Teaching Augustine’s Confessions for the last five years or so, I’ve come to expect certain questions and objections: Isn’t he awfully hard on babies? (No.) Is it really a bad thing to cry when your mother dies? (Maybe not.) Was he really such a terrible sinner? (Who am I to judge?) But I was recently caught off guard when one of my students expressed uneasiness not with Augustine’s classical Christianity or his stringent understanding of morality but with his objections to the Roman practice of consulting astrologers. This student, it turned out, was one of many young people participating in what the New York Times somewhat antiseptically calls the “$2.1 billion mystic services market,” a market which, as one astrology app’s self-description puts it, “allows irrationality to invade our techno-rationalist ways of living.” In a follow-up conversation, my student suggested that his interest in astrology was “mostly ironic”—an observation in line with the wry tone adopted in many of the new online horoscopes.
What does it mean to like something “ironically”? To be sure, irony is often a form of negation that lets us hold ourselves separate from and above the world. To like something, but only ironically, is like being in on a joke you play on yourself. As David Foster Wallace famously put it, irony is an “existential poker face,” an attempt to “interdict the question without attending to its content.” Lately, however, I’ve been wondering whether our culture’s pervasively ironic bearing, readily observable in the myriad ways in which we relate to one another and our culture online, is really fooling anyone. My student maintained a certain plausible deniability about astrology but nevertheless felt compelled to defend it from Augustine’s critique. Online irony, moreover, has a troubling way of seeping into the way we conduct our lives, often with insidious results.
But maybe the way we use irony now has more to do with the way we use our ideas in the public sphere. In his 1989 book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, reliably contrarian American philosopher Richard Rorty argues that we ought to stop trying to square our private metaphysics—the philosophical underpinnings of how we understand what a human being is and how humans relate to the world—with a public commitment to justice. We might be tempted to criticize thinkers like Nietzsche, who argue for wild, irresponsible self-creation, as dangerously incompatible with sober theorists of justice like Karl Marx and John Rawls (or vice versa), but Rorty insists that things would be better if we simply stopped worrying about such improbable yokings. We in fact need both kinds of thinkers. One helps us become aware of our “half-articulate need to become a new person,” and the other reminds us “of the failure of our institutions and practices to live up to the convictions to which we are already committed.” Both are “right”: “equally valid; yet forever incommensurable.” Different sorts of theorists are simply that—different, and, when all is said and done, “as little in need of synthesis as are paintbrushes and crowbars.”
The sort of person who is intellectually relaxed enough to own up to the contingency of all values in private yet remain passionately committed to public solidarity is a “liberal ironist.” The liberal ironist is for social justice in the streets but beyond good and evil in the sheets (as long as nobody gets humiliated or hurt). If hypocrisy is the tribute vice plays to virtue, then liberal irony is a resolute refusal to pay tribute at all. For Rorty, “irony” is a way of relating to ideas that refuses to worry about the ethical or political cash-out of a young person’s interest in, say, astrology. It allows people to seek meaning in whatever self-consciously contingent ways they want, so long as they continue to use a publicly agreed-upon liberal vocabulary in political debate. An ironic bearing toward the world would then seem to be desirable because it would allow us to experiment in determining who we were while insulating ourselves from the real-world ramifications of this experimentation.
For Jonathan Lear, author of the excellent 2014 book A Case for Irony, an experience of irony becomes possible when we are confronted by the gap between “pretense and aspiration.” When, to use Lear’s example, a teacher finds himself wondering whether he in fact knows how to teach in the midst of doing just that (it happens), this ironic disruption offers the chance to make one’s mundane identity unfamiliar. As Lear memorably puts it, “Ironic disruption is…a species of uncanniness: it is an unheimlich [uncanny] maneuver.” But what happens next is decisive: Irony “manifests passion for a certain direction.” The problem with Rortyean irony, as Lear duly notes, is that it rests in the moment of disruption and leaves no room for a passionate pursuit of one’s actual aspiration.
Of course, where irony is concerned, we must also consult Plato’s Socrates, perhaps the first ironist. In the Socratic dialogues, it is only Socrates’s most hostile interlocutors who accuse him of eirōneia. Take the spectacular arrival of Alcibiades at the end of the Symposium. Drunk and belligerent, Alcibiades tells the party at Agathon’s house that the “ironical” Socrates maliciously conceals his true beauty. Like statues of the god Silenus—an unappealing old man with the ears of a horse—that had images of gods stashed inside, Socrates, Alcibiades suspects, has something inside him “divine, golden, altogether beautiful, and amazing.” In Alcibiades’s telling, Socrates is ironical because he keeps his true self concealed.
But to Alcibiades’s shock and dismay, after an unsuccessful attempt to reach Socrates’s beauty through seduction, he learns that all the old philosopher ever wants to do is what he always does: talk. Socrates’s irony lies in his determinedly being just who he is. In a world where everyone dissimulates and where a certain prevarication is par for the course, irony shows itself as a passionate attempt to be authentically what one is, precisely to attempt to align the public with the private. It seems that the thing that really confuses and frustrates us is the idea that, implausibly, the surface is all there is.
It is then significant that Alcibiades’s memorable entrance comes at the end of a dialogue devoted to eros, love. As each symposiast gives a speech more uncomfortably self-serving or revealing than the last—the doctor Erixymachus thinks that love is like medicine; his young beloved, Phaedrus, thinks older lovers should be as useful as possible to those they court—we are confronted with the uncomfortable reality that we are always showing everyone who and what we are on the basis of what we love. Irony seems to offer an alternative. But if Lear—and Plato—are right, then this moment of distancing should serve as a prelude to deepening my relationship to the world and how I understand myself. Augustine takes the ironical rupture of his own encounter with astrology as a chance to think through, and passionately embody, an account of human freedom that resists the pull of the stars. Maybe our ironical culture offers us a similar chance to rediscover irony as a counterintuitive invitation to passionate sincerity.