Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Cunning Intelligence, Chapter 10

 Summary of Chapter 10: The Circle and the Bond

They begin their concluding chapter with a discussion of how mêtis is not the possession of one particular god, but being “polymorphic and diverse,” it is shared by many (279). The powers of every god run up against limits embodied by the other gods; they ask, is there a limit on how much mêtis can be possessed by a single god? Zeus is discussed. Certain gods possess mêtis and others do not; this is an important distinction for understanding the distribution of powers in the ancient Greek pantheon; mêtis also sets limits on the powers of each god.

They discuss the various gods who possess mêtis, and the differences between them. Hephaestus and Athena inherit their tech powers from the Cyclopes, but the latter were really just fire gods; Athena and H are more broadly about all human technologies (particularly A). The example of the horse-bit, a mixture of both their particular powers, is revisited. They compare Hephaestus and Hermes, both linked to fire; then Hermes and Apollo as two gods of technology, of whom only Hermes has mêtis.

They cover stories of the gods behaving in ways which reveal their limitations: particularly Hephaestus’ trap for the lovers, Ares and Aphrodite. Ares maybe faster and more powerful, but Ares has beat him with his trickery. [but per Ovid, iirc? This was a mistake, because now everyone knows about the lovers, and they no longer need to hide.] Aphrodite is the more important and impressive catch, since she has abundant mêtis. Apollo taunts Hermes, who agrees that yes, he would willingly be bound in Ares’s place.

This leads to the question of the meaning of apeirōn, which describes the bonds Hephaestus has used. Per Porphyry, it means “limitless” with “twofold connotation of binding and circularity” (287). [Unfortunately the role of this concept in the philosophy of Anaximander is never raised.] There are modern debates over the etymology of apeirōn; D&V choose two “trends in the semantic field encompassing the pair of words apeirōn-peiras” (287): path, and bond.

Referring to Alcman’s Cosmogony, they show how these terms relate to concepts from navigation; showing the synonymity of peirar and Tekmōn (guide-mark); illustrated by usage in the Argonautica:

here we find one particular type of path which takes the form of a bond which fetters, and, conversely, the action of binding is sometimes presented as a crossing, a way forward. (291)

They revisit the concept of póros from an earlier chapter. There is the interesting example of Xerxes crossing the Hellespont, the bridge of ships is “a yoke cast about the neck of the sea” (291) in Aeschylus. In Herodotus, the same story is a sign of the king’s hubris, and when he tries to whip the sea after it breaks his ships, of the insanity of despotism.

Another example, when Odysseus orders Melantheus to be “wound in a plaited rope,” “Peiraínein which means to cross here takes on the sends of winding around...” One wonders how this same conflation or relationship between binding and journeying could be found in English words, e.g. cross, or wind. Because to “wind” can mean to wander, as well as to tie up; because to “cross” could describe travelling an ocean, but also a cross, or a barrier across a passageway (for example); does this mean these concepts of binding and travelling are also themselves one in English, as D&V seem to be arguing they are in Greek? Or are these just two different applications? They argue:

For our own part, we believe that the ‘meaning’ of a linguistic form is to be determined by the sum total of the ways in which it is used. (291)

But my question is, is that “meaning” supposed to have some unity, as they are implying? Or could it be just a diverse set of applications-in-context?

Anyway, from seeing peirar and apeirōn as interlinked opposites, they move to them as a combined paradox, peîrar apeíron, “an impassable bond and an inextricable path.” Their example is Tartarus:

Tartarus is not only a prison from which there is no escape; it is itself a space which binds; the expanse of it is indissociable from inextricable bonds. Tartarus is a space from which there is no exit and which, being devoid of guide-marks, without peîrar, it is impossible to cross, so it is also seen as a gigantic bond without beginning or end for whoever is imprisoned within its sphere. (294)

It is “in a sense the opposite of organised space”

They discuss related technologies: the hunting or fishing net, weaving and snares; various animal traps; and the ancient sea-battle tactics of períplous and diékplous. The circularity of basketweaving is an expression of the craftiness involved in it:

But whether it be a net or a piece of jewellery the circular bond with its rejection of the imposition of any limit to its polymorphism is simply an expression of one of the fundamental characteristics of mêtis.” (300)

They discuss Hermes as a god of mêtis; then riddles; then return to the question of mêtis in relation to power:

Mêtis cannot be fully deployed without this fundamental combination of the bond and the circle. To exercise all its powers the intelligence of cunning needs the circular reciprocity between what is bound and what is binding.” (305)

Yet by swallowing Metis, his first wife, Zeus transformed the meaning and operation of mêtis so instead of working to undermine or destabilize the order, in his hands it works for that order, is deployed by it.

