The Life of Irony


I COULD never, until recently, divest myself of the haunting feeling that being ironical had something to do with the entering of the iron into one’s soul. I thought I knew what irony was, and I admired it immensely. I could not believe that there was something metallic and bitter about it. Yet this sinister connotation of a clanging, rasping meanness of spirit, which I am sure it has still in many people’s minds, clung about it, until one happy day my dictionary told me that the iron had never entered into the soul at all, but the soul into the iron (St. Jerome had read the psalm wrong), and that irony was Greek, with all the free, happy play of the Greek spirit about it, letting in fresh air and light into others’ minds and our own. It was to the Greek an incomparable method of intercourse, the rub of mind against mind by the simple use of simulated ignorance, and the adoption, without committing one’s self, of another’s point of view. Not until I read the Socrates of Plato did I fully appreciate that this irony, — this pleasant challenging of the world, this insistent judging of experience, this sense of vivid contrasts and incongruities, of comic juxtapositions, of flaring brilliancies, and no less heartbreaking impossibilities, of all the little parts of one’s world being constantly set off against each other, and made intelligible only by being translated into and defined in each other’s terms, — that this was a life, and a life of beauty, that one might suddenly discover one’s self living it all unawares. And if one could judge one’s own feeble reflection, it was a life that had no room for iron within its soul.

We should speak not of the Socratic method, but of the Socratic life. For irony is a life rather than a method. A life cannot be taken off and put on again at will; a method can. To be sure, some people talk of life exactly as if it were some portable commodity, or some exchangeable garment. We must live, they cry, as if they were about to begin. And perhaps they are. Only some of us would rather die than live that puny life that they can adopt and cover themselves with. Irony is too rich and precious a thing to be capable of such transmission. The ironist is born and not made. This critical attitude toward life, this delicious sense of contrasts that we call irony, is not a pose or an amusement. It is something that colors every idea and every feeling of the man who is so happy as to be endowed with it.

Most people will tell you, I suppose, that the religious conviction of salvation is the only permanently satisfying coloring of life. In the splendid ironists, however, one sees a sweeter, more flexible and human principle of life, adequate, without the buttress of supernatural belief, to nourish and fortify the spirit. In the classic ironist of all time, irony shows an inherent nobility; a nobility that all ages have compared favorably with the Christian ideal. Lacking the spur of religious emotion, the sweetness of irony may be more difficult to maintain than the mood of belief. But may it not for that very reason be judged superior, for is it not written, ‘He that endureth unto the end shall be saved’?

It is not easy to explain the quality of that richest and most satisfying background of life. It lies, I think, in a vivid and intense feeling of aliveness which it gives. Experience comes to the ironist in little darts or spurts, with the added sense of contrast. Most men, I am afraid, see each bit of personal experience as a unit, strung more or less loosely on a string of other mildly related bits. But the man with the ironical temperament is forced constantly to compare and contrast his experience with what was, or what might be, or what ought to be, and it is the shocks of these comparisons and contrasts that make up his inner life. He thinks he leads a richer life, because he feels not only the individual bits but the contrasts besides, in all their various shadings and tints. To this sense of impingement of facts upon life is due a large part of this vividness of irony; and the rest is due to the alertness of the ironical mind. The ironist is always critically awake. He is always judging, and watching with inexhaustible interest, in order that he may judge. Now irony, in its best sense, is an exquisite sense of proportion, a sort of spiritual tact in judging the values and significances of experience. This sense of being spiritually alive, which ceaseless criticism of the world we live in gives us, combined with the sense of power which free and untrammeled judging produces in us, is the background of irony. And it should be a means to the truest goodness.

Socrates made one mistake, — knowledge is not goodness. But it is a step toward judging, and good judgment is the true goodness. For it is on judgment impelled by desire that we act. The clearer and cleaner our judgments then, the more definite and correlated our actions. And the great value of these judgments of irony is that they are not artificial but spring naturally out of life. Irony, the science of comparative experience, compares things not with an established standard but with each other, and the values that slowly emerge from the process, values that emerge from one’s own vivid reactions, are constantly revised, corrected, and refined by that same sense of contrast. The ironic life is a life keenly alert, keenly sensitive, reacting promptly with feelings of liking or dislike to each bit of experience, letting none of it pass without interpretation and assimilation, a life full and satisfying,— indeed a rival of the religious life.

