Why Father Brown is better than Sherlock Holmes

by Charles on January 11, 2021

[First published on the University of Oxford Practical Ethics blog]

Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate has issued proceedings, complaining that Enola Holmes, a recently released film about Sherlock Holmes’ sister, portrays the great detective as too emotional.

Sherlock Holmes was famously suspicious of emotions. 1 ‘ [L]ove is an emotional thing’, he icily observed, ‘and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. ‘2 “I am a brain’, he told Watson. ‘The rest of me is a mere appendix’.3

I can imagine that many professional scientists and philosophers would feel affronted if they were accused of being emotional animals. Holmes is a model for them. He’s rigorous, empirical, and relies on induction.

But here’s the thing. He’s not actually very good. Mere brains might be good at anticipating the behaviour of mere brains, but they’re not good for much else. In particular Holmes is not a patch on his rival, Chesterton’s Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest. Gramsci writes that Brown ‘totally defeats Sherlock Holmes, makes him look like a pretentious little boy, shows up his narrowness and pettiness.’ 4 Brown is faster, more efficient, and, for the criminal, deadlier. This is because, not despite, his use of his emotions.

He’s just as rigorous as Holmes, but tends to rely on deduction rather than induction. If one is dealing with emotional humans, you’re unlikely to benefit from a denial of or an ignorance of their emotions, and unlikely to be very good at understanding their emotions if you have no emotions yourself. Father Brown has three supreme advantages over Holmes: First: Brown is emotional himself, and knows that the resonance one emotional creature has with another can have great probative value. Second: Brown, from long hours in the confessional, knows the human heart, and can trace the often convoluted connections between wrong thought and wrong action. And third, he has a set of principles, informed by his theology, which give him a coherent anthropology. That, if you’re hunting humans through metaphysical thickets, is a valuable tool.

Every philosopher knows, in theory, that you need premises to get anywhere at all, though many are keen to deny that they have any premises that could be characterised as moral or anthropological convictions. Utilitarianism, without a theory of value – a way of saying what is regarded as the desirable end, and why – is an empty and useless game. In moral philosophy you’ll chase your tail unless you have a clear idea of what ‘good’ is. And in reconstructing (if you’re a detective) or prescribing (if you’re an ethicist) the behaviour of humans, you’ll get nowhere unless you know what humans are. Have ethicists really got very far? ‘Only a man who knows nothing of motors talks of motoring without petrol’, observes Father Brown. ‘Only a man who knows nothing of reason talks of reasoning without strong, undisputed first principles.’ 5 Father Brown’s first principles are that humans are both made in the image of God and fallen. One might dispute them, but they give him a framework within which the complexity of humans can be acknowledged and examined. Holmes knows that some humans are mean, others cruel, and others altruistic. What he doesn’t know is that we are all mean, cruel, and altruistic. That leaves him shallow and limited – a slave to his own presumptions.

The internal consistency and elegance of a philosophical theory are what win applause. But Father Brown wouldn’t be impressed: ‘Ten false philosophies will fit the universe; ten false theories will fit Glengyle Castle. But we want the real explanation of the castle and the universe.’6

In science it is rather more important to find out the right answer than to identify an answer that will fit one’s currently ruling paradigm. In moral philosophy it is rather more important to find the morally correct course than to identify one that doesn’t outrage the zeitgeist. Father Brown can help. Sherlock Holmes can’t.


1.Though he seems to have become increasingly in touch with his emotions as he got older.

2. The Sign of the Four 1890

3. The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone 1921

4. Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison. Columbia University Press, 2011. p. 354.

5. The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911

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