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.”