Solvitur Ambulando

Not having read his Hermeneutics of the Subject, I was unaware of the way in which Foucault uses the terms metanoia and epistroph?. I assume he must be piggy-backing on Pierre Hadot’s excellent work (see my posts for 12 September and 15 September 2007). Foucault, you write, sees the two words as keys to two very different modes—or “technologies” (your term)—of transformation, with metanoia involving a sudden and violent change whereas epistroph? corresponds to a smoother and more natural process.

As you know, I don’t pretend to be a historian of philosophy or religious thought, and I therefore happily leave the arguments as to how various ideas about conversion may have “evolved” in ancient times, or regarding the senses in which a Plato, Paul, or Epictetus may have employed the Greek terminology, to those with such interests.

I do think it’s worth pointing out, however, that the Bible occasionally uses the words in tandem, suggesting that we should see the psychological and spiritual processes they denote as complementary and not opposed. In Acts 26:20, for example, we find the admonition: metanoein kai epistrephein epi ton theon, that is, “repent and turn to God”; or again, in Luke 17:4, Christ says, “If [your brother] sins against you seven times in a day, and turns [epistroph?] to you seven times and says, I repent [metano?], you must forgive him.” It seems to me Foucault is therefore going too far when he claims that the words represent a “permanent polarity within Western thought”.

Leaving something so large and unwieldy as “Western thought” to the specialists (!), I would simply observe as a matter of spiritual principle that any true transformation will necessarily include both a turning away from and a turning toward—a turning from the world to God, or from illusion to Truth, or from the self to the Self. If we can extrapolate from these two passages of Scripture, then perhaps it makes sense to assign metanoia to the first stage of the process and epistroph? to the second. If there is something more “violent” or negative about metanoia, it’s because it stands for a rejection of something; if on the other hand there is something more “natural” and positive about epistroph?, it’s because it stands for an affirmation of something.

The negative moment is necessary because God is transcendent, and the positive moment is possible because God is immanent … and let’s not forget that the two are One God. What Foucault places poles apart, and what I myself have distinguished as stages or phases, are finally—in the very midst of real transformation—advaitic dimensions of a single non-acting act. As the ancients said of Zeno’s paradox, Solvitur ambulando—”It is resolved by walking!”

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