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Who is Kairos?

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This article is about the word "kairos". For the Christian retreat, see Kairos (retreat). For the Greek personification of opportunity, see Caerus. For other uses, see Kairos (disambiguation).


Image:Francesco Salviati 005.jpg

Kairos as portrayed in a 16th century fresco by Francesco Salviati


Kairos (καιρός) is an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment (the supreme moment). The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a time in between, a moment of undetermined period of time in which something special happens. What the special something is depends on who is using the word. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative nature.[1]


  • 1 In rhetoric
  • 2 In theology
  • 3 Representations
  • 4 See also
  • 5 References
    • 5.1 Notes
    • 5.2 Resources

    In rhetoric

    Kairos was central to the Sophists, who stressed the rhetor's ability to adapt to and take advantage of changing, contingent circumstances. In Panathenaicus, Isocrates writes that educated people are those “who manage well the circumstances which they encounter day by day, and who possess a judgment which is accurate in meeting occasions as they arise and rarely misses the expedient course of action".

    Kairos is also very important in Aristotle's scheme of rhetoric. Kairos is, for Aristotle, the time and space context in which the proof will be delivered. Kairos stands alongside other contextual elements of rhetoric: The Audience, which is the psychological and emotional makeup of those who will receive the proof; and To Prepon, which is the style with which the orator clothes their proof.

    Καιρος - kairos (pronounced keros) means weather in both ancient and modern Greek. In plural it is καιροι -kairoi (keri) and it means "the times".

    An example of rhetorical kairos appears in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” London sets the stage by describing the perils and the enormity of nature compared to man through intense imagery and repetition. He builds up the intensity and power of nature in order to achieve a moment of rhetorical kairos. Once the audience realizes the danger of nature he chooses that moment to show how oblivious the man in the story is. “But all this – the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all – made no impression on the man.” In essence, London asserts his opinion by using rhetorical kairos (London 64-65).

    In theology

    The term "kairos" is used in theology to describe the qualitative form of time. In rhetoric kairos is "a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved."[2] In the New Testament kairos means "the appointed time in the purpose of God", the time when God acts (e.g. Mark 1.15, the kairos is fulfilled). It differs from the more usual word for time which is chronos (kronos).

    In the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, before the Divine Liturgy begins, the Deacon exclaims to the Priest, "Kairos tou poiesai to Kyrio" ("It is time [kairos] for the Lord to act"); indicating that the time of the Liturgy is an intersection with Eternity.

    In The Interpretation of History, neo-orthodox Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich made prominent use of the term. For him, the kairoi are those crises in history (see Christian existentialism) which create an opportunity for, and indeed demand, an existential decision by the human subject - the coming of Christ being the prime example (compare Barth's use of geschichte as opposed to historie). In the Kairos Document, an example of liberation theology in South Africa under Apartheid, the term kairos is used to denote "the appointed time", "the crucial time" into which the document or text is spoken.

    Another Kairos document was released on the 11th of December 2009 [3]by Palestinian Christian theologians.] [1]

    With this meaning, the term is also used a name for religious Kairos retreats.[4]


    According to ancient Greeks, Kairos was the god of the “fleeting moment,” “a favorable opportunity opposing the fate of man.” Such a moment must be grasped (by the tuft of hair on the personified forehead of the fleeting opportunity); otherwise the moment is gone and can not be re-captured (personified by the back of head being bald).

    A bronze statue of Kairos is known in literature, made by the famous Greek sculptor Lysippos. It stood at his home, in the Agora of Hellenistic Sikyon. The following epigram by Poseidippos was carved on the statue:

    "Who and whence was the sculptor? From Sikyon.
    And his name? Lysippos.
    And who are you? Time who subdues all things.
    Why do you stand on tip-toe? I am ever running.
    And why you have a pair of wings on your feet? I fly with the wind.
    And why do you hold a razor in your right hand? As a sign to men that I am sharper than any sharp edge.
    And why does your hair hang over your face? For him who meets me to take me by the forelock.
    And why, in Heaven's name, is the back of your head bald? Because none whom I have once raced by on my winged feet will now, though he wishes it sore, take hold of me from behind.
    Why did the artist fashion you? For your sake, stranger, and he set me up in the porch as a lesson."

