Holmes and Watson: The Adventure of the Iconic Relationship

The following is a little (“Sarcasm?” “Yes.”) monograph on the philosophy of friendship. Apparently, I was channeling Sherlock Holmes (although my inner-Watson felt the need for a little levity). So I suppose I should put an academic warning on this…
Martin Freeman as John Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes sitting on a bench

Is the enduring appeal of John Watson and Sherlock Holmes in their complete friendship?

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet it’s doubtful he realized that he was creating one of the most iconic relationships in literature. With adaptations of the characters appearing onscreen and in print at a near geometric pace, in everything period pastiches to openly labeled alternate universes, Holmes and Watson have replaced David and Jonathan in the 21st Century as a shorthand reference to an everlasting and extraordinarily close friendship. But what makes the friendship so appealing that a hundred years later we are still fascinated with them? How do they epitomize the philosophic ideal of friendship? And what, if anything, do the permutations of the relationship and the characters say about the culture in which they were created and re-created?

From the beginning philosophers have been fascinated with friends — what is a friend, how and why do we qualify a friend? The Greek philosopher Aristotle writes “Without friends, no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.” In fact, we are suspicious of “loners,” those with few or no friends, and history has often proved this instinct a good one for the species. Even “charming” psychopaths, though they may appear gregarious and sociable, usually prove to have no close “friends,” people who know them well. Instead, when the psychopath is caught engaged in anti-social activities, it takes neighbors and co-workers by surprise: “I had no idea! He seemed so nice!”

Yes, and he stole the Crown Jewels, broke into the Bank of England and organized a prison break at Pentonville. For the sake of law and order I suggest you avoid all future attempts at a relationship, Molly.

— Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, “The Reichenbach Fall”

Aristotle argued that not only is friendship noble and good, in and of itself, but it is good for us. According to Aristotle, friends help us protect our prosperity, and if we are poor, we can take refuge with our friends. When we’re young, our friends keep us from making mistakes (obviously not always true as Aristotle himself was to discover), and in our old age, friends help us with the limitations of declining health (unless they predecease us). In our prime, friends spur us on to become better — better people as well as better at what we do. All of these aspects of friendship are seen throughout Doyle’s stories and the various incarnations of Holmes and Watson, and clues to their appeal. (Certainly, I prefer friends who inspire me to better myself hence monographs like this one.) In Aristotle’s viewpoint, true friendship is based on mutual goodwill and concern for the welfare of the other.

Aristotle also believed there are three forms of friendship. He called them “utility-based,” “pleasure-based,” and “complete” or “perfect” friendships; what some people call “true friendships.” Friendships almost invariably begin as utility-based — co-workers, business associates, classmates, and so forth — or as pleasure-based — bar mates, sports fans, anime fans, fellow birders, church members, and such. In an age of promiscuous “friending” and “following” I believe Aristotle’s distinctions on the type, or level, of friendship gives us a clue to the not only lasting, but increasing, appeal of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson; that we see in their relationship a guide to our own, and to what we ultimately seek in our lives — a true friend, what Cicero called “a second self.”

The idea that a true friend, our complete or perfect friendship, is in some way a reflection of ourselves goes back again to Aristotle’s work (Nicomachean Ethics, in this case) where he states “his friend is another self.” This idea is echoed in Montaigne centuries later in Of Friendship, arguably the greatest essay ever written on the subject in general and the friendship of two men in particular. Four hundred years later, Doyle makes manifest many of these concepts in his stories. Montaigne writes “if anyone urges me to tell why I loved him, I feel it cannot be expressed but by answering: Because it was he, because it was myself.”

Bearing in mind that the reflection we see in the mirror is the opposite of what others see, it has been argued that, in fact, our closest friends are not “another self” but those who complement us, whose strongest qualities are those we lack. Certainly in BBC’s Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes comes to depend upon John Watson to clarify social norms that mystify him, and John relies on Sherlock to explain some of the apparent mysteries in the world around them.

“It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.”

— Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

“Some people who aren’t geniuses have an amazing ability to stimulate it in others.”

—Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, “Hounds of Baskerville”

If, however, we carry the hypothesis of opposites to its utmost, we would expect to see Sherlock Homes best friend be James Moriarty, who is morally and ethically his opposite while intellectually his equal. But Aristotle’s view that true friendship can only exist based on mutual goodwill and virtue prevents Sherlock Holmes from ever being friends with Moriarty, despite the their intellectual similarities; Moriarty is incapable of mutual goodwill, let alone virtue. The same can be said for the blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton (or Magnussen in BBC’s Sherlock Series/Season 3).

