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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 predict 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...
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