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«The Image of Socratic Irony from the Sophists to Nietzsche Liviu Iulian COCEI  The Image of Socratic Irony from the Sophists to Nietzsche ** ...»

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The Image of Socratic Irony from the Sophists to Nietzsche

Liviu Iulian COCEI 

The Image of Socratic Irony

from the Sophists to Nietzsche **

Abstract: The phrase ”Socratic irony”, which is principally used with reference to

Socrates` philosophical method, is one of the biggest unsolved puzzles of Greek

philosophy. Since the beginning of its occurrence, this type of irony has been a

fertile ground for the abuse of exegetical tradition. But, despite the mysteries that

surrounds the image of Socratic dissembling, it seems that the questioning technique of Socrates had a valuable influence on the entire Western thought. In this paper I discuss some types of comprehending and interpreting the specific irony that Socrates used in his provocative discussions. In this way, the present study starts with the analysis of the mistaken interpretation of the Sophists and continues with an inquiry of understanding how the concept of irony evolved from Antiquity to Friedrich Nietzsche. At the same time I will reveal the ethical issues involved in using the complex Socratic irony.

Keywords: Socratic irony, hermeneutics, Socrates, ethics, cynicism, Nietzsche.

Associated with the method and personality of Socrates, irony has a special place in the history of philosophical ideas. In the strict sense of the term, at least for the ancient Greeks, eirōneia does not mean more than reading-out a false artlessness. Its main significance was that of deceit, of willful induction into error, therefore, at least until Socrates, eirōneia was regarded as a plain misbehaving. And, given that this “irony” has similar meanings to sarcasm, lying and other offensive attitudes, it proves that it was not at all worthwhile to make use of its subtle game. But with Socrates’ maieutics, the immoral character of irony begins to dissipate. And it’s not because he would directly searched it, but because he practiced it in his characteristic style. Due to his charisma, most philosophers will reconsider the axiological status of irony.

Of course, making exception of the obvious influences of Socratic irony on western philosophy, there are also some less discussed. Brainstorming, for example – an educational method which, by virtue of individual freedom of  Ph.D. Student, Faculty of Philosophy and Social-Political Sciences, “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iaşi, Romania; e-mail: livius_85@yahoo.com.

** Acknowledgement: This work was supported by the strategic grant POSDRU/159/ 1.5/S/140863 “Project Doctoral and Postdoctoral programs support for increased competitiveness in Humanistic sciences and socio-economics” cofinanced by the European Social Found within the Sectorial Operational Program Human Resources Development 2007-2013.

Liviu Iulian Cocei thought, encourages the participants involved in discussion to talk and not be frightened by the strangeness or the simplicity of answers that liberates the analysis – it is a fact that proves that the Socratic irony indirectly marked the development of pedagogy too. However, in this study, starting with the interpretations of the Sophists and ending with the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, we will analyze just how the image of the Socratic irony was set throughout the history of European thoughtfulness. Also, beyond highlighting the passage that the Socrates’ irony had among philosophers, we will disclose also the ethical implications of its use and abuse.

Given the negative image that irony originally had in ancient Greece, it is no wonder that the Socratic concealing sparked controversy from the beginning, being very difficult to understand and to accept it by the interlocutor. In The Republic (337 a), for example, Thrasymachos attacks the irony of Socrates as if he would expose why the philosopher avoids responding directly to the discussed issues. In this circumstance, the irony of the Greek philosopher is mockingly taken, being considered a plain pretense. Also, a similar interpretation emerges from the comparison that Menon makes (Meno 80 a) in the eponymous Platonic dialogue, between disconcerting style of Socrates and torpedo fish which paralyzes his prey.

Meno feels powerless at a time in replying to the Greek ironist, which is why he ridicules him, saying that strikingly resembles both the figure and the behavior to the fish concerned. This way, Meno condemns the Socratic method, considering it generates confusion both in relation to one who practice it and to those he talks to. But the alleged doubt of Socrates was not a preamble of a torpedo attack that paralyzes its prey. Although, somehow, the resemblance seems fair, Vladimir Jankélévitch states, using other analogies, that Socrates “does not paralyze the interlocutors as the owl does which, according to the sophistry Elien, hypnotizes birds through its grimases, or as the mask of Medusa, which turns people into stone, but it numbs them to smarten up”1. Therefore, the Greek ironist does not put himself or the others in difficulty just for the pleasure of argue, but easier to remove the truth to light. Though many sophists said that the irony of Socrates is frivolous and malicious, considering it his cunning expression, it must be said that his bizarre attitude cannot be categorized so simplistically.

It’s true he has a pretty shrewd intelligence, but he does not seek through this to cheat, like a crook, the vigilance of the interlocutors. Through the “cunning” of his irony, meaning through the contrast he creates between what he says and expectations of others, Socrates only wants to reveal that kind of truth that usually requires difficulty.





For the purpose of customization of this philosophizing way, there should be noted that Socratic irony involves also self-irony. In general, Vladimir Jankélévitch, Ironia, Editura Dacia, Cluj-Napoca, 1994, p. 12.

