On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates

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On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates (Om Begrebet Ironi med stadigt Hensyn til Socrates), was Soren Kierkegaard's 1841 thesis for graduation from the University of Copenhagen. The book was translated and edited by Howard and Edna Hong in 1989.


  • V. Socrates' defense, as presented by Plato, is either spurious or is to be interpreted altogether ironically.
  • IX. Socrates drove all his contemporaries out of substantiality as if naked from a shipwreck, undetermined actuality, envisioned actuality in the distance, touched it, but did not take possession of it.
  • XV. Just as philosophy begins with doubt, so also a life that may be called human begins with irony.

Part One: The View of Socrates Viewed as Irony[edit]


  • What Socrates himself prized so highly, namely, standing still and contemplating – in other words, silence – this is his whole life in terms of world history. He has left nothing by which a later age can judge him; indeed, even if I were to imagine myself his contemporary, he would still always be difficult to comprehend. He belonged to the breed of persons with whom the outer as such is not the stopping point. The outer continually pointed to something other and opposite. He is not like a philosopher delivering his opinions in such a way that just the lecture itself is the presence of the idea, but what Socrates said means something different. p. 12

I The View Made Possible[edit]

  • All knowledge requires courage, and only the person who has the courage to sacrifice his life saves his life; to everyone else the same thing happens that happened to Orpheus, who wanted to descend into the underworld in order to bring back his wife, but the gods showed him the mere shadow of her, because they regarded him as a sentimental zither player who did not have the courage to sacrifice his life for love. P. 26 note
  • When was repose ever more needed in the world than in our day, when the ideas accelerate one another with insane haste, when they merely give a hint of their existence deep down in the soul by means of a bubble on the surface of the sea, when the ideas never unfurl but are devoured in their delicate sprouts, merely thrust their heads into existence but then promptly die of grief. P. 28
  • Socrates’ argumentation aims essentially at wiping out the relative unlikeness among the different virtues in order to save unity; whereas Protagoras continually focuses on the apparent qualitative unlikeness, but therefore the bond is lacking that is able to enrich and hold together this rich multiplicity. Thus the idea of mediation never dawns for him; he gropes in its twilight when, hoping to reclaim the unity, he clings to the subjectivized idea of mediation, which depends on the identity of likeness and unlikeness. Generally speaking, he says, all things resemble one another in a certain respect. In one way even white resembles black and hard resembles soft, and so it is with all other seemingly extreme opposites. But according to Socrates the unity of virtue is like a tyrant who doesn not have the courage to rule over the actual world but first murders all his subjects in order to be able to rule proudly and with perfect security over the silent kingdom of pale shadows. P. 57-58
  • Platonism wants one to die to sensate knowing in order to be dissolved by death into the kingdom of immortality, where the in-and-for-itself equality. The in-and-for-itself beauty, etc., live in the stillness of death. This is articulated even more strongly by Socrates when he declares that a philosopher’s desire is to die and to be dead. But to desire death in this way cannot be based on enthusiasm it has its basis in a certain apathy or if the person wishing to die is himself aware of what he is wishing, then life-weariness is dominant. P. 77
  • I dare not let go unchallenged the observation that the irony in the Apology might not be Platonic. The alert student of Plato will find in him two kinds of irony. The one is the quickening force integral to the investigation; the other arrogates, if possible, lordship to itself. The Apology must be regarded as irony in its very design, since, after all, the grievous charges about all the new teaching Socrates was introducing into Athens were bound to stand in a very strange and essentially ironic relation to his defense that he knew nothing and thus could not possibly introduce new teachings. P. 87-88
  • A truly free and magnanimous person will speak as consciousness and knowledge bid him without regard for anything but the truth of his statement and untroubled by how it is received. P. 95
  • The dialectic clears the terrain of everything irrelevant and then attempts to clamber up to the idea, but since this fails, the imagination reacts. Weary of the dialectical work, the imagination begins to dream, and from this comes the mythical. During this dreaming, the idea either floats by quickly in an endless succession or it stands still and expands until infinitely present in space. Thus the mythical is the enthusiasm of imagination in the service of speculation and, to a certain degree, is what Hegel calls pantheism of the imagination. Now that the consciousness has awakened, if the imagination once again is nostalgic for those dreams, the mythical steps forth in a new form, that is, as metaphor. P. 101-103
  • The ironist, to be sure, is lighter than the world, but on the other hand he still belongs to the world; like Mohammed’s coffin, he is suspended between two magnates. P. 152

II The Actualization of the View[edit]

The Daimon of Socrates[edit]

