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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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Irony may be defined as the conflict of two meanings
which has a dramatic structure peculiar to itself: ini-
tially, one meaning, the appearance, presents itself as
the obvious truth, but when the context of this meaning
unfolds, in depth or in time, it surprisingly discloses
a conflicting meaning, the reality, measured against
which the first meaning now seems false or limited and,
in its self-assurance, blind to its own situation. Irony


“lies,” but it does so only as a dramatic means of
bringing two meanings into open conflict. Some
theorists assert that by encompassing this conflict in
a single structure, irony resolves it into harmony or
unity. The variable factors in the ironic structure are
the following:

(1) The degree of conflict between appearance and
reality ranges from the slightest of differences to dia-
metrical opposites.

(2) The field of observation in which irony may be
noticed ranges from the smallest semantic unit—e.g.,
a pun—to the cosmos. The most frequently used fields
are: the relation between one meaning located in words
and another meaning located either in the same words
or in their context—verbal irony; the relation between
an event or situation as interpreted from a limited
point of view and that event as interpreted with a
broader knowledge of the situation or of subsequent
events—called dramatic irony in literature, in life
called the irony of fate, God, events, things, etc.; the
relation between events and an observer's state of
mind—the ironic attitude, which may or may not
externalize itself as verbal irony, dramatic irony, or
the irony of fate.

(3) Irony usually has an author, who by analogy is
a superhuman power in some fields of observation; it
always has an audience, even if it is only the author
amusing himself; and a victim, who is deceived by
appearance and enlightened by reality, although an
author may turn himself into a pseudovictim.

(4) The aspects of irony may be analyzed as follows.
The variable factors here are the conception of reality,
the degree to which author and audience sympathize
or identify with the victim, and the fate of the victim—
triumph or defeat. Reality may be thought of by author
and (or) audience as reflecting their own values. In this
context, satiric irony reveals the defeat of an unsympa-
thetic victim; comic irony reveals the triumph of a
sympathetic victim. (Throughout this article, the word
comic refers primarily to a rise from defeat to triumph,
as in Dante's Divine Comedy.) At the other pole, reality
may be thought of as hostile to all human values. In
this context, triumph is impossible, defeat inevitable.
In tragic irony, sympathy for the victim predominates;
in nihilistic irony, satiric detachment counterbalances
or dominates sympathy, but a degree of identification
always remains since author and audience necessarily
share the victim's plight. Paradoxical irony balances
these two extremes. Everything is relative: reality in
part does and in part does not reflect human values;
author and audience fuse, or oscillate between, identi-
fication and detachment; comic triumph and tragic
defeat counterbalance each other, or the satiric norm
constantly shifts.

Although the idea of irony has undoubtedly appeared
under other names—e.g., Aristotle's peripeteia, Jean
Paul's and Pirandello's humor—little attempt has been
made to trace the idea apart from the term. The term
itself, after quickly shedding most of its original mean-
ing, has steadily extended itself from satiric and comic
irony through paradoxical irony to tragic and nihilistic
irony, and now encompasses all the meanings outlined
above. Frequently, during this history, the use of irony
has elicited intense ethical judgments, pro and con.

The most influential model in the history of irony
has been the Platonic Socrates. Neither Socrates nor
his contemporaries, however, would have associated
the word eironeia with modern conceptions of Socratic
irony. As Cicero put it, Socrates was always “pretend-
ing to need information and professing admiration for
the wisdom of his companion”; when Socrates' inter-
locutors were annoyed with him for behaving in this
way they called him eiron, a vulgar term of reproach
referring generally to any kind of sly deception with
overtones of mockery. The fox was the symbol of the

All serious discussions of eironeia followed upon the
association of the word with Socrates. These occurred
in two contexts, the ethical and the rhetorical. In ethics,
the field of observation was an habitual manner of
behaving, a type of human character, and here the
notion of irony as actual lying persisted, narrowed
however to understatement. “As generally under-
stood,” Aristotle said in the Ethics, “the boaster is a
man who pretends to creditable qualities that he does
not possess, or possesses in a lesser degree than he
makes out, while conversely the self-depreciator dis-
claims or disparages good qualities that he does possess.
Midway between them is the straightforward sort of
man” (iv. 7. 1-17). Aristotle recognized that under-
statement (eironeia) might have various degrees of
difference from the truth, including total denial of it.
Of the two evils defined, he preferred irony because
it was unostentatious. For Demosthenes and Theo-
phrastus the eiron was an even less respectable liar:
he understated his own powers specifically for the pur-
pose of escaping responsibility.

