The Notion of Kairos While we in the present day are content with using the word “time”, the Early Greeks made the distinction between two very different notions of this concept. The first one, Chronos, refers to a linear and quantifiable time, whereas the second, Kairos, denotes the idea of “the right time” to take an action, or to give a speech on a particular topic for example. Comparing Kairos and Chronos raises the question of the role of Kairos in human agency. In many cases, the moment of the action appears to be more important than the action itself.
In fact, Kairos is an opportunity for men to have agency in a world usually dictated by fate. In this way, Kairos restores freedom to human lives that would otherwise be predetermined. Finally, it is interesting to notice that there does not exist a modern English translation for Kairos, which seems to suggest that it is a concept that does not have a place in modern society and thus in our modern understanding of time. Chronos and Kairos oppose each other in many ways.. Whereas Chronos refers to sequential time, measurable and regular, Kairos denotes qualitative time, or a favorable moment.
Moreover, unlike Chronos, Kairos is unpredictable and can only be ‘revealed’ thanks to the correct interpretation of external signs, hence the impression that it is situated outside of Chronos. The “opportune moments” Kairos provides are neither measurable nor predictable, and cannot be located on a clock or on any similar device. Thus, to a certain extent, Kairos seems to be a “timeless” time. The Hippocratic Corpus, a group of texts said to be written by Hippocrates, exemplifies the importance of Kairos to the ancient Greeks in everyday life.
The author writes that the success of the medicine a doctor administers to a patient depends greatly on the time or moment that the medicine is given. While the success of the remedy used is also dependent on different characteristics of the patient’s body, it is the moment that the remedy is used that is the most important. Indeed, Kairos cannot be placed in a larger temporal framework because it does not relate to the notions of past and future. For this reason, Kairos can only exist in the present. This is why a physician does not try to redict how a disease will evolve, but instead attempts to predict in which Kairos, or “critical phase” he is in at the moment of his medical examination. For example, in the case of “an overpowering heaviness of the head”, “water, or at most […] a pale-yellow wine” should be administered. While this quote may seem to describe the way doctors apply medicine today, it is in fact a description of a very different system. Rather than seeking a connection between the symptom and the medicine, ancient doctors felt there was a connection between the symptom and the moment of Kairos it exists in.
Different symptoms indicated different moments of Kairos which then dictated how the patient ought to be treated. Furthermore, these moments of interpretation are deeply anchored in the present, as it is the only “time” (as opposed to past and future) in which action can be taken. This is to say that Kairos is the moment in which a man can escape his fate, which otherwise rules his life. Fate is always associated with Chronos time, which can be predicted and unavoidably evolves from past to future according to a predetermined development.
In contrast, Kairos time allows for spontaneous action based on temporal opportunities. Since in Chronos time, the present is already determined by the past, there is never a true moment of freedom. Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus presents an illustration of this predestination: “Thy tale of cruel suffering For which no cure was found, The fate that held thee bound. ” Here the Chorus addresses Oedipus, clearly expressing the idea that his life, just as that of anybody else, is constrained by fate, which he cannot escape.
Chronos is the father of all the Olympian Gods, represented as a wise old man, and known as “Father Time. ” In contrast to this image of Chronos, Kairos is represented dancing, holding the scales of fate in his left hand; with his right hand, he is tipping the scale in one direction or the other. This clearly shows his ability to liberate moments from fate and his detachment from Chronos. Because of this, the moment of the action is often emphasized more than the action itself.
This is evident in the Hippocratic Medical Corpus: “This is the time for administrating gruel that must be most carefully observed” – “Consider this time of great importance in all diseases” From this quote, it is clear that the most important factor in the administration of medicine is not the disease the patient has, but the moment the remedy will be given. This moment must occur at the right time, during the right phase of the illness, in order for the remedy to be successful. The same can be said about Pindar’s Pythian 4, an ode to the victor of the Pythian games.
In Pythian 4, Pindar spends more time describing the process that led the heroes to go on an expedition in search for the golden fleece at the moment they did than he does describing their exploits, which are only summarized. This example is particularly interesting in that through those feats, Jason, the hero of the myth, and his companions will achieve kleos, and will thus transcend Chronos time. However, it is the fact that the expedition left at the right moment that seems important to Pindar, or at least more important than the exploits.
In an example such as this one, Kairos does seem to be treated as the agent of the action, or at any rate, as responsible for its success. This gives Kairos an extremely important role, in rehabilitating man’s freedom. Indeed, without the existence of Kairos, human beings would be trapped in their fate without any power over their destiny. Kairos is an opportunity and a “critical moment”, but it is also the “due measure” that allow humans to influence on the course of their own existences. However, Kairos only allows men to take action; it does not take action for them.
This is evident in the medical corpus: “[Physicians] generally make the change from fasting to gruel exactly at those times at which often it is profitable to exchange gruel for what is virtually fasting. ” One can imagine that relying on such a method could have led to serious mistakes. The nature of Kairos is such that these mistake could easily have disastrous consequences, for which the physician, and not Kairos, would be responsible. Indeed, Kairos alone is not sufficient for a patient to heal, or for an action to be carried out with success.
In order for an action to succeed the individual must act in the right moment but must also act correctly. In the medical corpus example, giving gruel could probably have been beneficial, but was not because it was given to the patient at the wrong phase of time. This also is why the medical corpus says medications listed can only be efficient in “the proper time of their use”. In this way, Kairos is a necessary condition, but is in no way sufficient on its own. The positive outcome of an action therefore does not only depend on Kairos, but on the correct interpretation of Kairos.
Thus, a good physician is not one who knows all the different names of every disease, a good physician is one who above all else can read a patient’s body in order to recognize the phase of time the disease is in, and thus determine what should be done. This is why, according to a passage of the Hippocratic Corpus, every physician should learn “the changes of the seasons and the risings and settings of the phenomena” in order to “learn the times beforehand”, which will allow him to “succeed best in securing health, and will achieve the greatest triumphs in the practice of his art”
Our modern concept of time leaves no place for Kairos. The word cannot be translated into modern English, and even the concept requires a fair amount of explanation, since it falls so outside of the realm of our understanding of both time and fate. The closest word to Kairos in the English language would most likely be the word, “opportunity” While “opportunity” conveys the way moments in Kairos function with humans agency, it does not fully convey the temporal dimension of Kairos. In modern day society, opportunities are not necessarily always dependent on small windows of time and are often not spontaneous.
In this sense, it appears that we can only talk of an opportunity, but not of the moment in which that opportunity takes place. This is to say that the same way Kairos seems detached from Chronos, our opportunity is detached from time altogether. However, even today, moments of Kairos, though not intentionally, are often taken into consideration when a decision is being made about an action. For example, politicians often “read the signs” of the political environment or social atmosphere before making a speech on a particular topic.
Similarly, humans use Kairos in everyday interactions as we constantly anticipate each other’s responses based on the moments we think each other are experiencing. Though Kairos seems unfamiliar and strange in modern society, it is not a concept we are altogether unfamiliar with. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Hippocratic Corpus, Regimen in Acute Diseases p. 79 [ 2 ]. Sophocles, Oedipus At Colonus [ 3 ]. Hippocratic Corpus, Regimen in Acute Diseases p. 79 [ 4 ]. Hippocratic Diseases, Regimen at Acute diseases p. 97 [ 5 ]. Hippocratic Corpus, Regimen In Acute Diseases p. 119