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In An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen dissects the social malaise that arises from democracy’s twin failures to sanction controversial scientific breakthroughs and to allocate liberty and sovereignty to the area of scientific research. In this way, Ibsen challenges the confines of democracy and its inability bring about justice, consensus and egalitarianism due to the preexistence of a social hierarchy that governs the town citizens. The townspeople have long been highly segregated along class and income lines, and yet they are communally united in their defiance and resistance to growth and progress. This demonstrates these people’s steadfast refusal to learn from their inadvertent mistakes in the past, like the the hazardous siting of the baths. Even though Ibsen’s play is anti-democracy in nature, Ibsen does not propose any other solution to the problems that arise in a country under democratic rule. He merely demonstrates the futility and pointlessness of democracy in a world that is defined by polar opposites. Ibsen illustrates this idea through his portrayal of Dr. Stockmann, an obstinate character who is not only a victim of his own idealism, but also his intellect.
Dr Stockmann sees himself as a martyr and fighter who makes sacrifices for the benefit of the people. He believes that his bold and revolutionary ideals are potentially liberating and redemptive, not realizing that he is imposing his own opinions on the people and forcing them to accept his own viewpoints. He reasons that only thinkers and intellectuals are entitled to control public opinion and condemns the compact majority for their deference and submission to authority. He thinks he is in the position to decide for them what they fail to decide for themselves. Stockmann is not on the side of the lower and middle classes, as his adoption of Darwin’s evolutionist theory and belief in natural selection shows. Hence, it is ironic that he is fighting for the rights and enfranchisement of the townsfolk on the one hand, and promulgating and advocating inequality on the other. He perceives the social disarray as a corollary of the problematic genetic make-up that produces “little mongrels” (98), as he calls those citizens with opposing viewpoints. He contrasts them to a well-groomed “poodle” whose “brain will have developed quite differently from the mongrel’s” (79), thereby delineating a concrete, well-defined boundary between the judicious minority and the largely irrational compact majority.
In his essay Technology and Democracy, Jacques Ellul argues thus, “Democracy requires that the people must be correctly informed. If the populace is to make sound decisions, it must have exact and relatively complete information… regarding the means employed and the dangers that might result” (44). Ibsen casts Dr. Stockmann as a figure worthy of his audiences’ respect and admiration, for he races against all odds to preclude the leaking of misinformation. He is determined to safeguard his ethical principles and moral responsibilities as a scientist in order to ensure the people greater impartiality, transparency and accountability. He disobeys his brother’s call to “issue some sort of statement” (40) to dispute the truth as uncovered by heuristic evidence and would “rather destroy” the town “than see it prosper on a lie” (82). Unlike his brother, who resorts to concealing and suppressing the truth out of self-preservation, Stockmann attempts to disassociate himself from the moral hypocrisy that revolves around people at the top, who he believes have no qualms about abusing their power to guard their own interests. However, his actions contradict his rhetoric throughout, which reveals his ambiguous political position as the sole scientist in the play. He is not representing the people out of pure altruism and generosity, as a sign of selflessness and benevolence, but without doubt, resorting to an unorthodox and alternative means of brainwashing the people. While he is clearly opposing the superficially myopic, dogmatic and illiberal standards established by the current political system, he is persuading the townspeople instead to conform to his own set of obscurantist doctrine. He is also more interested in defending the accuracy of his prognosis, and his own credibility, than genuinely helping the people. He is ultimately more concerned about maintaining his sense of pride and dignity. His conceit and self-righteousness cause him to persist in fighting to reveal the truth in order to satisfy his own inflated ego and prove to his brother that he is not a “miserable coward” (42).
