That which is stretched too far will snap back.
That which uses too much power will become enfeebled.
That which is built up too high will topple over.
That which is overloaded with riches will soon be raided.
The weak will eventually overcome the strong—
This principle reveals the value of humility.
Just as fish who rise up to the surface are consumed,
Strength, when vaunted, is vanquished.
As we’ve said here already, the Tao Te Ching is full of irony. Not that we’re exactly sure what irony means, of course. Then again, no one does! Irony is one of those words, like Tao, which is more or less undefinable. There’s even a site called isitironic.com on which asks people to judge whether something is ironic or not. But nearly every one of the examples results in a standoff.
Remember the kerfuffle over Alanis Morrisette’s supposed misunderstanding of irony in her song “Ironic”? And what about the scene in the film “Reality Bites” where Winona Ryder is asked if she can define irony and she meekly admits she can’t, but she knows it when she sees it? Even when her super-smart beau Ethan Hawke supposedly tells her what it means, he pretty much gets it wrong.
However, for the sake of this commentary, we’re going to go with our own Taoistic idea that irony is essentially the metaphysical principle and play of reversal in the world. The notion of reversal crops up again and again in the Tao Te Ching—namely, that all things eventually cycle into their opposite and that everything ultimately returns to its source (only to leave again). Although this cyclical, wavelike behavior is part and parcel of the patterns in the natural world, it remains one which humans find particularly distressful (or hilarious, if it happens to someone else). Perhaps this is because we are prone to think about patterns in linear terms, rather than circular ones.
Most definitions of irony, especially those found in dictionaries, stress the gap between desired outcomes and expected outcomes, or between what is said and what is meant. In other words, it points to the fundamental fallibility of human perception and presumption. Though the common solution to this problem is often to prescribe an increased amount of study, Taoism suggests that education often just increases one’s storehouse of misconceptions. Rather, the Tao Te Ching counsels something rather the opposite: the determined cultivation of humility. By accepting that outcomes will diverge from expectation, we can be prepared for surprises and avoid putting too much of our resources on the line. The key is not how to make expectation and outcome match up, but how to not be attached to outcomes at all.
The greatest irony, however, is that irony isn’t an anomaly at all. Rather, it seems to be fundamental to life itself. Life is ironic by definition! Which in itself is rather ironic. Don’t you think?