The Meaning of Irony
Irony always arises from a contrast. It generally implies a contrast between the obvious or surface meaning of a statement and the real or the intended meaning of it. It may also imply a contrast between the incomplete, limited, or inaccurate knowledge of people and the writer’s fuller, wider, and more exact knowledge of the facts. Irony is one of the principal sources of humour.It is one of the most effective weapons of satire. Satire generally aims at ridiculing persons or institutions or customs or modes of thought, and it often employes irony as its tool. The great satirists have always been masters in the use of irony. Such were Chaucer, Samuel Butler, (the author of Hudibras), Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Swift. In modern times, Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell are among the great writers to make use of irony as a weapon of attack.
Russell’s Use of Irony and Its Purpose
The Unpopular Essays show Russell’s use of irony to a striking degree. Russell too employs irony to expose the absurdity or stupidity of certain ideas, beliefs, customs, and institutions. His irony is free from malice, spite and spleen. His irony is not prompted by ill-will or cynicism. Nor does he become furious or indignant in his unmasking of the follies and absurdities in people’s thinking. His purpose is improvement and reform; he aims at correcting wrong modes of thought, and teaching people to become rational in their thinking and in taking decisions in the course of their political and social life.
The Use of Irony in “Philosophy and Politics”
Russell is a serious writer; he has always something important and weighty to say. The use of irony, apart from serving as a weapon of attack in his hands, serves also to lighten the gravity of the tone of his writing. For instance, in the essay Philosophy and Politics we feel greatly amused when Russell ironically points out the absurdity of Hegel’s philosophy by reducing Hegel’s definition of the Absolute Idea to the statement that it is “pure thought thinking about pure thought”. Russell mocks at this philosophy by further pointing out what the general reaction of people to it would be. People, says Russell, would not think it worth their while to go through all the verbiage of Hegel and, after reading it, they would “say good-bye to philosophy and live happy ever after”. In the same essay, Russell ironically says that people who oppose the philosopher are condemned as unphilosophic, and those who agree with him feel assured of victory, since the universe is on their side. And Russell here ironically adds: “At the same time the winning side, for reasons which remain somewhat obscure is represented as the side of virtue”. In the course of the same essay, Russell quotes an ancient Greek writer who said that every beast was driven to the pasture with blows, and then makes the following ironical comment: “Let us, in any case, make sure of the blows; whether they lead to a pasture is a matter of minor importance—except, of course, to the beasts”. Russell’s criticism of Plato’s Republic is also characterized by a use of irony. This recurrent use of irony makes the essay quite entertaining, serious though it is as regards its ideas. Indeed, Russell shows an exceptional capacity to ridicule what is false, fanciful or ill-founded.
An Extensive Use of Irony to Expose Certain Absurdities in “The
Superior Virtue of the Oppressed”
Irony is all-pervasive in the essay, The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed. Here we have irony in the very title of the essay, because the superior virtue attributed to the oppressed sections of the population is purely imaginary; this superior virtue does not really exist: it is simply attributed to the oppressed class of people as a compensation for the exploitation to which they are subjected. Russell gives us various examples to illustrate his thesis, and a vein of irony runs through his analysis of the various cases with which he deals. For instance, he ironically observes that in the eighteenth century virtue was not to be found in courts but that court ladies could almost secure it by disguising themselves as shepherdesses because virtue was to be found among the poor. Russell quotes a couple of lines from a poem by Alexander Pope to show that Pope expressed a belief in the blessings of poverty; but then Russell ironically adds: “Nevertheless, for himself Pope preferred