The life of irony has the virtues of the religious life without its defects. It expresses the aggressive virtues without the quiescence of resignation. For the ironist has the courageous spirit, the sympathetic heart, and the understanding mind, and can give them full play, unhampered by the searching introspection of the religious mind that often weakens rather than ennobles and fortifies. He is at one with the religious man in that he hates apathy and stagnation, for they mean death. But he is superior in that he attacks apathy of intellect and personality as well as apathy of emotion. He has a great conviction of the significance of all life, the lack of which conviction is the most saddening feature of the religious temperament. The religious man pretends that every aspect of life has meaning for him, but in practice he constantly minimizes the noisier and vivider elements. He is essentially an aristocrat in his interpretation of values, while the ironist is incorrigibly a democrat.

Religion gives a man an intimacy with a few selected and rarified virtues and moods, while irony makes him a friend of the poor and lowly among spiritual things. When the religious man is healing and helping, it is at the expense of his spiritual comfort; he must tear himself away from his companions, and go out grimly and sacrificingly into the struggle. The ironist, living his days among the humbler things, feels no such severe call to service. And yet the ironist, since he has no citadel of truth to defend, is really the more adventurous. Life, not fixed in predestined formulas, or measurable by fixed, immutable standards, is fluid, rich, and exciting. To the ironist it is both discovery and creation. His courage seeks out the obscure places of human personality, and his sympathy and understanding create new interests and enthusiasms in the other minds upon which they play. And these new interests in turn react upon his own life, discovering unexpected vistas there, and creating new insight into the world that he lives in. That democratic, sympathetic outlook upon the feelings and thoughts and actions of men and women is the life of irony.

That life is expressed in the social intercourse of ourselves with others. The daily fabric of the life of irony is woven out of our critical communings with ourselves and the personalities of our friends, and the people with whom we come in contact. The ironist, by adopting another’s point of view and making it his own, in order to carry light and air into it, literally puts himself in the other man’s place. Irony is thus the truest sympathy. It is no cheap way of ridiculing an opponent by putting on his clothes and making fun of him. The ironist has no opponent, but only a friend. And in his irony he is helping that friend to reveal himself. That halfseriousness, that solemn treatment of the trivial and trivial treatment of the solemn, which is the pattern of the ironist’s talk, is but his way of exhibiting the unexpected contrasts and shadings that he sees to be requisite to the keenest understanding of the situation. The ironist borrows and exchanges and appropriates ideas and gives them a new setting in juxtaposition with others, but he never burlesques or caricatures or exaggerates them. If an idea is absurd, the slightest change of environment will show that absurdity.

The mere transference of an idea to another’s mouth will bring to light all its hidden meaninglessness. It needs no extraneous aid. If an idea is hollow, it will show itself cowering against the intellectual background of the ironist like the puny, shivering thing it is. If a point of view cannot bear being adopted by another person, if it is not hardy enough to be transplanted, it has little right to exist at all. This world is no holhouse for ideas and attitudes. Too many outworn ideas are skulking in dark retreats, sequestered from the light; every man has great, sunless stretches in his soul where base prejudices lurk and flourish. On these the white light of irony is needed to play. And it delights the ironist to watch them shrivel and decay under that light.

The little tabooed regions of wellbred people, the ‘things we never mention,’ the basic biases and assumptions that underlie the lives and thinking of every class and profession, our second-hand dogmas and phrases, — all these live and thrive because they have never been transplanted, or heard from the lips of another. The dictum that ‘ the only requisites for success are honesty and merit,’ which we applaud so frantically from the lips of the successful, becomes a ghastly irony in the mouth of an unemployed workingman. There would be a frightful mortality of points of view could we have a perfectly free exchange such as this. Irony is just this temporary borrowing and lending. Many of our cherished ideals would lose half their validity were they put bodily into the mouths of the less fortunate. But if irony destroys some ideals it builds up others. It tests ideals by their social validity, by their general interchangeability among all sorts of people and the world, but if it leaves the foundations of many in a shaky condition, and renders more simply provisional, those that it does leave standing are imperishably founded in the common democratic experience of all men.