Although in the Ethics Aristotle (ibid.) had mentioned
“affected humbugs” whose “mock humility seems to
be really boastfulness,” a sentence that implied the full
structure of irony as a lie meant to reveal the truth,
it was in the rhetorical tradition that this structure
came to explicit definition. Here the field of observa-
tion was narrow, limited to the brief figure of speech.
As that, irony seemed ethically less censurable, and in
the Rhetoric Aristotle spoke of it as a “gentlemanly”
sort of jest. The full pattern was formulated by the
fourth century B.C. Rhetoric to Alexander: irony is


blame through praise and praise through blame. This
definition, by shifting attention from the logical content
of an ironic statement to the implied diametrically
opposed value judgments, opened the way to the later,
sometimes misleading formula that irony is saying the
“contrary” of what one means. Also, two aspects of
irony were implied by this definition: “to blame by
praise” is satiric irony; “to praise by blame” is comic
irony, for undesirable characteristics attributed to a
sympathetic victim draw the audience's attention to
his real virtues. Ariston pointed out that Socrates' way
of exalting his opponent while depreciating himself
exemplified the full pattern.

In the early eighteenth century, the omnipresence
of French and English satiric literature brought the
idea of irony, so called, out of the classroom into the
intellectual marketplace; during the intervening
twenty centuries it lived in, or on the edge of, rhetori-
cal theory, the two chief fountains of which were
Cicero and Quintilian. In Cicero Socratic irony first
became a completely admirable thing, which he dis-
tinguished into an isolated figure of speech and a per-
vasive habit of discourse. Generally speaking, these
were the limits of the field during the following cen-
turies. Quintilian, however, said that “a man's whole
life may be colored with irony, as was the case with
Socrates, who... assumed the role of an ignorant man
lost in wonder at the wisdom of others” (Institutio ix.
2. 44-53). For Quintilian this manner was an indication
and expression of goodness that was “mild” and

In the early eighteenth century the third earl of
Shaftesbury (d. 1713) also described a “soft irony”
“spread alike through a whole character and life.” Such
irony was more than an indication of goodness: it was
the expression of the perfect way of life to which
Shaftesbury aspired. Ethically, irony here reversed the
position it had held in the Aristotelian school, but
Shaftesbury was seeing irony in a modern way, from
the subjective angle of the individual soul rather than
from Aristotle's objective social angle, with the result
that Shaftesbury's emphasis fell on the mental attitude
of which the ironic manner was only the external
expression. The manner Shaftesbury described kept the
degree of opposition between praise and blame very
slight, avoiding satiric virulence or comic buffoonery:
it was a fusion of modest self-abnegation, gentle grav-
ity, and an apparent tolerance of all things behind
which hid reservations about all things. The reserva-
tions were there because for the Neo-Platonic Shaftes-
bury the only important reality was the spirit within,
which must tolerate but not be disturbed by the “im-
mediate changes and incessant eternal conversions,
revolutions of the world.” He himself might often be
the only audience aware of his irony and the world
might find him puzzling, but he lived “disinterested
and unconcerned,” accommodating all appearances to
his own mind and setting “everything in its due light.”
(See Knox, pp. 47-53, for a full discussion of Shaftes-
bury's conception.) Socrates was interpreted in this
modern way: he had been “a perfect character; yet
... veiled, and in a cloud... chiefly by reason of
a certain exquisite and refined raillery which belonged
to his manner, and by virtue of which he could treat
the highest subjects, and those of commonest capacity
... together,... both the heroic and the simple, the
tragic and the comic” (Characteristics [1714], I,
194-95). The critical norm of this subtly satiric attitude
toward the world was the absolute value contained in
the ironist's own mind; all other values were limited
and relative to one another.

Apart from Socrates, the rhetoricians thought of
irony, in Quintilian's terms, as either “trope,” a brief
figure of speech embedded in a straightforward context,
or “schema,” an entire speech or case presented in
language and a tone of voice that conflict with the
true situation. Understatement, which in Aristotle had
been limited to self-depreciation, spread out to include
any statement whose apparent meaning falls some
degree short of the reality, e.g., to say of a muscular
warrior, with comic irony, that he has “a reasonably
good arm.” At first called litotes or meiosis, such
understatement came to be called irony, at least by
the end of the sixteenth century. The comic irony of
praise through blame, which had also originated in
Socratic self-depreciation, remained a minor figure of
speech until the early eighteenth century, when in
England, at least, Swift, Pope, and their friends recog-
nized it as a delightful mode in which to write letters
and converse.

The abstract definition of irony as saying the “con-
trary” of what one means, the most popular formula
from Cicero and Quintilian on, led the rhetoricians and
others occasionally to extend the opposition beyond
praise and blame to logical contraries which might not
involve praise or blame, such as praeteritio and negatio.
Cicero had pointed out that some types of irony do
not say “the exact reverse of what you mean” but only
something “different.” Allegory also says something
“different” from what it means. Quintilian and later
rhetoricians classified irony as a type of allegory, but
Chambers' Cyclopaedia (1778-88) narrowed allegory
to exclude irony: “allegory imports a similitude be-
tween the thing spoken and intended; irony a con-
trariety between them.”

