By James V. Schall S.J.
Irony is a flourishing topic of study today in many academic circles. Indeed, academia itself is one of the prime subjects for irony — no one today, for instance, would simply accept without amusement the notion that the academy is where you find unvarnished truth in our society. Almost everyone has heard of the rigid closure to truth that is found throughout the universities. The very title of Allan Bloom's now famous, but hardly attended to, book, The Closing of the American Mind, is ironical, as befits a good student of Plato. It is simply amusing and bitter-sweet that a book on the status of the open university would portray its mind as precisely "closed."
In the Selected Essays of Belloc (Penguin), we find an essay, "On Irony." It is a remarkable essay. Indeed it is the justification of irony as a legitimate but dangerous tool in the pursuit of truth itself. We sometimes have to speak the truth over the heads of someone who will not listen, but it is not irony unless there is some third party, even if it is God, who does listen to the implied, hence ironical, truth.
Take for instance that passage from the Declaration of Independence about self-evident truths among which is that all men have a right to life. Our judges, politicians, and reporters may well cite this passage with great solemnity as if this obvious principle is one quite widely accepted in our society. The very reciting of the passage is ironical in a society where millions are legally killed and the lives of many others constantly in jeopardy. A Pope will say, on the contrary, that we live in a culture of death. He speaks no irony.
"It is the intention of irony," Belloc tells us, "that it should do good, because it is of the nature of irony that it should avenge the truth." How does it do this avenging? Irony intends to inflict a wound. It points out to someone, anyone, the breach not only between what we say and what we do, but between what we do and what is right. Irony cannot be used with any "propriety except in God's service." Thus Belloc thinks that if we are morally compromised, we will not see ourselves as we are. We will have no criterion against which to see our depths. "The history of Letters is full of men who, tempted by this or that, by money or by ease, or by random friendship, or by some appetite lower than the hunger and thirst after justice, have found their old strong irony grow limp and fruitless after they had sold their souls." What a remarkably powerful sentence that is — limp and fruitless men who have sold their souls!
Irony seems to be for men of the world. It is a strange virtue, if virtue it is. "To the young, the pure, and the ingenuous, irony must always appear to have in it a quality of something evil, and so it has, for ... it is a sword to wound. It is so directly the product or reflex of evil that, though it can never be used — nay, can hardly exist — save in the chastisement of evil, yet irony always carries with it some reflections of the bad spirit against which it was directed." The "ironical man" — Socrates was said to be such — was often seen by his listeners to be mean-spirited or merely jesting with them. They did not grasp the truth he was indicating.
Belloc understands irony to be a primary weapon to "defend right against wrong." Indeed, the "bad spirit" that irony seems to take over from the evil it attacks would suggest that we should not use it. Yet, Belloc says, "how false it is to say that vengeance and the hatred of the evil men are in themselves evil, all human history can prove." This sentence needs sorted out. Vengeance, the requiting of an evil in the name of justice, the hatred of evil men, that is, the hatred of what they do, is not itself evil. Belloc appeals to the common sense and practice of mankind as witness. A society or people that bear absolutely no anger at evil done to the good or innocent, that has nothing but praise for the evil that men do, is itself a corrupt society that can feel nothing of the divine wrath, nothing of the divine criterion of right and good.
This is heady doctrine, Belloc knows. "A happy world, such as the world of children, or any society of men who have still preserved the general health of the soul — such a society may be found in many mountain valleys — needs none of this salt for the curing and the preservation of morals." But most societies are filled with the evil that occasions irony, from the poets and the old men who have known some wisdom.
But, perhaps too close to home, what about a generally corrupt society, one that enacts the violations of the commandments as its good deeds, as its rights? "There is a last use for irony, or rather a last aspect of it, which this general irony of nature and nature's God suggests: I mean that irony which can only appeal in the letters of a country where corruption has gone so far that the mere truth is vivid with ironical power." We can live in a society in which even the statement of the Commandments is ironical, since their very statement speaks against what is going on everywhere.
Belloc concludes with a penetrating sentence: "No man possessed of irony and using it has lived happily; nor has any man possessing and using it died without having done great good to his fellows and secured a singular advantage to his own soul." No doubt there is something autobiographical in these powerful lines of Belloc. He did not suffer fools lightly, but he did enjoy them. But he hated evil and was not afraid to call it such, even when he had to speak ironically about it, even when, even today, when we read him, we see that he speaks to God when he refuses to call evil anything other than it is.
Belloc did not live a happy life in many ways. But he did great good to his fellows and secured a "singular advantage to his own soul" because the evil in things was not allowed to pass unspoken. "How false it is to say that vengeance and the hatred of evil men are in themselves evil." What Belloc added to the normal wounds that irony is intended to inflict on evil doings is wit and laughter, the two things the mind in moral and intellectual error can least stand to hear directed to itself.
From Schall on Belloc (Unpublished, 1997).
Read On Irony by H. Belloc here.