An Enemy of the People

Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) is a Norwegian playwright who challenged in his plays hypocrisy of people whose noble façade masked their deceitful nature. In An Enemy of the People, published in 1882, Ibsen launched a scathing attack on the press, the authority and the system of majority rules. James McFarlane, in an introduction to the Oxford edition of the script, states that as early as 1872 Ibsen had talked enthusiastically about his hatred toward any identifiable grouping that went in for majority practices which invited majority decisions. When Ghosts was published in 1881, Ibsen faced hostile reception by the public and according to McFarlane, the event confirmed his view that "the press was no better than a parasite on a grotesque and deformed body politic, for ever talking about freedom, but terrified of the realities of it." These views are clearly expressed in An Enemy of the People.

The story takes place in a small Norwegian town, which relies on its Baths (natural hot springs) as the main source of villagers' income. The protagonist is Dr. Stockmann, the doctor at the Baths which attract tourists. He is suspicious that the Baths are polluted. He runs tests yet does not make any announcement until he receives the result. Dr. Stockmann's brother, the Mayor (a.k.a. Chief of Police, Chairman of the Board of the Baths, etc), notices that Dr. Stockmann is up to something and warns him that any announcement must be made through the authority in a well-ordered community.

The result confirms Dr. Stockmann's suspicion. Hovstad, the editor of the local newspaper The People's Herald, hears this and offers his full support. Aslaksen, the printer of the newspaper (a.k.a. the chairman of the Ratepayers Association and a member of the Temperance Society), offers his support as a representative of the middle class. Dr. Stockmann is impressed and proudly tells his wife, "Do you know what I've got backing me? The compact majority."

The Mayor learns the test result and tells Dr. Stockmann that he is not convinced. When Dr. Stockmann asserts that his report is correct and that the Mayor is the one responsible for developing the Baths on a polluted ground, the Mayor contends that it is all for the good of the town and wants the report withheld. Dr. Stockmann however believes that if a new fact emerges which is in the interest of the people, it should be revealed. The Mayor dismisses this and says that Dr. Stockmann should publish a statement refuting the report and "make a public declaration of his confidence in the Board, in its efficiency and its integrity, and in its readiness to take all necessary steps to remedy such defects as may arise." In addition, he tells Dr. Stockmann that as a subordinate member of the staff of the Baths, he has no right to express any private opinion which conflicts with that of his superiors.

The Mayor then sets about manipulating the villagers. He tells Hovstad and Aslaksen that the report is not convincing and that to clean up the Baths, it would require a lot of time and money. Hovstad and Aslaksen are easily persuaded and they refuse to publish the report in the People's Herald. Undaunted, Dr. Stockmann decides to give a lecture instead in a public meeting.

Before the lecture is delivered, Aslaksen says that a chairman should be elected and he himself is chosen as a chairman. The Mayor then says that no one wants to see "irresponsible and exaggerated accounts of the sanitary conditions at the Baths" and proposes that Dr. Stockmann should not be allowed to present his report. Dr. Stockmann nevertheless speaks out. He does not talk about the Baths but he is frustrated with the fact that people are unable to see beyond what is put in front of them: "The worst enemy of truth and freedom in our society is the compact majority."

Hovstad then stands up and shouts that the majority is always right. Billing, another character, supports Hovstad by saying that the majority always stands for the truth. Dr. Stockmann contradicts by saying, "The majority is never right…that's one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against…the minority is always right." Furthermore Dr. Stockmann says that there are only a few individuals with new ideas who stand in the very forefront of our advance. When Hovstad accuses him of being a revolutionary, Dr. Stockmann replies: "I'm plotting revolution against this lie that the majority has a monopoly of the truth." He goes on to condemn those who are "infected by the mass mind."

All the arguing leads to Dr. Stockmann being declared an enemy of the people. Aslaksen, who believes in majority rules, suggests that a formal vote should be taken to clarify Dr. Stockmann's status as an enemy of the people. So as "not to hurt anyone's feelings" the vote is taken by secret ballot despite all the insults aimed at Dr. Stockmann only a few moments ago.

The story ends as Dr. Stockmann and his family are ostracised. Their landlord, Horster, also loses his job for renting out his house to the enemy of the people. When his boss questions him about the property, Horster replies, "I think I can do what I like with my own property." The Stockmanns decide to stay in the town and hold their heads high. Dr. Stockmann tells his family, "The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone."

In Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek expresses the sentiment demonstrated by Dr. Stockmann. Hayek writes that true individualism believes in democracy yet not in the omnicompetence of majority decisions. Indeed, authorities often attempt to legitimise their actions by gaining the majority's approval, which often derives from people's blind faith in the authorities. People like Hovstad and Aslaksen are easily swayed as they never stop and think for themselves. The Mayor can manipulate them in the name of the common good. He fiercely guards his reputation and never admits errors on his part for fear of his authority being undermined.

Ibsen wrote the play more than a hundred years ago yet it seems that not much has changed. Unless there are more Dr. Stockmanns around, An Enemy of the People will continue to be an accurate portrayal of towns and countries that we live in.

July 26, 2005