An ironic approach to the human condition

Several interpretations of the book of Qohelet in the last century increasingly emphasize the book’s use of ironic approaches. Often Qohelet’s irony is described as affirming one approach to life while ironically denouncing another.

In the classical sense, irony is the statement of one thing with the intention of suggesting something else. The word and its original meaning derive from a stock figure in early Greek comedy, the eiron, who mocks and finally triumphs over his boastful antagonist (alazon) by feigning ignorance and impotence.

While studiying the book of the Qohelet anyone can argue that Qohelet’s ironic strategy is more radical and comprehensive than this. The irony of Qohelet works within a network of contradictory views, all presented as potentially true.

As Qohelet affirms the advice of contradictory statements he places them in tension, destabilizing any one of the approaches to life contained in the text.

This ironic approach allows Qohelet to present unresolved paradoxes in a manner which would have been impossible in a logically stringent discourse.

Despite obvious frustration Qohelet resists the temptation to reduce contrasting observations to a simple formula. I suggest this as one reason for the book’s continuing relevance.

After suggesting a workable definition of irony, I discuss that the Qohelet’s use of irony, focusing on the book’s central discourse with the wisdom tradition.


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