Mêtis: Cunning Intelligence in Greek Thought

In Hesiod’s Theogony we attain an informative and detailed description of how Metis came to be the first consort of the Olympian god Zeus and the mother of the goddess Athena:

“Zeus, king of the gods, took as his first wife Metis,
a mate wiser than all gods and mortal men.
But when she was about to bear gray-eyed Athena,
then through the schemes of Gaia and starry Ouranos,
he deceived the mind of Metis with guile
and coaxing words, and lodged her in his belly.
Such was their advice, so that of the immortals
none other than Zeus would hold kingly sway.
It was fated that Metis would bear keen-minded children,
first a gray-eyed daughter, Tritogeneia,
who in strength and wisdom would be her father’s match,
and then a male child, high-mettled
and destined to rule over gods and men.
But Zeus lodged her in his belly before she did all this, that she might advise him in matters of good and bad.”

Already trickery, guile, and deception surface as the kernel of a form of reason that seems to emerge not from the Mind but rather from the belly or the affective domain of the body and sense rather than the intellect and abstraction; and, that our notions of good or ill are from the affective regions of sense rather than cold harsh reason as well. One wonders if there is a darker materialism hiding in the shadows of ancient thought that has yet to be written? An undercurrent of cunning and naturalism forged in the dark folds of affective relations rather than in the intelligible regions of Platonic thought? Could it be that Plato’s long war against the poet’s and sophist’s is none other than this agon against Mêtis – cunning reason and natural intelligence?

For the Greeks and particularly for Plato, episteme and techne represented knowledge of an order completely different from mētis.  Technical knowledge, or techne, could be expressed precisely and comprehensively in the form of hard-and-fast rules (not rules of thumb), principles, and propositions. At its most rigorous, techne is based on logical deduction from self-evident first principles. As an ideal type, it radically differs from mētis in terms of how it is organized, how it is codified and taught, how it is modified, and the analytical precision it exhibits.1

Where mētis is contextual and particular, techne is universal. In the logic of mathematics, ten multiplied by ten equals one hundred everywhere and forever; in Euclidean geometry, a right angle represents ninety degrees of a circle; in the conventions of physics, the freezing point of water is always zero degrees centigrade.  Techne is settled knowledge; Aristotle wrote that techne “came into being when from many notions gained from experience, a universal judgement about a group of similar things arises.”  The universality of techne arises from the fact that it is organized analytically into small, explicit, logical steps and is both decomposable and verifiable. This universality means that knowledge in the form of techne can be taught more or less completely as a formal discipline. The rules of techne provide for theoretical knowledge that may or may not have practical applications. Finally, techne is characterized by impersonal, often quantitative precision and a concern with explanation and verification, whereas mētis is concerned with personal skill, or “touch,” and practical results. (Scott, p. 320)

Aristotle singled out navigation and medicine as two activities in which the practical wisdom of long experience is indispensable to superior performance. They were mētis-laden activities in which responsiveness, improvisation, and skillful, successive approximations were required. If Plato can be credited, Socrates deliberately refrained from writing down his teachings, because he believed that the activity of philosophy belonged more to mētis than to episteme or techne. A written text, even if it takes the form of a philosophical dialogue, is a cut-and-dried set of codified rules. An oral dialogue, by contrast, is alive and responsive to the mutuality of the participants, reaching a destination that cannot be specified in advance. Socrates evidently believed that the interaction between teacher and students that we now call the Socratic method, and not the resulting text, is philosophy. (Scott, pp. 322-323). Let us begin speaking again, communicating in mutual and open dialogue rather than tracing the linguistic signs of an intelligible but dead universe of thought into its labyrinth.

In their great work Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Detienne will provide a unique investigation into this form of reasoning in Greek culture, thought, and philosophy. It would be those early philologists like Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff who would begin the process of surfeiting out the meaning of this word from Homer’s time, and he would describe mêtis as a mere survival of poetic memory.1 Others would dig deeper into the linguistic roots of this term, refine it, explicate its history and uses, etc., and a careful image of this form of cunning intelligence would emerge. As they’ll describe it:

Mêtis as an intelligent ability comes into play on a widely varying levels  but in all of them the emphasis is always laid on practical effectiveness, on the pursuit of success in a particular sphere of activity: it may involve multiple skills useful in life, the mastery of the artisan in his craft, magic tricks, the use of philtres and herbs, the cunning stratagems of war, frauds, deceits, resourcefulness of every king.2(CI, p. 1).