and his villa at Twickenham”. What Russell means is that Pope himself tasted the joys of a fashionable life in the city or near the city, while recommending a poor life to people living in the countryside. Russell also makes an ironical reference to the British domination of London . In this context, Russell says that the Irish were regarded by the English as possessed of a special charm and mystical insight until 1921, when it was found that the expense of continuing to oppress them would be too heavy. Then Russell goes on to tell us in the same ironical vein that old English ladies still sentimentalize about the wisdom of the east, and American intellectuals about the “earth-consciousness” of the Negro. In dealing with men’s attitude towards the female sex, Russell again makes use of irony. A combination of the Madonna and the lady of chivalry, says Russell, was created in the nineteenth century as the ideal of the ordinary married woman. For a long time, women were regarded as a spiritual force and as the angelic part of humanity, but as soon as women began to demand and acquire equal rights with men, the belief in their superiority over men on spiritual grounds vanished. Thus the belief in women’s superiority was part and parcel of men’s determination to keep women inferior economically and politically. Russell also mocks at the Freudian theory of the unconscious in so far as it encourages the belief that children are little devils because all kinds of sinful thoughts fill their unconscious minds. In this connection Russell ironically asks whether this theory states the objective truth at last or it is merely an adult imaginative compensation for being no longer allowed to victimize children. And Russell ironically adds: “Let the Freudians answer, such for the others”. Thus Russell pokes fun at the Freudians. Again, there is much irony in the way Russell ridicules the communists who tend to discover a superior virtue in the proletariat. The communist intellectuals find the proletariat more amiable than other people. In other words, the tendency of the communist intellectuals is to idealize the proletariat, just as Wordsworth idealized children. It would be more rational, Russell wants to say, for intellectuals to advocate an improvement in the conditions of life of the proletariat to enable them to enjoy all the advantages of a good life; there is no point in building up fanciful theories such as the view that the proletariat is more amiable than other classes of people. Thus Russell gives evidence of his fertile and ready wit. In attacking what seems false or absurd to him, Russell never loses his temper and never becomes abusive; he makes use of his ironical wit and his talent for satire to expose the falseness and the absurdity Ireland
The Use of Irony to Ridicule “Modernity”
In the essay, On Being Modern-Minded, the very opening passage contains examples of Russell’s use of irony. Russell makes fun of the modern man who thinks that he stands at the apex of human intelligence and that the customs and beliefs of his ancestor have lost all their validity and value. And then, in the same ironical vein, Russell says that, if Hamlet is to be made interesting for a really modern reader, it must first be translated into the language of Marx or of Freud or, better still, into a jargon inconsistently combining both. Russell then refers to a review according to which what had been written about Hamlet in the past had lost its critical value, and makes fun of the author of that review by pointing out that the review itself would, by the reviewer’s own standards, soon become out of date. And then Russell ironically adds that the reviewer concerned would be quite happy to find his review becoming obsolete because the reviewer himself would soon have adopted the new fashion in critical opinions. Russell concludes this part of the argument by the following ironical remark: “Any other ideal for a writer could seem absurd and old-fashioned to the modern-minded man”. In the same essay Russell goes on to tell us ironically how fashion dominates opinion in modem times. Fashion makes thinking unnecessary and puts the highest intelligence within the reach of every one. It is not difficult to learn the correct use of such words as “complex”, “Oedipus”, “bourgeoise” and “deviation”; and nothing more is needed to make a brilliant writer or talker. Thus Russell exposes the shallowness of the modern-minded man who pretends to be a brilliant writer or talker by having learnt the use of certain words introduced into the language by modem thinkers. A man has merely to parade his knowledge of these words in order to be thought modern and up-to-date.
An Example of Irony from “The Future of Mankind”
An amusing example of irony occurs in the essay, The Future of Mankind, when Russell pokes fun at Stalin who then alive. In this connection Russell makes the following ironical remark: “Stalin at all times knows the truth about metaphysics, but you must not suppose that the truth this year is the same as it was last year”.
