Anthony Esolen’s Ironies of Faith is a very dated kind of book. There is nothing of the first-person narrative that adorns modern books, where the author tells us why something matters to him.
Anthony Esolen, ISI Books, 412 pages, $18
Anthony Esolen’s Ironies of Faith is a very dated kind of book. There is nothing of the first-person narrative that adorns modern books, where the author tells us why something matters to him. There are no personal anecdotes, no recollections of childhood sexual abuse. The attentive reader will also search in vain for references to contemporary cultural icons. We are even left to wonder how the author feels about global warming.
Yet Ironies of Faith will be read when today’s cultural detritus is long forgotten. Nothing is so stale as the recently trendy. What lasts are works of timeless scholarship, such as Esolen’s magnificent book. With a deft hand, Esolen takes the reader through the monuments of Western literature in search of irony and laughter, and along the way he teaches us lesson after lesson about the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, George Herbert, Graham Greene — always bringing forth something new, something we had overlooked. The author is a minimalist. He leaves for others the broader questions of human rights and social justice, and concerns himself with smaller matters: sin, holiness, and salvation.
Esolen adopts a very singular definition of irony. Normally, irony is understood to involve a tripartite relationship. The ironist speaks at two levels. The sophisticated listener (you and I, gentle reader) hears and understands both levels. However, there is another, more naive, listener, who understands only the more basic level. Socrates, the supreme ironist, confesses that he is the most ignorant of men. If we believe him we are naive, for the sophisticated listener understands that Socrates’s confession is really a boast that he is wiser than the foolishly wise who knows less than he thinks he knows. Similarly, when Ulysses S. Grant said that "I know only two songs—one is Yankee Doodle and the other isn’t," we would be naive to ignore the irony. What Grant really meant is that the victor of Vicksburg had better things to do than to worry about songs. So understood, the ironist signals a sense of superiority over a naive listener.
Esolen’s irony is just the opposite: irony without an ironist. Here the speaker is the butt of the piece. We, the listener, understand all; but the speaker sees little, and we are permitted to laugh at him. "The irony lies in a stark clash between what [the speaker] thinks he knows and what he really knows." The audience is in on the secret, but the speaker’s ignorance is an ignorance unaware of itself. I don’t know if this counts as irony, but Esolen’s butt, the learned fool, is well chosen. The pretended expert, the cynic, the conspiracy theorist, the insufferable know-it-all, the ubersophisticate, deserves all that Esolen gives him, and never more so than when he sees his pretended knowledge as a permission slip for superciliousness and hatred.
If the wise fool knows less than he thinks he does, Esolen’s hero, the foolishly wise, knows more than he is thought to know. He is the Holy Russian Fool, Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, who somehow learned more about life in a monastery than his brother did among the intellectuals of St. Petersburg. She is also Pompilia in Browning’s The Ring and the Book, a morally pure sinner made a plaything by cunning and devious men, who dies scorned by all, her secret holiness glimpsed only by Innocent III. Ranged against both are the sophisticates, who believe nothing, who feel nothing; the liberals whom Dostoyevsky despised — the old liberal Miusov, who glories in his memories of the 1848 Paris revolution and who lives off his 1,000 serfs. Ivan Karamazov understands the type. "I could never understand how one could love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance."
Like St. Paul, Esolen would have us be fools for Christ’s sake, for "the foolishness of God is wiser than men" (1 Cor 1:25). The wise fool is St. Francis of Assisi, or Thomas à Kempis’s pilgrim, who would rather feel contrition than know the definition thereof. Most of all, he is a child, a Child who confounds his elders in the temple, a child who can regain radical innocence. We have it on good authority that, unless we become like little children, we shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Esolen’s deepest irony concerns the search for holiness, the man who loves God without knowing it. He is Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, who commits suicide, but might have had time to repent before he loses consciousness. A man who dies not for love of his wife or mistress, but possibly out of a mistaken love of God. It is God’s irony to find holiness in a sinner, and perhaps to forgive the sin.
F. H. Buckley is the Foundation Professor of law at George Mason School of Law and the author of The Morality of Laughter (University of Michigan, 2003).