Dimming the Lights

We watched the first two acts of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People in the May term capstone yesterday. I've shown this in class so many times that I have most of the dialog memorized (and even the precise line inflections of the actors). In Ibsen's play a medical officer at a newly opened health spa realizes that the very water they are curing people with contains infectious organic material from a tannery upstream.

So Dr. Stockman attempts to set things right by notifying the political power brokers of his town, which Ibsen wonderfully represents in three separate characters: the conservative mayor (who is also the doctor's brother), the editor of a left-wing newspaper, and the moderate head of the property owners association.

The latter two characters seize upon the news as a tool for driving the mayor from office, but they quickly change their view when the mayor informs them that any repairs to the water system will have to come from a heavy new municipal tax. The only one who doesn't change is the doctor, who says, "My convictions come from the water. My convictions will change when the water changes."

By the end of act one, the doctor realizes that everyone is against him. No one wants to jeopardize the town's prosperity by allowing word to get out about the condition of the water, and the board of directors at the health spa has threatened to fire him if he doesn't retract his claims. Stockman's wife, an imminently sensible woman, makes a brief speech urging him to reconsider his crusade. She says, "If they won't make the changes, they won't. They have all the power on their side," to which he replies, "But I have the truth on my side." Then his wife poses a troubling question: "Without power, what good is truth?"

To my mind this is the heart of the play. Ibsen is not writing about corruption, free speech or even civil disobedience (indeed, Stockman's motives are not pure. He hates his brother and a part of him relishes his role as a troublemaker). Instead, the play is a meditation on the relationship between truth and power, and it leaves open the very real possibility that the two are antithetical.

Of course, the tension between truth and power has been an underlying theme throughout the first part of the course. The students have read The Apology, in which Socrates' reliance on truth as a defense strategy just about guaranteed his death sentence. Moreover, Socrates as much as admitted that one can't be a devotee of truth and politically effective. He tells the jury that he's rarely involved himself in Athenian politics and asks, "Do you really imagine that I could have survived all these years if I had led a public life?"

The students have also been briefly introduced to Machiavelli, who doesn't just meditate on the relationship between power and truth. He makes it explicit:

A man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.
Just like the power brokers in Ibsen's play, Machiavelli views truth as only occasionally useful. It has no value outside of its role in maintaining or seizing power and can threaten both of those aims. As academics, of course, we are supposed to be in the truth game. Disciplines from history to math to philosophy concern themselves with discriminating between truth and falsehood. The word veritas is quite popular in university mottoes. But we send our students into a political reality where strict adherence to truth is almost always a recipe for trouble. I sometimes wonder if it isn't perhaps a good thing that we are so singularly ineffective at instilling a love of truth in our students. If we were really good at our jobs, we wouldn't be doing them much of a favor.

Most of my students show little interest in either truth or power. They don't think too deeply about such matters and can't see why they should. They just get on with their lives. Many of them will be easily managed by clever types who know how to appeal to their biases or skillfully apply the whip or the sugar cube. Fortunately, some students are just genuinely good people, not unlike the play's Captain Horster, a man who knows nothing about either power or truth. Horster is one of only two citizens who vote against a proposition to declare Dr. Stockman an enemy of the people. He doesn't understand matters, yet he unreflectively does the right thing.

Of course Stockman's other vote came from a guy who was too drunk to know what the meeting was about. I get a few of those students as well. Whenever I dim the lights and start to show the play in class, a fair number doze off or spend the hour texting friends.


Michael said…
Unfortunately, I agree with you, Prof Q. But you know that. It saddens me, though. I was always hoping you'd prove me wrong, prove to me that Strauss was wrong about Plato.

But, as you know, I also view Nietzsche's "anti-life" view of powerlessness as perhaps the only way. Truth may be powerless, but it may still be meaningful. Every person will eventually die, anyway, so perhaps power is the ultimate illusion. Power, too, will prove to be powerless in the end. The truth knows that whereas power denies it. In the end, both truth and power lose, but at least truth accepts itself as it has been, is, and will always be.

There's meaning in that beauty. It might contain something more than humanity is even able to understand. Be at peace, Q. You're a good man.


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