Besides, Dr Stockmann’s singular belief in the power of scientific advancement to circumvent the impediment of fear that results from political maneuverings causes him to overlook the true economic concerns of the common folks. The compact majority is overwhelmed with worries that they might incur the full costs of the economic loss if the pipes are to be re-laid, but the collapse of the baths in the long-term might carry tragic ramifications that are ephemerally dwarfed by the focus on short-term economic goals and material profits. Such a crisis would place the townspeople’s source of revenue in serious jeopardy because the baths have been sustaining their livelihoods. Furthermore, the value of the baths would be compromised and the accretion of the citizens’ effort in maintaining the reputation of the baths would be ultimately fruitless. The outbreak of an epidemic would also undermine the regimented stability that characterizes their societal structure. However, Dr Stockmann refuses to heed Hovstad’s reminder in Act II that his scientific discovery is inevitably “tied up” with other more intangible problems, and prefers to see it “as something quite on its own” (25). All he can see is a purely scientific problem even though it is clearly “a combination of technical and economic factors” (39), showing his limited understanding of how society operates and functions within a democracy. In an ideal democracy, it should be impossible to isolate and exclude external agents of change from affecting the human condition and intruding upon scientific discourse in the process of bringing about an internal transformation within the social edifice. Stockmann’s belief that science possesses the influence to override all other considerations is utterly na?ve, showing his failure to see himself as a citizen first and a scientist second. It also demonstrates his lack of experience in lobbying for political support. Stockmann’s problem lies in his unawareness of the fact that diagnosing faults in the democratic political system with his purely scientific ideological beliefs is inadequate. In fact, not only does pure science alone fail to solve the problems posed by political maneuverings, an excessive belief in the dominant and all-encompassing power of science actually adds onto Sotckmann’s burden. He abides by Leo Marx’s definition of “the technocratic idea of progress”, which treats “the sufficiency of scientific and technological innovation as the basis for general progress” (37). He envisions a well-regulated and organically-modeled society that is intolerant of imperfection and favors himself as the civic symbol of authority, but is unable to connect with the citizens he is trying to influence without factoring in political dynamics. Ibsen, therefore, is emphasizing a need for a change in social attitudes, as well as a need for people like Dr Stockmann tolet go of their own own archaic ideals in order to move toward a more progressive form of scientific relativism that co-exists with social conscience.
As a character, Dr Stockmann does not change much throughout the play in terms as far as his political education. Instead, he stays rooted to his place of birth, where “the battleground is” (103), due to his strong faith and conviction to the truth. As a result of that, he is trapped in a state of stagnation and is incapable of stepping out of his situation to institutionalize change in the town. He cannot alleviate the treacherous circumstances of the townspeople unless he learns to shift out of that conventional mold himself. His rhetoric is endowed with pomposity and affectation which illuminates his position as a cold empiricist and separates him from the people he is trying to help. Despite his grandiloquent, but ineffectual speeches, his refusal to engage the common folks at the proletariat level and address their true needs shows that his advanced ideals lead him nowhere and that he is doomed to failure right from the start. His opinion is that the common people should be silenced and relegated to a position where they are not allowed to participate in decision-making, for they do not know what is good or bad for them. Hence his harsh political belief that the minority should hold the key to decision-making is also instrumental in explaining the prejudices that he harbors against the compact majority, whose votes, he claims, could not be trusted. In sum, he does not see voting in a democracy as a right, but a privilege. In Dr. Stockmann’s mind, since people do not know how to make the right decisions, they should be stripped of that privilege to have a say. He wants to run and control every aspect of their lives for them since in his opinion, they do not have minds advanced enough to grasp these complicated concepts. This betrays his belief in an unequal society where the authorities, which are the minority, takes over and exercise monopoly over everything the majority possesses.
The negative aspect of democracy is that it gives power to some sections of the population that lack an acute sense of discernment and fail to judge for themselves. Here, Ibsen shows the potential of public opinion to manipulated and exploited by the authorities in a democracy. Even though Dr Stockmann is disapproving of the state of affairs under a democracy, where the government often takes advantage of voters’ misplaced trust in them, his own behavior attests to a form of complaisance with the political system as well. He is in fact trying to re-educate the masses with his own set of beliefs and values, and by doing so, he is attempting to alter the views of the public, because he perceives them to be ignorant, and garner support for himself through means of ‘enlightening’ them. Even though he labels the compact majority as the “worst enemy of truth and freedom” (76), he ultimately has to resort to ways to pacify and appease them. Despite the fact that Dr. Stockmann is being politically repressed, his actions ironically stifle the voices of the populace to bring about muted consent to his own line of reasoning.
Darwin, Charles. “The Descent of Man.” The Norton Anthology English Literature 8th ed. Vol. 2. Washington: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc 2006.
Marx, Leo. “Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?” Technology Review (1987): 33-41.
Ellul, Jacques. “Technology and Democracy.” Democracy in a Technological Society Ed. Langdon Winner: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992.
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