The speech delivered by JNU student Kanhaiya Kumar after his bail stirred emotions throughout the country. My bookworm’s interest was kindled in places where a rare form of irony was employed: something said in jest but meant in total earnestness. One example is when Kumar referred to PM Narendra Modi’s recent tweet that simply said Satyameva Jayate in the context of the HRD Minister’s speech in Lok Sabha. Kanhaiya turned it around: “I, too, say Satyameva Jayate,” he said. Returning from the high of the speech, my mind wandered to the beginning of irony as a concept, and to the man who is seen as the world’s first historically ironic figure: Socrates.
Celebrated as the founder of Western Philosophy, Socrates had no philosophy to call his own. He wrote nothing. His dialogues with various intellectuals and citizens of his time were written down by his pupil Plato, and those texts remain our main access to his mind.
As an example of what Socrates did, consider the dialogue named Euthyphro. Here, Socrates draws the eponymous lawyer into a conversation about the concept of piety. Socrates feigns complete ignorance himself, and repeatedly exhorts Euthyphro to clarify the terms by which he defines piety. As the conversation progresses, one sees the ironic mechanism by which Socrates leads Euthyphro to contradict himself again and again, so much that by the end, finding any and all of his ideas baseless, Euthyphro finds it better to run away.
Towards the end of 5th Century BC, Socrates stands trial for sedition (or heresy: both meant the same in ancient Greece). The charge against him is twin-fold: disbelief in old gods and introduction of new ones, and the corruption of youth.
Plato’s Apology is an account of Socrates’ defence, where Socrates claims to be the gadfly that the horse of Athens needed to remain alert. Of the charges, he says that his ignorance regarding the gods must itself be the defense.
The State, suspecting an ironic element in this ignorance, or considering it unacceptable on its own, finds Socrates guilty. Yet the unique humanitarianism of ancient Greece allows him to define his own punishment. It is here that Socrates’ world-historical position justifies itself. When the simpler punishments are disallowed, and Socrates has to choose between exile and death, he chooses the latter; and he extends his ignorance to death too, saying that he knows it neither as good nor as evil. This means that the harshest punishment the State knows might not be a punishment for Socrates. Ironically, then, the State is rendered powerless even as it exerts that power to its highest capacity.
The biggest tragedy in history is that it is possible for a man, whose time has come, to represent an idea and yet be unauthorised. When this clash between ‘The Idea’ and ‘The Authority’ happens, a sacrifice is demanded by both sides. It remains to be seen if the recent JNU episodes require interpretation through such grave historical templates.
(The writer is publishing his first novel in October 2016)