–  –  –

Platonic dialogues ends without finding clear answers to the discussed issues. In Charmides (175 d), for example, Socrates notes that no satisfactory answer has been found regarding the definition of wisdom, despite the good intentions and the efforts of interlocutors to know it. Due to this kind of failures, the Greek ironist inures to always say that “he only knows that he knows nothing” or that he does not have the knowledge. Even though he knows something, he launches this ironic statement because he aims to warn us of what we know, usually, that it concerns the wisdom. And this idea comes out from The Apology of Socrates, where the protagonist recognizes that

he has a kind of wisdom (a human wisdom), but he concludes as follows:

“I’m afraid that the only wise one is the God, and, by the words of the oracle, he says that human wisdom worths little or nothing”2. Therefore, this is why Socrates always claimed his ignorance: because all human knowledge is insignificant in relation to the divine one, the latter always staying hidden to us.

Beyond the abusive interpretations of the Sophists regarding the irony of Socrates, there were more sympathetic views, like that of Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium, where he proves that he understands the irony of the philosopher in the current meaning of the word3. Except this remark, the acceptances given to the irony substantially change only after the death sentencing of the inquisitive philosopher. In Aristotle, for example, we find an interesting characterization of the litotal appearance of Socrates’ irony,

reflecting its opposition to the emphasis and the pedantry of sophists:

“People of false modesty who talk tilting towards diminishing truth obviously have a more agreeable nature; they seem to express themselves in such a manner not seeking any advantage, but to avoid ostentation. Such Platon, Apărarea lui Socrate 23 a, in Opere, vol. I, Editura Ştiinţifică şi Enciclopedică, Bucureşti, 1974, p. 21 3 Here’s how Alcibiades describes the way in which Socrates kept his temperance in love, rejecting the advances he made on him was: “And he, after listening to me, said with its

deeply ironic tone, so characteristic and usual:

- Oh, dear Alcibiades! You do not seem to be a truly commoner, if all you said about me is true, if I really have the power to make you become better. It seems you found in me an amazing beauty, totally different from the most beautiful features that are seen in your person. But you see: if you, revealing it to me, want to share it with me, meaning to exchange one beauty with another, you prepare yourself a greater gain than mine. You give me the shade of the beauty and you expect to get from me real beauties! In other words, you put in mind to change my gold on brass. You’d better, wonderful friend, take notice of me not to fool you, with my scarcity. Perhaps the mind’s eye starts to be keen right in the moment it starts to get darker he light of the fleshy eyes. And you are far from it. “(Idem, Banchetul 218 d-e şi 219 a, in Dialoguri, Editura pentru Literatură Universală, Bucureşti, 1968, p. 306) Therefore, the young Alcibiades recognizes the preventing wisdom of Socratic irony, in the present context suggesting that carnal love cannot be a too valuable “bargaining chip” in terms of gaining the spiritual beauty that he noticed in Socrates and, ultimately, he may be mistaken if he makes such an exchange.

Liviu Iulian Cocei people especially deny their brilliant qualities, as Socrates did. However, those who use dissemblance for insignificant or obvious matters are called slicks and they are to despise. Sometimes this attitude seems boasting [...] for not only the excess, but also exaggerated decrease denotes boasting”4. In other words, for Aristotle, only the one who always tells the truth deserves praise, almost any deviation being considered a mockery at reason.

Although eirōneia is desirable compared to alazoneía (the arrogance), the philosopher from Stagira cannot place it higher than aletheía (the truth). And that’s because, writes Jankélévitch, “Aristotle, whose already lacks his Athenian finesse, does not taste the salt of false humility: he did not see the irony than its private privative nature [...] Why should you briefly say it when you know do it extensively? Neither science, nor truth does not claim us to become less wealthy, less powerful, less intelligent than we actually are;

this MINUS is a defiance of reason! There is no reason to diminish in such way! Less than the truth means less than it should” 5. Jankélévitch’s description reflects the insensitivity of the Stagirite towards the general qualities of irony, suggesting that through it we still are in the transition period of its understanding, towards the cultivated witticism.

Going further on the becoming thread of this “concept”, we find that only Roman rhetoricians will analyze the irony from a more positive perspective, close to the contemporary meanings. Due to their analysis, eirōneia will become irony, the famous trope that will relieve many of the old negative meanings. Here’s what Cicero wrote about it, keeping in mind Socrates: “It is still a civilized spirit, when you say one other than you feel, [...] I think Socrates exceeded all with his charm and civilization in this kind of irony and thought hiding. Indeed this style is very elegant, when it is tied with a spirit of seriousness and adapted with eloquent and civilized words”6. Somewhat similarly, Quintilian, the rhetorician, beyond the classical definition of irony as a trope that he has sent us, we notice that it

recognizes the complexity of irony when he mentions also Socrates:

“Moreover, even the whole life of a man may seem an irony, as Socrates’ life seems to have been; that is why he was told “the ironizer” because he played the ignorant and the admirer of the others as if they were wise”7. By the virtue of these findings, we can say that during the process of resignification of the irony image, the method and the character of the Greek philosopher had a decisive role.

Unfortunately, almost all opinions and nuances on Socratic irony were formed more due to the analysis of Plato’s work. If we make reference to Aristotel, Etica nicomahică 1127 b 25, Editura IRI, Bucureşti, 1998, p. 100.

Vladimir Jankélévitch, op. cit., p. 71.

6 Cicero, De Oratore, Editura Casei Şcoalelor, Bucureşti, 1925, pp. 210-211.

7 Quintilian, Arta oratorică, vol. III, Editura Minerva, Bucureşti, 1974 pp. 34-35.

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