However, the dominant conception of irony so-
called was satiric blame through praise. The earliest
recognized strategies, derived from Socrates, were


direct praise of a victim for possessing good qualities
he lacks, and self-depreciation meant to imply such
praise. Quintilian pointed out that the real meaning
became evident to an audience “either by the delivery,
the character of the speaker or the nature of the sub-
ject” (Institutio viii. 6. 54-58). But he also remarked
that irony as trope might state both praise and blame
explicitly: e.g., “it is a fine thing to be a thief”—not,
“it is a fine thing to be honest.” He also illustrated
ironic concession, which exposes a victim's ideas by
echoing them with mock approval, and ironic advice,
which recommends that its victim continue to pursue
those foolish or vicious courses he is already pursuing.
The ironic defense was invented by Lucian.

Later rhetoricians recognized all these strategies as
irony, and when in the late seventeenth century and
the early eighteenth Boileau, Defoe, Swift, Pope, Vol-
taire, Fielding, and hosts of lesser pamphleteers and
periodical writers used these strategies cheek by jowl
the fallacious argument, the reductio ad absurdum,
parody, burlesque, and the fictitious character, these
other strategies also came to be called ironic. All
burlesque involving people degraded them to some
degree by caricature, but the author presented his
characters with mock sympathy and approval, height-
ened in “high” burlesque by elevated language.

When such ironic strategies expanded into fictional
narratives of some length—Swift's A Tale of a Tub,
Pope's The Dunciad, Fielding's Jonathan Wild and
Joseph Andrews—mid-century critics for the first time
defined the field of irony as the totality of an imagina-
tive work of art. Now recognizing that irony could
be a literary mode of major significance, they saw
Cervantes as the central model, flanked by Swift,
Lucian, Erasmus. Cervantes especially had shown how
to maintain an ironic manner throughout a long narra-
tive. R. O. Cambridge in the Preface to his Scribleriad
(1752), expressed the common view: “the author should
never be seen to laugh, but constantly wear that grave
irony which Cervantes alone has inviolably preserved.”
Talking about his own mock-heroic poem, Cambridge

To complete the design of mock-gravity, the author and
editors are represented full as great enthusiasts as the hero;
therefore, as all things are supposed to appear to them in
the same light as they do to him, there are several things
which they could not explain without laying aside their
assumed character.... Then how shall it be known whether
a burlesque writer means the thing he says or the contrary?
This is only to be found by attention and a comparison of

And Cambridge pointed out that all of his hero's great
expectations were “ironically given,” “for of all of the
many prophecies delivered to him, the only one ful
filled is that of his being reduced to a state of beggary
in his pursuit of alchemy.” Cambridge exhibits clearly
how the rhetorical idea of satiric irony had been ex-
tended by the impact of fictional narrative. The mock
sympathy with which ideas and opinions had been
presented in ironic concession, advice, defense, and the
like had become the grave presentation of character
and action; the reality, which in many of the rhetorical
ironies had been revealed by direct statement or
burlesque exaggeration, in narrative was now revealed
by the course of events: by dramatic irony.

In Germany, during the last years of the eighteenth
century and the first three decades of the nineteenth,
the ironies of Cervantes and Socrates collided with
transcendental philosophy, and irony entered its mod-
ern phase. Friedrich Schlegel's oracular pronounce-
ments (chiefly 1797-1800) led the way, but Friedrich's
brother A. W. Schlegel, who was clearer and whose
lectures On Dramatic Art and Literature (1808) were
widely translated, may have been more immediately
influential. In any case, most of literary Germany was
talking about irony in a new way. It became the central
principle of an aesthetic in the Erwin (1815) and later
writings of the philosopher K. W. F. Solger, and Hegel,
who before Solger's death was briefly his colleague,
related irony to his own dialectical system. An admirer
of Solger and student of Hegelianism, the expatriate
Heine helped to make the new ironies familiar in
France, and in England many of them appeared in an
essay “On the Irony of Sophocles” (1833) by Bishop
Connop Thirlwall, a student of German thought, and
an acquaintance and translator of Ludwig Tieck. Irony
finally became the subject of an academic thesis in
Søren Kierkegaard's Danish The Concept of Irony, with
Constant Reference to Socrates
(1841), which added
little to the complex of meanings that had developed.

Prior to the later eighteenth century, irony had
always been thought of as a weapon to be used in the
service of absolute human values derived from reality.
For the eighteenth century, speaking very generally,
this value had been “reason,” supposedly reflected in
the structure of the universe. Shaftesbury had found
a resting place in Neo-Platonism. The German theorists
of the new irony, however, found themselves in a
situation that has become familiar to the modern mind.
On the one hand, there seemed to be considerable
evidence that human values are only subjective and
sharply opposed to an external world that is chaotic,
inhumanly mechanistic, or ultimately unknowable, as
in the Kantian epistemology that pervaded Schlegel's
Germany. On the other hand, they could not relinquish
their faith that the values of the human spirit must
be substantiated somewhere. No longer able to turn
away from the immediate world to the certainty of


a Platonic or Christian or Deistic absolute, they turned
toward the flux of existence and human art, recognizing
that no “limited thing” could offer a resting place, yet
hoping that out of the complex interrelationships of
a wide-ranging experience something might emerge.

