Irony as the Form of Wisdom, and Its Limit -- W. Clark Gilpin

Irony is one of the principal forms of wisdom, as wisdom has been understood in world philosophical and spiritual traditions.  Among the contributions of irony to wisdom traditions, perhaps the most important has been its counsel of humility with respect to human purposes, achievements, and ideals

By W. Clark Gilpin|October 16, 2014

Irony is one of the principal forms of wisdom, as wisdom has been understood in world philosophical and spiritual traditions. 
Among the contributions of irony to wisdom traditions, perhaps the most important has been its counsel of humility with respect to human purposes, achievements, and ideals. Ironic wisdom has played on the way human expectations are confounded or reversed by the course of events, and it has drawn insight from circumstances that proved different from what they initially appeared to be. 

Part of the iconic wisdom of Socrates consisted in the pretended ignorance that was a teaching device of his dialogues (“Socratic irony”). And the apostle Paul was neither the first nor the last in the Western religious traditions to propose that authentic wisdom confounds human pretensions to wisdom: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor. 1: 27). Irony is both the form of wisdom, and its limit.

Sociological inquiries into irony have produced cautionary observations on the social function of ironic language. According to these scholars, if irony is a figure of speech in which what is to be understood is contrary to what is said, then ironic speech creates solidarity among members of an in-group that “gets” the irony, and it isolates those who do not understand the irony or who take the speech literally. 

Furthermore, ironic speech effectively distances the speaker from the misfortunes of those caught in the web of unanticipated consequences; irony betokens moral detachment. Hence, there are “moral hazards” to the employment of irony. It may produce a sense of superiority rather than wisdom. 

At the same time, literary scholars have recognized that narrative fiction, especially, may compose a more humane irony, one that accentuates the recognition that the human spirit is not untrammeled but is conditioned and limited by circumstances.

In this vein, Lionel Trilling remarked of the novels of Jane Austen that Austen’s irony is primarily “a method of comprehension. It perceives the world through an awareness of its contradictions, paradoxes, and anomalies. It is by no means detached. It is partisan with generosity of spirit—it is on the side of ‘life.’” 

Trilling’s comments on narrative irony direct our attention away from ironic speech toward what is usually termed historical irony or the irony of circumstances. These are cases in which the outcome of unfolding events is contrary to what might have been anticipated. 

Historical irony calls attention to the dramatic or fateful turn of events, in which rational purposes and high ideals are thwarted or brought to surprising result and human inventions perform functions contrary to their design. Instances of historical irony, in which the consequences of an act prove to be diametrically opposed to the actor’s original intent, provide occasions for the exercise of ironic wisdom as a form of critical public judgment.  

In American public life, ironic wisdom has particularly taken rise from occasions of historical irony. This ironic mode of wisdom is famously present in Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.  Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has his own purposes.

In the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic appraisal of American policy during the Cold War, The Irony of American History, historical irony in the style of Lincoln became Niebuhr’s principal instrument of analysis. 

Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous. . . . If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits—in all such cases the situation is ironic.

At our present moment in global history, when American power has exceeded the capacity of that very power to manage the nation’s international obligations, it is perhaps time to return to Niebuhr’s project and develop a clearer understanding of the cultural history of ironic wisdom in the United States. Such a project would require careful reappraisal of the claims of American public oratory, both religious and political (categories that in the United States have conspicuously overlapped). It would recognize that “our dreams of bringing the whole of human history under the control of the human will” are ironically refuted by “recalcitrant forces in the historical drama” that have “a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.” And it would recall that “ironic existence,” in the tradition of Socrates and Paul, counsels humility not only about our capacity to accomplish our ideals but also about the validity and consequences of the ideals themselves.


For more about University of Chicago research on the concept of wisdom, consult

Diggins, John Patrick. Why Niebuhr Now? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Dillon, George L. Rhetoric as Social Imagination: Explorations in the Interpersonal Function of Language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Lear, Jonathan. A Case for Irony. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. New York: Scribner, 1952.
Trilling, Lionel. The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. Wieseltier, L., editor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
Widmer, Ted, editor. American Speeches. 2 Volumes. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2006.

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore / flickr creative commons.

523c930c-3921-4f25-b94b-55e18a76d3d5.jpgAuthor, W. Clark Gilpin, (Ph.D., University of Chicago) is Margaret E. Burton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity and Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Gilpin, 2000-2004 Director of the Marty Center, is serving as 2014-2015 Interim Director. His most recent book, Religion Around Emily Dickinson (Penn State University Press, 2014) focuses on Dickinson's poetry as a lens through which to view religious thought, practice, and imagination in 19th Century America.