Aug 31, 2015
Two definitions of time for ancient Greeks:, chromos and kairos
While chronos chucks around relatively constantly, one minute after minute hour after hours, without any particularly change, kairos is a moment of exigenence, where everything matters on timing. There’s a graph that I like about kairos that I would love to show you, but since I can’t paint you a picture, I’ll have to sing yo a song. While Chronos moves forward like this [solid pitch], Kairos starts low, comes to a fever pitch and then descends again. It sounds like this [assending and descending pitch]. If Chronos is time, Kairsos is timing.
So let’s break down the parts of the kairos song with an example, say, slavery in America:
(low tone) down here might be called the moment that slavery in American begins to be a public issue. This could be called the origin. It might be the 1619, when the first African slaves were brought by the Dutch, but only if the issue of slavery was contested. The origin isn’t necessary when the situation started, but only when people started talking about the situation. The escalating conversation is what makes a public problem move towards a moment of kairos. So even though there were slaves in America in 1619, the escalation came in the 19th century, as the institutuion of slavery changed from something small-scale, individual and temporary to something large-scale that lasted over generations. People began to furiously debate whether there ought to be slavery in the United States on both sides and the issue became more intensely argued (sliding upwards tone). This process is called the maturationof the public issue. It eventually reached the climax of the issue (high note.) This high point, the moment of kairos, can be hard to point down: is it the emancipation proclamation? Is it the whole period of the civil war? But somewhere in there, the issue of slavery in America had to be decided. The moment had come. This is what E. C. White calls “"a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.” Whatever various moments of kairos there were for the issue of slavery, there came a point where the moment passed. The 13th amendment was passed, northern soldiers were dispatched to make sure no one got “re-enslaved,” and the issue of slavery was settled. Now that doesn’t mean people still didn’t argue able it. In fact, lots of people may still debate something after the moment of kairos has passed. This is called deterioration. (sliding lowering tone) The issue of slavery, and what counted as slavery continued through the 19th and even into the 20th century. Today, though, there is effectively no debate about slavery. Sure, there might be a few whack jobs, but you won’t see letters to the editor in the New York Times or Washington Post recommending that we go back to chattle slavery in America. The issue has disintergrated. (low note).
Some issues, like slavery, come to a head, to a single moment of kairos, and then disintegrate for ever, never to return again. Others, though, return periodically. For examples of these kinds of cyclical moments of kairos, you might think about how debates about gun control are renewed every time there is a particularly horrific act of violence. Something terrible happens—the origin—and people renew a fierce debate about whether gun control would have prevented the tragedy. The issue escalates into maturity and then the moment of kairos arrives-- a law is passed, or isn’t passed, and then people gradually stop talking about the issue so much and it deteriorates down again. But then after a few months or—hopefully—years, another tragedy occurs and the issue of gun control again leads to a moment of kairos. Many issues fade in and out just because people lose interest, or get caught up in a public issue that seems more pressing. For instance, people stopped talking so much about violence in schools after Sept 11th because issues of terrorism and privacy and war seemed to be more important. The moment of kairos shifted.
The idea of Kairos is an old one, and a celebrated one. There are many paintings and scultures of Kairos, who was sort of a funny-looking fellow. Or let’s be blunt: he had the worst hair cut known to man. It was long in front and bald in the back, like a reverse mullet: party in the front and all business in the back. The haircut was a metaphor for how you had to grab the moment when it came, because once it was gone, you couldn’t catch it. He had a few other descriptive features. Instead of be describing them, let this Greek poem, translated by Jeffrey Walker, explain. This poem is ekphersis, a piece of writing that describes a piece of art, in this case a sculpture of Kairos done by Lysippos of Sicyon. The rest explains itself.
From where is your sculptor? Sicyon. What is his name?
Lysippos. And who are you? Kairos the all-subduer.
Why do you go on tiptoes? I’m always running. Why do you have
Double wings on your feet? I fly like the wind.
Why do you have a razor in your right hand? As a sign to men
That I’m sharper than any razor’s edge.
Why does your hair hang down in front? For him that meets me to grab,
By God. Why is the back part bald?
None that I have once passed by on my winged feet
May seize me, even if he wishes to.
Thus the artist fashioned me, for your sake,
Stranger, and placed me at the entrance as a lesson.
--Trans. J. Walker