Kierkegaard and the power of irony: how to know more by knowing less

Two weavers, both cunning with an eye on royal gold, are devising a plan. The Emperor is searching for a new, decadent set of clothes, one which will separate his valiant power from any other citizen or noble in the land. But the weavers are not men of means — they can’t spin gold thread or purchase the luscious dyes.

That’s where the plan turns devilish. The weavers convince the Emperor they’ve created a garment out of beautiful invisible thread, a robe so pristine it can only be seen by the wisest. He doubts them, but not wanting to appear unwise himself, goes along with their ruse. They meet him for a fitting and he’s sent to a procession for all his subjects to see. At first, the citizens don’t know how to react. Is he so foolish as to be naked before everyone? Who could be duped by such a con? Yet in fear of appearing stupid before the noblemen, the crowd believes in the invisibility of the Emperor’s new clothes.

It’s a tale of cunning, but more than that it’s a story of knowledge and social dogma. Hans Christian Andersen, the story’s author, wrote it as an exposé of the new bourgeois Danish culture flourishing in Denmark’s golden era. Everyone can clearly see the emperor is naked — and yet, what are the subjects to do? If they laugh, they’re admitting ignorance and stupidity; if they admire, they’re safeguarding their superior intellect. Go with the crowd and you too shall prove your ‘wisdom,’ Andersen was telling his readers. Even if the crowd is wrong.

Illustration for “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen (Wikimedia Commons)

Kierkegaard and Socrates

A young Soren Kierkegaard would have been in his mid-twenties when the story was published in 1837. He might have understood the irony of the situation: an Emperor and his people, duped into believing one could weave an invisible robe, accept their own myth for the sake of appearing wise.

It might have been a familiar story on the lips of many in Copenhagen. Kierkegaard’s father, a wool trader struggling into the upper crust, might have thought of buying a copy for his children. That is, if fortune had favored them.

Soren was the youngest of seven children, all of whom died (save Soren and his older brother). The Kierkegaards’ mother passed away when they were young as well, which led his father to believe he’d never have a child who would outlive him. He accepted it was a curse from God.

While Soren survived, the curse took root. As he grew, it was difficult for Kierkegaard to make friends; he had a series of physical ailments that resulted in a limp he offset with a cane. He initially attended the School of Civic Virtue, a school for the up-and-coming bourgeois children of Denmark. It was a privilege to study the Greek, Hebrew, and Latin classics — yet Kierkegaard grew depressed in his isolation, becoming more disillusioned with the world as told by naked emperors.

It was here, with the classics as his guide, that Kierkegaard came across his greatest influence: Socrates.

Of particular attraction was Socrates’ persistent questioning, which he used to poke holes in the logic of various Athenian figures. This was resonant to the young Soren, who struggled to keep friends because of his bitingly sharp wit.

A good example: when a teacher asked him what he wanted to be once he was older, he replied with a fork — “then I could spear anything I wanted at the dinner table.” If only Socrates’ metaphor was as appealing as a fork; the philosopher proudly considered himself a “gadfly,” a pestilent insect circling the poor animals left to whip their tails in protest.

This mode of philosophy was unique to Socrates. Instead of writing long philosophical proofs of his arguments, Socrates probed the wisest in Athens with questions. The end goal of this prodding was aporia — a Greek word signifying a total loss of words, of complete dumbfoundedness and consternation.

Euthyphro and Aporia

Take, for example, Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. At the heart of the Euthyphro is an investigation into true, cosmic justice (what philosophers might call “justice-in-itself.”) Are there universal principles governing justice, and ones which we can all abide by? Where do these laws come from — the gods or men? Euthyphro, a young Athenian prosecutor, finds himself in a dire situation in need of Socrates’ aporetic cure: he is being forced to prosecute his father for the murder of one of his slaves.

“…my father and family are angry with me for taking the part of the murderer and prosecuting my father… They say that he did not kill him, and that if he did, the dead man was but a murderer, and I ought not to take any notice, for that a son is impious who prosecutes a father.”

He’s trapped. One moral code says murderers should be brought to justice, and another says it’s improper for a son to prosecute a father. Which is he more beholden to?

Through concessions and barbs, Socrates pushes Euthyphro to an answer of what justice-in-itself may be — only to again confuse him by questioning Euthyphro’s new answer. Here, Socrates’ point is not to find “justice-in-itself”; rather, it is to understand what justice is not, to question and reform the definition Euthyphro believes to be the truth. Socrates didn’t believe in absolute earthly wisdom and sought to disprove those who sold it at a premium.

This is what makes Plato’s dialogues aporetic: most don’t have an overall moral, but a point where we’ve jettisoned our prior beliefs and come out with a loss of words. We’re here to question what we know, and in doing so, know more about how little we know. We’re asked to be ignorant.

That irony — of knowing through not knowing — becomes the center of Socrates and the young Kierkegaard’s philosophies:

“He was 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 meant something different,” Kierkegaard writes in his school dissertation, The Concept of Irony, which is his primary scholarship on Socrates.

