On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates (Om Begrebet Ironi med stadigt Hensyn til Socrates) is Søren Kierkegaard's university thesis paper that he submitted in 1841. This thesis is the culmination of three years of extensive study on Socrates, as seen from the view point of Xenophon, Aristophanes, and Plato.

His thesis dealt with irony, and in particular, Socratic irony. In Part One, Kierkegaard regards Aristophanes' portrayal of Socrates, in Aristophanes' The Clouds to be the most accurate representation of the man. Whereas Xenophon and Plato portrayed Socrates seriously, Kierkegaard felt that Aristophanes best understood the intricacies of Socratic irony.

George Brandes discussed Kierkegaard's view of German Romanticism in his 2nd Volume of Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature (English translation 1906). He points out the irony of one age looking at another and criticizing the way they acted.

"We must remember," says Kierkegaard (Begrebet Iront, (The Concept of Irony) p. 322), "that Tieck and the entire Romantic School entered, or believed they entered, into relations with a period in which men were, so to speak, petrified, in final, unalterable social conditions. Everything was perfected and completed, in a sort of divine Chinese perfection, which left no reasonable longing unsatisfied, no reasonable wish unfulfilled. The glorious principles and maxims of ‘use and wont' were he objects of a pious worship; everything, including the absolute itself, was absolute; men refrained from polygamy; they wore peaked hats; nothing was without its significance. Each man felt, with the precise degree of dignity that corresponded to his position, what he effected, the exact importance to himself and to the whole, of his unwearied endeavour. There was no frivolous indifference to punctuality in those days; all ungodliness of that kind tried to insinuate itself in vain. Everything pursued its tranquil, ordered course; even the suitor went soberly about his business; he knew that he was going on a lawful errand, was taking a most serious step. Everything went by clockwork. Men waxed enthusiastic over the beauties of nature on Midsummer Day; were overwhelmed by the thought of their sins on the great fast days; fell in love when they were twenty, went to bed at ten o'clock. They married and devoted themselves to domestic and civic duties; they brought up families; in the prime of their manhood notice was taken in high places of their honourable and successful efforts; they lived on terms of intimacy with the pastor, under whose eye they did the many generous deeds which they knew he would recount in a voice trembling with emotion when the day came for him to preach their funeral sermon. They were friends in the genuine sense of the word, ein wirklicher Freund, wie man wirklicher Kanzleirat war. I fail to see anything typical in this description. Except that we wear round hats instead of peaked ones, every word of it might apply to the present day; there is nothing especially indicative of one period more than another. No; the distinctive feature of the period in question is the gifted writer's, the Romanticist's, conception of philistinism. In my criticism of Johan Ludvig Heiberg's first Romantic attempts, I wrote: "They (the Romanticists) looked upon it from the philosophical point of view as finality, from the intellectual, as narrow-mindedness; not, like us, from the moral point of view, as contemptibly.” Main Currents in Nineteenth, Century Literature (1906) Vol. 2 p. 28-29

In the shorter Part Two of the dissertation, Kierkegaard compares Socratic irony with contemporary interpretations of irony. Here he offers analysis of major 19th century writers and philosophers including Fichte, Schlegel, and Hegel. The book also contains his notes on Schelling's Berlin Lectures of 1841.




Though not by Kierkegaard himself counted among the works bearing on the "Indirect Communication" —presently to be explained— his magisterial dissertation, entitled "The Conception of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates," a book of 300 pages, is of crucial importance. It shows that, helped by the sage who would not directly help any one, he had found the master key: his own interpretation of life. Indeed, all the following literary output may be regarded as the consistent development of the simple directing thoughts of his firstling work. And we must devote what may seem a disproportionate amount of space to the explanation of these thoughts if we would enter into the world of his mind. --Lee Milton Hollander (1880–1972)[1]

See also

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