Jan 14, 2015
Remember back when we talked about kairos? Just to remind you, here’s a poem, a Greek poem, translated by Jeffrey Walker, explain. This poem is ekphersis, a piece of writing that describes a piece of art, in this case a sculpture of Kairos done by Lysippos of Sicyon. The rest explains itself.
From where is your sculptor? Sicyon. What is his name?
Lysippos. And who are you? Kairos the all-subduer.
Why do you go on tiptoes? I’m always running. Why do you have
Double wings on your feet? I fly like the wind.
Why do you have a razor in your right hand? As a sign to men
That I’m sharper than any razor’s edge.
Why does your hair hang down in front? For him that meets me to grab,
By God. Why is the back part bald?
None that I have once passed by on my winged feet
May seize me, even if he wishes to.
Thus the artist fashioned me, for your sake,
Stranger, and placed me at the entrance as a lesson.
So here we have this figure of kairos, with a haircut that is party in the front and business in the back ad if you don’t grab him, too bad. It’s done. Game over, chance lost.
But then what? when you’ve missed your chance, what’s even left? Are you all alone as Kairos flits away?
Not really. The ancient Greeks created another figure, named Metanoia to describe the deep regret that comes when there’s something you could have done and you missed the chance. MEtanoia literally means after thought, or after mind, I guess if you want to get picky about it. It’s similar to regret. As Kelly A Myers put it in her rhetoric society quarterly article, Metanoia was a figure that “resides in the wake of opportunity, sowing regret and inspiring repentance in the missed moment” (1). It is “a reflective act in which a person returns to a past event in order to see it anew” (8)
In Roman poetry, metanoia accompanies the god of opportunity in Ausonius’s epigrams. The first part of the epigram sounds very similar to the ekphrasis of kairos poem “who are you” “I’m opportunity” “why do you look so weird?” “seize the moment” etc. etc. but then the questioner turns to metanoia “please tell me who you are.” “I am a goddess to whom even Cicero himself did not give a name. I am the goddess who exacts punishment for what has and has not been done, so that people regret it. Hence my name is Metanoea.”
There’s something weirdly compensatory in this accusation against Cicero. Metanoia is a such an important concept, Ausonius seems to say, that Cicero must have known, must have felt, but neglected to name. Metanoia is out there, but under studied and ignored.
But we’ve all felt that regret, haven’t we? Me, personally, I get that feeling in the shower, when dumb things I’ve said, or witty comebacks I should have said come sweeping in on me. I’ve also heard people getting hit with metanoia when they’re trying to sleep or when they’re driving or when they’re staring into a beautiful tropical sunset. It makes you want to stab your eyes out.
So what was the purpose of metanoia? What did it accomplish to feel such crippling regret? Hopefully such reflection and regret means that next time around you doing something different. Hopefully you change. This became a big deal as Christianity burst onto the scene. Metanoia became associated as a step of repentance, reflecting on the mistake you made before you can move forward. The New Testament uses matanoia as an “act of repentance that lead to spiritual conversion.” (9).
As kittel et al describe it “affects the whole man,” not just the brain.
It’s important that this emotional aspect of metanoia exists. Some sources point out that metanoia is always emotional as well as mental it is a “change of mind ad heart” (Liddell and Scott 1115) a “profound transformation of the epistemic orientation of the whole person” (Torrance 10). Myers points out that “metanoia ia the affective dimension of kairos” (2)
Metanoia as a rhetorical figure really hit its stride in the middle ages and beyond. Visual representations of metanoia became as common as kairos. Metanoia stuck with kairos, showing up in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, sometimes as a beautiful young woman and sometimes as a vengeful hag. Here’s the thing: there’s a moment of indecision, a Schrödinger's Cat moment where you don’t know whether you will seize the moment or live to regret it.As Myers says ‘once a descion has been made or missed, the two part ways, but before that crucial moment they stand together” (4).
So when you think of kairos, think of the inverse as well, the potential for deep abiding regret that makes you want to burn your high school yearbook. But remember metamoia in the moment that comes, not just regretting what is past, but looking at where you are now and making sure you make the right choice right now, so that you don’t have to regret it later.