It occurred to Friedrich Schlegel, as it had to
Shaftesbury, that the best way for the mind to assert
its freedom from “limited things” had been discovered
by Socrates. Irony, which Schlegel sometimes called
“Socratic irony,” was “never-ending satire,” “continual
self-parody,” by means of which the spirit “raises itself
above all limited things,” even over its “own art, virtue,
or genius.” On the other hand, it was in those very
“things” that the spirit must now find itself. Conse-
quently, in Schlegel the grave tolerance of Shaftesbury's
ironic attitude opened outward to become “instinc-
tive,” “in earnest,” “naively open.” Irony was now,
paradoxically, an instrument of positive engagement
at the same time that it was an instrument of detach-
ment. Behind Schlegel's new formula seem to have
been Schiller's play theory of art and an analogy with
the theological idea of God as both immanent and
transcendent, especially in Fichte's post-Kantian,
idealist version.

The new ironic attitude quickly caught on in both
art and life. For Tieck, irony “saturates its work with
love, yet sweeps rejoicing and unfettered over the
whole” (Sedgewick, p. 16). In Shakespeare's ironic
attitude A. W. Schlegel found the same combination
of creative absorption and “cool indifference,” though
its mood was disillusioned: Shakespeare had seen
“human nature through and through” yet “soars freely
above it.” Goethe thought irony raises the mind “above
happiness or unhappiness, good or evil, death or life,”
from which height we may view our own “faults and
errors in a playful spirit”; even the scientist should
view his own discoveries ironically, for they are only
provisionally true.

The external manifestation of irony Friedrich
Schlegel located in an endless “tension of opposites.”
Satiric and comic irony had of course exhibited a
tension of opposites at just that moment when the
apparent meaning begins to give way to the real
meaning. For that moment both meanings are simulta-
neously before the eye in a precarious balance. Such
irony, however, had theoretically always resolved this
tension in favor of a real meaning. So, too, would the
nihilistic and tragic irony to come. But Schlegel did
not wish to resolve the tension in that direction. Noth-
ing is absolute, everything is relative. So irony became
“an incessant... alternation of two contradictory
thoughts,” the contradictory thoughts usually being
faith in some ideal human value on the one hand, and
on the other, assent to a less ideal reality; the “subjec
tive” versus the “objective.” At times Schlegel con-
ceived this tension as static, a fusion, as in some forms
of verbal irony; more often he described it as a move-
ment from one thought to another, as in dramatic
irony. The ironic author at first appears to engage
himself with one meaning—and in part really does so;
he then appears to destroy that meaning by revealing
and attaching himself to a contradictory meaning; this,
too, however, he also destroys, either by returning to
the first or moving on to a third, ad infinitum. Paradox-
ical irony is “self-creating alternation,” “self-criticism
surmounted.” And since such irony does postulate ap-
pearances that are in part real, but only in part,
Schlegel returned to the association of irony with

Two of Schlegel's chief models for paradoxical irony
in literature were Laurence Sterne, who could both
love and laugh at the creations of his imagination, and
Don Quixote, which Schlegel saw not simply as grave
satire but as an unresolved tension between satire and
genuine sympathy for the Don's ideals: “a charming
symmetry” produced by “rhythmical alternations be-
tween enthusiasm and irony.” In such phrases as this
the word irony retained its old force as satiric, but
elsewhere it spilled over to include the “enthusiasm,”
a natural extension since the structure of enthusiastic
commitment followed by satiric deflation paralleled on
the surface the structure of satiric praise followed by
blame. In this context as well, then, irony began to
take on its paradoxical sense.

After the Schlegels had announced the new irony,
Ludwig Tieck's early plays came to be seen as examples
of it. Setting out to satirize philistine prejudices, Tieck
had adopted the strategies of burlesque satire, as old
as Aristophanes, especially its destruction of a primary
fictional illusion by the “reality” of author, actors, even
audience stepping out of their normal roles to speak
as themselves, attacking each other and commenting
on the primary illusion itself, a device Tieck had also
been impressed by in the authorial intrusions of Cer-
vantes and Sterne. But Tieck became lost in endless
relativity. A character in The World Turned Topsy-
remarks: “This is too crazy! See, friends, we sit
here as spectators and see a play; in that play spectators
are also sitting and seeing a play, and in that third
play another play is going to be played by those third
actors.... People often dream that sort of thing” (Die
verkehrte Welt
[1799], end of Act III; trans. Thompson,
pp. 58-59).

