Alasdair MacIntyre on the salutary uses of irony

Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre:

What can be said ironically, so it seems, can be said non-ironically and for the moral shock therapy of ironic experience we can substitute the moral shock therapy effected by plain, truthful, harsh words, spoken with humility. We may therefore be tempted to conclude that a human world in which irony had been abolished, but in which the virtues of truthfulness and humility were practiced, might be a stylistically duller world, a less witty world, but not one in which there had been any significant loss of moral resources. It would however be premature to yield to this temptation.

Without irony some of us some of the time would not be shocked into truthfulness. Take away any capacity for ironic speech and for the experience of irony and some of us will on occasion be incapable of either truthfulness or humility. Not everyone needs a capacity for irony in order to be truthful—when Kierkegaard said that “no genuinely human life is possible without irony,” he confused being human with being Kierkegaard—but enough of us do for irony to be important. So my earlier suggestion that irony might have no necessary part in any of our lives, that truthfulness and humility can substitute for irony without loss turns out to be mistaken. . . It is because and only insofar as irony serves the ends of truthfulness and humility that we need it. To understand irony is to understand its place in the structures of the virtues.

* * *

Irony then is important for its bearing upon truthfulness and humility, whether positively or negatively, and we can only understand its full importance if we understand how it can be misused as an enemy of truthfulness and a servant of arrogance.

Irony and Humanity: A Dialogue Between Jonathan Lear and Alasdair MacIntyre


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