With Socrates as his guide, Kierkegaard immediately grabbed hold of aporia and another critical facet of Greek philosophy: Socratic irony.

“By the powers, Euthyphro! how little does the common herd know of the nature of right and truth… A man must be an extraordinary man, and have made great strides in wisdom, before he could have seen his way to bring such an action,” says Socrates.

In each of Plato’s Socratic accounts, the philosopher isn’t an instructor but an ignorant sponge deigning to learn from those proclaiming to be the wisest. Socrates plays an ironic figure, claiming to know nothing in the presence of omniscient experts like Euthyphro (only to prove they know nothing by the end of the dialogue).

Kierkegaard immediately recognized the Athenian powerful in the wealth and haughty religious jingoism of the emerging Denmark. For Kierkegaard, it was now his turn to fix it — with irony as his weapon.

How to Learn to be Ignorant

The Daimon, in Greek, is a kind of spiritual calling. In Socrates’ time, it was customary for citizens to seek their fortune at the Oracle of Delphi, a mystical being who foretold the natures and futures of the Greek people. When Socrates seeks its help, however, he is told one thing: that he is the wisest of all Athenians.

Socrates is taken aback — he couldn’t believe himself to wield such immense wisdom. Thus, his daimon emerges: he decides to speak with those who claim to be the wisest in Athens, so that he might show how ignorant he is in the face of true scholars.

It was not customary, to say the least, to try and disprove the Oracle’s appraisal. It’s a simple idea, but one that would lead a revolution in thought.

“…oracles are necessary wherever man does not yet know himself inwardly as being sufficiently free and independent to make a decision solely on his own — and this is a lack of subjective freedom,” wrote Georg W.F. Hegel, a German Romantic philosopher and an object of Kierkegaard’s study in The Concept of Irony.

Hegel and Kierkegaard are saying aporia is a form of heresy. For Socrates to reject the Oracle’s claim and scour the land for wisdom, only to force everyone to admit they didn’t know the truth, is to doubt the ultimate truth: the world as designed by the gods.

“In the philosophical sense… [Socrates] was ignorant. He was ignorant of the ground of all being, the eternal, the divine — that is, he knew that it was, but he did not know what it was. He was conscious of it, and yet he was not conscious of it, inasmuch as the only thing he could say about it was that he did not know anything about it.”

The Athenian government saw Socrates as preaching an alternative philosophy, one which did away with gods and the world according to Athens — and they sentenced him to death for it. Yet Socrates never substituted his own beliefs for those he sought to disprove. For Kierkegaard, this meant a radical kind of freedom. What do we do when stripped of the assumptions handed to us by God, by our government, by our culture, and are given nothing in its place?

We’re left to discover truth for ourselves. We’re given subjective freedom:

“…when subjectivity by means of its negative power has broken the spell in which human life lay in the form of substantiality, when it has emancipated man from his relation to God just as it freed him from his relation to the state, then the first form in which this manifests itself is ignorance.”

By poking holes in his interlocutor’s arguments, Socrates advocated a negative philosophy — one that valorized ignorance as a way to rediscover the world without our previous prejudice. The philosophy is negative because it doesn’t advocate for something in its place. To Kierkegaard, it was supreme irony: the only way to know more about the world is to admit you know nothing about it. We only know as much as we don’t know.

Yet this is an overwhelming responsibility. If we stepped outside tomorrow, having cast away our assumptions about how the world works, wouldn’t we descend into absurdity? Why not invent alternative truths — gravity doesn’t exist, the world is flat, up is down, and black is white?

Students of this philosophy who believed in subjective freedom began to take irony to these limits, saying the rules of society didn’t apply to them in any fashion. This was critical for Kierkegaard: how can the ironist — those rebelling against society through Socratic irony— maintain their freedom and do so proactively, in a way that won’t push people into nihilism?

For the answer, we turn to depression.

“A Company of Danish Artists in Rome” by Constantin Hansen. The artistic Danish elite were frequently targets of Kierkegaard’s ironic works (Wikimedia Commons).

Either/Or and the Purpose of Ignorance

The Concept of Irony was Kierkegaard’s attempt at understanding the role of irony in disrupting society. With Socrates as a model, whole new ways of interpreting the world open up. Young philosophers are to realize that wisdom, and especially those who claim to have it, isn’t always fixed. We should take the ironist’s approach to playing dumb, using Socratic ignorance to approach the world without the inherited bias of our cultures.

To bring irony to life, Kierkegaard gives us Either/Or, his magnum opus born out of The Concept of Irony. In it, we’re introduced to the “aesthete,” a bourgeois writer representing Kierkegaard’s ironist. He’s miserable, having secured a profitable profession, illustrious career, and a frightening amount of spare time on his hands.

“I don’t feel like doing anything. I don’t feel like riding — the motion is too powerful; I don’t feel like walking — it is too tiring; I don’t feel like lying down, for either I would have to stay down, and I don’t feel like doing that, or I would have to get up again, and I don’t feel like doing that either.”