To the ironist it seems that the irony is not in the speaking, but in the things themselves. He is a poor ironist who would consciously distort, or attempt to make another’s idea appear in any light except its own. Absurdity is an intrinsic quality of so many things that they only have to be touched to reveal it. The deadliest way to annihilate the unoriginal and the insincere is to let it speak for itself. Irony is this letting things speak for themselves and hang themselves by their own rope. Only, it repeats the words after the speaker, and adjusts the rope. It is the commanding touch of a comprehending personality that dissolves the seemingly tough husk of the idea.

The ironical method might be compared to the acid that develops a photographic plate. It does not distort the image, but merely brings clearly to the light all that was implicit in the plate before. And if it brings the picture to the light with values reversed, so does irony revel in a paradox, which is simply a photographic negative of the truth, truth with the values reversed. But turn the negative ever so slightly so that the light falls upon it, and the perfect picture appears in all its true values and beauty. Irony, we may say then, is the photography of the soul. The picture goes through certain changes in the hands of the ironist, but without these changes the truth would be simply a blank, unmeaning surface. The photograph is a synonym for deadly accuracy. Similarly the ironist insists always on seeing things as they are. He is a realist, whom the grim satisfaction of seeing the truth compensates for any sordidness that it may bring along with it. Things as they are, thrown against the background of things as they ought to be, — this is the ironist’s vision. I should like to feel that the vision of the religious man is not too often things as they are, thrown against the background of things as they ought not to be.

The ironist is the only man who makes any serious attempt to distinguish between fresh and second-hand experience. Our minds are so unfortunately arranged that all sorts of belief can be accepted and propagated quite independently of any rational or even experiential basis at all. Nature does not seem to care very much whether our ideas are true or not, so long as we get on through life safely enough. And it is surprising on what an enormous amount of error we can get along comfortably. We cannot be wrong on every point or we should cease to live, but so long as we are empirically right in our habits, the truth or falsity of our ideas seems to have little effect upon our comfort. We are born into a world that is an inexhaustible store of readymade ideas, stored up in tradition, in books, and in every medium of communication between our minds and others. All we have to do is to accept this predigested nourishment, and ask no questions. We could live a whole life without ever making a really individual response, without providing ourselves, out of our own experience, with any of the material that our minds work on. Many of us seem to be just this kind of spiritual parasites. We may learn and absorb and grow, up to a certain point. But eventually something captures us: we become incased in a suit of armor, and invulnerable to our own experience. We have lost the faculty of being surprised. It is this incasing that the ironist fears, and it is the ironical method that he finds the best for preventing it. Irony keeps the waters in motion, so that the ice never has a chance to form. The cut-anddried life is easy to form because it has no sense of contrast; everything comes to one on its own terms, vouching for itself, and is accepted or rejected on its own good looks, and not because of its fitness and place in the scheme of things.

This is the courage and this the sympathy of irony. Have they not a beauty of their own comparable in excellence with the paler glow of religious virtue? And the understanding of the ironist, although aggressive and challenging, has its justification, too. For he is mad to understand the world, to get to the bottom of other personalities. That is the reason for his constant classification. The ironist is the most dogmatic of persons. To understand you he must grasp you firmly, or he must pin you down definitely; if he accidentally nails you fast to a dogma that you indignantly repudiate, you must blame his enthusiasm and not his method. Dogmatism is rarely popular, and the ironist, of course, suffers. It hurts people’s eyes to see a strong light, and the pleasant mist-land of ideas is much more emotionally warming than the clear, sunny region of transmissible phrases. How the average person wriggles and squirms under these piercing attempts to corner his personality! ‘Tell me what you mean!’ or ‘What do you see in it?’ are the fatal questions that the ironist puts, and who shall censure him if he does display the least trace of malicious delight as he watches the half-formed baby ideas struggle toward the light, or scurry around frantically to find some decent costume in which t hey may appear in public?