Shakespeare too was an ironist on the new model,
both Friedrich and A. W. Schlegel decided. To demon-
strate this, it was necessary to find satiric elements in
what most people had supposed to be a predominantly
sympathetic presentation, as in Don Quixote enthusi-


asm had been found to counterbalance satire. Although
A. W. Schlegel barred irony when “the proper tragic
enters,” which demands “the highest degree of serious-
ness,” he found it everywhere else. In the results of
Henry V's marriage to the French princess, he saw
dramatic irony that cast a satiric light on Henry's
ambitions. Incongruous juxtapositions might be ironic:
comic scenes were often “intentional parody of the
serious part.” In his depiction even of “noble minds”
Shakespeare had revealed “self-deception” and hypoc-
risy. Such irony, A. W. Schlegel said, was a defense
against “overcharged one-sidedness in matters of fancy
and feeling.” He assumed that all intelligent people
were relativists: by constant ironic qualification
Shakespeare “makes a sort of secret understanding with
... the more intelligent of his readers or spectators;
he shows them that he had previously seen and admit-
ted the validity of their tacit objections” (Lectures on
Dramatic Art and Literature
[1809-11], trans. John
Black, rev. A. J. W. Morrison [1892], pp. 369-70).

Friedrich Schlegel thought that all good modern
literature would be ironic. But if its irony was to be
endlessly relative, where would the final values of a
modern work lie? In literature, as in life, they would
reside in the comprehensiveness of the author's activity:
a perfected work might be “limited at every point,”
but in its inclusion of all contradictions it would be
“without limitation and inexhaustible.” (For authorita-
tive discussions of and references to F. Schlegel's scat-
tered pronouncements, see Immerwahr, Wellek, and

Hegel was not impressed. Rather unfairly, he saw
the new irony of the Schlegels as entirely negative.
In literature it produced “insipid” characters having
“neither content nor defined position.” In life itself,
the Schlegelian ironist looked “down in his superior
fashion on all other mortals,” some of whom his ironic
gravity actually deceived; he denied and destroyed all
that was “noble, great, and excellent” in the interest
of freedom for the self; yet, because his freedom pro-
hibited positive action and led nowhere, he was beset
by morbid feelings of emptiness and boredom. In fact,
in opposing “self-will” to objective moral truth, “this
type of subjectivism... is evil through and through
and universally.” (Capel's translation of Kierkegaard,
Part II, Introduction, n. 7, gives a full list of references
to Hegel's comments on irony.)

Actually, of course, the Schlegels' irony had also an
objective side, one that was less reassuring, however,
than Hegel's objective moral truth. Friedrich had found
it “strikingly ironic” that Der grosse Maschinist behind
the chaos “finally discloses himself as a contemptible
betrayer.” In not quite so disillusioned a way, this
objective source of irony moved to the foreground in
Solger's aesthetic. In Solger's view, the human artist
created a beautiful work “just as the essence of God,
in its non-actuality, reveals itself intact as the very
core” of a human being. In both cases the idea inhabits
a particular “thing.” For Solger the situation was
ironic, because, on the one hand, although the “thing”
appeared to suggest the infinite, it was really only a
thing, and on the other hand, although the “infinite”
appeared to transcend the thing, it could not really
do so—it must inhabit finite reality. Schlegel's tension
of opposites had become the “concrete universal,” the
ironic symbol of a universe which intimated meanings
that could not be reached in an eternal form. But at
least in the artistic symbol “all contradictions annihi-
late themselves”: irony is a unifying structure.

“Without irony,” then, “there is no art.” Considering
the tension of opposites as moving rather than static,
Solger found that irony “begins with the contemplation
of the world's fate in the large”: “we suffer when we
see the most elevating and noble ideals dissipated
through their necessary earthly existence.” A. W.
Schlegel had barred irony from the “proper tragic,”
but for Solger satiric and “tragic irony” were simply
different aspects of the irony common to all art: in
the first, false ideals were destroyed; in the second,
admirable ones, and the audience is not detached: “we
suffer.” Although the dominant movement in both
satiric and tragic irony was toward defeat, Solger saw
an opposing comic movement arising out of destruc-
tion, as had Friedrich Schlegel in his “self-creating
alteration.” The very moment that breaks the brief
union of idea and thing affirms both the value of the
idea and the necessity of its embodiment. When Ham-
let dies, Fortinbras must appear. (For discussions of and
references to Solger's statements about irony, see
Wellek, Mueller, pp. 225-26, Sedgewick, p. 17, and

Solger's version of irony Hegel accepted as a phase
of his own famous dialectic, though it was only one
phase: “that transition point which I call the infinite
absolute negativity.” For Hegel Socratic irony was
negative dialectic. Socrates' humble questioning had
induced his interlocutor to state a definite proposition,
from which Socrates then derived in one way or an-
other “the direct opposite of what the proposition
stated.” In this conception, Socrates' irony was not so
much mocking praise as dramatic irony in which ideas
played the roles characters and events play in fiction.
“Socratic irony..., like all dialectic, gives force to
what is taken immediately, but only in order to allow
the dissolution inherent in it to come to pass.” Since
in the Hegelian system dialectic was deified as his-
torical process, Hegel spoke of the negative moment
in dialectic as “the universal irony of the world” (Lec


tures on the History of Philosophy, trans. E. S. Haldane
[1892], I, 400). And although he thought Solger's use
of the phrase “tragic irony” was arbitrary, he himself
called Socrates' “opposition of subjective reflection to
morality as it exists” a “tragic irony,” meaning, in
Kierkegaard's interpretation, “the irony of the world
with Socrates.”