The disorders brought about by the power of Metis when she was left to her own devices are thus eliminated from the world ordered by the gods of Olympus.

By swallowing her he has made her a part of his own sovereignty. Being, as she is, inside Zeus, Metis makes it possible for him to meditate in advance upon all the cunning tricks which might be devised in the future by men, gods, or monsters yet unknown. (306)

They list several types of “men of mêtis;” the example of the doctor as a man of mêtis [this reminds me of an anecdote a student recently told me: she was working as a student nurse in a hospital when an unusual situation developed, after which the doctor asked her, “When you hear hooves coming, what animal do you expect?” She answered, “A horse,” and he replied, “What about a zebra?” The moral being that a medical professional has to have mêtis...]

The concept of mêtis was of great importance and explanatory power in ancient Greek thought:

Over ten centuries the same, extremely simple model expresses skills, know-how, and activities as diverse as weaving, navigation, and medicine.... Its domain is a veritable empire and the man of prudence, of mêtis, can assume ten different identities at once.” (307)

The question then is, why has this super-important concept been neglected by later scholarship? The answer of course begins with the philosophers, and their culture war against the sophists, so Plato and Aristotle are discussed.

According to Plato and Aristotle, “mêtis proceeds obliquely, that it comes straight to the point in the shortest way, that is, by taking a detour” (308). It has two key qualities:

1. agchínoia, quick-wittedness, in a short, almost imperceptible space of time; Aristotle gives the example of midwife sensing when to cut the umbilical cord (309). [So this is “knowing” in the sense of awareness, timing, and sensing.]

2. eustochía, the good eye. “A sharp intelligence is never aimless, it implies an ability to reach a desired goal.” (310)

The link is emphasized between the art of taking aim, stocházesthai, and the modern concept of the stochastic; “the stochastic nature of practical intelligence”. To “conjecture” is tekmaíresthai, “to open up a path for oneself with the aid of guide-marks and to keep one’s eyes fixed on the goal of the journey just as the navigators do ….” According to Alcmaeon of Croton, humans have this “oblique, stumbling knowledge” in contrast to the certain knowledge possessed by the gods (311). Medicine and politics were closely associated domains in the Greek mind, both requiring mêtis.

Plato condemned “knowledge and skills based upon the stochastic intelligence” (315); rhetoric is “found guilty of owing its success to intuition and a good eye,” and so is “neither an art nor a rational form of knowledge.” P furthermore distinguishes between certain and uncertain forms of knowledge (the latter D&V call “stochastic arts”); he privileges the former, valuing calculation (arithmós), measuring (métron), and weighing (stathmós). “Only that which is measurable can belong to exact science, to epistēmē and the domain of truth.” (D&V note that he makes an exception for the art of building, “no doubt through respect for its impressive tools”).

Plato restricts sophia from its earlier, broader application as any kind of knowledge including craft, to “contemplative wisdom.”

Plato is at pains to give us a detailed description of the components of metis

in order to lend added weight to his reasons for condemning this form of intelligence. He goes to considerable lengths to expose he wretched impotence of devious methods and of cunning involved in making guesses. (316)

Ironically he is the one who brings this all into stark representation, contrasted with scholarly wisdom.

Aristotle is more subtle, more open to the oratorical and sophistic tradition. [ A’s concept of “virtue” includes more of the kairos, etc. and responsiveness that had apparently been missing from Plato.] Nevertheless A distinguishes between phrónēsis (prudence) and deinótēs, “cleverness.” The man possessing the latter is a panoûrgos, “ a sly one or a rogue” (317) [a definition Rabelais was perhaps influenced by]. There is a discussion of Aristotle’s difficulty given that, even after excluding “cleverness,” prudence, one of the virtues, involves mêtis, and that both prudence and mêtis are said to be possessed by some animals, which breaks down the key Aristotelian distinction between human and animal intelligence. D&V state that “Aristotelian thought accepts that there can be a type of knowledge bearing upon what is inexact even if, like its subject, this knowledge can itself only be inexact” (317). It can never be a science, but A does at least recognize it as a form of intelligence.

They conclude with two reasons why cunning intelligence has been for so long neglected as a subject of study: 1) for Christian thought, it became even more essential to maintain the difference between humans and animals, which the concept of mêtis erodes; and 2) “the concept of Platonic Truth, which has overshadowed a whole area of intelligence with its own kinds of understanding, has never really ceased to haunt Western metaphysical thought” (318).

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