Quote of the week

In the course of constructing a short story, Spider Robinson once observed, “If a person who indulges in gluttony is a glutton, and a person who commits a felony is a felon, then God is an iron.”

Roger Scruton finds Biblical antecedent for just such a premise:

There is already a developing streak of irony in the Hebrew Bible, one that the Talmud amplifies. But a new kind of irony dominates Christ’s judgments and parables, which look on the spectacle of human folly and wryly show us how to live with it. A telling example is Christ’s verdict in the case of the woman taken in adultery: “Let he who is without fault cast the first stone.” In other words: “Come off it; haven’t you wanted to do what she did, and already done it in your hearts?” Some have suggested that this story is a later insertion — one of many that the early Christians culled from the store of inherited wisdom attributed to the Redeemer after his death. Even if that is true, however, it merely confirms the view that the Christian religion has made irony central to its message. It was a troubled, post-Enlightenment Christian, Søren Kierkegaard, who pointed to irony as the virtue that united Socrates and Christ.

The late Richard Rorty saw irony as a state of mind intimately connected with the postmodern worldview — a withdrawal from judgment that nevertheless aims at a kind of consensus, a shared agreement not to judge. The ironic temperament, however, is better understood as a virtue — a disposition aimed at a kind of practical fulfillment and moral success. Venturing a definition of this virtue, I would describe it as a habit of acknowledging the otherness of everything, including oneself. However convinced you are of the rightness of your actions and the truth of your views, look on them as the actions and the views of someone else and rephrase them accordingly. So defined, irony is quite distinct from sarcasm: it is a mode of acceptance rather than a mode of rejection. It also points both ways: through irony, I learn to accept both the other on whom I turn my gaze, and also myself, the one who is gazing. Pace Rorty, irony is not free from judgment: it simply recognizes that the one who judges is also judged, and judged by himself.

For the sake of semi-completeness, here’s Rorty’s definition of the “ironist” (from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 1989):

(1) [The ironist] has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself.

I note that neither Scruton nor Rorty has anything to say about Alanis Morrissette.


  1. fillyjonk »

    6 February 2009 · 7:40 am

    “So defined, irony is quite distinct from sarcasm: it is a mode of acceptance rather than a mode of rejection”

    How does the old saying go? “Born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world is mad”?

    I always think of sarcasm as being borderline on meanness – it’s the person rolling their eyes and saying, “Yeah, THAT’LL work” whereas I think of irony as someone laughing, shaking their head, and saying, “It’s always something, isn’t it?” Irony does seem far more accepting of the craziness of this old world than sarcasm does. (Sarcasm, in fact, can be a sort of lashing-out – “Why isn’t the world treating me better? I DESERVE to be treated better!”

  2. McGehee »

    6 February 2009 · 9:14 am

    Perhaps, FJ — but to those who argue that sarcasm is the lowest form of humor I retort: politics.

  3. Charles Pergiel »

    6 February 2009 · 10:10 pm

    Sarcasm is not allowed at our house. It sometimes creeeps in, but we try to keep it out. I suspect my parents were very sarcastic, and I think I absorbed it from them, and in turn passed it on to my children. But it can be very nasty. So we endeavor to keep it down.

    I used to know what irony was, but then it seemed to pass from common usage until Alanis sang that song, and now at least a few people mention it. I’m still not sure if I can define it.

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