  • Instead of the oracle, Socrates now has his daimon. The daimonian in this case now lies in the transition from the oracle’s external relation to the individual to the complete inwardness of freedom and, as still being in this transition is a subject for representation. The daimonian was sufficient for Socrates, and with it he could manage; but this is a qualification of personality, but of course only the egotistical satisfaction of one particular personality. Here again Socrates proves to be one who is ready to leap into something but never in the relevant moment does leap into the next thing but leaps aside and back into himself. P. 163-166
  • Doubt is a vanishing element in the system, but in actuality, where doubt is carried out in continual conflict with everything that rises up and wants to hold out against it destroying every proud obstacle and taking every thought captive in obedience. This is the purely personal life with which science and scholarship admittedly are not involved. Grant that science and scholarship are right in ignoring such things; nevertheless, one who wants to understand the individual cannot do so. P. 166

The Condemnation of Socrates[edit]

  • The daimonian indicated Socrates’ completely negative relation to the established order with respect to religion not primarily because he introduced something new, but rather because he rejected the established order, inclosed himself within himself, egotistically confined himself within himself. To say that Socrates did not accept the gods accepted by the state does not mean that he was an atheist. On the contrary, Socrates’ nonacceptance of the national gods was essential to his whole position, which he himself theoretically characterized as ignorance. P. 168-169
  • In one of his treatises, Schleiermacher calls attention to the fact that when Socrates went about in the service of the oracle in order to show people that they knew nothing, he could not possibly have known only that he knew nothing, because behind that he must have indeed have known what knowledge is. He then goes on to show that Socrates is actually the founding father of dialectic. P. 170
  • The phrase “know yourself” means: separate yourself from the other. Precisely because this self did not exist prior to Socrates, it was once again an oracular pronouncement corresponding to Socrates’ consciousness that commanded him to know himself. But it was reserved for a later age to go deeply into this self-knowledge. P. 177-178
  • True freedom consists in giving oneself to enjoyment and yet preserving one’s soul unscathed. In political life, true freedom naturally consists in being involved in the circumstances of life in such a way that they have an objective validity for one and through all this preserving the innermost, deepest personal life, which certainly can move and have its being under all these conditions but yet to a certain degree is incommensurate with them. P. 182-183

III The View Made Necessary[edit]

  • Intellectually, Athens was the heart of Greece. Thus when Greece culture approached its disintegration, all the blood rushed back violently into the chambers of the heart. Everything concentrated in Athens – wealth, luxury, opulence, art, science, recklessness, the enjoyment of life – in short, everything that, as the city hastened to its ruin, could also help to glorify it and illuminate one of the most brilliant intellectual dramas conceivable. There was a restlessness in Athenian life; there was a palpitation of the heart intimating that the hour of disintegration was at hand. But form the other side, that which was the condition for the decline of the state proved to have immense signification for the new principle that was to appear, and the disintegration and decay became indeed the fertile soil of the new principle. The evil principle in the Greek state now was the arbitrariness of finite subjectivity (i.e., unwarranted subjectivity) - arbitrariness in all its numerous, variegated forms. P. 200-201
  • Now, it is no doubt true that the thesis “Everything is true,” placed in the sphere of reflection, in the very next instant shifts over into its opposite: Nothing is true. But this next moment did not come for Sophistry, precisely because it lived in the moment. What enabled Sophistry to rest there was that it lacked a comprehensive consciousness; it lacked the eternal moment in which it would have to give an account of the whole. Since reflection had shaken the foundations of everything, Sophistry assumed the role of remedying the momentary need. Thus reflection in Sophistry was checked in its precarious outflowing and was controlled at every moment, but the security that bound it was the particular subject. What Socrates did for the Sophists was to give them the next moment, the moment in which the momentarily true dissolved into nothing - in other words, he let the infinite devour the finite. P. 205, 213
  • If the Sophists had answer for everything, then he could pose questions; if the Sophists knew everything, then he knew nothing at all; if the Sophists could talk without stopping, then he could be silent-that is, he could converse. If the Sophist’s pageant was pompous and pretentious, then Socrates’ appearance was quiet and modest; if the Sophists’ mode of living was sumptuous and self-indulgent, his was simple and abstemious; if the Sophists’ goal was influence in the state, Socrates was reluctant to have anything to do with political affairs; if the Sophists’ instruction was priceless, then Socrates’ was, too, in the opposite sense; if the Sophists’ wished to sit at the head of the table, Socrates was content to sits at the foot; if the Sophists wanted to be regarded as somebodies, Socrates preferred to be a nobody. All this can be understood as examples of Socrates’ moral strength. P. 210

Appendix: Hegel’s View of Socrates[edit]