This association with trickery and deceit over strength is a core feature of mêtis throughout much of the history of Greek poetry and thought. In the Iliad when Nestor says: “The man who knows the tricks (kérde) wins the day…,” when speaking of a horse race of charioteers he exposes this sense of cunning as a knowledge that can surmount the strength of others through a certain kind of mastery of experience and sense rather than brute fact.(ibid., p. 3).

I remember as a young man growing up entering the workforce as a blue-collar worker. Working in various trades in the oil-fields, auto-mechanic, carpenter, cook, welder, miner, glass-worker, etc., and “learning the ropes” as an apprentice under someone who had already gained not only the skills of the trade, but had mastered certain “tricks of the trade,” certain ways of doing things that were not teachable in books, or were part of that secret mouth-to-mouth instruction and mimesis one goes through by being part of a traditional craft. Notions passed down from generation to generation, ways of holding a glass globule just so-so in the furnace, the time to turn or pull it out, to work the breath, the turning of the stem, etc. All these nuances of craft and technique that are part of a cunning method of techniques that one must actively be there to know and understand.

One could write a history of such nefarious subjects as pickpocketing that would show in another way the tricks of the trade, the nuances and ways of deceit and deception, subterfuge and displacement. Of magicians and slide-of-hand street magick, cards, levitation, disappearance, etc. How people’s senses can be manipulated by movement, sound, evasion – all forms and practices that lead back to cunning intelligence or mêtis. Cunning intelligence would later be displaced by such terms in Greek philosophy as phronēsis (“φρόνησις”), as “practical wisdom”, and sometimes (more traditionally) as “prudence”, from Latin prudential.

At the heart of mêtis as compared to the practical wisdom of “phronêsis” is this sense of overcoming physical dilemmas rather than theoretical or moral. The sense of facing strength and power and using cunning and trickery to reverse the order of natural outcomes by a form of intelligence that some would see as both treacherous, cowardly, and womanish (the Greeks were admittedly sexist) (ibid., p. 6). Yet, for others mêtis was a superior form that overcame force by sheer cunning and trickery that came from vigilance, alertness, experience, and a sense of kairós – sense-of-timing or rhythm that the more slow-witted man of strength and power lacked. If one has read the Odyssey and studied Ulysses one gains a vivid example of mêtis in action. As Detienne and Vernant will describe it:

Mêtis is impulsive, swift, but in no way does it act lightly. With all the weight of acquired experience that it carries, it involves thought that is dense, rich and compressed. Instead of floating hither and thither, at the whim of circumstance, it anchors the mind securely in the project which it has devised in advance thanks to its ability to look beyond the immediate present and foresee a more or less wide slice of the future. (ibid., p. 8)

This sense of speed, quickness, forethought, planning, momentary impulse based on deep knowledge of the environment and circumstances all portray cunning intelligence as part of our hereditary survival intelligence based on a combination of keen empirical sense of situation and place, as well as learning, craft, and technique. The crafty wiliness of  Ulysses outsmarting the stronger Cyclops comes to mind.  Quick witted and resourceful he was able to outwit his stronger opponent both through linguistic deceit, forethought, and planning along with the quickness and speed of foot, eye, hand or senses. This ability to overtake kairós, seize the opportunity, the momentary weakness in the opponent, the agon’s mark of time when the future must be seized in the present, effecting the transformation of an event against the odds is all part of this sense of mêtis as cunning intelligence.

I could go on, but this gives a baseline for thought… I may come back to this after I finish reading this very interesting work by Detienne and Vernant. I also wrote of this in a previous post: Cunning Intelligence: The Wiley Craftsman and Practical Knowledge


 

  1. Scott, James C. (1998-03-30). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy St) (p. 319). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Detienne, Marcel; Vernant, Jean-Pierre. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. University of Chicago Press (June 18, 1991) 

2 thoughts on “Mêtis: Cunning Intelligence in Greek Thought

    • I don’t know if I’d use the term “decline,” too organic, old school modernism. Most of the latter notions of collapse bring with it bifurcation or multiplicity: a breakdown or breakthrough… a complexification that can either turn intensive or extensive, transformation or implosion.

      What’s interesting is that our environment is applying force and pressure against this civilization for its overreach. Globalism in effecting change across the whole globe has opened itself to both social and natural viral infestations, and it has no immune system to speak of, and even less a diagnostics available to counter this external pressure. Is this how we become realists after all? Through the very destructive force of external viral infestations in the Body-without-Organs we either discover a vaccine or die?

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