Socratic Irony: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 1:55 Example: Socrates
  • 3:42 Example: Detective Goren
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Ironically, playing dumb can sometimes be the best way to show how smart you are. Learn more about this practice known as 'Socratic irony' in this lesson, where you'll also get to see it in action!


Have your parents ever pretended not to know about something you'd done, only to ask you a series of seemingly innocent questions leading to your inevitable confession? They may not realize it, but parents everywhere employ Socratic irony to get to the bottom of things, since it is the practice of simulating ignorance in order to reveal the errors in another person's viewpoint or argument.

There are several types of 'irony' out there, but Socratic irony is the one that started it all. The Greek term 'eironeia' was first used by Plato in his Republic (c. 380 B.C.) to refer to the type of 'feigned ignorance' so often displayed by Socrates. This famous Greek philosopher on whom Plato's dialogues centered was in the habit of pretending to know much less than he actually did. While also subtly ingratiating himself to his various interlocutors, Socrates would play dumb, asking them a series of ostensibly harmless questions related to the particular topic of the day. By carefully choosing the questions he posed, though, Socrates was able to use the answers his fellow conversationalists provided to demonstrate their true lack of knowledge in areas where they often claimed to be experts.

Socrates employed this method of questioning not to make his companions look foolish (although he didn't seem to mind it), but rather as a means of directing people on their own paths to the truth. For this reason, in the world of education, the act of using series of questions to guide students toward an answer instead of simply providing them with it is known as the Socratic Method. However, Socratic irony may also be used in a manner comparable to your parents' implementation of it. In the case of your parents or perhaps a detective, Socratic irony's purpose is to expose the truth that the person being questioned is trying to hide, but which the interrogator already knows. Keep reading to see how this sort of irony is used by both its originator, as well as a famous TV detective!

Example: Socrates

In a particularly comedic dialogue named for Socrates' interlocutor Ion, the philosopher uses his trademark irony to prove to this poetic performer that he's not as secure in his expertise as he'd like to believe. For Socrates, poetry was a technical art, and in order to master such an art, he believed it required knowledge of all its forms and contributors. By asking Ion a series of questions on his specialized performances (the works of Homer), Socrates is able to lead Ion to the disconcerting realization that he's probably not as awesome a rhapsode as he claims to be:

'Ion: Really, Socrates, it's worth hearing how well I've got Homer dressed up…

Socrates: Really, I shall make time to hear that later. Now I'd just like an answer to this: Are you so wonderfully clever about Homer alone - or also about Hesiod and Archilochus?

Ion: No, no. Only about Homer. That's good enough, I think…

Socrates: Now you claim that Homer and the other poets…speak on the same subjects, but not equally well…

Ion: Yes, and it's true…

Socrates: You're superb! So if we say that Ion is equally clever about Homer and the other poets, we'll make no mistake…

Ion: Then how in the world do you explain what I do, Socrates? When someone discusses another poet I pay no attention, and I have no power to contribute anything worthwhile: I simply doze off…

Socrates: That's not hard to figure out, my friend. Anyone can tell that you are powerless to speak about Homer on the basis of knowledge or mastery. Because if your ability came by mastery, you would be able to speak about all the other poets, as well.'

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