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The eye of the beholder

Over the summer, I heard Tyler Cowen on EconTalk, the economics podcast with Russ Robert that I’d highly recommend. He was discussing his recent book, Create Your Own Economy, in which Cowen, who has recently realized that he is somewhat autistic, describes how society today is much more amenable to autism than times past, given the more common tendency to collect information online. He also finds many historic and even fictional people who he believes could be described as autistic. Two he mentioned were Adam Smith and Sherlock Holmes.

I had to smile to myself, because I had felt both could be gay. In the case of Smith, when I did a course on the History of Macroeconomic Thought, our lecturer, Prof. Antoin Murphy, took the time with each of the economists we studied, from William Petty to Henry Thornton, to give a brief biography. So I couldn’t but notice that in both his case and David Hume’s, they never married or seemed to have any relations with women, explained by saying that they were very close to their respective mothers. As I had before noticed Smith being cited by the Conservative Humanist Association, it was amusing to think that the man who most popularized the ideas of classical economic thought in the Enlightenment might be, like myself, a gay religious skeptic.

As to Holmes (also a rationalist skeptic), it had first occurred to me in my early teens, as I was towards the end of reading all sixty Holmes Adventures for the second time. In the fifty-fourth story, The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, Dr John Watson, Holmes’s housemate and chronicler,  is shot, and for a moment Holmes shows true compassion for his injured friend. It seemed to me to make sense as a romantic attachment, so that when I saw Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes later, it was not the first time I considered whether Holmes was gay. Of course, the normal reaction of close friends would probably be no different, but there was something in the way that he had not till that moment been anything other than wholly reserved about his feelings. He never seemed to care much either for Watson’s short-lived marriage (Robert Downey’s portrayal of this in Sherlock Holmes what prompted me to write this). There was Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia, referred to Holmes as The Woman, but the intrigue for him could well have been just admiration for her ability to outwit him.

Which is not to say that either Smith or Holmes is or is nor autistic or gay. But we all have a tendency to find such likenesses, particularly with those characters or figures we admire, and where there is little chance of falsification.


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