Preface & chapter 2: Emptying Ourselves of What We Think We Know


"To find the 'canon' of Western literature back in the hands, not only of a man who knows that canon, but who loves it as a true man of letters and as one who unabashedly shares the vision which suffused those centuries, is a pleasure almost beyond telling. At the risk of sounding frivolous, one really wants to say, 'Drop everything and read this.'" - Thomas Howard


But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.

Tacitus, Annals 15-44

How pleasant it is to forgive the errors of historians. Here we have Tacitus, the great chronicler of decadence among the Roman aristocracy of the first century. He is explaining how the tyrant Nero deflected suspicion from himself by blaming the Christians in Rome not merely for setting the city on fire, but for perfect monstrosity – "hatred against mankind." Tacitus sees the technical injustice of the charge, but does not shed a tear for the Christians, whose abominations (Christians were typically accused of cannibalism) deserve no compassion. Nor do they stir his curiosity. They are footnotes in his epic account of Roman history.

Tacitus could not know that that small sect, whose beliefs were other than what he supposed, would survive to overcome the Romans, and that two thousand years later, Christianity would be the dominant religious and cultural force in the world, while his pagan Rome would be no more. With the assistance of Tacitus himself, Nero would become the imbecilic emblem of all that was ignoble and debased in the great city; while the chief Christians whom Nero executed, Peter and Paul, would be revered as saints. Needless to say, the otherwise clear-sighted Tacitus could not see exactly what was going on. He was but a man of his day.

What of the men of our day? Can they see Christianity any the more clearly? Tacitus's mistake was born of unfamiliarity; ours are born of overfamiliarity. We are like people who live in the shadow of a great and rugged mountain, who never notice how it alters even the light of the day, from the rising to the setting sun.

Specifically, many people who teach and write about European literature do not understand the heart of Christianity. That is a problem – as great as if one attempted to discuss the poetry of Islam, without knowing what it was like, from the heart, to be a Muslim. It is compounded by the pervasiveness of Christian images and ideas in our culture. They give one a self-deceptive ease in talking about Christianity. Then, when the faith proves more subtle than one's caricature, that same overfamiliarity tempts one to patter about "contradictions" and "tensions." The critic sees holes where there are but spaces in a most intricate lacework.

Along with overfamiliarity steals a weariness of the intellect and the imagination. Man abhors an empty altar. He longs to lay his will at the feet of one worthy to be obeyed. But when he detaches himself from the ground of his being, and when his idols prove to be the cheats of his own fancy, he retires into skepticism. Henryk Sienkiewicz captures the mood in the first sentence of his epic Quo Vadis? He reveals the lassitude of a world deprived of the wonder of worship: "Petronius woke only about midday and as usual greatly wearied." The master of Nero's games requires the ministrations of bath attendants, slaves all, to rouse his "slothful blood" and quicken him, "as if he had risen from the dead." But Petronius has not risen from the dead, and is not yet suited to see the One who has. For now, when he hears of a certain Paul preaching the resurrection, he smiles, as if he had heard it all before.

Whether a book like this can win a hearing from our contemporary Petronii and Petroniae who teach literature, I cannot tell. But I have a more important motive. Esteeming the experts too highly, many Christians have abandoned their literature to the mainly secular scholars that inhabit our universities. But Shakespeare, Herbert, Dickens, and Hopkins did not write for scholars in universities. What would have been the point? For the sake of the literature itself, meant to be loved by anyone who could read or attend a play, Christians should reclaim their heritage. This book is written to assist them in their quest.

Finally, I am writing to meditate upon the mysteries of the Christian faith. I have chosen irony as my organizing principle, partly because the subject interests me, and partly because it is often assumed that irony and faith are incompatible. Irony corrodes any stable supposition of truth, say some; but I think it is rather skepticism that corrodes the possibilities for irony. I do not think that irony must lead to nihilism. If one examines the evidence of Christian literature, one might conclude quite the opposite: that the richest irony presupposes truth and order. Be that as it may, in this book I hope to save irony from its worst friends. In doing so, I pray that I may be touched by the Christian mysteries of incarnation and transcendence, free will and design, sin and redemption, blindness and vision, freedom and submission, and, most of all, the subtle strand that links human love to the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Chapter 2