It soon became commonplace to think of the field
of irony as life itself, and of mankind as the victim
of a cosmic author. Heine spoke casually of the irony
of God, the world, nature, fate, and even chance. The
red cheeks of the elderly A. W. Schlegel, a parody of
youth, were a “healthy irony of nature”; the incongru-
ous juxtaposition of a Gothic cathedral with modern
buildings was ironic. An “ironic remark” might now
be, not in itself mocking, but simply the straight-
forward observation of an ironic fact.

Bishop Connop Thirlwall, who believed in a just god,
spelled out the two movements of irony, both in life
and in Sophocles. In our personal lives we eagerly
pursue objects which prove worthless; but we also
dread changes which fulfill our “most ardent wishes.”
In history “the moment of highest prosperity...
immediately precedes the most ruinous disaster”; but
the destruction of Greece spread Greek culture through
the Roman world, the destruction of Rome was fol-
lowed by Christianity. In Oedipus the King there is
“the contrast between the appearance of good and the
reality of evil”; Oedipus at Colonus “reverses that
irony,” for Oedipus can here say, “Now, when all's
lost, I am a man indeed.” Though he used only the
term “tragic irony,” Thirlwall, apparently following
Solger, extended the conception of irony into both
tragic and comic situations in which the detachment
of irony was overcome by sympathy for the victim.
But the satiric aspect did not totally disappear; it
remained as a qualification of the dominant feeling.
Clytemnestra's “vindication of her own conduct...
assumes a tone of self-mockery,” but “when we re-
member that, while she is pleading, her doom is sealed,
and that the hand which is about to execute it is already
lifted above her head,” the tone becomes “deeply

In his discussion of ambiguous language in Sophocles'
tragedies, Thirlwall apparently established the associa-
tion of the term “Sophoclean irony” with dialogue that
means one thing to the speaker, another to author and
audience, whose view of the situation is wider and
truer. This sort of thing had been recognized as a
common form of irony in satiric narrative; Thirlwall
simply extended the field to tragedy. He also pointed
out a type of tragedy that contains an ironic dilemma,
such as the conflict of Antigone and Creon, “in which
good and evil are... inextricably blended on each
side.” The audience exhibits “a slight cast of irony in
the grave, respectful attention impartially bestowed.”
But Thirlwall admitted that it was sometimes easier
for God to preserve such an attitude than it was for
humans. When “we review the mockery of fate, we
can scarcely refrain from a melancholy smile” (Philo-
logical Museum,
Cambridge [1832-33], II, 483-537).

Whether as the questing romantic ego, the progress
of world history, or a just god of some sort, the theorists
of paradoxical irony had found a hopeful movement
which preserved the balance of triumph and defeat.
This was seen either as a human satiric norm counter-
balancing an inhuman one, or as a comic movement
counterbalancing the tragic. But when even these faiths
receded, as for some nineteenth- and twentieth-century
minds they did, the comic movement came to seem
entirely deceptive, and the norm of satire became
reduced to Nothing. Human values are only illusions.
One result of this loss of faith was increasing notice
of tragic irony. The other was that the idea of irony
as counterbalancing sympathy with detachment began
to isolate from the complex of paradoxical irony what
may be called nihilistic irony, that peculiar merging
of the satiric and the tragic adumbrated in Thirlwall's
“melancholy smile.”

This view of irony became prominent in Heine, who
“is repelled by the cold stars, and sinks down...
toward our little earth.” God “is sometimes a greater
satirist than Tieck.” In the “humoristic irony” of Don
the “insane dignity” of the Don is made ridic-
ulous by “fate,” yet that ridiculous fate shows us the
“tragedy of our own nothingness.” Shakespeare's
Troilus and Cressida “is neither comedy nor tragedy
... there prevails in it an exultant bitterness, a world-
mocking irony, such as we never met in the merriment
of the comic muse. It is the tragic goddess who is very
much more before us in this play, only that she here
would fain be gay for once, and move to mirth. It is
as if we saw Melpomene at a grisette ball, dancing the
chahut, bold laughter on her pale lips and death in
her heart.” (See Wellek, Vol. III, for references to
Heine's comments on irony.)

As the nineteenth century wore on, the new ironies
gradually moved to center stage. At the turn of the
century Anatole France and Thomas Hardy especially
were drawing the attention of a large audience to
irony. By 1908 Alexander Blok could observe, “All the
most lively and sensitive children of our century are
stricken by a disease”—irony (quoted in Glicksberg,
p. 3). In the 1920's France's “irony and pity” became
a catch phrase. H. W. Fowler (1926) announced that
“the irony of fate” was hackneyed, and I. A. Richards
(1924) began that preoccupation with irony among
English and American academic critics which has


helped to make it a central idea in literary criticism
throughout the world.