I would also argue that Holmes and Watson reflect the conflicting aspects of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character and culture. He was born in 1859, in the middle of the Victorian age, when the emotional excess of the Romantic Rebellion against the critical cynicism of the Enlightenment Rationalism was at it’s climax, and he spent his life conflicted between a devotion to the reason and science of his training with Dr. Bell —as represented by his detective stories, nonfiction, and Sherlock Holmes — and the appeal of the romantic and mystical — as represented by his historical fiction, interests in the occult, and John Watson. The conflict continues to this day in our culture. In many ways, it’s this marriage of the Romantic and the Enlightenment that makes the stories and the characters of Holmes and Watson so enduring; they complement one another, offering something for both head and heart.

The Sign of the Three Forms of Friendship Between Holmes and Watson

When we meet John Watson it is clear that he’s a man without close ties, a man adrift in London without friends or purpose. He doesn’t even have a good relationship with his remaining family. As we subsequently learn, Sherlock Holmes is immersed in his work and study, disconnected from others, including his remaining family.

So alarming did the state of my finances become, that I soon realized that I must either leave the metropolis and rusticate somewhere in the country, or that I must make a complete alteration in my style of living. Choosing the latter alternative, I began by making up my mind to leave the hotel, and take up my quarters in some less pretentious and less expensive domicile.

On the very day that I have come to this conclusion, I was standing in Criterion Bar, when someone tapped me on the shoulder, and turning around I recognized Young Stamford, who had been a dresser under me at Bart’s. The sight of a friendly face in the great wilderness of London is a pleasant thing indeed to a lonely man.…

…“Poor devil!” He said, commiserating, after he listened to my misfortunes. “What are you up to now?”

“Looking for lodgings, “I answered. “Trying to solve the problem as to whether it is possible to get comfortable rooms at a reasonable price.”

“That’s a strange thing, “remarked my companion; “you are the second man today that has used that expression to me. “

“And who is the first?” I asked.

“A fellow who was working at the chemical laboratory up at the hospital. He was bemoaning himself this morning because he could not get someone to go halves with him in some nice rooms which he is found, and which were too much for his purse.”

“By Jove!” I cried; “if he really wants someone to share the rooms and the expense, I am the very man for him. I should prefer having a partner to being alone.”

Young Stamford looked rather strangely at me over his wine glass. “You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet,” he said; “perhaps you would not care for him is a constant companion.”

— John Watson, A Study in Scarlet

Watson sees his friendship with Holmes at the outset as strictly a utility-based one. Utility-based friendships are ones that exist strictly for some tangible mutual benefit. Today we may call these “friendships” co-workers, business acquaintances, teammates, social connections, neighbors and so forth. We don’t even have to actually like the person in an a utility-based “friendship.” We simply need to derive some benefit to ourselves that makes the relationship worth continuing. Needless to say, these relationships tend to be short in duration. If the benefit to us ends, so does the relationship.

“You mustn’t blame me if you don’t get on with him,” he said; “I know nothing more of him than I’ve learned from meeting him occasionally in the laboratory. You proposed this arrangement, so you must not hold me responsible.”

“If we don’t get on it will be easy enough to part company,” I answered.

— John Watson, A Study in Scarlet

Holmes and Watson are both seeking a clear utility-based relationship initially. Each needs a roommate so they can afford to continue living in London, an expensive city to live in then as now. John Watson is even uncertain if he likes Sherlock Holmes after the initial meeting, but he is expecting the relationship to be a classic, short-term utility one; it’s duration will only be as long as it is useful to Watson. And things grow worse on closer acquaintance.

I felt rather indignant having two characters whom I had admired treated in this cavalier style. I walked over to the window and stood looking out into the busy street. “This fellow maybe very clever,” I said to myself, “but he is certainly very conceited. “

— John Watson, A Study in Scarlet

The utility-based relationship quickly moves into a pleasure-based one, albeit one Watson admits with reluctance, and which initially seems one-sided.

The reader may set me down as a hopeless busybody, when I confess how much this man stimulated my curiosity, and how often I endeavored to break through the reticence which he showed on all that concerned himself. Before pronouncing judgment, however, be it remembered how objectless was my life, and how little there was to engage my attention. My health forbade me from venturing out unless the weather was exceptionally genial, and I had no friends who would call upon me and break the monotony of my daily existence. Under the circumstances, I eagerly hailed the mystery which hung around my companion, and spent much of my time endeavoring to unravel it.

