Truth and Democracy: Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People

What if you discovered that the spring that provides your community’s water was toxic? What if your town was also a resort community that depended on tourism—especially on visitors to your community’s natural spring baths?

And what if those in power already suspected this problem, but were pressuring you to keep quiet, since blowing the whistle would destroy the town’s economy?

Would you risk your own ruin and the ruin of the town, and tell the community the truth anyway? Would you trust in your fellow citizens’ desire to know the truth?

What if—to make matters even more complicated—you yourself were indirectly to blame for the toxic water to begin with? And what if, once you told your fellow citizens the truth, they actually turned against you—and threatened your family and your life for your gift of the truth?

Such is the predicament of Dr. Stockman, the central character in Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, which the COS Great Books group discussed last week at their first meeting of the academic year.

Stockman is a naïve but well-intentioned man who has discovered that the baths which are the lifeblood of his town’s economy—baths he helped invent—are fouled with toxic detritus, some of which comes from his own father-in-law’s tannery.

Dr. Stockman is sure his brother, the town’s mayor, the local newspaper, and the townspeople will be grateful to learn the truth.

But Dr. Stockman quickly learns that no one wants the story to get out: his own brother convinces himself that the problem isn’t really a problem; the newspaper is run by a self-proclaimed “moderate” who does not want to offend his customers; the local reporters are ideologues who care more about “revolution” than they do about the well-being of their neighbors.

Even Stockman’s wife is hesitant for the news to break: if her husband loses his position as the medical officer of the baths (which will happen if the baths shut down), she and her children will be homeless.

Dr. Stockman believes in “the people,” and convenes a public meeting to inform them, and to show the mayor and powerbrokers of the town that they won’t win this battle over truth.

But at the meeting, Stockman quickly realizes the townspeople do not want the truth. In a climactic—and perhaps prideful—change of heart, Stockman berates the people, saying, “the most dangerous foe to truth and freedom in our midst is the majority…the confounded, solid, liberal majority.”

He also compares “the plebeian mongrels that haunt the gutters” with the “poodle, descended through many generations from aristocratic stock.”

The citizens turn violently against this apparently anti-democratic Stockman, dubbing him an enemy of the people.

The play ends with Stockman refusing to be bribed to change “his story” about the baths, proclaiming that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”

Our group was fascinated by Ibsen’s depiction of the conflicts and intersections between scientific truth, economic pragmatism, and democratic processes—conflicts playing out in our own society (just think about climate change or vaccination policies).

We were also fascinated by the play’s interrogation of both political and personal motivations: Are our motives ever purely altruistic? Or is self-interest usually our guiding principle—even of scientific investigation or philanthropy? Is being a lone prophet worth it? Is “moderation” sometimes a better policy than unvarnished truth? Are there values more important than being right? And if so, what are they?

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