The Murder of Dr. Campbell: A Lesson for Today
I don’t know if anybody reads G. K Chesterton anymore. The only two friends I know who have, an Anglican priest and a Spanish nun, are not typical. Chesterton is an English author from the first third of the 20th century who has been especially significant for me. Much like Dostoyevsky, Chesterton addresses the fundamental nature of being, especially the crisis of modernity to deal with being. Yet while reading Crime and Punishment can be an emotional process; reading the Father Brown detective stories is a whimsical pleasure. Chesterton created another detective-like character, Mr. Pond. Here is the description of Pond from the story When Doctors Agree:
The peculiarity of his conversation was this: in the middle of a steady stream of sense, there would suddenly appear two or three words which seemed simply to be nonsense. It was as if something had suddenly gone wrong with the works of a gramophone. It was nonsense which the speaker never seemed to notice himself; so that sometimes his hearers also hardly noticed that speech so natural was nonsensical. But to those who did notice, he seemed to be saying something like, “Naturally, having no legs, he won the walking-race easily,” or “As there was nothing to drink, they all got tipsy at once.” Broadly speaking, two kinds of people stopped him with stares or questions: the very stupid and the very clever. The stupid because the absurdity alone stuck out from a level of intelligence that baffled them; it was indeed in itself an example of the truth in paradox. The only part of his conversation they could understand was the part they could not understand. And the clever stopped him because they knew that, behind each of these queer compact contradictions, there was a very queer story—like the queer story to be narrated here.
So much of a distinguishing feature of Mr. Pond is his use of paradoxes that the book of collected stories is called The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond. His other distinguishing feature, that I don’t particularly understand, is that he often had the appearance of a fish, with wide bulging eyes and a round open mouth, when making his paradoxical points.
Allow me to explain the rest of the “queer” (the old meaning) story about the doctors who agreed (spoiler alert). Like the other Pond stories, this one followed a conversation that included Pond and his friends Captain Gahagan and Sir Hubert Wotton. The conversation fell upon the news of an agreement between two east European countries over an old dispute.
“There was no difference,” said Pond, “between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. You will remember that it is distinctly recorded that they agreed. But remember what they agreed about.”
Wotton looked a little baffled and finally grunted: “Well, if these fellows have agreed, I suppose there will be a little peace.”
“Funny things, agreements,” said Pond. “Fortunately people generally go on disagreeing, till they die peacefully in their beds. Men very seldom do fully and finally agree. I did know two men who came to agree so completely that one of them naturally murdered the other; but as a rule . . .”
“‘Agreed so completely,’” said Wotton thoughtfully. “Don’t you— are you quite sure you don’t mean: ‘Disagreed so completely’?”
Gahagan uttered a sort of low whoop of laughter. “Oh, no,” he said, “he doesn’t mean that. I don’t know what the devil he does mean; but he doesn’t mean anything so sensible as that.”
But Wotton, in his ponderous way, still attempted to pin down the narrator to a more responsible statement; and the upshot of it was that Mr. Pond was reluctantly induced to explain what he really meant and let us hear the whole story.
The mystery was involved at first in another mystery: the strange murder of Mr. James Haggis, of Glasgow…
Haggis was “the sort of old Radical who is more rigid and antiquated than any Tory” and was against all of the progressive reforms. “Thus he had stood alone in opposition to the universal support given to old Dr. Campbell’s admirable campaign for fighting the epidemic in the slums during the slump.” In contrast, Dr. Campbell was a great progressive, a “wise old physician, who had now behind him a whole lifetime of charity and good works.” The other key character in the story was a young friend of Dr. Campbell named Angus, “whom he was understood to be coaching and instructing generally for his medical examinations and his scientific career.” Here is a snippet of a conversation that occured between the doctor and his student (note that written words of Dr. Campbell speaking reflect his Scottish accent).
the man that achieved the virtuous act o’ killing Jamie Haggis will ha’e nae pairsonal credit for’t in this world; it is even possible he might be a wee bit inconvenienced. So ye’ll get nae guesses out of me; beyond saying I’ve lang been seekin’ a man of sic prudence and public spirit.”
There followed that sort of silence in which people are not certain whether to laugh, at a deliberate stroke of wit; but before they could do so, young Angus, who kept his eyes fixed on his venerable preceptor, had spoken with the eagerness of the ardent student.
“But you’ll not say, Dr. Campbell, that murder is right because some acts or opinions of the murdered man are wrong?”
“Aye, if they’re wrang enough,” replied the benevolent Dr. Campbell blandly. “After all, we’ve nae ither test o’ richt and wrang. Salus populi suprema lex.”
“Aren’t the Ten Commandments a bit of a test?” asked the young man, with a rather heated countenance, emphasized by his red hair, that stood up on his head like stiff flames.