Tragic irony quickly established itself as an inde-
pendent aspect of irony, and G. G. Sedgewick has
asserted that it does not qualify the tragic feeling: “it
heightens the sense of pity and terror.” Paradoxical and
nihilistic irony have had a harder time disentangling
themselves from each other, much to the confusion of
criticism. The balanced relativism of paradoxical irony
is clearly the core of Kierkegaard's “mastered irony,”
the “philosophical irony” of Renan and France, Henry
James's “full irony,” the “objective irony” of Thomas
Mann, Richards' “balance of opposed impulses,”
William Empson's “double irony,” Cleanth Brooks' “a
very different conception of irony,” and A. Zahareas'
analysis (1963) of irony in Camus as nihilism counter-
balanced by a stubborn determination to go on (Texas
Studies in Literature and Language,
5, 319-28).

As an attitude toward life, paradoxical irony has been
both praised and attacked. F. Paulhan (1909) argued
at philosophical length that all moral values are rela-
tive and only the ironic attitude can give proportional
weight to the demands of both society and the ego.
Nietzsche thought the ironic attitude a sign of health
(Beyond Good and Evil, 1886). The American Ran-
dolph Bourne (1913) believed that since the ironist does
not absolutely reject any experience but is constantly
contrasting and criticizing and moving on to new ex-
periences, he has an “intense feeling of aliveness” and
“the broad honest sympathy of democracy” (Atlantic
111, 357-67). Attacks on this attitude have
all resembled Hegel's attack on Schlegelian ethics:
there is no absolute commitment to anything. So H.
Chantavoine (1897) and H. Chevalier (1932) attacked
Anatole France, Wayne Booth (1961) the elusive mo-
rality of modern novelists, and Jean-Paul Sartre
adopted the ironic attitude as a model for analyzing
self-deception or mauvaise foi (L'être et le néant, 1943).

The German romantics had tried to locate the unity
and morality of paradoxical irony in its comprehen-
siveness, but, as J. C. Ransom (1941) observed, “oppo-
sites can never be said to be resolved or reconciled
merely because they have been got into the same
poem.” Several American critics have attempted to
solve this problem in a Hegelian way by seeing para-
doxical irony not as the expression of absolute relativ-
ism, but as a dynamic learning process which produces
tentative results. For Randolph Bourne irony was “the
science of comparative experience” which “compares
things not with an established standard but with each
other”: values “slowly emerge from the process.”
Cleanth Brooks, R. P. Warren, and Kenneth Burke have
taken much the same position.

The quite different pattern of nihilistic irony has
emerged elsewhere. In 1856 George Eliot commented
on Heine's “strain of irony that repels our sympathy.
... Yet what strange, deep pathos is mingled with the
audacity” (Westminster Review, n. s. 9, 1-33). The full
pattern—a conception of reality as denying human
values and the mingling of something like satiric
detachment with something like tragic pathos—is evi-
dent in a number of Baudelaire's uses of the word; in
turn-of-the-century criticism of Laforgue's irony by
Arthur Symons, Remy de Gourmont, and James
Huneker; in discussions of the “cosmic irony” of Hardy
and Housman; in Georges Palante's “metaphysical
principle of irony”; in Irving Babbitt's notion of “ro-
mantic irony,” a term that F. Schlegel had used only
in his Notebooks but which has been frequently used
by German scholars since Rudolf Haym's Romantische
(1870); in Morton Gurewitch's “European ro-
mantic irony,” which he traces through Byron, Heine,
Grabbe, Büchner, Leopardi, Flaubert, and Baudelaire;
and in notice of the irony of the Absurd, frequent since
World War II.

Many critics have commented on the despair and
self-pity which nihilistic irony both expresses and in-
duces, even at its most detached extreme. Discussing
Madame Bovary, Flaubert insisted on his absolute
ironic detachment as author; nevertheless, he expected
the realism of his method to produce in his audience
some identification with the characters, and he himself
recognized, as Kenneth Burke remarked, a “funda-
mental kinship with the enemy.” Waiting for Godot
was farcical vaudeville, yet Ward Hooker (1960)
pointed out that the play's “irony in a vacuum” had
changed the “laughter of the audience... to sickening
doubt... which spreads from the addled minds of
Vladimir and Estragon to engulf the audience”
(Kenyon Review, 22, 436-54). Few moral critics have
risen to praise nihilistic irony, many to attack it: it
is absolute for negation and despair.

The various types of satiric irony have been exhaus-
tively analyzed by twentieth-century critics. In “The
New Irony: Sicknicks and Others” (1961) Benjamin
De Mott described a satiric irony based on nihilism as
a positive norm, in the sense that it supplies a reason
not for defeat and despair but for the ironist's ar-
rogantly superior, ironic attack on “all positive asser-
tion.” Comic irony has apparently received almost no
attention as an independent aspect of irony, and the
term itself has usually meant what is here called satiric
irony. What little attention it has received has been
as part of an overall complex of dramatic irony, which
has been repeatedly analyzed in tragic drama by
English and American critics following Thirlwall.
Henry James drew attention to a novelistic form of
dramatic irony: the difference between what an un-


reliable narrator or center of consciousness understands
in what he tells or sees and what the author and audi-
ence understand.

