In the large bottom room of Captain Horster's house, there is to be a meeting. It is heard that Dr. Stockmann was unable to find another meeting place and his old friend offered him this place. The citizens gathering are wondering what they should do. They decide to watch Aslaksen and do as he does. Dr. Stockmann and his family arrive and the Burgomaster comes in from another direction. Hovstad and Billing are also there.
Before Dr. Stockmann can start his speech, the Burgomaster and Aslaksen insist that a chairman be elected. Dr. Stockmann points out that it is unnecessary since he only wants to give a lecture. But a chairman is elected. It is Aslaksen. Then the Burgomaster moves that the meeting decline to hear the lecture on the subject of the baths. After more speeches and confusion, Dr. Stockmann tells the audience that he does not wish to speak on the subject of the baths but on something entirely different. He is allowed to begin.
The theme of Dr. Stockmann's speech is that the "sources of our spiritual life are poisoned, and that our whole society rests upon a pestilential basis of falsehood." He then attacks the leading men who act like goats and do harm at every point. They block the path of a free man and are filled with prejudices. But more dangerous is the compact majority. The country should be run by the intelligent men and since the majority is made up of fools, it should have no right to a voice in the government. He proves that with animals only the thoroughbreds are worth anything. The same should be true with people. The herd of men are no better than curs, and should be kept in that position.
At this point the crowd begins to revolt. A motion is made to declare Dr. Stockmann an enemy of the people. The motion is passed with only one person voting against it. Old Morton Kiil comes to Stockmann and wonders if the poison comes from his tannery as well as the others. Dr. Stockmann tells him that the Morton Kiil Tannery is one of the worst and will have to be improved immediately. Old Morton Kiil tells Stockmann that such an accusation may cost the Stockmann family a lot of money.
Dr. Stockmann asks Captain Horster if he has room on his ship for the Stockmanns to sail with him to America. Captain Horster tells him that he will make room.
The act opens with Stockmann still convinced that he is working for the sake of the people. Thinking that he will now become the champion of the people, he obtains a hall in order to give a lecture. Thus, this act pits the idealist against the common herd of people, the people whom Stockmann wants to serve.
Apparently, Stockmann wanted to give his speech about the baths. But the democratic principles of electing a chairman for the committee and then entertaining a motion as to whether Dr. Stockmann should be heard changed the nature of the speech. He therefore delivers a tirade against the democratic processes and attempts to prove that the common man has no business having a voice in the government. He is, of course, still the idealist, but here the idealist is trapped in the involved processes of bureaucracy. He sees his idealism being defeated by the very people he wanted to help: Thus, he attacks the people and the officials elected by the officials.
The reader must realize that Stockmann's speech is offensive. But he remains a sympathetic character because the purpose of his speech is noble. He is striving to realize his ideals without compromising his principles. Everyone else at the meeting has in one way or another compromised himself — has sold out for personal gain or to avoid a difficult conflict. But in his attack, we must step back and realize that Dr. Stockmann has carried idealism to its extreme.
The question arises then: Is Dr. Stockmann an enemy of the people? If we were to isolate Dr. Stockmann's speech, that is, take it out of the context of all that went before, and if we were to hear only what the audience at Dr. Stockmann's speech heard, then we would see that Dr. Stockmann's present position is one that justifies his being called an enemy of the people. He has openly advocated that the people are not capable of voting correctly. He has insulted the common people and has referred to them in terms of a herd of animals. Thus, by this speech alone, Dr. Stockmann is an enemy of the people. But actually, we know that his attack is motivated by more noble reasons and only in his disillusionment does he make such heavy charges against the very people he wants to help.