Irony and The Human Condition
One problem with Jimmy Dore and some other political comics is that they aren’t ironic. Dore’s humor is like slapstick, that is, like a slap in the face as if intended to wake us up to what is going on. But there is also irony, another form of humor, and one employed by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and even Machiavelli. It has been contended that each of these political philosophers embraced irony, and insofar as this is true, we may ask how irony illuminates the human condition.
Pascal wrote in his Pensees that the political writings of Plato and Aristotle should be read as comedy, as irony because both knew that trying to reform the political world is like trying to bring order into a madhouse. That is, perhaps irony and its uses reflects the unredeemable character of the human condition. That is, irony is appropriate because attempts to politically redeem the human condition are bound to fail. It might even be said that irony is appropriate because of what may be called the nihilistic character of the human condition. And one of the most common human thoughts, one of the most common human endeavors is to reform or redeem the human condition via politics. But what if any attempt to redeem the human condition politically is bound to fail? Or, even worse, what if any such attempt will, most often, make the human condition worse?
Playing with these ideas about irony, if we read Plato and Aristotle as recommended by Pascal, as ironical, then their political teachings may be characterized as warnings. For example, Plato’s Republic becomes a warning about the dangers of trying to politically redeem the human condition because it would involve such policies as arranging marriages by some mathematical formula – a formula no one has ever been able to make sense of – or communism among the guardians or even the rule of philosophers as kings. If Pascal is correct, Plato did not intend these recommendations seriously; rather, he intended them, and perhaps even intended Socrates himself, as pedagogical, as meant to illuminate the character of politics, of the political life.
Reading Aristotle in the same ironical way, how likely is it that Aristotle seriously understood as true his first account of the origin of the polis, of political communities; an account that simply assumes that when men and women come together originally, they do so for the sake of marriage and procreation. This leads to households being formed, which include slaves whose origin is not revealed. The account is so simplistic, so ironical – I mean when I met a woman I found attractive, I wasn’t thinking about marriage and children – that it invites one to think about the origin of political communities in other ways. After all, Aristotle certainly understood that it wasn’t only men and women who come together intimately and that the coming together of “same sex” partners must be taken into account in forming any polis. And, of course, Aristotle’s best regime includes slavery of the unjust variety because, among other things, those who are justly held as slaves are worthless as helpmates.
Even Machiavelli may be read this way, as ironical. When so read, it could seem that Machiavelli’s bold, shocking endorsements of cruelty, his “shock and awe” tactics, are warnings about the requirements of trying to politically redeem the human condition. They are pedagogical, meant to illuminate the character of politics, and not practical recommendations meant to be implemented. And the worth of his warnings may be said to be confirmed by the rise of “Machiavellians,” who because they think Machiavelli embraced inhuman cruelty, would have made Machiavelli chuckle and ask, “Are they nuts?” That Machiavelli was capable of such irony is made clear by his comedy La Mandragola.
So why irony? Because It both disguises and reveals. It disguises the nihilistic character of the human condition, thereby not being subversive of that most common of human endeavors, politics. Even if political life is like life in a madhouse, it is still necessary to make that madhouse as orderly, as humain as possible. But irony is also revealing; it reveals the nihilistic character of the human condition. That is, it reveals in a comedic way the emptiness, the madness of the political life. But this revelation is not open to all and because of the character of irony, this conclusion about the human condition can be and will be disputed.
Many, even most, don’t chuckle nearly enough when reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to say nothing of his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. There are not a few people who think that Twain genuinely admired Joan of Arc and thought her more than qualified for her sainthood, to say nothing of those who would make, on the basis of A Connecticut Yankee, Twain a supporter of what is now called “neo-liberalism.” And if you look at an institution like the British hereditary aristocracy ironically, you can’t help but chuckle at this attempt to paper over the nihilistic character of the human condition, as Twain did in A Connecticut Yankee. I would even say that people don’t chuckle nearly enough when reading Jane Austen, especially those who want to turn her into a modern-day feminist or a defender of what are called “traditional family values.” Austen chuckled and causes alert readers to chuckle at the “traditional family values” that underlay British society, to say nothing of its imperialism. She even made an anal sex joke about “admirals and rear admirals” in one of her novels [look it up].
Taking for granted momentarily the nihilistic character of the human condition and the limits of politics to overcome that character, what is the best option for humans? Well, here irony teaches us that best alternative is a kind of levity, a lightheartedness or, ala’ Jane Austen, genuine erotic attachments, in a word, romance or love. But whatever the case, the best options for humans are not available in politics, in the political arena, in a political life. And this seems to be a recurring theme running through the very best writers. I call it the “hedonistic alternative.” By this I mean that life should be looked at as a spiritual adventure, experienced in fellowship with other such adventurers, some of whom you may even be intimate with, even ala’ Jane Austen marry.
David Graeber, in his book Bullshit Jobs, points out that what he calls “playful sadomasochism” is superior to the kind of sadomasochism found in our corporate capitalism and its jobs because the playful sadomasochists have “safe words,” which of course are unavailable against your boss or the corporation you “work” for. Again, a private life devoted to pleasure seems superior to whatever is available in the public realm, whether that be the corporate world or the political world. But, as the long-running show, Seinfeld, illustrated so well, a private life is no guarantee against a narcissism that is, in the final analysis, quite despicable – as illustrated by the last episode of Seinfeld.
To conclude: Generally, the
serious, the un-ironic may be dangerous human beings because, being un-ironic,
they aren’t aware of their and our condition. They are not aware of the
limitations of politics and seek to create “new world orders” of one kind or
another. But irony recommends that we chuckle at them. As Tom Robbins put it in
one of his novels: If only the Germans had been able to laugh at Hitler’s beer
house rant and had pelted him with sausage skins, the holocaust might have been
avoided. [Look it up.]