Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Marc and I are engaged in a fun (for us, at least) dialogue about the "tragic" versus "ironic" approaches to religious liberty questions and probably other legal/social disputes too. I've described the ironic approach, in the tradition of Niebuhr's The Irony of American History, as calling for humility and self-examination even in our most strenuous arguments against opponents, because our virtue can easily transmute into vice, while self-examination may make us see commonalities with, or virtue in, our opponents. Marc, in turn, has defended the tragic approach laid out in his fine book, on the ground that it takes more seriously the often-unbridgeable gulfs between beliefs and ways of life that contend with each other.
Marc also argues that the ironic approach reflects a certain pretense of "knowing," a "clever detachment" that stands in judgment over the parties embroiled in the conflict. On this last point, a friend of mine who's a student and fan of Niebuhr's work sent me some thoughts that laid out ideas I had only barely expressed in my response:
[T]he ironic disposition cannot be separated from the movement of repentance in Niebuhr's work -- that is, repentance is that movement in which the self transcends itself, its past, the causes to which it has pledged allegiance and see itself and this past and these commitments under the judgement of God. This is not clever detachment. Viewing itself and its past and its commitments under the judgment of God, it is enabled to see how virtuous intentions have gone astray as well as to discern the commonalities of sin between itself and its enemy. This emphasis on repentance is consistent throughout the two volumes of [Niebuhr's major work, The] Nature and Destiny [of Man].
Now, I'm sure that some people would be suspicous that when the self "transcends itself, its past, [and] the causes to which it has pledged allegiance," it is not actually "see[ing] itself ... under the judgment of God" but is instead asserting a kind of radical autonomy. Catholic theologians accused Niebuhr of favoring the autonomous self over the moral guidance of the Christian community. I'm definitely not an experton these things, but I tend to see that criticism of Niebuhr as overstated. However, let's set that debate aside. The relevant point, which my friend expresses better than I had, is that in calling for self-examination and humility, the "ironic" thinker applies--should apply--the same demand to himself. The kind of "ironic" disposition I'm describing, then, does not claim detachment--or intellectual or moral superiority, except insofar as moments of self-examination and repentance can lead to morally better behavior.
Along the same lines: Marc used an observation from Tom Shaffer to describe the ironic thinker's detachment and perceived superior insight. My friend restates that quote and takes the analogy in an interesting direction:
"Shaffer [Marc wrote] once described irony as 'what you might entertain if you saw two young lovers standing in a downpour and saying it’s a lovely day.' The observer smiles wryly at the scene, but he stands outside it and senses himself to hover above it. He appreciates the incapacity of the lovers to see what is obvious enough to him—he knows better than they do. It’s raining."
The self in the ironic disposition is not an observer, but one of the two young lovers, who perhaps at a later date smiles wryly at a moment of innocence that was in actuality not quite so innocent as imagined at the time. As he has since discovered that, as a young man, he was still too young to know the full meaning of loving another human being. The movement of repentance does not negate responsibility for the self's obligations. In so far as he reflects upon this past moment of innocence, he does so in order to gain a greater purchase on the meaning of love and the full meaning of loving another human being. Not to negate that obligation or to be an observer who stands outside of it.
I'm piling on with the words here (sorry Marc!), but I thought that my friend's comments were worth sharing as part of the discussion.
I wonder if "irony," in our current circumstances, bespeaks too much of Letterman or Kimmel snark. Is there a better term to refer to the disposition I've tried to describe?