Emptying Ourselves of What We Think We Know

Is it possible to come to wrong conclusions on every important point? If our criticism were subject to random chance, we would be bound to get many things right. But the more intelligent we are, the more consistent our conclusions will be, and if we start from false principles, the more consistently wrong they will be. Take for example a young critic of medieval and Renaissance English poetry. Suppose that he is thoroughly conversant with the language of those old texts. Suppose also that he knows the history of England – and not just the wool trade or the tin mines or other now fashionable niches of economic history. Grant that he knows it well enough to place the poetry in its historic context, the better to understand what the words on the page mean. Grant him the rare knack for catching the well-turned phrase or the well-hewn line. Such a critic must still fail if he does not also understand what it might be like to believe in the Christianity which was the shared faith of Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Shakespeare, Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, and Milton.

Can such an understanding be attained? If not, why read books? I am a great lover of the poet Lucretius, though he is a materialist and, for all practical purposes, an atheist, while I am not. When I read Lucretius, the skeptic, the satirist, and the scientist in me can relish his attack upon superstition. So could the ancient Christian polemicist Lactantius, who enjoyed the poetry and then used it as a sabre against paganism. But Lactantius could hardly have done so had he not entered into the spirit of Lucretius.

For the sake of understanding materialist poetry, then, I become provisionally and temporarily a materialist. As C. S. Lewis says, what the critic requires is not so often a suspension of disbelief as a suspension of belief. It is too easy to respond that such self-transformation is an illusion. Of course we cannot leave our minds behind. The point is that our minds possess myriads of possibilities, usually dormant, inactive, unrealized. Good reading sets them in motion. For the sake of Lucretius's great poetry I allow the materialist in me to take the stage and declaim. That Lucretius's voice is still bound up with my own does not matter. It could not be otherwise; nor do I require it. All I require is that humbling release of what I am and what I believe now, surrendering to what I might have been or to what I might have believed had I been more like Lucretius. I say with Alyosha Karamazov, who tries to understand his brother Ivan, "I want to suffer too" (The Brothers Karamazov, 287). I surrender in imaginative love.

Now there is a catch to this surrender. The farther you are from the faith of the author you are reading, the more readily you will acknowledge the need to surrender yourself, but the more difficult it will be. The closer you are to the author's faith, the easier the surrender would be, could you ever be prevailed upon to see the need. In the case of Christianity, it is as Chesterton puts it. You had better be in the faith completely or out of it completely. The worst position, if you want to understand it, is to be partly in and partly out, or to have a passing, culturally based familiarity with its surface. You are neither so familiar with it as to probe its depths, nor is it so strange that you are moved to approach it with care. You take the attitude of Petronius, or of "Tertium Quid." You've seen it all before.

Apply a two-dimensional Christianity to the mature allegories of Spenser and Milton, and at once you will discover discrepancies and incoherence. Why don't Spenser's Guyon and the Palmer kill the witch Acrasia? Are they still tempted by her Bower of Bliss? Why do the devils in hell discourse on philosophy? Has Milton rejected his classical education? Are faith and reason to part forever? Many such false dilemmas arise because the critic has failed to understand the subtleties of the Christian faith.

And Christianity is the subtlest of faiths, yet of a wondrous simplicity. "I thank thee," Jesus observes with biting irony, "O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes" (Matt. 11:25). The kernel of the faith can be grasped by a child. We are sinners. The Lord who created us not to sin sent his obedient Son to die for us. That Son rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father. We may join him in heaven if we have faith.

Christianity is the opposite of a mystery religion: the creed is short and openly professed. Yet its simple tenets belie unfathomable depth. "Matter is a form of energy." We all know this Einsteinian truth – a child could be taught it, and, to the limits of his capacity, really believe it. But what does it imply? What does it mean? "There are three persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Again, a child could learn the formula, but what does the Trinity imply? The wise and prudent are struck dumb. A religious anthropologist may chatter about the symbolism of three, and how all cultures attach a mystical importance to it, and on and learnedly on. But to the clean of heart it may reveal the mystery of existence itself. So Dante implies in his invocation to God:

O Light that dwell within Thyself alone,
who alone know Thyself, are known, and smile
with Love upon the Knowing and the Known! (Paradise, 33.124-26)

Merely to exist, to be a knowable object, is to have been made by the God of knowledge who knows and is known, whose being is love, and who has loved into being all things that have been, are, and are to come.