— John Watson, A Study in Scarlet

Neuroscience has shown that the nucleus accumbens portion of the brain, the pleasure center, produces a heightened response in people (and monkeys) from unexpected pleasure. (And I defy even Mr. Cumberbatch himself to say “Benedict Cumberbatch’s nucleus accumbens” ten times very quickly.) Part of the key is the “unexpected” part of the pleasure. As something becomes more common and less unexpected, it’s ability to light up our nucleus accumbens declines. In other words, people find a bit of surprise more enjoyable than routine even with treats. One need only glance through the Kama Sutra to confirm that even the most basic pleasures can become boring when they become routine. (Or as research has shown, if you want to help your budget and get more pleasure from your latte, make the latte a treat instead of a daily routine.) So it’s no surprise that Dr. John Watson finds the company of Sherlock Holmes fascinating; Holmes is anything but conventional in his interests or behaviours.

“I’m never bored.”

— John Watson, Sherlock, “The Great Game”

A pleasure-based friendship is where we get some amusement, enjoyment, diversion, fun, or joy from the relationship. It has no mercenary value — unless you genuinely believe time is money and prescribe to the principles of Happy Money. What each party gets in a pleasure-based friendship is shared entertainment or happiness, which behavioral economics is finding as one of the most valuable commodities in society. For one thing pleasure is a distinctly personal commodity. It is the strengthened social connection we often mean when we say “She’s my friend” as opposed to “She’s a friend.”

“I have no keener pleasure than in following Holmes in his professional investigations, and in admiring the rapid deductions, as swift as intuitions, and yet always founded on a logical basis…”

— John Watson, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”

For Aristotle, pleasure-based friendships were no better than utility-based friendships, and possibly of even less value. He believed this in part because, like utility-based relationships, pleasure-based friendships tend to be of limited duration. They exist only so long as we are enjoying ourselves, and do not become bored or are distracted by something better; better as a relative term for something that proves more enjoyably distracting or rewarding such as a new interest.

Which brings up Aristotle’s other problem with pleasure-based relationships — they exist so long as we are enjoying ourselves. If the friendship stops being fun, or becomes not as fun as something else, we move on. As pleasure- or utility-based friends, we are selfish and egocentric; we ask ourselves, even if unconsciously, “What’s in it for me?” The focus in both utility-based and pleasure-based friendships is strictly is on its value to ourselves.

This is why long-distance relationships are difficult to maintain; we get less utility, and usually less entertainment, the further the distance. Oddly enough, mobile communications and the Internet are proving this maximum, and shattering it concurrently, as they allow people who are physically distant to remain in near-constant contact and achieve an even higher level of intimacy in each other’s lives despite great distances. As therapists have always said, it’s all about communication.

“Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret.”

—Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Empty House”

“What’s in it for me?” is the key distinction between a friend and a true friend. A friend may, but not necessarily or voluntarily, make small sacrifices such as being on time or not canceling plans when faced with a “better” offer; a true friend is willing to consider the needs of the other person over his or her own best interest — even trusting his friend with his own life, or wealth, despite the friend’s rather lackadaisical attitude towards human experimentation.

“I broke through the cloud of despair and had a glimpse of Holmes’ face, white, rigid, and drawn with horror — the very look which I had seen upon the features of the dead. It was that vision which gave me an instant of sanity and of strength.”

— John Watson, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”

Or even faking his own death to protect his friend from possible assassination.

For Aristotle, “Perfect friendship is found between those who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish each other well and good alike for other, and they are good themselves.” Aristotle would not believe, therefore, that Moriarty is capable of a true friendship because he is neither good nor virtuous.

A true friend, however, is not a co-dependent, self-sacrificing enabler. A true friend cares about the other person for his or her own sake, wanting to see him or her flourish, without thought of personal benefit or gain, except in the emotional satisfaction derived from the relationship. And even Aristotle understood that it is not necessarily a linear process from point A — a utility-based friendship — to point C — a perfect friendship. The road to that complete friendship might have many stops, starts, detours — or even dead end.

“It was indeed like old times when, at that hour I found myself seated beside him in a hansom, my revolver in my pocket, and the thrill of adventure in my heart.”

—John Watson, “The Empty House”

And yes, Aristotle’s definition of a complete friend could also be the definition of true love; however, note that Aristotle marked the difference between the love found in a true friendship (philia) and sexual attraction (eros), placing sexual attraction considerably beneath true friendship. Aristotle does not deny true friends may also have a sexual attraction, he simply holds that true friendship is different from, and does not require, sexual attraction. And finally in Greek, there is unconditional love (agape) which is most often associated with, but not limited to, a parent and child.

There are times when the English language is deficient in distinctions. As Stuart Kelley of The Guardian notes in his review of the book Friendship by A. C. Grayling, “there is a slippage in English between the idea of a ‘friend’ and a ‘best friend,’ not to mention “besties.”