    This statue was the original model for the various representations of Kairos made in ancient times and Middle Ages as well. John Tzetzes wrote about it, as well as Himerius. The image of hair hanging on the forehead and a bald nucha was associated in Roman times to the goddess Fortuna, the personification of good and bad luck. Several authors referred to this. For instance Disticha Catonis II, 26 refer to the Latin concept of Occasio (a female word which can be considered as a literal translation of the Greek Kairos; see also Caerus) in these terms: "Rem tibi quam scieris aptam dimittere noli: fronte capillata, post haec occasio calva", which means "Don't let that what you consider good for you escapes by; chance has hair over her forehead, but behind she's bald". Phaedrus (V,8) has a similar writing and he himself admits that the theme was not his own but more ancient. Callistratus (Descriptions, 6) has a long text describing the statue by Lysippos.

    In Trogir (the ancient Roman Tragurium), Croatia, in the Convent of the Benedictine Nuns, was displayed a marble bas-relief of Kairos from the 3rd century B.C., as a young man, running. The bas-relief is now kept at the Municipal Museum of Trogir.

    The theme of Kairos was felt as extremely important during the Middle Ages. Carmina Burana 16, a famous poem about Fortune, mentions Kairos in this way: "verum est quod legitur, fronte capillata, sed plerumque sequitur occasio calvata"; which means "it is true what is read, that Occasio has the forehead with hair, but that almost always she passes being bald". Several representations of Kairos survive; a relief (about 160 C.E.) is kept at the Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy); another relief was kept (now lost) at Palazzo Medici in Florence; an onyx gem (originally from the collection of the Duc de Blacas, I-II century C.E.) with an incision of the god Tempus (see Caerus) with attributes of Kairos is kept now at the British Museum; a marble relief showing Kairos, Bios (the Life), and Metanoia (Afterthought, the female Latin Paenitentia) is in the cathedral of Torcello (XI century C.E.); a monochrome fresco by Mantegna at Palazzo Ducale in Mantua (about 1510 C.E.) shows a female Kairos (most probably Occasio) with a young man trying to catch her and a woman representing Paenitentia.

    A concept similar to Kairos is that behind the famous motto "Carpe Diem" and a sort of recurrence in the idea of Kairos is linked with the theme of The Wheel of Fortune which continuously rotates; in fact the Greek words used by Poseidippos to describe the Kairos (in the verse "I am ever running") are "aeì trochào" which literally mean "I always rotate", and the verb itself is the same used by the poet and astronomer Aratus (Phaenomena, 227, 309) to pinpoint the eternal motion of the celestial spheres. It is not by chance that in Carmina Burana 17 the Fortune is associated to an ever-rotating wheel (Tibullus himself described the Fortune with a wheel: "Versatur celeri Fors levis orbe rotae", (I, 5, 70).

    See also

    • Kāla (time)
    • Rtu
    • References


      1. ^ Mark Freier (2006) "Time Measured by Kairos and Kronos"
      2. ^ E. C. White, Kaironomia p. 13
      3. ^ [www.kairospalestine.ps] [http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&cid=1260257918309&pagename=Zone-English-News/NWELayout
      4. ^ http://www.bc.edu/offices/ministry/IgSoc/Kairos.html
      5. Resources

        • R. B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), pp 343-49
        • E. C. White Kaironomia: on the will to invent (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987)
        • Leonard Sweet Missed Moments (Rev. Magazine Jan/Feb 2005), pp. 36
        • Paolo Moreno, L'attimo fuggente in Archeo magazine (XXII, 10, 260), October 2006, pp 114-117.
        • Mick Doherty "Kairos: Layers of Meaning" (Dept of English, Texas Tech University)
        • London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” Lost Face. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1910.
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