  • Hegel clearly provides a turning point in the view of Socrates. Therefore, I shall begin with Hegel and end with Hegel, without giving attention to his predecessors, since they, insofar as they have any significance, have been corroborated by his view, or to his successors, since they have only relative value in comparison with Hegel. P. 221
  • Hegel in line with the tradition of antiquity calls Socrates the founder of morality, however Hegel distinguishes between morality and ethics. P. 227
  • In Hegel’s description of the Socratic method, there are particularly two forms of it that become subjects for discussion: his irony and his midwifery. The space Hegel gives to irony is itself sufficient indication that he views irony in Socrates more as a controlled element, a way of associating with people, and this is confirmed by explicit statements. P. 237

Part Two: The Concept of Irony[edit]

  • Our age demands if not lofty pathos then at least loud pathos, if not speculation then at least conclusions, if not truth then at least persuasion, if not integrity then at least protestations of integrity, if not feeling then at least the verbosity about feelings. Therefore it also coins a totally different kind of privileged faces. It will not allow the mouth to be defiantly compressed or the upper lip to quiver mischievously; it demands that the mouths be open, for how, indeed, could one imagine a true and genuine patriot who is not delivering speeches; how could one visualize a profound thinker’s dogmatic face without a mouth able to swallow the whole world; how could one picture a virtuoso on the cornucopia of the living word without a gaping mouth? It does not permit one to stand still and to concentrate; to walk slowly is already suspicious; and how could one even put up with anything like that in the stirring period in which we live. P. 246
  • It is the ironist’s joy to seem to be caught in the same noose in which the other person is trapped. It is one of the ironist’s chief joys to find weak sides such as this everywhere, and the more distinguished the person in whom it is found, the more joy he has in being able to take him in, to have him in his power, although that person himself is unaware of it. Thus at times even a distinguished person is like a puppet on a string for the ironist, a jumping-jack he can get to make the motions he wants it to make by pulling the string. P. 250
  • The more vain everything becomes, all the lighter, emptier, and volatized the subject becomes. And while everything is in the process of becoming vanity, the ironic subject does not become vain in his own eyes but rescues his own vanity. For irony, everything becomes nothing, but nothing can be taken in several ways. The speculative nothing is the vanishing at every moment with regard to the concretion, since it is itself the craving of the concrete, its nisus formativus [formative impulse]; the mystical nothing is a nothing with regard to the representation, a nothing that nevertheless is just as full of content as the silence of the night is full of sounds for someone who has ears to hear. Finally, the ironic nothing is the dead silence in which irony walks again and haunts (the latter word taken altogether ambiguously). P. 258

The World-Historical Validity of Irony, the Irony of Socrates[edit]

  • Even though the world spirit in any process is continually in itself, this is not the case with the generation at a certain time and the given individuals at a certain time in the same generation. For them, a given actuality does not present itself as something that they are able to reject, because the world process leads the person who is willing to go along and sweeps the unwilling along with it. P. 259
  • Catholicism was given actuality for the generation living at the time of the Reformation, and yet it was also the actuality that no longer had validity as such. Consequently, one actuality collides here with another actuality. Herein lies the profoundly tragic aspect of world history. P. 260

The Irony of Fichte[edit]

  • Philosophy walked around like a man who is wearing his glasses and nevertheless is looking for his glasses – that is, he is looking for something right in front of his nose, but he does not look right in front of his nose and therefore never finds it. P. 272
  • What takes the ironist time is the solicitude he employs in dressing himself in the costume proper to the poetic character he has poetically composed for himself. At times he walks around with the proud air of a Roman patrician wrapped in a bordered toga, or he sits in the sella curulis with imposing Roman earnestness; at times he conceals himself in the humble costume of a penitent pilgrim; then once again he sits with legs crossed like a Turkish pasha in his harem; at times he flutters about as light and free as a bird in the role of an amorous zither player. P. 282
  • An earnest Christian is well aware that there are moments when he is more profoundly and vitally gripped by the Christian life than he usually is, but he does not therefore become a pagan when the mood passes. Indeed, the more soundly and earnestly he lives, the more he will become master of his moods, that is, the more he will humble himself under them and thereby save his soul. P. 284

Friedrich Schlegel[edit]

