The aim of this paper is to analyze a situation and the protagonist of a drama by Henrik Ibsen An Enemy of the People—Doctor Thomas Stockmann. In highlighting the nature of the doctor’s character and rebellion that takes place in the play, the virtue of selflessness and the role of power in social dynamics will be used as conceptual frameworks for the analysis.
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Stockman is more than a concoction of Ibsen’s genius who was apt in denuding seemingly-decent facades of public mores, but rather the quintessence of idealism that all too often finds its place in hearts and minds of those not privy to the art of political trickery. Being driven by principles, the doctor disregards practical interests of his family, which would be frown upon by Machiavelli who was a staunch believer in the pursuit of one’s interest. Specifically, the philosopher maintains that self-interest is at the center of all human activities, which allows regarding it as a primary motivator (Machiavelli 79). Stockman, being a man of unwavering convictions, fails to use his social environment as a framework for advancing his interests; therefore, the godfather of political deceit would find his actions unjustifiable and infeasible in equal measure.
In addition to unquenchable idealism, the puzzling personality of the play’s protagonist is characterized by a great deal of rebelliousness. By indulging in the desire to express his indignation, Stockman sacrifices his family’s social standing (Ibsen 127). There is no denying that “a horribly painful dilemma” in which the character finds himself is a function of vacillation between two extremes: impulsiveness and high-mindedness (Ibsen 140). Being morally absolutist to a fault, the character has no doubt that his role as a doctor obliges him to put the Bath’s visitors’ interests above his own. It is not surprising, then, that he is not capable of performing triage when it comes to fighting injustices of the world.
The foolhardiness of the character can be justified by Mill who was a firm proponent of liberty. Mill maintained that “the human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice” (35). Thus, the choice to disregard perks of Stockman’s position on the social ladder can be viewed as an extension of his innate desire to challenge conventions, rather than a foolish whim. Therefore, the doctor’s willingness to improve the welfare of others while foregoing his own interests would be respected by Mill. Doctor’s championship of the public health falls in line with the philosophy of Tocqueville who praised “minds that aspire to combine their efforts to promote the common good” (590). Therefore, the unwillingness to become complicit in the crime and the desire to divert his attention from the immediate interests of his family makes the doctor a paragon of public virtue.
The role of political power takes a prominent place in the play. The doctor’s wife recognizes the superiority of mayor’s position with respect to social dynamics of a situation in which her husband found himself. Therefore, she warns Stockman of the futility of his pursuit by stating that there is no use in “right without might” (Ibsen 41). Unfortunately, in his oblivion of the fact that powerful always tend to protect their vested interests by silencing and disparaging opposition, the character enters a political battle. Even though it is evident that Stockman is not going to prevail, he continues his quixotic pursuit. It is precisely this tendency that was harshly criticized by Tocqueville who recognized that only free consent could bring about a prosperous and long-standing society (107). For this reason, the political scientist argued that the power of administrative authority should be limited to a great extent (Tocqueville 107).
The power struggle in An Enemy of the People exemplifies a perennial drive towards amassing and protecting political influence at all cost. The situation shows the prominence of the power’s role in social dynamics. If the government’s representative can disregard familial relationship for the sake of political expediency, then there is nothing that cannot be put on the altar of either utilitarian or personal calculus. From this vantage point, it is clear why Rousseau was cautious of a strong government (209). The philosopher maintained that the government would inevitably pursue its interests while disregarding those of individuals.
Due to underhanded tactics employed by forces that oppose the protagonist, it can be argued that their approach to social dynamics was in large part Machiavellian. To support this point, it is necessary to refer to Nederman who states that for Machiavelli, “authority and power are coequal” (41). The legitimacy of maintaining a political office by all means necessary is disputed by Mill who rejected both political and social coercion. The philosopher believed that the concept of liberty presupposes the dominance of individuals’ interests if they do not come at the expense of other people’s freedom (Mill 37). Therefore, the mayor’s failure to recognize and honor the doctor’s right to express his opinion and his subsequent use of the political power cannot be justified. The state of affairs in which political and not moral force dictates the direction of social dynamics should not be accepted by those who recognize the validity of Tocqueville’s and Mill’s arguments.
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The paper has argued that Stockman exemplifies idealism, which often borders with self-destruction. The analysis of the doctor’s situation shows that it can be treated as an overt abuse of power that should be unanimously decried. The play serves as a warning of the destructive influence of uninhibited political power.
Ibsen, Henrik. An Enemy of the People. Translated by Sharp Farquharson, Digireads, 2005.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Portable Machiavelli. Translated by Peter Bondanella and Musa Mark, Penguin Classics, 1979.
Mill, John. On Liberty. Edited by Charles L. Ten, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Nederman, Carry. Machiavelli: A Beginner’s Guide. Oneworld Publications, 2012.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. CreateSpace, 2014.
Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Library of America, 2004.