The judgments of the ironist are often discounted as being too sweeping. But he has a valid defense. Lack of classification is annihilation of thought. Even the newest philosophy will admit that classification is a necessary evil. Concepts are indispensable, — and yet each concept falsifies. The ironist must have as large a stock as possible, but he must have a stock. And even the unjust classification is marvelously effective. The ironist’s name for his opponent is a challenge to him. The more sweeping it is, the more stimulus it gives the latter to repel the charge. He must explain just how he is unique and individual in hisattitude. And in this explanation he reveals and discovers all that the ironist wishes to know about him. A handful of epithets is thus the ammunition of the ironist. He must call things by what seem to him to be their right names. In a sense, the ironist assumes the prisoner to be guilty until he proves himself innocent; but it is always in order that justice may be done, and that he may come to learn the prisoner’s soul and all the wondrous things that are contained there.


It is this passion for comprehension that explains the ironist’s apparently scandalous propensity to publicity. Nothing seems to him too sacred to touch, nothing too holy for him to become witty about. There are no doors locked to him, there is nothing that can make good any claim of resistance to scrutiny. His free-and-easy manner of including everything within the sweep of his vision, is but his recognition, however, of the fact that nothing is really so serious as we think it is, and nothing quite so petty. The ironist will descend in a moment from a discussion of religion to a squabble over a card-game, and he will defend himself with the reflection that religion is, after all, a human thing, and must be discussed in the light of every-day living; and that the card-game is an integral part of life, reveals the personalities of the players, — and his own to himself, — and, being worthy of his interest, is worthy of his enthusiasm. The ironist is apt to test things by their interest as much as by their nobility, and if he sees the incongruous and inflated in the lofty, so he secs the significant in the trivial and raises it from its low degree. Many a mighty impostor does he put down from his scat. The ironist is the great intellectual democrat, in whose presence and before whose law all ideas and attitudes stand equal. In his world there is no privileged caste, no aristocracy of sentiments to be reverenced, or segregated systems of interests to be tabooed. Nothing human is alien to the ironist; the whole world is thrown open, naked, to the play of his judgment.

In the eyes of its detractors, irony has all the vices of democracy. Its publicity seems mere vulgarity, its free hospitality seems to shock all ideas of moral worth. The ironist is but a scoffer, they say, with weapon leveled eternally at all that is good and true and sacred. The adoption of another’s point of view seems little better than malicious dissimulation, — the repetition of others’ words, an elaborate mockery; the ironist’s eager interest seems a mere impudence or a lack of finer instincts; his interest in the trivial, the last confession of a mean spirit; and his love of classifying, a proof of his poverty of imaginative resource. Irony, in other words, is thought to be synonymous with cynicism. But the ironist is no cynic. His is a kindly, not a sour, interest in human motives. He wants to find out how the human machine runs, not to prove that it is a worthless, broken-down affair. He accepts it as it comes, and if he finds it curiously feeble and futile in places, blame not him, but the nature of things. He finds enough rich compensation in the unexpected charm that he constantly finds himself eliciting. The ironist sees life steadily, and sees it whole; the cynic only a distorted fragment.

If the ironist is not a cynic, neither is he merely a dealer in satire, burlesque, and ridicule. Irony may be the raw material, innocent in itself, but capable of being put to evil uses. But it involves neither the malice of satire, nor the horse-play of burlesque, nor the stab of ridicule. Irony is infinitely finer, and more delicate and impersonal. The satirist is always personal and concrete, but the ironist deals with general principles and broad aspects of human nature. It cannot be too much emphasized that the function of the ironist is not to make fun of people, but to give their souls an airing. The ironist is a judge on the bench, giving men a public hearing. He is not an aggressive spirit who goes about seeking whom he may devour, or a spiritual lawyer who courts litigation, but the judge before whom file all the facts of his experience: the people he meets; the opinions he hears or reads; his own attitudes and prepossessions. If any are convicted they are self-convicted. The judge himself is passive, merciful, lenient. There is judgment, but no punishment. Or rather, the trial itself is the punishment.

Now, satire is all that irony is not.

The satirist is the aggressive lawyer, fastening upon particular people and particular qualities. But irony is no more personal than the sun that sends his flaming darts into the world. The satirist is a purely practical man, with a business instinct, bent on the main chance and the definite object. He is often brutal, and always overbearing; the ironist never. Irony may wound from the very fineness and delicacy of its attack, but the wounding is incidental. The sole purpose of the satirist and the burlesquer is to wound; and they test their success by the deepness of the wound. But irony tests its own by the amount of generous light and air it has set flowing through an idea or a personality, and the broad significance it has revealed in neglected things.

