The Wisdom of the Masses

By Jimmy Maher

Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is a play curiously ahead of its time. Certainly its plot, which revolves around the discovery that a major industrial enterprise is polluting the river that flows through a small town and poisoning the inhabitants, could have come straight from our current headlines. Less immediately striking, but just as relevant, is the play’s examination of the way the machinations of politics and the self-interest of the powerful can cloud the issues until even one who is attempting to do the right thing loses sight of what is truly right and wrong. Every decision in a democratic, free-market society has consequences, Ibsen tells us, and what is good for the society as a whole is often very bad for certain members of that society.

Enemy is very much constructed in the mode of Scribe’s and Sardou’s well-made play. A social problem is introduced, and the bulk of the play explores the ramifications of that issue from all sides. The issue Ibsen explores here is actually not the causes and consequences of industrial pollution, for that is just the vehicle he has chosen to advance the plot and allow him to consider something deeper and subtler. His real concern is with the problems and limitations of popular democracy. Ibsen shows a great deal of courage here, for in the Europe of 1882 democracy was breaking out everywhere. Even those countries that had preserved their monarchies were granting unprecedented power to the common people through representational parliaments, and this movement was almost universally hailed as a wonderful thing. Some, such as the Marxists, went further than others, but virtually no one, at least publicly, voiced a desire to turn back the clock to the days of absolute power held by one or a few.

Of course, Ibsen is hardly proposing such a thing either. He is rather providing a note of realism and caution. Making a country democratic does not cause all of its people to immediately give up their selfish interests and think only of the common good. They remain as short-sighted, petty, and selfish as ever, but are all the more dangerous because they are now empowered. How might a wise despot have handled the situation in Ibsen’s play? With his position of authority assured and no elections to concern himself with, he might have felt empowered to address the crisis rather than ignore it. Of course, despotism is a slippery slope of its own since there is no guarantee of a wise despot, and an unwise one can over a lifetime do more damage than one-hundred duly-elected parliamentarians serving their brief terms. I believe that Ibsen is simply asking others to temper their democratic zeal with a touch of caution and perhaps some healthy cynicism.

Ibsen’s characters serve a duel role. On the one hand, they are carefully drawn individuals. On the other, they stand as symbols for the various groups that make up modern society. Peter Stockmann represents the politician, who steeps his speeches in noble language but ultimately represents himself first, those who elected and support him second, and society as a whole a distant third. Hovstad and Billing are the free press, so critically important to a free society. Unfortunately, but all too realistically, these journalists are not quite the intrepid advocates for truth one might wish for. Although they are willing to challenge authority to some extent, they are finally constrained by the mores of the surrounding society and by Aslaksen, the media mogul who controls their purse strings. Morten Kiil represents big business, placing short-term profitably above society’s long-term interests. Dr. Stockmann and his daughter Petra are the intellectuals and academicians. They see every issue in terms of objectively right and wrong answers, and fail to realize the ripples the changes they advocate will generate throughout society. Finally, there are the workers, the common people caught amidst all of these other powers and struggling, mutely and sometimes perhaps even dumbly, to survive. Whoever can win the support of this unthinking mass, which is generally done by appealing to its self-interest and basest prejudices, has the reins of power in his grasp.

If these descriptions sound rather cynical, rest assured that they suit Ibsen’s thoroughly realistic play. He shows how the powers that be can turn a clear-cut issue of good and bad or right and wrong into a devilishly complex web of interests and counter-interests, until the original issue has been completely lost in the shuffle. Who, after all, would argue that pollution is not a bad thing and that our waters ought not to be kept clear of toxic waste if at all possible? Yet when the argument goes from the general to the specific things begin to degenerate quickly. Closing the town’s spa temporarily and cleaning up the river will cost the town a huge amount of money, and taxes will have to be raised substantially to compensate. The general population is never in favor of tax increases, and neither are the politicians who must consider enacting them at the price of their careers. Shutting down and cleaning up Kiil’s factory will also cost a great deal, and those costs will in the end be borne by the factory’s employees and shareholders, and by the population at large who will be forced to pay higher prices. More intangible but nonetheless significant is the damage that would be done to the town’s reputation and sense of itself by an admission that its blessed waters are unhealthy. Against all of these disadvantages, the citizens must weigh the advantage of knowing that they did the right thing and that they have done what they could do ensure the health and prosperity of their children. The well-being of abstract futurity is, however, often an obscure idea to those immersed in the minutia of daily life, and knowing one did the right thing is cold comfort when one cannot put food on the table.

Underlying the wide-angle political machinations in the play is Dr. Stockmann’s personal transformation from rational idealist to reactionary. Here Ibsen explores the fate of the outsider in a democratic system. Democrats speak always of the sacred will of the majority, but seldom stop to consider the plight of the man who finds himself in the minority. The majority is not always right. Should the lone dissenter then acquiesce cheerfully, even when he knows that he is right and the blessed, stupid, self-absorbed majority is wrong? If a smart, capable man like Dr. Stockmann feels misunderstood and ignored, he is liable to radicalize others and perhaps eventually destabilize society as a whole. A despot would know what to do with such a man, but a democratic society fancies itself above such solutions. What then should be done with Stockmann? There are no easy answers.

Ibsen’s play reminds us that democracy, like every other system of government, is fraught with peril. It may indeed be the best system we have come up with, at least for societies mature enough to take advantage of it, but it is hardly a magic panacea for the ills of old-fashioned human nature. In our time as in Ibsen’s, when democracy is often held up as the great solution to all of the world’s problems, that is a lesson worth remembering.

Work Cited

Ibsen, Henrik. An Enemy of the People. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 7th ed. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. 1809-1862.