  • The subject for discussion here is Friedrich Schlegel’s celebrated novel Lucinde, the gospel of Young Germany and the system for its rehabilitation of the flesh, which was an abomination to Hegel. Lest an injustice be done to Schlegel, one must bear in mind the many degradations that have crept into a multitude of life’s relationships and have been especially indefatigable in making love as tame, as housebroken, as sluggish, as dull, as useful and usable as any other domestic animal – in short, as unerotic as possible. To that extent, we would be very obligated to Schlegel if he should succeed in finding a way out. P. 286
  • The hero in [Lucinde], Julius, is no Don Juan (who by means of his sensate genius as a necromancer casts a spell on everything; who acts with an immediate authority; who shows that he is lord and master, an authority that words cannot describe but that can be suggested by a few absolutely imperative bow strokes by Mozart; who does not seduce but by whom all would like to be seduced, and if their innocence were restored to them would want to be seduced again; a daimon who has no past, no history of development, but like Minerva immediately steps forward fully armored) but a personality trapped in reflection, who develops only in a successive process. P. 293
  • The portrait of Lisette is perhaps the best executed one in the whole novel [Lucinde], and the author has treated it with a marked preference and done everything to cast a poetic light over it. As a child she had been more melancholy than thoughtless but already at that time was demonically aroused by sensuousness. Later she had been an actress, but only for a short time, and always made fun of her incompetence and the boredom she had endured. At last she had devoted herself totally to the service of sensuousness. Next to independence, she had an inordinate love of money, which she nevertheless knew how to use with taste. At times she allowed her favors to be paid for with money, at times with the satisfaction of her whimsical preference for some individual. P. 294
  • The oddity about Lucinde and the whole trend associated with it is that, by starting from freedom and the constitutive authority of the I, one does not arrive at a still higher spirituality but comes only to sensuousness and consequently to its opposite. P. 301


  • In Tieck, I already breathe more easily, and when I look back at Lucinde once again, I seem to be waking from a troubled, uneasy dream in which I simultaneously heard seductive tones of sensuousness and wild, bestial howling intermingled with them. I seem to have been offered a nauseous preparation, brewed in a witch’s cauldron, that deprives on of all relish, all appetite for life. P. 301
  • It must be borne in mind that Tieck and the whole romantic school stepped into or thought they were stepping into an age in which people seemed to be totally fossilized in finite social forms. Everything was completed and consummated in a divine Chinese optimism that let no reasonable longing go unsatisfied, no reasonable desire go unfulfilled. P. 303


  • Solger was one who wanted to become philosophically conscious of the nature of irony. Hegel gave considerable attention to Solger’s presentation and treats him with a certain partiality. His irony is contemplative irony; he perceives the nothingness of everything. Irony is an organ, a sense for the negative. P. 308-309
  • Faith is the victory over the world, and yet it is struggle, and when it has struggled, it has won the victory over the world; and yet it had won the victory over the world before it struggled. Thus faith becomes what it is. Faith is not an eternal struggle, but it is a victory that is struggling. Consequently, in faith that higher actuality of the spirit is not only becoming but is present, although it is also becoming. P. 319
  • [Solger] does have the negation of the negation, but still there is a veil in front of his eyes to that he does not see the affirmation. It is well known that he died at an early age. Whether he would have succeeded in carrying through the speculative ideas he seized with so much energy would instead have been consumed in maintaining the negation, I shall not decide at this point, but the thought that appeals to me most is that Solger was a sacrifice to Hegel’s positive system. P. 323

Irony as a Controlled Element, the Truth of Irony[edit]

  • When Shakespeare is related ironically to what he writes, it is precisely in order to let the objective dominate. Irony is now everywhere present; it sanctions every single line so that there will be neither too much nor too little, or order that everything can have its due, or order that the true balance may be achieved in the miniature world of the poem, whereby the poem has the center of gravity in itself. P. 324
  • The reason Goethe’s poet-existence was so great was that he was able to make his poet-life congruous with his actuality. In Goethe, irony was in the strictest sense a controlled element; it was a serving spirit to the poet. P. 325
  • Particularly in our age, irony must be commended. In our age, scientific scholarship has come into possession of such prodigious achievements that there must be something wrong somewhere; knowledge not only about the secrets of the human race but even about the secrets of God is offered for sale at such a bargain price today that it all looks very dubious. In our joy over the achievement of our age, we have forgotten that an achievement is worthless if it is not made one’s own. If our generation has any task at all, it must be to translate the achievement of scientific scholarship into personal life, to appropriate it personally. P. 327-328
  • Actuality will not be rejected, and longing will be a sound and healthy love, not a weak and sentimental sneaking out of the world. The romantic longing for something higher may well be genuine, but just as man must not separate what God has joined together, so man also must not join what God has separated, but a sickly longing such as this is simply a way of wanting to have the perfect prematurely. Therefore actuality requires its validity through action. P. 329
  • When irony is controlled, it no longer believes, as do certain shrewd people in everyday life, that there is always more than meets the eye; but it also prevents all idol worshiping of the phenomenon. And just as it teaches respect for contemplation, it also rescues it from the verbosity that believes that giving an exposition of world history should take as long a time as the world has needed to live through it. P. 329
  • The skepticism of humor is related to the skepticism of irony as ignorance is related to the old thesis: credo quia absurdum [I believe because it is absurd], but it also has a far deeper positivity, since it moves not in human but in the anthropological categories; it finds rest not by making man man but by making man God-man. P. 329

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