Practical wisdom and cunning intelligence

The roots of learning and education

The Greek civilization was atune to the reconciliation of opposites and the acknowledgement of ambiguities. Rules were profoundly linked to their transgression. An ethical life did not mean necessarily abiding by the rules but rather the practice of the metis. Practical knowledge was considered crucial to the Greeks, as it was the road to both practical wisdom (phronesis) and cunning intelligence (metis). It was in the interaction based on this knowledge, that the Greeks saw the roots of learning and education. They saw practical knowledge as the essential source of all wisdom, but also of all ruse.

Plato and Aristotle are similarly concerned with preserving the static, eternal order. For that reason, Plato and Aristotle affirm the dominance of theory over practice. They clearly distinguish theoretical knowledge from the practical forms of knowledge that involve metis. The classical philosophers find that metis is particularly relevant in the areas of military strategy, politics, medicine and the skills of the artist, and it was a key element in Greek learning. The metic intelligence appears to be comprised of two main elements. First, there is the sharpwittedness (agchinoia) and alertness that is required to identify and understand dynamically changing circumstances. Second, there is the ‘good eye’ (eustochia) or skill to take aim accurately for a specific goal or target.

Therefore, the practical metic intelligence necessary for sustaining strategic advantage, leadership and well-being depends both on an awareness of change, and on the capacity to respond adaptively to it. As these goals do not necessarily involve ‘truth’, but ‘survival’ or ‘advantage’, the development of metic intelligence is associated with the sophists’ rhetorical practice of making the weaker argument seem stronger. Such practices, although certainly useful in the domain of leadership, cannot be formalized abstractly into general principles, and thus they are deemed inappropriate for an orderly society by Plato and Aristotle.