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Now, according to the romanticist, a man can show that he lays hold imaginatively upon the infinite only by expanding beyond what his age holds to be normal and central its conventions in short; nay more, he must expand away from any centre he has himself achieved. For to hold fast to a centre of any kind implies the acceptance of limitations and to accept limitations is to be finite, and to be finite is, as Blake says, to become mechanical; and the whole of romanticism is a protest against the mechanizing of life. No man therefore deserves to rank as a transcendental egotist unless he has learned to mock not merely at the convictions of others but at his own, unless he has become capable of self-parody. "Objection," says Nietzsche, "evasion, joyous distrust, and love of irony are signs of health; everything absolute belongs to pathology."
One cannot repeat too often that what the romanticist always sees at the centre is either the mere rationalist or else the philistine; and he therefore inclines to measure his own distinction by his remoteness from any possible centre. Now thus to be always moving away from centrality is to be paradoxical, and romantic irony is, as Friedrich Schlegel says, identical with paradox. Irony, paradox and the idea of the infinite have as a matter of fact so many points of contact in romanticism that they may profitably be treated together.
Friedrich Schlegel sought illustrious sponsors in the past for his theory of irony. Among others he invoked the Greeks and put himself in particular under the patronage of Socrates. But Greek irony always had a centre. The ironical contrast is between this centre and something
1 Beyond Good and Evil, ch. IV.
that is less central. Take for example the so-called irony of Greek tragedy. The tragic character speaks and acts in darkness as to his impending doom, regarding which the spectator is comparatively enlightened. To take another example, the German romanticists were especially absurd in their attempts to set up Tieck as a new Aristophanes. For Aristophanes, however wild and irresponsible he may seem in the play of his imagination, never quite loses sight of his centre, a centre from which the comic spirit proceeds and to which it returns. Above all, however far he may push his mockery, he never mocks at his own convictions; he never, like Tieck, indulges in self-parody. A glance at the parabasis of almost any one of his plays will suffice to show that he was willing to lay himself open to the charge of being unduly didactic rather than to the charge of being aimless. The universe of Tieck, on the other hand, is a truly romantic universe: it has no centre, or what amounts to the same thing, it has at its centre that symbol of spiritual stagnation, the philistine, and his inability to rise above a dull didacticism. The romanticist cherishes the illusion that to be a spiritual vagrant is to be exalted on a pinnacle above the plain citizen. According to Professor Stuart P. Sherman, the Irish dramatist Synge indulges in gypsy laughter from the bushes,1 a good description of romantic irony in general.
The irony of Socrates, to take the most important example of Greek irony, is not of the centrifugal character. Socrates professes ignorance, and this profession seems very ironical, for it turns out that his ignorance is more enlightened, that is, more central than other men's
1 On Contemporary Literature, 206. The whole passage is excellent.
swelling conceit of knowledge. It does not follow that Socrates is insincere in his profession of ignorance; for though his knowledge may be as light in comparison with that of the ordinary Athenian, he sees that in comparison with true and perfect knowledge it is only darkness. For Socrates was no mere rationalist; he was a man of insight, one would even be tempted to say a mystic were it not for the corruption of the term mystic by the romanticists. This being the case he saw that man is by his very nature precluded from true and perfect knowledge. A path, however, opens up before him towards this knowledge, and this path he should seek to follow even though it is in a sense endless, even though beyond any centre he can attain within the bounds of his finite experience there is destined always to be something still more central. Towards the mere dogmatist, the man who thinks he has achieved some fixed and final centre, the attitude of Socrates is that of scepticism. This attitude implies a certain degree of detachment from the received beliefs and conventions of his time, and it is all the more important to distinguish here between Socrates and the romanticists because of the superficial likeness; and also because there is between the Rousseauists and some of the Greeks who lived about the time of Socrates a real likeness. Promethean individualism was already rife at that time, and on the negative side it resulted then as since in a break with tradition, and on the positive side in an oscillation between the cult of force and the exaltation of sympathy, between admiration for the strong man and compassion for the weak. It is hardly possible to overlook these Promethean elements in the plays of Euripides. Antisthenes and the cynics, again, who pro
fessed to derive from Socrates, established an opposition between "nature" and convention even more radical in some respects than that established by Rousseau. Moreover Socrates himself was perhaps needlessly unconventional and also unduly inclined to paradox- as when he suggested to the jury who tried him that as an appropriate punishment he should be supported at the public expense in the prytaneum. Yet in his inner spirit and in spite of certain minor eccentricities, Socrates was neither a superman nor a Bohemian, but a humanist. Now that the critical spirit was abroad and the traditional basis for conduct was failing, he was chiefly concerned with putting conduct on a positive and critical basis. In establishing this basis his constant appeal is to actual experience and the more homely this experience the more it seems to please him. While working out the new basis for conduct he continues to observe the existing laws and customs; or if he gets away from the traditional discipline it is towards a stricter discipline; if he repudiates in aught the common sense of his day, it is in favor of a commoner sense. One may say indeed that Socrates and the Rousseauists (who are in this respect like some of the sophists) are both moving away from convention but in opposite directions. What the romanticist opposes to convention is his "genius," that is his unique and private self. What Socrates opposes to convention is his universal and ethical self. According to Friedrich Schlegel, a man can never be a philosopher but only become one; if at any time he thinks that he is a philosopher he ceases to become one. The romanticist is right in thus thinking that to remain fixed at any particular point is to stagnate. Man is, as Nietzsche says, the being who must always surpass him
self, but he has — and this is a point that Nietzsche did not sufficiently consider a choice of direction in his everlasting pilgrimage. The man who is moving away from some particular centre will always seem paradoxical to the man who remains at it, but he may be moving away from it in either the romantic or the ethical direction. In the first case he is moving from a more normal to a less normal experience, in the second case he is moving towards an experience that is more profoundly representative. The New Testament abounds in examples of the ethical paradox - what one may term the paradox of humility. (A man must lose his life to find it, etc.) It is possible, however, to push even this type of paradox too far, to push it to a point where it affronts not merely some particular convention but the good sense of mankind itself, and this is a far graver matter. Pascal falls into this excess when he says that sickness is the natural state of the Christian. As a result of its supreme emphasis on humility Christianity from the start inclined unduly perhaps towards this type of paradox. It is hardly worth while, as Goethe said, to live seventy years in this world if all that one learn here below is only folly in the sight of God.
One of the most delicate of tasks is to determine whether a paradox occupies a position more or less central than the convention to which it is opposed. A somewhat similar problem is to determine which of two differing conventions has the greater degree of centrality. For one convention may as compared with another seem highly paradoxical. In 1870, it was announced at Peking that his Majesty the Emperor had had the good fortune to catch the small-pox. The auspiciousness of small-pox was part