If irony is not brutal, neither is it merely critical and destructive. The world has some reason, it is true, to complain against the rather supercilious judiciousness of the ironist. ‘Who are you to judge us?’ it cries. The world does not like to feel the scrutinizing eyes of the ironist as he sits back in his chair; does not like to feel that the ironist is simply studying it and amusing himself at its expense. It is uneasy, and acts sometimes as if it did not have a perfectly clear conscience. To this uncomfortableness the ironist can retort, ‘What is it that you are afraid to have known about you?' If the judgment amuses him, so much the worse for the world. But if the idea of the ironist as judge implies that his attitude is wholly detached, wholly objective, it is an unfortunate metaphor. For he is as much part and parcel of the human show as any of the people he studies. The world is no stage, with the ironist as audience. His own personal reactions with the people about him form all the stuff of his thoughts and judgments. He has a personal interest in the case; his own personality is inextricably mingled in the stream of impressions that flows past him. If the ironist is destructive, it is his own world that he is destroying; if he is critical, it is his own world that he is criticizing. And his irony is his critique of life.

This is the defense of the ironist against the charge that he has a purely aesthetic attitude toward life. Too often, perhaps, the sparkling clarity of his thought, the play of his humor, the easy sense of superiority and intellectual command that he carries off, make his irony appear as rather the æsthetic nourishment of his life than an active way of doing and being. His rather detached air makes him seem to view people as means, not ends, in themselves. With this delight in the vivid and poignant, he is prone to see picturesqueness in the sordid, and tolerate evils that he should condemn. For all his interests and activity, it is said that he does n’t really care. But this æsthetic taint to his irony is really only skin-deep.

The ironist is ironical, not because he does not care, but because he cares too much. He is feeling the profoundest depths of the world’s great beating, laboring heart, and his playful attitude toward the grim and sordid is a necessary relief from the tension of too much caring. It is his salvation from unutterable despair. The terrible urgency of the reality of poverty and misery and exploitation would be too strong upon him. Only irony can give him a sense of proportion, and make his life fruitful and resolute. It can give him a temporary escape, a slight momentary reconciliation, a chance to draw a deep breath of resolve, before plunging into the fight. It is not a palliative so much as a perspective.

This is the only justification of the æsthetic attitude, that, if taken provisionally, it sweetens and fortifies. It is only deadly when adopted as absolute. The kind of æsthetic irony that Pater and Omar display is a paralyzed, half-seeing, half-caring reflection on life, — a tame, domesticated irony, with its wings cut, an irony that furnishes a justification and a command to inaction. It is the result, not of exquisitely refined feelings, but of social anæsthesia. Their irony, cut off from the great world of men and women and boys and girls and their intricate interweavings and jostlings and incongruities, turns pale and sickly and numb. The ironist has no right to see beauty in things unless he really cares. The aesthetic sense is harmless only when it is both ironical and social.


Irony is thus a cure for both optimism and pessimism. Nothing is so revolting to the ironist as the smiling optimist, who testifies, in his fatuous heedlessness, to the desirability of this best of all possible worlds. But the ironist has always an incorrigible propensity to see the other side. The hopeless maladjustment of too many people to their world, of their bondage in the iron fetters of circumstance, all this is too glaring for the ironist’s placidity. When he examines the beautiful picture, too often the best turns worst to him. But if optimism is impossible to the ironist, so is pessimism. The ironist may have a secret respect for the pessimist, — he at least has felt the bitter tang of life, and has really cared, — but he feels that the pessimist lacks. For if the optimist is blind, the pessimist is hypnotized. He is abnormally suggestible to evil. But clearsighted irony sees that the world is too big and multifarious to be evil at heart. Something beautiful and joyous lurks even in the most hapless, — a child’s laugh in a dreary street, a smile on the face of a weary woman. It is this saving quality of irony that both optimist and pessimist miss. And since plain common sense tells us that things are never quite so bad or quite so good as they seem, the ironist carries conviction into the hearts of men in their best moments.