The Use of Irony to Expose the Absurdity of Certain Religious Beliefs
There are several examples of the use of irony in the essay, An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish. There is ironical humour in the statement that, if pious men are to be believed, God’s mercies are curiously selective. Russell here refers to the case of a priest who moved from one residence to another and who thanked God for his mercy when the house he had vacated caught fire and was burnt down. The implication here is that, if God was merciful to this particular priest, He must have been merciless towards the next priest who had occupied the house vacated by the first. A similar absurdity is pointed out in the case of George Borrow. Borrow thanked God for God’s mercy when he escaped being attacked by bandits who attacked and murdered some other travellers crossing a particular mountain after Borrow had crossed it. There is also ironical humour in Russell’s statement that religious persons conceive of God as a peeping Tom, whose omnipotence enables him to see through bathroom walls but who is foiled by bath-robes. Russell makes this statement in the context of the practice of nuns who never take a bath without wearing a bath-robe even when they are inside a bath-room where no man can see them. The plea of the nuns is that they wear bath-robes not against the eyes of men but against the eyes of God. When Russell says that the whole conception of sin is puzzling to him, he ironically adds: “doubtless, owing to my sinful nature”. In the same context, he says that, if God is capable of wanton cruelty, he should certainly not think Him worthy of worship, and then adds ironically: “But that only proves how sunk I am in moral depravity”. In connection with the initial opposition to the dissection of corpses, Russell ironically tells us that a French surgeon’s demand for dead bodies for purposes of dissection was received with horror by the Chinese, but that the surgeon was offered an unlimited supply of living criminals whom he could dissect. Again, Russell writes in an ironical vein: “One would suppose that God sees everything, but apparently this is a mistake. He does not see
, for you cannot be divorced in the sight of God”. ( Reno is an American city where divorce is easy to obtain. The implication is that either God is not present at Reno or that God does not see Reno .) Speaking of Mr. Homo, Russell ironically says: “If he is a Yugoslav, he boasts of his nation’s pigs; if a native of Reno , he boasts of leading the world in the matter of gambling”. Next, Russell refers ironically to the Biblical doctrine that God made man in His own image and that everything was created for man’s convenience. Here Russell ironically adds: “Even the white tails of rabbits, according to some theologians, have a purpose, namely to make it easier for sportsmen to shoot them”. Commenting on Adam’s eating the apple, Russell ironically says that originally all animals were vegetarians, and the season was always spring. And, in the same ironical tone, Russell goes on to say: If only Adam had been content with peaches, nectarines, grapes, pears,, and pineapples, mankind would not have lost some of the original blessings. It is noteworthy that all these ironical remarks have been made by Russell in order to expose the absurdities of certain religious beliefs which have for centuries been dominating the minds of human, beings. Monaco
The Use of Irony in the Essay “Ideas That Have Helped Mankind”
In the essay, Ideas That Have Helped Mankind, we have an example of what is known as devastating irony. Speaking of international disputes and the possibility of the next world war completely destroying the human race, Russell points out that narrow nationalistic ideas often blind the politicians to the disastrous consequences which can result from their squabbles. Russell in this context refers to the disputes about Persian oil, the disagreement as to Chinese trade, the quarrels between the Jews and the Muslims for the control of Palestine; and he then makes the following ironical and sarcastic remark: “Any patriotic person can see that these issues are of such importance as to make the extermination of mankind preferable to cowardly conciliation”. Another example of irony in this essay occurs when, after mentioning the brutalities committed by the Germans and the Russians, he writes: “And how about our noble selves? We would not do such deeds. Oh no! But we enjoy our juicy steaks and our hot rolls while German children die of hunger.” This ironical remark is intended to bring out the cruel impulses lurking at the bottom of the apparently generous mind of the British and the American people.
The Use of Irony in the Essay, “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind”
In the essay, Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind, Russell gives us an ironical picture of the minds of the Christian saints. These saints abstained from all the pleasures of the senses. Well and good. But these saints were not so kind and humane as we might think. Even they sought the gratification of their cruel impulses. They experienced the pleasure of contemplating the eternal tortures to which the pagans and heretics would be subjected to in the next life. Again, the two parables or fables offered by Russell in this essay are ironical in tone and intention. One of the parables pertains to a cow grazing in a field, and the other relates to the sense of rivalry among butchers and bakers By means of these fables, Russell makes us laugh at the absurdity of human beings who create certain myths to explain their misfortunes and the absurdity also of those who indulge in competitive practices with the object of making larger profits. There is irony too in the manner in which Russell describes the feelings of national, racial, and religious pride.
Irony to Demolish Obsolete Ideas and Beliefs
In all these cases, it is clear, Russell uses irony in order to attack superstitions, false notions, ridiculous beliefs, and fanciful suppositions. The use of irony makes these essays interesting, and lends them a spicy flavour. The use of irony is an important ingredient of Russell’s prose-style. His style would have been so much less entertaining without the use of this weapon which is so effective in demolishing ideas that have become obsolete and creeds that have become outworn. The use of irony greatly contributes to making these essays an intellectual treat for the reader.