In the field of verbal irony, the analytic methods of
rhetoric have been revived and intensified in the criti-
cal practice of William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, and
their followers, now equipped with all the new ideas
of irony as well as the old. Such criticism has found
ironic incongruity in the minutest degree of difference
between meanings. For Brooks, “every word in a good
poem acknowledges to some degree the pressure of
the context” and is therefore ironic. In France,
Vladimir Jankélévitch (1936) had asserted much the
same argument in terms of irony as allegory: all lan-
guage, indeed, is more or less allegorical. R. S. Crane
(1952) observed that in this sense even a mathematical
equation is ironic.

In Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious (1905),
Freud, thinking of verbal irony as satiric, asserted that
in the listener such irony produces “comic pleasure,
probably by causing him to make preparations for
contradiction, which are immediately found to be un-
necessary.” That is, the audience of satiric irony reacts
as would the victim of comic irony. Thinking of irony
as paradoxical, Richards, although not entirely satisfied
with a “switchboard” psychology, located the satis-
faction of the audience in a static “balance of opposed
impulses.” In regard to the author, Freud asserted that
irony as saying the opposite of what one means paral-
lels the dream, which “delights in representing a pair
of opposites by means of one and the same composite
image” or “changes an element from the dream-
thoughts into its opposite.” This notion seems to have
been behind Norman Brown's “law of irony” by which
it could be shown that the “partially disclaimed
thought is Swift's own thought” (Life Against Death,
1959), and Norman Holland's definition of irony as “a
defense mechanism in which the ego turns the object
of a drive into its opposite” (Dynamics of Literary

Irony has continued to appear in fields of observation
outside literature. It has been analyzed in music and
the visual arts, notably by Ortega y Gasset (1925),
Jankélévitch, and Muecke. Goethe's observation that
the truths of science should be viewed ironically has
reoccurred, and Heisenberg's Principle of Indetermin-
acy has reinforced it for Muecke and Arthur Miller:
it is “dialectical irony that the act of measurement itself
changes the particle being measured” (Collected Plays,
1957). In the field of politics, the attitude of paradoxical
irony has been recommended by Proudhon (Confes-
sions d'un révolutionnaire,
1849), Palante (1906),
Mann (1918), and Reinhold Niebuhr (1952): it frees the
political activist from fanatical attachment to any one
cause, thereby keeping the door to progress open. Both
Niebuhr and Kenneth Burke have used paradoxical
irony as a model for analyzing history. Niebuhr revived
the Christian view of Thirlwall—God “resisteth the
proud and giveth grace to the humble”; Burke took
the Hegelian position that history is an ironic dialectic
in which no cultural movement ever disappears—only
the balance changes (Grammar of Motives, 1945).

The most important recent theory of irony is that
of Northrop Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism (1957)
absorbed virtually all the available ideas of irony into
a total structure of human thought and vision. Even
here, however, satiric irony was not clearly distin-
guished from comic irony.


G. G. Sedgewick, Of Irony Especially in Drama (Toronto,
1948), contains an historically oriented review of the mean-
ings of the word irony, including the Greek and the Latin.
N. Knox, The Word “Irony” and Its Context, 1500-1755
(Durham, N.C., 1961), deals with developments in England.
R. Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism, 5 vols. (New
Haven, 1955—), gives consistent attention to irony as a topic
in European literary criticism, with full references. D. C.
Muecke, The Compass of Irony (London, 1969), contains
an excellent bibliography. Also: W. C. Booth, The Rhetoric
of Fiction
(Chicago, 1961); C. I. Glicksberg, The Ironic
Vision in Modern Literature
(The Hague, 1969), to be used
with caution; R. Immerwahr, “The Subjectivity or Objec-
tivity of Friedrich Schlegel's Poetic Irony,” Germanic Re-
26 (1951), 173-91; V. Jankélévitch, L'Ironie (Paris,
1936; rev. ed., 1950), a suggestive study; S. Kierkegaard,
The Concept of Irony, trans. L. M. Capel (New York, 1965);
G. E. Mueller, “Solger's Aesthetics—A Key to Hegel (Irony
and Dialectic),” in Corona, ed. A. Schirokauer and W.
Paulsen (Durham, N.C., 1941), pp. 212-27; I. Strohschneider-
Kohrs, DieRomantische Ironie in Theorie und Gestaltung
(Tübingen, 1960); A. R. Thompson, The Dry Mock: A Study
of Irony in Drama
(Berkeley, 1948); David Worcester, The
Art of Satire
(Cambridge, Mass., 1940).


[See also Allegory; Art and Play; Comic Sense; Rhetoric
after Plato; Satire; Style; Tragic Sense.]