Pride is blinding; the moral problem becomes epistemological. Suppose we assume that the lanky fellow across the table is a dullard. When he remarks of someone else's immorality, "For them as likes that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they likes," we will find our prejudice confirmed. The statement is tautological and evasive. But if we know that the man was Lincoln, we might see the wry condemnation hiding beneath the hayseed humor. We will know, when he assumes the self-deprecatory air, not to take him at his word. When we later discover the same man condemning that behavior, we will know that it is not he who is inconsistent, but we who underestimated him.

Irony and Knowledge

What does this have to do with irony and faith? Much, if we consider what irony is.

Until fairly recently, most writers on irony have defined it as speech that means something other than (or opposite to) what is literally said. The problem with this definition is that it is at once too narrow, too broad, and beside the point. Liars mean other than what they say, but the lie is not in itself ironic; and you may, with irony, mean exactly what you say, but in a way that your audience (or perhaps a putative audience, more foolish than those who are actually listening to you) will not understand. The definition is beside the point, since moments of dramatic irony, or what some have called "irony of event," may not involve speech at all, but only strange turns of fate. Contemporary literary theorists have attempted to distill the essence of irony, that which underlies both the winking assertions of ignorance made by Socrates, and concatenations of events that seem (but only seem) to suggest design, or that demolish any sense of design. Irony, they assert, is a universal solvent: no theology or epistemology can contain it. It dissolves – it "deconstructs" – every assertion of absolute truth.[1]

The trouble with this view of irony now prevalent in the academy is that it enshrines one sort of ironic statement or event and ignores the rest. Worse, the kind of irony it enshrines is destructive, and the first thing it destroys is irony. If there is no objective truth – if irony must undermine and destabilize – then, once we have noticed the fact, there is no more point for irony, just as it makes no sense for the skeptic to embark on a quest for knowledge, when there is no knowledge to be had. How, after all, does one then proceed, by irony, to undermine the "truth" that every truth can be undermined? If all speech is inherently slippery, why trouble oneself with the subtleties of irony? Why pour oil on a sheet of ice?

But in fact, irony commonly is used to exalt rather than undermine. It can stun us with wonder and raise our eyes to behold a truth we had missed. All kinds of unsuspected truths, particularly those combined in paradoxes, await our attention, but we are too dulled by habit to notice. Then irony – verbal or dramatic – awakes us. Consider:

  1. A bystander watches as a professor, holding forth to his suffering companion on the epistemological subtleties of irony, steps dangerously near a banana peel.

  2. In King Lear, Gloucester tries to refuse the help of his son Edgar, whom he cannot see and does not know: "I have no way and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw." (4.1. 18-19)

  3. In II Henry IV (and apparently in real life, too) the usurper King Henry, who had wanted to atone for his sin by fighting in the Crusades, removes to die in a room called "Jerusalem," noting that it had been foretold to him that he would die in Jerusalem. (4.5. 236-40 )

  4. St. Paul sings a hymn of Christ's Atonement: Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2: 5-11)

  5. In Moliere's comedy Tartuffe, the jealous husband Orgon squirms under the table where his wife Elmire has put him, listening as his protégé Tartuffe, the one man he is amazingly not suspicious of, attempts to seduce her. (4.5)

What do the cases have in common? The first verges upon slapstick; the second involves a lesson learned in an unusual way; the third hinges upon a play on words; the fourth is a theological reversal of expectations; the fifth is a piece of staged ignorance. Each involves a problem of knowing. The irony lies in a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows. This clash is staged to let the reader or the audience in on the secret. We are, then, not merely watching ignorance, but ignorance unaware of itself and about to learn better, or at least about to teach by way of its own incorrigibility. The irony reveals, with a kind of electric shock, order where randomness was expected, or complexity and subtlety where simplicity was expected.

Each case involves a staged clash of incompatible levels of knowledge:

  1. The professor thinks he knows a lot about the subtlest things, but misses the humble and material banana at his feet. The bystander probably knows a great deal less about irony, but he does see the hazard and, if he possesses either a profound moral sensibility or none at all, will stand back to enjoy the tumble. The apparent intellectual hierarchy belies a richer order: the great intellect is not so wise. He "deserves" to slip, falling victim to the very thing, irony, about which he declaims so proudly. Had he known less about it, he might have looked to the sidewalk in time.

