Monday, July 8, 2013

Irony (Revisited)

Scott Bradley
Original post date: May 19, 2011


I hope you have realized by now that I use a great deal of irony in my writing. If not, you will have often misunderstood me and must think me very negative and sarcastic. In fact, I just looked irony up in Webster’s (pocket-size, and apparently for toddlers) and that's just the word they use to define it, 'sarcastic'. Is one permitted to disagree?

Irony, in its simplest verbal form, is the statement of the contrary in order to bring attention to and affirm its opposite. "Lovely weather!" is an acknowledgement of and reinforcement of the fact that it's "stinking awful weather." But not only does it, in my opinion, bring a bit of humor to a situation where cold rain is making its way down your neck, and put things in a rosier way, but it also requires the listener to think — to get involved in the process, to really consider the nature of the weather. "What is the Buddha?" "Three pounds of flax."

A classic example of irony is when a Greek general went to the Delphic Oracle on the potential eve of battle and asked what would be the outcome. "There will be a great victory," answered the Oracle. The general thus confidently joined battle and lost horribly; the “great victory” was his opponent's.

And then, of course, there is Socrates. The Oracle declared he, who knew nothing, was the wisest man on earth. According to Kierkegaard, who wrote his master's thesis on the subject (The Concept of Irony), this so effected Socrates that his whole life's mission became ironic. He began a quest to find someone who actually knew what he was talking about, or rather, knew what it was that was the foundation for his actions.

Meeting a young man on the way to bring a charge of murder against his father for killing his slave, Socrates exclaimed that surely then he must be able to tell him what Justice is! But, of course, he could not; nor did Socrates ever believe that he could. He was using irony to teach.

This is the Socratic Method, the maieutic method. It is a method of spiritual midwifery. Understanding cannot be given to another; it must be brought forth from the other, through painful labor. At best, the teacher is a guide and coach.

When he stood convicted of 'corrupting the youth', and was required to suggest an appropriate penalty, it was expected that he would ask for and be granted exile. Instead, he suggested life-time membership and full board in the gymnasium — after all, he had served his city well.

This ironic attitude brought him the penalty of death. But even then it was expected that his friends, as was common, would spirit him away to safety. He refused to leave, however, and drank the hemlock in obedience to injustice — a final act of irony.

None of this is to imply that I am a teacher or Socrates; it's just the quirky way I deal with life.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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