Montaigne’s essay, Of Friendship, is about his romantic friendship with his closest friend and mentor, Etienne de La Boétie. The term “romantic friendship” refers to an intimate but non-sexual relationship between friends of any gender. “Homosociality” is the sociological term to same-sex friendships that are neither romantic nor sexual in nature. Members of a football team are homosocial, while the relationship of Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers in the film “Brian’s Song” would be labeled a romantic friendship.

Both terms were created in the 20th Century to discuss relationships commonly seen in cultures, including Western society, up until the mid- to late-19th Century where people engaged in various forms of emotional and physical closeness — holding hands, walking arm in arm, kissing, hugging, even sharing a bed —that has become rare in contemporary society, particularly Western society. Part of the change came with greater privacy as more people became able to afford private rooms, with their own beds, instead of overcrowded communal living; another part of the change came with growing anxiety as physical intimacy, including even clothed casual touching, came to be seen in Western society as strictly a sexual overture. (Freud, Jung, ethology, and primatology have a lot to answer for as far as I’m concerned.) Contemporary Western society has reached such a level of anxiety over physical contact, a female friend had a female doctor apologize recently for starting to touch her breast without explicit permission during an examination — a breast examination!

Up until the last 150 years or so, references to profound romantic friendships, including homosocial ones, can be found throughout literature and history. Even the Bible gives us David and Jonathon.

“Now when he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”

— Samuel 18, New King James version

It is not until the mid-19th Century we find references to a homoerotic interpretation of their story. (Although, in all fairness, Attic Greece did take the romantic friendship of Theseus and Pirithous, in their mythology, and turn it into an early, and decidedly crude, form of “gay jokes.”)

In the original stories themselves, Watson is overtly heterosexual; marrying at least once, possibly more, and responding with the now-proven decline in intellect men experience when sexually aroused with more than one female client.

“In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents, I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature.”

— John Watson, The Sign of Four

The original stories were written during the latter part of the Victorian formality and propriety, the much mocked “No sex, please, we’re British” attitudes. One maintained one’s reserve, the stiff upper lip in the face of adversity or disappointment (an attitude that was probably Britain’s strongest weapon in WWII), and saved public disclosure, let alone outbursts or displays, of strong emotion for expressions of patriotism and artistic movement.  But because the lid of propriety was kept on their emotional cookers, society could allow the release of pressure through physical connection and flamboyant speech or gestures that would today result in a sexual harassment suit or restraining order. Men and women walked frequently and openly arm in arm, and shared accommodations were the norm, even shared beds, let alone bedrooms.

So I think it says more about our culture than about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s dynamic duo, that modern renditions of the stories feel the need to either over-sexualize the characters or have them declare their sexuality outright, and I find it even more interesting that this is almost always done as a comedic turn.

In The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, released around the same time as the term “romantic friendship” was coined, director Billy Wilder has Holmes imply a sexual relationship with Watson to politely decline fathering a child with a prima ballerina which results in Watson, as he cavorts and drinks vodka with the rest of the troupe, finding his bevy of ballerinas replaced by overtly gay male dancers. In the popular Robert Downey, Jr. movies, not only does Jude Law’s Watson have an eye for the ladies and acquires a wife, but Downey’s Holmes is seduced and found cuffed naked, except for strategically placed pillow, to a bed by a shocked hotel chambermaid. Elementary, the American version of a contemporary Sherlock Holmes, not only cast Lucy Lui as Dr. Joan Watson, but establishes repeatedly that Sherlock Holmes not only has sex with women, but he has frequent, violent, kinky sex, and is available whenever asked. Meanwhile, BBC’s Sherlock, the original contemporary updating, has turned the misunderstanding of Watson’s sexuality into a running gag.

“I’m not his date.”

— John Watson, Sherlock, “Study in Pink”

“Mine’s a snorer. Is yours a snorer?”

— Billy, Sherlock, “Hounds of Baskerville”


“For the record, if anyone out there still cares, I’m not actually gay.”

— John Watson, Sherlock, “Scandal in Belgravia”


However, you prefer your Holmes and Watson, I believe what is most enduring, what we find most appealing, about the characters is that their relationship represents our innermost desire, what we seek throughout our lives — the ideal relationship, the balance of head and heart, that perfect and complete friendship, another self.

“…if you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive.”

— Sherlock Holmes, “The Three Garridebs”


“It was worth a wound it was worth many wounds to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.”

— John Watson, “The Three Garridebs”

### End ###

Big thanks to  B. E. Warne for her beta reading of the first draft and profuse comments. If like my friend B, you’d prefer an essay that simply looks at evidence in the Sherlock Holmes stories and other Sherlock Holmes essays and studies, you might want to check out MyelleWhite’s essay, “Friendship in Sherlock Holmes.”




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