The ironist is a person who counts in the world. He has all sorts of unexpected effects on both the people he goes with and himself. His is an insistent personality; he is as troublesome as a missionary. And he is a missionary; for, his own purpose being a comprehension of his fellows’ souls, he makes them conscious of their own souls. He is a hard man; he will take nothing on reputation; he will guarantee for himself the qualities of things. He will not accept the vouchers of the world that a man is wise, or clever, or sincere, behind the impenetrable veil of his face. He must probe until he elicits the evidence of personality, until he gets at the peculiar quality which distinguishes that individual soul. For the ironist is, after all, a connoisseur in personality, and if his conversation partakes too often of the character of cross-examination, it is only as a lover of the beautiful, a possessor of taste, that he inquires. He does not want to see people squirm, but he does want to see whether they are alive or not. If he pricks too hard, it is not from malice, but merely from error in his estimation of the toughness of their skins. What people are inside is the most interesting question in the world to the ironist. And, in finding out, he stirs them up. Many a petty, doubting spirit does he challenge and bully into a sort of self-respect. And many a bagof-wind does he puncture. But his most useful function is this of stimulating thought and action. The ironist forces his friends to move their rusty limbs and unhinge the creaking doors of their minds.

The world needs more ironists. Shut up with one’s own thoughts, one loses the glow of life that comes from frank exchange of ideas with many kinds of people. Too many minds are stuffy, dusty rooms into which the windows have never been opened,—minds heavy with their own crotchets, cluttered up with untested theories and conflicting sympathies that have never got related in any social way. The ironist blows them all helter-skelter, sweeps away the dust, and sets everything in its proper place again. Your solid, self-respectful mind, the ironist confesses he can do little with: it is not of his world. He comes to freshen and tone up the stale minds. The ironist is the great purger and cleanser of life. Irony is a sort of spiritual massage, rubbing the souls of men. It may seem rough to some tender souls, but it does not sear or scar them. The strong arm of the ironist restores the circulation, and drives away anæmia.

On the ironist himself the effect of irony is even more invigorating. We can never really understand ourselves without at least a touch of irony. The interpretation of human nature without is a simple matter in comparison with the comprehension of that complex of elations and disgusts, inhibitions, and curious irrational impulses, that we call ourselves. It is not true that by examining ourselves and coming to an understanding of the way we behave, we understand other people, but that by the contrasts and little revelations of our friends we learn to interpret ourselves. Introspection is no match for irony as a guide. The most illuminating experience that we can have is a sudden realization that had we been in the other person’s place we should have acted precisely as he did. To the ironist this is no mere intellectual conviction, that, after all, none of us are perfect, but a vivid emotional experience, which has knit him with that other person in one moment in a bond of sympathy that could have been acquired in no other way. Those minds that lack the touch of irony are too little flexible, or too heavily buttressed with self-esteem to make this sudden change of attitudes. The ironist, one might almost say, gets his brotherhood intuitively, and feels the sympathy and the oneness in truth before he thinks them.

The ironist is the only man who really gets outside of himself. What he does for other people, — that is, picking out a little piece of their souls and holding it up for their inspection, — he does for himself. He gets thus an objective view of his own spirit. The unhealthy indoor brooding of introspection is artificial and unproductive, because it has no perspective or contrast. But the ironist, with his constant outdoor look, sees his own foibles and humiliations in the light of those of other people. He acquires a more tolerant, half-amused, half-earnest attitude toward himself. His self-respect is nourished by the knowledge that whatever things discreditable and foolish and worthless he has done, he has seen them approximated by others, and yet his esteem is kept safely pruned down by the recurring evidence that nothing he has is unique. He is poised in life, ready to soar or to walk as the occasion demands. He is pivoted, susceptible to every stimulus, and yet chained so that he can not be flung off into space by his own centrifugal force.

Irony has the same sweetening and freshening effect on one’s own life that it does on the lives of those who come in contact with it. It gives one a command of one’s resources. The ironist practices a perfect economy of material. For he must utilize his wealth constantly, and over and over again, in various shapes and shadings. He may be poor in actual material, but, out of the contrast and arrangement of that slender store, he is able, like a kaleidoscope, to make a multifarious variety of wonderful patterns. His current coin is, so to speak, kept bright by constant exchange. He is infinitely richer than your opulent but miserly minds that hoard up facts, and are impotent from the very plethora of their accumulations.

