QUESTION 113: OF IRONY
We must now consider irony, under which head there are two points of
(1) Whether irony is a sin?
(2) Of its comparison with boasting.
Article 1: Whether irony is a sin?
Objection 1: It seems that irony, which consists in belittling oneself, is not
a sin. For no sin arises from one's being strengthened by God: and yet
this leads one to belittle oneself, according to Prov. 30:1,2: "The
vision which the man spoke, with whom is God, and who being strengthened
by God, abiding with him, said, I am the most foolish of men." Also it is
written (Amos 7:14): "Amos answered . . . I am not a prophet." Therefore
irony, whereby a man belittles himself in words, is not a sin.
Objection 2: Further, Gregory says in a letter to Augustine, bishop of the
English (Regist. xii): "It is the mark of a well-disposed mind to
acknowledge one's fault when one is not guilty." But all sin is
inconsistent with a well-disposed mind. Therefore irony is not a sin.
Objection 3: Further, it is not a sin to shun pride. But "some belittle
themselves in words, so as to avoid pride," according to the Philosopher
(Ethic. iv, 7). Therefore irony is not a sin.
On the contrary, Augustine says (De Verb. Apost., Serm. xxix): "If thou
liest on account of humility, if thou wert not a sinner before lying,
thou hast become one by lying."
I answer that, To speak so as to belittle oneself may occur in two ways.
First so as to safeguard truth, as when a man conceals the greater things
in himself, but discovers and asserts lesser things of himself the
presence of which in himself he perceives. To belittle oneself in this
way does not belong to irony, nor is it a sin in respect of its genus,
except through corruption of one of its circumstances. Secondly, a person
belittles himself by forsaking the truth, for instance by ascribing to
himself something mean the existence of which in himself he does not
perceive, or by denying something great of himself, which nevertheless he
perceives himself to possess: this pertains to irony, and is always a sin.
Reply to Objection 1: There is a twofold wisdom and a twofold folly. For there is
a wisdom according to God, which has human or worldly folly annexed to
it, according to 1 Cor. 3:18, "If any man among you seem to be wise in
this world, let him become a fool that he may be wise." But there is
another wisdom that is worldly, which as the same text goes on to say,
"is foolishness with God." Accordingly, he that is strengthened by God
acknowledges himself to be most foolish in the estimation of men,
because, to wit, he despises human things, which human wisdom seeks.
Hence the text quoted continues, "and the wisdom of men is not with me,"
and farther on, "and I have known the science of the saints" [*Vulg.:
'and I have not known the science of the saints'].
It may also be replied that "the wisdom of men" is that which is
acquired by human reason, while the "wisdom of the saints" is that which
is received by divine inspiration.
Amos denied that he was a prophet by birth, since, to wit, he was not of
the race of prophets: hence the text goes on, "nor am I the son of a
Reply to Objection 2: It belongs to a well-disposed mind that a man tend to
perfect righteousness, and consequently deem himself guilty, not only if
he fall short of common righteousness, which is truly a sin, but also if
he fall short of perfect righteousness, which sometimes is not a sin. But
he does not call sinful that which he does not acknowledge to be sinful:
which would be a lie of irony.
Reply to Objection 3: A man should not commit one sin in order to avoid another:
and so he ought not to lie in any way at all in order to avoid pride.
Hence Augustine says (Tract. xliii in Joan.): "Shun not arrogance so as
to forsake truth": and Gregory says (Moral. xxvi, 3) that "it is a
reckless humility that entangles itself with lies."
Article 2: Whether irony is a less grievous sin than boasting?
Objection 1: It seems that irony is not a less grievous sin than boasting. For
each of them is a sin through forsaking truth, which is a kind of
equality. But one does not forsake truth by exceeding it any more than by
diminishing it. Therefore irony is not a less grievous sin than boasting.
Objection 2: Further, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. iv, 7), irony
sometimes is boasting. But boasting is not irony. Therefore irony is not
a less grievous sin than boasting.
Objection 3: Further, it is written (Prov. 26:25): "When he shall speak low,
trust him not: because there are seven mischiefs in his heart." Now it
belongs to irony to speak low. Therefore it contains a manifold
On the contrary, The Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 7): "Those who speak
with irony and belittle themselves are more gracious, seemingly, in their
I answer that, As stated above (Question , Articles ,4), one lie is more
grievous than another, sometimes on account of the matter which it is
about---thus a lie about a matter of religious doctrine is most
grievous---and sometimes on account of the motive for sinning; thus a
mischievous lie is more grievous than an officious or jocose lie. Now
irony and boasting lie about the same matter, either by words, or by any
other outward signs, namely, about matters affecting the person: so that
in this respect they are equal.
But for the most part boasting proceeds from a viler motive, namely, the
desire of gain or honor: whereas irony arises from a man's averseness,
albeit inordinate, to be disagreeable to others by uplifting himself: and
in this respect the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 7) that "boasting is a
more grievous sin than irony."
Sometimes, however, it happens that a man belittles himself for some
other motive, for instance that he may deceive cunningly: and then irony
is more grievous.
Reply to Objection 1: This argument applies to irony and boasting, according as a
lie is considered to be grievous in itself or on account of its matter:
for it has been said that in this way they are equal.
Reply to Objection 2: Excellence is twofold: one is in temporal, the other in
spiritual things. Now it happens at times that a person, by outward words
or signs, pretends to be lacking in external things, for instance by
wearing shabby clothes, or by doing something of the kind, and that he
intends by so doing to make a show of some spiritual excellence. Thus our
Lord said of certain men (Mt. 6:16) that "they disfigure their faces that
they may appear unto men to fast." Wherefore such persons are guilty of
both vices, irony and boasting, although in different respects, and for
this reason they sin more grievously. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic.
iv, 7) that it is "the practice of boasters both to make overmuch of
themselves, and to make very little of themselves": and for the same
reason it is related of Augustine that he was unwilling to possess
clothes that were either too costly or too shabby, because by both do men
Reply to Objection 3: According to the words of Ecclus. 19:23, "There is one that
humbleth himself wickedly, and his interior is full of deceit," and it is
in this sense that Solomon speaks of the man who, through deceitful
humility, "speaks low" wickedly.