Chronos vs Kairos: Understanding how the Ancient Greeks viewed time will make your life richer
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“Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”
Here, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is saying that if we don’t have language to describe something, we can’t talk about that thing — we can’t even think about it. So learning new words to describe aspects of the human experience can help us grow.
One of the most important words I’ve learned over the last decade is “kairos.”
The ancient Greeks had two words for time, and kairos was the second. The first was Chronos, which we still use in words like chronological and anachronism. It refers to clock time — time that can be measured — seconds, minutes, hours, years.
Where Chronos is quantitative, kairos is qualitative. It measures moments, not seconds. Further, it refers to the right moment, the opportune moment. The perfect moment. The world takes a breath, and in the pause, before it exhales, fates can be changed.
It’s difficult to describe that feeling if you’ve never experienced it, but if you have, I hope my description can give you a name to call it by and a better understanding of it, as well as clues to seeking out more of it.
The Greeks liked to personify just about everything. You’re probably familiar with the personification of Chronos: just think of old Father Time. A weary, bent-backed old man with a long grey beard, carrying a scythe and an hourglass. His resemblance to the Grim Reaper is not accidental.
Chronos, or Saturn to the Romans, is the stuff that kills you. It takes away everything you have and then it eats you too. According to Roman myth, Saturn ate each of his sons the moment after they were born.
Take a look at Francisco de Goya’s famous painting, Saturn Devouring His Son, if you have the stomach for it. That’s Chronos in all his gruesome depravity.
Kairos, on the other hand, was a young man, lithe and handsome. Statues of him could be found all across the Greek peninsula, but the most famous stood in now-ruined Sikyon. You can see a replica of it below —see how his hair is long at the front and shaved bald at the back?
It had the following epigram carved into it:
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 do 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.
Kairos in other cultures
Ancient Indians had a similarly divided notion of time, and like the Greeks, they distrusted Chronos. The Sanskrit equivalent of Chronos is Kala, from which the destructive goddess Kali takes her name. The image of her dancing on corpses with a belt of skulls and severed hands is grisly enough to put one in mind of, well, Goya.
The Sanskrit word for qualitative time is ritu. Like kairos, it has a spiritual sense to it, time that is lifted out of the ordinary business of life. It also connotes the ‘right’ time, and is still used in Hinduism to refer to the correct moment for various ceremonies and rituals.
In Christian theology, kairos has a sense of ‘ripeness’. For example, you might recognize this passage from the book of Ecclesiastes:
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal…” and so on.
In the first Greek translations of the Bible, each use of the word ‘time’ in the above passage is rendered as kairos, not Chronos.
In 1985, a group of black South African theologians wrote a response to recent crackdowns by the Apartheid government. It was called The Kairos Document, and it began “The time has come. The moment of truth has arrived.” The Document was pervaded with a strong sense that the time was ripe for change: the fate of South Africa balanced on a knife’s edge, and small actions might have the power to change the path of history.
But kairos need not be as dramatic as that. It can be a small moment in one person’s life that is ripe, and full, and perfect.
We are told not to expect perfection
If someone promises perfection they’re either selling something or deluding themselves, right? We conflate idealism with naïveté and pessimism with ‘just being realistic’. But to deny the existence of perfection is to deny the evidence of our own lives.
In the book version of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Tyler Durden spends hours dragging driftwood logs into position on a lonely beach.
“What Tyler had created was the shadow of a giant hand. Only now the fingers were Nosferatu-long and the thumb was too short, but he said how at exactly four-thirty the hand was perfect. The giant shadow hand was perfect for one minute, and for one perfect minute Tyler had sat in the palm of a perfection he’d created himself.
One minute was enough, Tyler said, a person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”
And the most you can expect from a moment is that it be perfect.
It’s hard to pin down an example, but I’ll try:
Some years ago I was wandering through Sydney’s Hyde Park. The Night Noodle Markets were on, and workers streamed out of their offices and into the approaching dusk. Red lanterns were strung between the trees and the stalls. The sharp sweet scent of a hundred different kinds of noodles filled the air. Music drifted in from a distant stage. Somewhere in the crowd, a beloved friend was waiting. And there was a perfect stillness and serenity within me, and a sense of enormous significance. Part of me didn’t dare move, for fear of bursting the soap bubble of the moment. At the same time, I knew that no step I took could be the wrong one, just then.
If this sounds a little mystical, I’m sorry. I’m not sure you really can describe a moment of kairos, but maybe you can help someone recognize a time in their own life when they’ve felt it.
“In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree…”
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Cultural homogenization drains away opportunities for kairos
The trend in Western society is towards standardizing experience. Chain restaurants have extended their reach beyond a quick burger to high-end restaurants. Each Squid Ink Risotto served is as predictably like another as one tick of a clock is to the next. Travel companies now oxymoronically provide package tours for the independent, grassroots traveler. Be inspired and awed at precisely-timed intervals. Pop music has been manufactured to a formula for decades, not to mention the avalanche of clones that pours out every time a new book becomes a bestseller. You could fill a library with artless copies of Twilight and The Da Vinci Code.
All of this is designed to ensure nothing too strange or disappointing ever happens to us. The only way to keep safe from disappointment is to avoid any risk of surprise altogether. How, in all this homogenizing, can we hope to encounter kairos?
How to go looking for kairos
Kairos can’t be planned, and it certainly can’t be forced. Instead, pay attention to the sort of things that lure it your way.
Think about moments of kairos in your own life, and look for patterns
For me, I’ve usually been alone, so solo travel is one way I seek out kairos. If you’ve usually been with friends when it happens, then your route might involve saying Yes to more social outings, even if you don’t feel massively enthused about them in advance. If those moments are all when you’re playing with your kids, then you’ll need to say No to work that cuts into that time. It doesn’t mean every time you hang out with your kids will be magical — it just means that’s your best shot, and you have to keep taking it.
Kairos is the reason a traveler can miss their flight, get food poisoning, lose their passport, and still talk about the trip with shining eyes and flushed cheeks. It’s worth it for that one perfect moment.
Being open to new experiences includes being open to negative ones. Run the risk of being bored, tired, and footsore.
It doesn’t mean you have to pretend to like being bored, tired, and footsore, you just have to be willing to tolerate it sometimes, to keep saying yes. A good life is often one where you cycle in between phases of reaching out for new experiences and phases of hibernation and rest.
The most you can expect from perfection is that it lasts just one moment. And the most you can expect from a moment is that it be perfect.
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