The silver-haired saint of sociology continued to regard him with a wholly benevolent smile; but there was an odd gleam in his eye as he answered:
“Aye, the Ten Commandments are a test. What we doctors are beginning to ca’ an Intelligence Test.”
This conversation between mentor and mentee continued over several days until the old doctor prevailed and convinced his student, such that Angus agreed that the belief in God and his Ten Commandments were the superstitions of fools. This lead to their final conversation together.
“See report o’ inquest on Jamie Haggis,” said the old man, nodding benevolently. “Aye, ye’ve guessed richt, I’m thinking.” Then, after a pause, he added, with equal calm:
“Noo that we are agreed, and a’ of one mind, aboot the need for sic social surgery, it’s as weel ye should know the hale truth. Aye, lad, I did it mysel’; and with a blade like yon. That nicht ye took me to the kirk—weel, it’s the fairst time, I hope, I’ve ever been hypocreetical; but I stayed behind to pray, and I think ye had hopes of my convairsion. But I prayed because Jamie prayed; and when he rose from his prayers, I followed him and killed him i’ the kirkyard.”
Angus was still looking at the knife in silence; then he said suddenly: “Why did you kill him?”
“Ye needna ask, noo we are agreed in moral philosophy,” replied the old doctor simply. “It was just plain surgery. As we sacrifice a finger to save the body, so we maun sacrifice a man to save the body politic. I killed him because he was doing evil, and inhumanly preventing what was guid for humanity: the scheme for the slums and the lave. And I understand that, upon reflection, ye tak the same view.”
Angus nodded grimly.
The proverb asks: “Who shall decide when doctors disagree?” But in that dark and ominous theatre of doctoring the doctors agreed.
“Yes,” said Angus, “I take the same view. Also, I have had the same experience.”
“And what’s that?” inquired the other.
“I have had daily dealings with a man I thought was doing nothing but evil,” answered Angus. “I still think you were doing evil; even though you were serving truth. You have convinced me that my beliefs were dreams; but not that dreaming is worse than waking up. You brutally broke the dreams of the humble, sneered at the weak hopes of the bereaved. You seem cruel and inhuman to me, just as Haggis seemed cruel and inhuman to you. You are a good man by your own code, but so was Haggis a good man by his code. He did not pretend to believe in salvation by good works, any more than you pretended to believe in the Ten Commandments. He was good to individuals, but the crowd suffered; you are good to the crowd and an individual suffered. But, after all, you also are only an individual.”
Something in the last words, that were said very softly, made the old doctor stiffen suddenly and then start backwards towards the steps behind. Angus sprang like a wildcat and pinned him to his place with a choking violence; still talking, but now at the top of his voice.
“Day after day, I have itched and tingled to kill you; and been held back only by the superstition you have destroyed tonight. Day after day, you have been battering down the scruples which alone defended you from death. You wise thinker; you wary reasoner; you fool! It would be better for you tonight if I still believed in God and in his Commandment against murder.”
The old man twisted speechlessly in the throttling grip, but he was too feeble, and Angus flung him with a crash across the operating-table, where he lay as if fainting. Round them and above them the empty tiers of concentric seats glimmered in the faint and frigid moonlight as desolate as the Colosseum under the moon; a deserted amphitheatre where there was no human voice to cry “Habet!” The red-haired slayer stood with the knife uplifted, as strange in shape as the flint knife of some prehistoric sacrifice; and still he talked on in the high tones of madness.
“One thing alone protected you and kept the peace between us: that we disagreed. Now we agree, now we are at one in thought—and deed, I can do as you would do. I can do as you have done. We are at peace.”
And with the sound of that word he struck; and Andrew Campbell moved for the last time. In his own cold temple, upon his own godless altar . . . he stirred and then lay still; and the murderer bent and fled from the building and from the city and across the Highland line at night, to hide himself in the hills.
Dr Campbell devoted his life to the betterment of mankind, so he thought it right to murder a man. I think this story provides a lesson for today. Like Angus’ agreement with Dr. Campbell, we can dread the day when the good ol’ boys with plenty of guns and ammo, the deplorables, will come to agree with the Antifa types that they are evil, white privileged, and the world is simply and only a power game, and then our whole society will by sorry but none more so than the Antifa themselves who will directly reap the whirlwind.
The bit about Tweedledum and Tweedledee and foreigners also provides a learning experience. Pond’s last words in the story are:
“Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed—to have a battle,” said Pond. “We are rather easily satisfied with saying that some people like Poles or Prussians or other foreigners have agreed. We don’t often ask what they’ve agreed on. But agreement can be rather risky, unless it’s agreement with the truth.”