  2. Only after Gloucester loses his eyes does he "see" how rashly and unjustly he has treated his son Edgar. The irony, a reversal of expectations accompanied by a deepening knowledge, is richly theological as well. For there is an order at work, bringing about Gloucester's sight through blindness, and his reconciliation with his son through suffering. The man before him is that wronged son, whom he has seen in disguise and taken for one Tom-a-Bedlam, the "poor, bare, forked animal" that "unaccommodated man" is (King Lear, 3-4, 105-106). Now it is the wronged Gloucester reduced to misery who requires assistance from Mad Tom. Gloucester does not yet understand what his "way" is, why he has been blinded and what he must suffer still. He says he has no way, yet his meeting with Edgar shows that a way has been designed for him nonetheless. He will walk towards a final, terrible resignation to his punishment and reconciliation with his son. And Edgar will be his eyes – his spiritual guide – along this way.

  3. We "know" that Henry might have died in any room or might have died falling from a horse on a holiday hunt. He had hoped to die in the Holy Land, and when he learns the name of the room, he finally sees the design and resigns himself to its justice. For us, that death feels right – better than if he had died a-crusading, better than if he had been hanged at the Tower of London. The usurper should not be granted a martyr's death; better that he should be disappointed by his hope to expiate the crime. The place of his death reveals a more subtle order than either he or we had expected.

  4. The chasm between human expectations and divine will has never been sung more powerfully. The prophet cries, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord" (Isa., 55:8), but here Saint Paul fleshes out that cry with specifics that seem impossible to hold simultaneously. If Christ is equal with God, why should he, or how can he, empty himself, making himself of no reputation? How can God become obedient to God, obedient unto shameful death on a cross? how can submission exalt? For Christ is not exalted despite his humility, but in it and through it. For the believer, then, Paul's hymn reveals complexities in the notions of equality and hierarchy: because Christ was the Son of God, he set aside that equality, and in his obedience he is set above all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. He is equal to the Father because he obeys.

  5. This brilliant stage business shows dramatic irony at its purest. Of this double-plot no one, not even the audience, can see everything. Elmire knows she is chaste, but as she leads Tartuffe on, to prove to her husband under the table what a fool he has been to trust the charlatan, she must worry lest her trick backfire and Tartuffe ravish her before Orgon manages to get out from under there. For she cannot see him, and cannot be sure that he will come to his senses even when he hears Tartuffe making love to her. Meanwhile Orgon can only fry in imagination: he hears but cannot see the couple, and must restrain his wrath and jealousy long enough to let Tartuffe hang himself for certain. The audience, too, can see Tartuffe and Elmire, and so they know what Orgon must learn; but they cannot see Orgon, and must guess, from his awkward and frantic movements under the table, what must be going through his mind. Finally, there is Tartuffe, master trickster, steeped in ignorance, believing himself so clever yet missing so obvious a trick – for I do not think Orgon can remain as still as a churchmouse!

It is, then, not the unexpectedness of a thing that produces irony – a violin flung at a man's head is unexpected, but not ironic – nor is it ignorance that produces irony – after all, if he saw the violin he would duck. Irony arises, rather, from the ignorance of unseen or unexpected order (or, as it may happen, disorder), from the failure to note subtleties, or from seeing subtleties that are not there, especially when the ignorance and the failure are highlighted before observers in a better position to see the truth. That is the sort of thing we feel as ironic. A violin flung at a man's head is not ironic. A man missing a sharp as he tries to hum the Kreutzer sonata is not ironic. The same man botching Beethoven as the violin sails his way – now that is ironic.


[1]  For my money, the best and still most evenhanded discussion of irony per se is Wayne Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1974); I am indebted to his insight into the relationship between irony and knowledge.



Anthony Esolen. "Preface." and "Emptying Ourselves of What We Think We Know." Chapter 2 from Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007) i-iii; 12-17.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from ISI Books.


Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, where his classes are featured in the college's Western Civilization Core Curriculum. He is the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen has published many scholarly articles and essays, including several on Renaissance literature. A graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Esolen is proficient in Latin, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Greek. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Debra and their two children. Anthony Esolen is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2007 ISI Books

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