It’s here, struck immobile at his desk, that he’s left to think of numerous ironies: in order to be happy we must feel depressed; it is a contradiction to try to “do nothing”; if we spend our lives working for a living, isn’t that an inherent contradiction? Society has told him to believe in God, to work hard and prosper, and yet the more he follows this directive, the more miserable he feels.

This was Kierkegaard’s position. And so, like Socrates before him, he cast off his assumptions about society. He was isolated and therefore an ironist, destined to roam Denmark asking others to teach him about the meaning of justice, success, and wisdom. Most of all, he would bring laughter to every emperor pretending to wear invisible clothes:

“I saw that the meaning of life was to make a living, its goal to become a counselor, that the rich delight of love was to acquire a well-to-do girl, that the blessedness of friendship was to help each other in financial difficulties, that wisdom was whatever the majority assumed it to be. That enthusiasm was to give a speech, that courage was to risk being fined ten dollars. That cordiality was to say may it do you good after a meal. That piety was to go to communion once a year.

This I saw and I laughed.”

These issues are especially prescient today. Whether through branded clothing, our physical possessions, or our social media accounts, our lives are constantly watched and weighed. Algorithms drive our online habits. Our individuality is subsumed into an ecosystem designed to categorize and sell it. The depths of online information leave us overwhelmed and force us to question everything to the dire point of nihilism that Kierkegaard feared.

To cope, we laugh: we buy bumper stickers reading “Giant Asteroid 2020”, use the word “literally” to emphasize the how non-literal something is, post memes joking about the absence of meaning in our lives. So too with Kierkegaard’s aesthete:

“In a theater, it happened that a fire started offstage. The clown came out to tell the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded. He told them again, and they became still more hilarious. This is the way, I suppose, that the world will be destroyed — amid the universal hilarity of wits and wags who think it’s all a joke.”

This is the problem of subjective freedom. When we take on the role of the ironist and realize who we are from the outside looking in, we’re tasked with coping with the uncertainty of ignorance. Is it okay to not have an opinion on news, to not tweet or post about it? Is it okay to be ignorant with super-computers slipped into our pockets? Is there no truth in the world when we decide to wilfully be ignorant? It’s all too easy to laugh when truth bends at your will.

Kierkegaard looks to Socrates for an answer. The Athenian wasn’t advocating anarchy when he told Euthyphro he couldn’t find the true definition of justice. He was acting upon his daimon, his spiritual calling to understand life, when he questioned the wisest Athenians about love, the gods, and wisdom. In the end, it was to break down ‘truths’ they’d taken for granted as undeniably true — with the intent of learning more deeply about truth itself.

Socratic irony was a negative philosophy that didn’t advocate replacing old philosophies with new ones; it tasked us with questioning how we know what we know, because in the end, our ignorance might tell us more than the classical pursuit for academic learning. We may never know the cosmic definition of justice, but knowing what justice isn’t is one ring closer to the center of the target.

Kierkegaard, by extension, is asking us to discover truth for ourselves, that it might show the possibility for the world to become more truthful.

“If I were to wish for something, I would wish not for wealth or power but for the passion of possibility, for the eye, eternally young, eternally ardent, that sees possibility everywhere. Pleasure disappoints; possibility does not,” says the aesthete.

This possibility is manifold, and it comes from our discontentment. Do we have unanswered questions with our religion, or our local cultures? Do we feel boxed in by expectations we don’t agree with? Those feelings are natural. The ironist recognizes that dilemma and searches for ways they can unlearn the world around them — thereby rediscovering the possibility of learning it again.

For Kierkegaard, living is the ultimate irony. We’re tasked with producing who we are to our online profiles, to our friends, to our family, all while struggling to truly know ourselves. When the ironist throws away their assumptions, they’re embarking on a spiritual calling to understand the truth of the world for themselves, using their subjective freedom to pull pieces of truth out of experience. The world is not only what everyone else says it is; the part we have yet to know is the part we have yet to experience.

“Experience shows that it is not at all difficult for philosophy to begin,” the aesthete writes. “Far from it. It begins, in fact, with nothing and therefore can always begin.”

The role of irony is to embrace the uncomfortability of not knowing, to start from nothing even while feeling we understand much of everything. Socrates and Kierkegaard ask us to question the world knowing we may not find an answer. The moment we succumb to the easy solutions — to go with a crowd, to buy into legacy, to passively accept what the news tells us — is the moment we absolve ourselves of our responsibility to ignorance, “thereby passing the true persons that we are,” as Kierkegaard said. Laugh at yourself with the intent of improving yourself; laugh at society, he says, with the intent of improving the world.

“Irony is not the truth, but the way.”

If you found this article interesting, you might enjoy another article I wrote on Joseph Conrad and how to overcome failure. Thank you for reading!




Alec is a journalist working in podcasting and public radio. Current interests include: parsing through old college notes and a cure-all for procrastination.

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Alec Cowan

Alec Cowan

Alec is a journalist working in podcasting and public radio. Current interests include: parsing through old college notes and a cure-all for procrastination.

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