AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE: ACT IV

It doesn't take us long to get an idea of the nature of the citizens of the compact majority who will be attending the big meeting. In the first few lines we learn that some have brought whistles and cow-horns. These are hardly the tools of rational discussion. It looks as if this may be an emotional meeting. It is also relevant that some of the people do not know the issue, and want to know who to back. The advice is interesting: "Watch Aslaksen, and do as he does." Why would one want to follow Aslaksen?

The selection of a chairman is also interesting. Is Aslaksen a good choice? For whom? He professes to me a middle of the road person, open to both sides of the argument. But in fact he is very prone to manipulation. This makes him the perfect choice for Peter Stockmann, a strong man very willing to manipulate. His selection as chairman helps move the meetig toward complete polarization.

And polarization we have, although once again Thomas Stockmann changes the rules of the game. The enemy is no longer the politicians, the establishment, they will die out anyway.

"...these parasites - all these relics of a dying school of thought - are most admirably paving the way for their own extinction; they need no doctor's help to hasten their end. Nor is it folk of that kind who constitute the most pressing danger to the community. It is not they who are most instrumental in poisoning the sources of our moral life and infecting the ground on which we stand. It is not they who are the most dangerous enemies of the truth and freedom among us."

Now the crowd is excited, who can be the true enemy? Who is it? Name them.

"You may depend upon it I shall name them! This is precisely the great discovery I made yesterday. The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority - yes, the damned compact Liberal majority - that is it! Now you know!"

Why is the compact majority the enemy? Let's listen in on a little more of Thomas Stockmann's presentation.

"I have already said that I don't intend to waste a word on the puny, narrow-chested, short-winded crew whom we are leaving astern. Pulsating life no longer concerns itself with them. I am thinking of the few, the scattered few amongst us, who have absorbed new and vigorous truths. Such men stand, as it were, at the outposts, so far ahead that the compact majority has not yet been able to come up with them; and there they are fighting for truths that are too newly-born into the world of consciousness to have any considerable number of people on their side as yet."

Written almost 100 years before Thomas Kuhn wrote his treatise on scientific paradigms, these lines are an almost perfect picture of the problem of paradigm shifts. A very few come forward with new ideas, which may be good or bad, to challenge the existing paradigm. And who resists change? The compact majority who have a vested interest in the present paradigm.

And how long does it take to introduce a new idea. Kuhn says it takes about one generation. Ibsen's Stockmann says:

"What sorts of truths are they that the majority usually supports? They are truths that are of such advanced age that they are beginning to break up...A normally constituted truth lives, let us say, as a rule seventeen or eighteen, or at most twenty years; seldom longer."

It is hard for people to change.

By turning his anger on the crowd Thomas has assured the failure of his mission. His vicious characterization of the majority as animals is hardly likely to help him win his case. Why didn't he see this, or did he? Is this the same hubris that we saw in Act 1?

In the meantime the ethical issue of whether the baths should be closed has been totally lost in the smoke and dust of this battle. It will be interesting to see if we get back to this matter in Act 5, or if we are left only with picking up the scattered pieces of Thomas Stockmann's life. In any event we will be returning to some alternative approaches to the basic ethical issues later.

Before we move on to Act 5, I want to look at one additional point that Stockmann makes, which is an interesting idea about morality.

"...broad-mindedness is almost precisely the same thing as morality."

What an interesting idea, that to be moral is the same thing as to be broad-minded. We do what we "ought" to do when we are open to all that life presents to us? Perhaps!

When you have finished Act V, link to Act V.