, A Study in Scarlet, Holmes states, “Populus me sibilat, at mihi plaudo; ipse domi simul ac nummos contemplar in arca” (“The public hiss at me, but I cheer myself when in my own house I contemplate the coins in my strong-box”), a quotation from Horace’s Satires. At this point in the story, Holmes was starting to think the whole adventure was in vain, and he marked his feeling with some appropriate Latin verse.

Holmes utters another Latin quotation in “The Red-Headed League”. When Holmes explains to his client, Mr. Jabes Wilson, how he used the art of deduction to learn important things about his past, his client blurts out: “Well, I never! I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all.” In response, Holmes quotes the Roman historian Tacitus, saying, “Omne ignotum pro magnifico” (“Everything unknown passes for miraculous”).

Holmes and Modern Languages

In addition to having a taste for classics, Holmes was a bit of a polyglot. Conan Doyle admired the French language, and he often includes quotations by writers like Flaubert and Stendhal. At the end of the adventure of “The Red-Headed League”, Holmes slightly alters a fragment from a letter by Flaubert to George Sand, “l’Homme n’est Rien l’Oeuvre Tout” (“The man is nothing, the work is everything”), which he renders as “l’Homme c’est rien l’Oeuvre c’est tout”. In The Sign of Four we hear him say “Il n’y a pas des sots si incommodes que ceux qui ont de l’esprit!” (“There are no fools so troublesome as those that have some wit!”), a quotation from François de Rouchefoucald. Throughout his various adventures he also often utters French words and phrases, like “voilà”, “verrons”, and “fait accompli”.

Holmes had a taste for German literature as well, especially Goethe. In The Sign of Four Holmes quotes him in the German original: “Wir sind gewohnt dass die Menschen verhohnen was sie nicht verstehen” (“We are used to seeing that man despises what he cannot understand”). In the same book, Holmes says: “Yes, there are in me the makings of a very fine loafer, and also of a pretty spry sort of a fellow. I often think of those lines of old Goethe: Schade dass die Natur nur einen Mensch aus Dir schuf, / Denn zum wuerdigen Mann war und zum Schlemen der Stoff [Nature, alas, made only one being out of you although there was material for a good man and a rogue].”


I hope you enjoyed this short essay. Although Conan Doyle originally wanted his character to be, as Watson put it, “a brain without a heart” and completely ignorant of books and literature, he soon realized that would never work. Even the most capable and self-sufficient brainworker needs books and classical culture to be fully human!


André Bastos Gurgel
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.

Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.



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