Growing older, I find I think about matters harder and harder to formulate, let alone resolve; when I expressed myself with eloquent fluency, nobody listened – why should anyone listen now when I am hesitant and diffident?


Two questions, unrelated as far as I know:


  1. Why is politics so disreputable?
  2. What is the meaning of irony?


Politics attracts all sorts and conditions, few inclined to contemplation or scholarship, most mediocre. Politics is a highly beneficial profession to provide modest employment for those without special talents. It keeps them out of trouble and as a side-effect creates a harmless spectator sport.


Someone said, “I have known eleven prime ministers and seven of them were adulterers.”


It might be thought that the key notion here is of power corrupting, and it is true that visibility turns some heads and confuses others. One cannot calculate all the giddy distortions of distance. But, more important, the attention of many eyes erodes integrity – it is harder to be oneself in a crowd. Consequently people attack and defend, take initiatives and watch their backs, as they stumble through the dark forest of events uncertain of their direction. Almost no-one behaves like Gandhi – with any sort of vision of spiritual leadership.


In the draining of the private sphere into the public, integrity becomes a treasured but increasingly unthinkable attribute.


Irony is difficult. Dictionary definitions are fine, but the word is increasingly used to mean a dimension of intellectual sophistication, and this is what I want to keep track of. For instance, Ferdinand Mount spoke of his stint as adviser at Number 10 as a holiday from irony. Scruton says “Beware of a religion without irony”:


Whenever I consider this matter I am struck by a singular fact about the Christian religion, a fact noticed by Kierkegaard and Hegel but rarely commented upon today, which is that it is informed by a spirit of irony. Irony means accepting “the other,” as someone other than you. It was irony that led Christ to declare that his “kingdom is not of this world,” not to be achieved through politics. Such irony is a long way from the humourless incantations of the Koran. Yet it is from a posture of irony that every real negotiation, every offer of peace, every acceptance of the other, begins.[1]


Here William Blake suggests himself, in a famously gnomic quote:


We are led to believe a lie

When we see with, and not through the eye

Which was born in a night to perish in a night,

When the soul slept in beams of light.[2]


The second line of this has been subjected to may interpretations, but it seems to me useful as a reminder of metacognition or awareness of our take upon things. We are aware of the frame round the picture, the construction that is placed. Though this locates us at one remove, it makes possible alternative constructions, perhaps a giddying infinite relativism, but the genesis nonetheless of reflection. Need sincerity die with the literal?


Glad as I am of Scruton’s belated interest in Christianity, I don’t see that irony is limited to awareness of the other as real, which makes it the equivalent of respect, or even to zestful Kierkegaardian or Hegelian paradox. Irony must always remain more general than this, the subtle understanding agreed between us that as individuals we are free to see things differently and even that we are free to differ from ourselves. Irony is complexity.


Perhaps Scruton is right to implicate the religious origin of all this, the epistemology struck from individual self-awareness.

[1] Wall Street Journal, 20 August 2006.

[2] Blake, ‘Auguries of Innocence.’