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Wikipedia defines verbal irony as

a statement in which the meaning that a speaker employs is sharply different from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed. The ironic statement usually involves the explicit expression of one attitude or evaluation, but with indications in the overall speech-situation that the speaker intends a very different, and often opposite, attitude or evaluation.

When I encounter postmodern philosophy I often receive the impression that irony must be involved. There is also a clear historic path from Nietzsche to postmodernism. But so far Nietzsche himself did not strike me as ironic, rather as an earnest and even grim writer. I've been re-reading Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music and found myself somewhat surprised.

Here is Nietzsche arguing at great length that one must be skeptical as to how far rationality (rational arguments) can reach. He chooses Socrates as his arch enemy, Socrates who is thought to have said "I know that I know nothing". Here he is writing in Germany in 1872 (when Prussia had just defeated France in battle and established the German Empire in 1871) about the tragic fate of heroes. Yet he reserves highest praise for a contemporary hero not for "hard" battlefield valor but for "soft" composition of music (which happened to be the occupation of his friend Richard Wagner, whom he then adored).

While these (what appear to me as) manifest contradictions may not give a fair impression of the entire book, let alone Nietzsche's larger body of work, they make me wonder: does Nietzsche hide an ironic meaning behind what he ostensibly presents and have later philosophers (and historians) judged him partly as an ironic writer?

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Nietzsche doesn't hide his irony, and I think it's impossible to understand him without recognizing that he deploys it often. And this is widely recognized by scholars. See this article for example.

At the fine-grained level, teasing and a kind of snorting sarcasm are among Nietzsche's most common modes of expression. His writing is riddled with jokes and snarky comments. Unfortunately for readers, understanding the humor — or indeed recognizing when he's having a laugh — often requires a pretty good familiarity with the history of philosophy, intellectual history, and arts in Europe up to his time. Nietzsche trained as a philologist, or what we would now call a "classicist," and he assumes his reader is familiar with his classical references. I think it's good practice, when reading Nietzsche, to wonder whether in any given sentence he is teasing.

At the broader scale, some of Nietzsche's works depend on irony for their entire structure. Zarathustra, for instance, is widely understood as an ironic figure at the center of an ironic, even satirical work.

However, that is not to say that we should Nietzsche as just having a laugh. Much of his humor, like typical satire, ultimately serves a serious point.

For a typical, arbitrary example, Nietzsche writes in full-flow in Genealogy of Morals:

they call it simply “the Kingdom of God,” as I said: for one is so humble in all things! In order to experience [the Kingdom of God], one needs a long life, a life beyond death—eternal life in fact, in order to take advantage for all eternity of the “Kingdom of God” as compensation for this earthly life “in faith, in love, in hope.”

Here it's clear that his remark that Christian morality is humble is sarcastic. But it serves the serious point that the Christian idealization of humility can play a part in a more general but less explicit arrogance. Then, in describing “The Kingdom of God” he jokes about how it is presented as compensation for what are thought to be key human virtues. I think that phrase is intended to be one a Christian might use. But if those virtues, in their specific Christian meanings, are really what it means to live well (he's asking more seriously), why should people need to be compensated for living that way? Perhaps they're not so good after all.

Nietzsche is sometimes read as merely negative, a critic of values and traditions who would tear them down. I'd suggest this is a misreading, too. In the end Nietzsche thinks a lot of things matter, or are important, and worth valuing. His way of arguing for that emphasizes an often sarcastic and teasing attack on widely held views and values. Some readers notice the humor and the obvious attack it is part of, and assume that's the end of his agenda. I'd suggest (in line with a lot of Nietzsche scholarship) that readers should look further for what he does value and take seriously, even if his extensive use of biting irony camouflages that a bit.

  • +1 for detailed answer (unfortunately cited article is behind a paywall.) I'll accept it if you can add a concise quote from one of Nietzsche's major works where he is clearly ironic yet makes a serious larger point. BTW, do you think he is typically also ironic when he talks about German Volk, German Culture, etc., for I haven't recognized irony in those parts (yet)? – Drux Mar 21 '14 at 17:02
  • From his point of view of cristianism as anti-natural and inevitably leading to decadence, it seems to me he wasn't ironic at all when he attacked the German/European/Western masses. – Rodrigo Mar 21 '14 at 18:24
  • Drux, added a quotation; see if it works for you as an example. I do think N is generally deeply critical of German culture. See page 3 here for instance. – ChristopherE Mar 21 '14 at 19:09
  • @ChristopherE Thx, the irony in the quotation is obvious also to me. Guess I've got to re-read more of Nietzsche with the 2nd possibility (also) in mind. If he was indeed ironic also in his proud statements about the primacy of the German Volk, etc., I wonder whether somebody like Hitler understood the irony when he treated that part of Nietzsche's legacy as an allied force. Also want to find out if Nietzsche is really better understood (also by this humble student of philosophy) as an ironic writer or whether he perhaps was adopted by ironic postmodern writers to their later cause :) – Drux Mar 21 '14 at 20:55
  • @Rodrigo I was thinking more about the parts where he makes bold nationalistic claims about German might; I am re-reading his works in chronological order, so maybe one encounters such claims only/mainly in his early output. – Drux Mar 21 '14 at 21:03
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Nietzsche is a frequent user of irony and sarcasm. The most extended example that comes to mind is the first half or so of Genealogy of Morality, Treatise 2.

Reading the first section or two, you may think it strange that he starts with the position that man is in essence a calculating or value-comparing animal, since this is so different to what he says elsewhere. This is because the essay is not intended to show his real theories about where debt, money, et cetera come from, but rather to show the insanity of many of the theories purveyed at the time. The bourgeois sensibility supposes that man is a calculating animal in essence, and that the first relationships were that of debtor and creditor. Nietzsche then proceeds to show that from this belief, so commonly held among polite society, one can easily derive an account that would be utterly shocking to that same polite society. It's an ironic mockery of other's presuppositions, not a proposal of truth. He goes into his own ideas later in the essay.

This is the biggest example I can think of but Nietzsche uses this same tactic quite frequently in polemics.

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