Socratic Irony, Good and Bad

In his talk, “In Praise of Philosophy”, Merleau-Ponty begins his discussion of Socrates’ irony by considering his behavior at the trial:

What can one do if he neither pleads his cause nor challenges to combat?  One can speak in such a way as to make freedom show itself in and through the various respects and considerations, and to unlock hate by a smile–a lesson for our philosophy which has lost both its smile and its sense of tragedy.  This is what is called irony.  The irony of Socrates is a distant but true relation with others.  It expresses the fundamental fact that each of us is only himself inescapably, and nevertheless recognizes himself in the other.  It is an attempt to open up both of us for freedom.  As is true of tragedy, both the adversaries are justified, and the true irony uses a double-meaning which is founded on these facts.  There is therefore no self-conceit.  As Hegel well says, it is naive.  The story of Socrates is not to say less in order to win an advantage in showing great mental power, or in suggesting some esoteric knowledge.  “Whenever I convince anyone of his ignorance,” the Apology says with melancholy, “my listeners imagine that I know everything that he does not know.”  Socrates does not know any more than they know.  He knows only that there is no absolute knowledge, and that it is by this absence that we are open to the truth.

To this good irony Hegel opposes a romantic irony which is equivocal, tricky, and self-conceited.  It relies on the power which we can use, if we wish, to give any kind of meaning to anything whatsoever.  It levels things down:  it plays with them and permits anything.  The irony of Socrates is not this kind of madness.  Or at least if there are traces of bad irony in it, it is Socrates himself who teaches us to correct Socrates…Sometimes it is clear that he yields to the giddiness of insolence and spitefulness, to self-magnification and the aristocratic spirit.  He was left with no other resource than himself.  As Hegel says again, he appeared “at the time of the decadence of the Athenian democracy; he drew away from the externally existent and retired into himself to seek the just and the good.”  But in the last analysis it was precisely this he was self-prohibited from doing, since he thought that one cannot be just all alone and indeed, that in being just all alone he ceases to be just.  If it is truly the City that he is defending, it is not merely the City in him but that actual City existing around him…It was therefore necessary to give the tribunal its chance of understanding.  In so far as we live with others, no judgment we make on them is possible with leaves us out, and which places them at a distance.

For me, this is a Janus passage: it retrospects Reading “RM” 10 (as well as another recent post) and prospects Reading “RM” 11 (or it will, when I produce 11).  –But for now I want to think about it just for Socrates’s sake.  Montaigne I set aside.  What interests me in the passage now is the contrast between good and bad irony.  I agree that there is such a contrast and I agree in the main with Merleau-Ponty’s Hegelian understanding of it.  Noting the contrast is important in reckoning with Socrates.  (It is therefore important in teaching Socrates, as I now am.  Students tend to react most strongly to the traces of bad irony in Socrates’ (good) irony and thus to treat his irony as (unalloyed) bad irony.  Merleau-Ponty’s description helps me sympathize with the students when they react that way, without yielding to their reaction.)  Socrates’ good irony hugs his ignorance, without crossing out that ignorance, rendering it merely apparent.  As I have said in previous posts, Socrates targets double ignorance–thinking that you know when you do not know–and having that target makes irony all but unavoidable.  Unlike simple ignorance–not knowing–double ignorance is not-knowing entombed in pride (self-conceit), coldly obstructed from the truth.  Socrates’ good irony aims to disinter a person’s simple ignorance, and to bring a person to acknowledge that simple ignorance.  Socrates’ good irony is, as Merleau-Ponty notes, a distant but true relation with others:  distant–because if he comes too close he aggravates their pride, risks losing himself or approbates himself against their freedom; true–because genuinely hopeful and genuinely humble.  Available, as I am now habitually putting it.  Sometimes Socrates fails because he cannot maintain distance or maintain truth, and then he either misses irony altogether or he slips into some degree of bad irony.  Good irony is Socrates’ way of making himself available to others without trespassing upon their freedom; it is also a way of targeting their pride, the pride that not only makes them unavailable to others, but makes them unhandy to themselves.  Pride creates only the freedom to fall.

(A puzzle in Merleau-Ponty’s passage is its use of ‘distant’ and ‘distance’.  Socrates’ irony is a “distant but true relation with others”, but Socrates will make no judgment on others that “places them at a distance”.  I solve the puzzle this way:  Socrates’ good irony does not place him at a judgmental distance from others.  It is not a standing over and above them.  In other words, Socrates can count himself among those he lives with, making no judgment on them that leaves him out, and which places them at a distance, even while his way of living among them is to maintain a distant but true relation to them.  In fact, his ironic distance even aids his refusal to place others at a judgmental distance from himself:  think of judgmental distance as a false relation to others.)

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