Irony is essential to any real honesty. For dishonesty is, at bottom, simply an attempt to save somebody’s face. But the ironist does not want any faces saved, neither his own nor those of other people. To save faces is to sophisticate human nature, to falsify the facts, and miss a delicious contrast, an illuminating revelation of how people act. So the ironist is the only perfectly honest man. But he suffers for it by acquiring a reputation for impudence. His willingness to bear the consequences of his own acts, his quiet insistence that others shall bear consequences, seem like mere shamelessness, a lack of delicate feeling for ‘situations.’ But, accustomed as he is to range freely and know no fear nor favor, he despises this reserve as a species of timidity or even hypocrisy. It is an irony itself that the one temperament that can be said really to appreciate human nature, in the sense of understanding it rightly, should be called impudent, and it is another that it should be denounced as monstrously egotistical. The ironical mind is the only truly modest mind, for its point of view is ever outside itself. If it calls attention to itself, it is only as another of those fascinating human creatures that pass ever by with their bewildering, alluring ways. If it talks about itself, it is only as a third person in whom all the talkers are supposed to be eagerly interested. In this sense the ironist has lost his egoism completely. He has rubbed out the line that separates his personality from the rest of the world.

The ironist must take people very seriously, to spend so much time over them. He must be both serious and sincere, or he would not persist in his irony and expose himself to so much misunderstanding. And since it is not how people treat him, but simply how they act, that furnishes the basis for his appreciation, the ironist finds it easy to forgive. He has a way of letting the individual offense slide, in favor of a deeper principle. In the act of being grossly misrepresented, he can feel a pang of exasperated delight that people should be so dense; in the act of being taken in, he can feel the cleverness of it all. He becomes, for the moment, his own enemy; and we can always forgive ourselves. Even while being insulted or outraged or ignored, he can feel, ‘After all, this is what life is! This is the way we poor human creatures behave!' The ironist is thus, in a sense, vicarious human nature. Through that deep, anticipatory sympathy, he is kept clean from hate or scorn.

The ironist, therefore, has a valid defense against all the charges of brutality and triviality and irreverence that the religious man is prone to bring against him. He can care more deeply about things because he can see so much more widely; and he can take life very seriously because it interests him so intensely; and he can feel its poignancy and its flux more keenly because he delivers himself up bravely to its swirling, many-hued current. The inner peace of religion seems gained only at the expense of the reality of living. A life such as the life of irony, lived fully and joyously, cannot be peaceful; it cannot even be happy, in the sense of calm content and satisfaction. But it can be better than either — it can be wise, and it can be fruitful. And it can be good, in a way that the life of inner peace cannot. For the life of irony, having no reserve and weaving itself out of the flux of experience rather than out of eternal values, has the broad, honest sympathy of democracy that is impossible to any temperament with the aristocratic taint. One advantage the religious life has is a salvation in another world to which it can withdraw. The life of irony has laid up few treasures in heaven, but many in this world. Having gained so much it has much to lose. But its glory is that it can lose nothing unless it lose all.

To shafts of fortune and blows of friends or enemies, then, the ironist is almost impregnable. He knows how to parry each thrust and prepare for every emergency. Even if the arrows reach him, all the poison has been sucked out of them by his clear, resolute understanding of their significance. There is but one weak spot in his armor, but one disaster that he fears more almost than the loss of his life, — a shrinkage of his environment, a running dry of experience. He fears to be cut off from friends and. crowds and human faces and speech and books, for ho demands to be ceaselessly fed. Like a modern city, he is totally dependent on a steady flow of supplies from the outside world, and will be in danger of starvation if the lines of communication are interrupted. Without people and opinions for his mind to play on, his irony withers and faints. He has not the faculty of brooding; he cannot mine the depths of his own soul, and bring forth, after labor, mighty nuggets of thought.

The flow and swirl of things is his compelling interest. His thoughts are reactions, immediate and vivid, to his daily experience. Some deep, unconscious brooding must go on, to produce that happy precision of judgment of his; but it is not voluntary. He is conscious only of the shifting light and play of life; his world is dynamic, energetic, changing. He lives in a world of relations, and he must have a whole store of things to be related. He has lost himself completely in this world he lives in. His ironical interpretation of the world is his life, and this world is his nourishment. Take away this environmental world and you have slain his soul. He is invulnerable to everything except that deprivation.