I. What is Metanoia?
Metanoia (pronounced MET-uh-NOY-uh) is a self-correction. It’s when a writer or speaker deliberately goes back and modifies a statement that they just made, usually either to strengthen it or soften it in some way.
Metanoia involves correcting a statement just made – when an author corrects a much earlier statement, it isn’t metanoia. For example, when a newspaper prints a correction to an inaccurate story printed the previous day, this is just a correction, not an example of metanoia. Also, a metanoia is not simply an additional statement. Sentences introduced with phrases such as “however” or “moreover” are not metanoia because they are additions to the first statement, rather than corrections.
Epanorthosis is another word for metanoia.
II. Examples of Metanoia
“To help or, at least, to do no harm.” (The Hippocratic Oath)
Doctors take this oath before they can get their credentials, and it contains a famous example of a “softening” metanoia. It opens with a very strong, clear, and direct statement – “to help.” But no doctor is perfect, and sometimes a patient is sick in ways that modern medicine cannot heal, so if the oath simply ended there, then doctors would inevitably violate it all the time!
“I have my shortcomings, through my own fault and through my failure to observe the admonitions of the gods – and I may almost say, their direct instructions.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations)
The Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote eloquently about ethics and his own efforts to become a more moral person. In this passage, he admits that even he falls short sometimes. This, he says, is because he does not follow the instructions of the gods, even when they are (in his view) plainly stated. This is an example of a “strengthening” metanoia.
III. Types of Metanoia
Metanoia can be roughly divided into three categories based on function
A. Strengthening a Statement
When the second statement is a stronger, more forceful, or more direct version of the first statement. This can also be called “amplification.”
B. Softening a Statement
When the second statement is a softer or gentler version of the first statement.
C. Making a Statement More Precise
When the second statement brings greater clarity, specificity, or precision than the first statement.
IV. The Importance of Metanoia
At first glance, metanoia seems like a strange technique – after all, wouldn’t it be better to simply state your point accurately the first time around? Why would you bother to state things one way, and then immediately correct yourself?
One answer to this question is that this figure of speech mimics the way people talk in real life. In everyday conversation, people are constantly correcting themselves and revising their points as they go. Thus, by using metanoia in your writing you can create a more natural, conversational tone.
Beyond that, metanoia can also help frame your point to make it easier for readers to understand. For example, a writer might make a general statement and then clarify it slightly for greater precision – the metanoia acts like a funnel, guiding the reader from a broad, easily understood statement toward one that is more precise but maybe harder to grasp.
Finally, metanoia can highlight the strength of a statement. Look again at the Marcus Aurelius example from §3: in it, Marcus Aurelius begins by making a weaker statement, then strengthens it. Notice how the strength of this statement builds gradually and ends on the strongest possible note. It’s like a ramp that leads the reader right up to the author’s striking statement about his disobedience to the gods.
V. Examples of Metanoia in Literature
“And they lived, if not happily ever after, then at least reasonably so.” (The Dot and the Line)
This is a “softening” metanoia. In this case, it’s being used to undermine a cliché ending. The book is written as a children’s story about the love between a dot and a line, but it is also an exploration of geometry and art, so it’s enjoyable for adults as well. This ending helps make a joke out of the tired, predictable ending to fairytales and love stories, thus enhancing the book’s readability for adults.
“It was Gatsby’s mansion. Or rather, as I did not yet know Mr. Gatsby, it was a mansion inhabited by a gentleman of that name.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)
This line, coming near the beginning of The Great Gatsby, serves a couple of purposes. It falls under the “precision” category of metanoia, but in this case the precision isn’t really the point. Rather, it’s highlighting the difference between the narrator’s current perspective and his perspective as a character. In other words, it shows that the narrator now knows things he didn’t know at the beginning of the story: at the time, he did not know Mr. Gatsby; now he does. This foreshadows the fact that the narrator’s changing relationship with Gatsby will be one of the novel’s central plotlines.
VI. Examples of Metanoia in Popular Culture
“Kreuz Market is the greatest barbecue restaurant – no, scratch that, the greatest barbecue experience – in Central Texas” (Anonymous review online)
This is a strengthening metanoia that imitates the rhythms of natural speech. The phrase “scratch that” is a very conversational way of introducing a metanoia, but it wouldn’t work in more formal writing.
“Of all the parasites I’ve had over the years, these worms are among – hell, they are the best!” (Phillip Fry, Futurama)
In one of the most popular episodes of Futurama, Fry gets infected with parasitic worms that give him great strength, intelligence, and musical talent. Although this line is an example of a strengthening metanoia, the humor doesn’t really come from the metanoia itself – it comes from the implication that Fry has had so many parasites he’s not sure which ones are his favorites.
VII. Related Terms
When an author adds in a clarification that doesn’t overturn the original statement, this can sometimes look like a metanoia, but in fact it’s called an appositive.
- Only one senator, Joan Harris of Nebraska, objected to the bill.
- The dog, a black lab, belongs to my parents.
- Sacramento, the capital of California, has a population of almost half a million.
Notice that these appositives are parenthetical remarks – that is, they could be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. (They just add detail, rather than expressing the main idea.) This is usually not true of metanoia. Most of the time, metanoia is integral to the main idea of the sentence. Moreover, metanoia always in some way overturns or supersedes what has just been said, whereas an appositive merely adds to it.