Sherlock Holmes’ Favourite Book: The Martyrdom of Man

by Mark Wallace

Diving once again into the archives of free Kindle books, I came across Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man (1872). Amazon searches indicate this book hasn’t been given a proper new edition in a long time – these 19th-century theorists of everything, predating disciplinary academicism, are out of fashion – but it’s a fascinating insight into the optimistic views of human progress that predominated in Victorian times, as well as one of the classics in the cultural prophecy mode: shades of Carlyle and Arnold, pre-empting H.G. Wells (who was indeed a fan). Furthermore, it was Sherlock Holmes’ favourite book, or one of them anyway, being strongly endorsed by that character in conversation with Dr. Watson.

Let me recommend this book,—one of the most remarkable ever penned. It is Winwood Reade’s ‘Martyrdom of Man.’ (The Sign of the Four, Chapter 2)

Holmes himself is something of an embodiment of the new type of person Reade envisaged, a harbinger of a new age. For Reade’s schema of history sees four ages: war, religion, liberty and intellect. These four concepts were successively the primary drivers of human progress. First: simple war, might is right; progress was assured through conquest. Then, the relative enlightenment of the religious age, the rise of monotheism and its instalment as the central dynamic symbol by which men and women lived and worked; then, liberty, as an ideal, took over, leading to revolutions of various sorts and a new world order; fourth, and apparently final, was to be the age of intellect, which Reade saw coming over the horizon. The days of wars and of faiths were over; Reade found that these had in earlier times served a purpose, having been the vehicles by which man raised himself from cultural animality.

War, despotism, slavery and superstition are now injurious to the progress of Europe, but they were once the agents by which progress was produced. By means of war the animated life was raised slowly upward in the scale, and quadrupeds passed into man. (loc 5859)

But by the application of the law of growth of all living things (and by extension, for Reade, the agglomeration of living things that is human society), these agents had outlived their uses. The idea that war is not a thing to be recommended is one most wouldn’t argue with, but Reade gave perhaps the most outspoken critique of established religion then in print. He could hardly have been more explicit: “I undertake to show that the destruction of Christianity is essential to the interests of civilization; and also that man will never attain his full powers as a moral being until he has ceased to believe in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul.” (loc 6112)

It is as though Reade was answering the challenge set by John Stuart Mill in his at the time still-unpublished autobiography:

On religion in particular the time appears to me to have come when it is the duty of all who, being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, and to make their dissent known […] The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments – of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue – are complete sceptics in religion. (Autobiography [Seven Treasures Publications], loc 544)

Reade was as open a sceptic as could be imagined. He used, among others, the familiar if-there’s-a-god-then-why-do-people-suffer argument to combat Christianity. He has a nice line on this:

[W]e shall state as an incontrovertible maxim in morality that a god has no right to create men except for their own good. (loc 6042)

Now that religion had passed its sell-by date, Reade expected the “spirit of Science” to take hold of the human mind. From scientific investigations, “will proceed discoveries by which human nature will be elevated, purified and finally transformed.” (loc 5177). Unfortunately (in my opinion), Reade, having discarded religion, proceeds to reintroduce the concept of God in the latter part of the book:

[T]he God of Light, the Spirit of Knowledge, the Divine Intellect, is gradually spreading over the planet and upwards to the skies. (loc 5979)

This is not the God of the monotheistic religions, rather a very vague notion not necessarily denoting anything supernatural, but used by Reade at times to indicate some sort of life force impelling mankind to better himself and assuring us that all is for the best, validating Reade’s optimistic reading of human history. Later again, Reade returns to his discussion of God:

We teach that there is a God, but not a God of the anthropoid variety [.] […] God is so great that he cannot be defined by us. God is so great that he does not deign to have personal relations with us human atoms that are called men. (loc 6265)

A God so great he cannot be defined is in itself a definition that seems to open the door for any conception, even a Christian one, of the great deity. In this ultimate back-pedalling manoeuvre, Reade is very typical of Victorian post-Christian intellects. But it is his general tendency towards elevation of the scientific principle that allies him to the Holmesian stance, as well as marking Holmes as a figure beyond religion, and opposed to the old forms of faith. Reading The Martyrdom of Man gives a good sense of how important Holmes was to his time and as a representative of a philosophically new way of being; although one must admit that the age of intellect has probably not yet quite gotten underway, nor is Religion (or War) as dead as Reade prophecied.

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