The word kairos has its roots in archery, where it denoted a “penetrable opening, an aperture” through which Greek archers aimed, simulating the forest of shields and armor through which an arrow must pass to reach its target. This origin explains the many meanings of kairos, such as mark and target, both literally, as in the Iliad where it indicates a place on the body to strike fatally (see Onians p. 343), and figuratively, as in Sophocles’ Electra, in which Orestes urges “Listen closely to my words and correct me, if I miss the mark in any way” (ln. 29-31).
Its temporal use, which developed shortly thereafter, carries these meanings of a rare and crucial opportunity to accomplish one’s aims. It thus has a complex relationship with the other Greek word for time, chronos. Whereas chronos denotes a linear and progressive sense of time, kairos stands in opposition as a rare singularity. One of its standard uses is thus to describe the unique character of a segment of time, translatable even as when or while. It is from this use that kairos comes to signify season or the times.
For many thinkers this use of kairos took on an ethical dimension as well. If one accepts kairos as a deviation from linear and universal time, any expectation that one must match speech or actions to the character of the times presents a problem for universal or absolute moral systems; many, such as the sophists, drew upon this idea to make the suggestion that there were no morally good or bad actions, just those that fit, or did not fit, with kairos.
Other, more familiar, classical thinkers sought to oppose the potential moral flexibility implied by kairos, and those such as Plato and Cicero redefined kairos in a way that lessened its importance. Until very recently, a significant history of kairos was not thought to have existed beyond this point.
More recent historical accounts have emerged primarily from the work of scholars of rhetoric, who in the last few decades have begun to recover the significant history of kairos beyond the classical age. Work has been done to identify how Renaissance thinkers, writers and artists revived this theory of kairos, with its associated meanings and implications, and applied it to the context of their age.
In particular, Renaissance thinkers were very aware of the imagery of kairos, and the lessons that its iconography contained. In the words of the philosopher Bartolome Felippe:
‘[I]n ancient times past, the Image of opportunitie was set vp in many places, that men might remember to let no occasion slip, which might be to their commoditie when opportunitie was offered... they painted her on a wheele, because she neuer standeth still, nor remaineth in one place, with wings on her feete, because she passeth away swiftly, her face couered with the haire of her forehead, because she lets none know her, but such as be verie attentiue to looke on her: with a raser in her hande, because shee cuts of their hope that take no heede of her but let her passe: with the hinder part of her head balde, because if she once be gone, no man can catch hold of her, and with a Maid that waits vpon her which is called Poenitentia, for repentance doth accompanie them that cannot tell how to reape profit by occasion’ (Counseller 1589, p. 8).
This was indeed the classical image of kairos, reproduced in the many Renaissance emblem books which circulated Europe. Importantly, although the ancients had usually imagined kairos as a young boy, in most Renaissance images it was represented as a young, attractive woman, who must be seized by a ready and virile man. ‘She’ also became variously translated, whether into the Latin occasio, or into various vernaculars: in English, kairos could not only be translated as ‘occasion’, but also as ‘opportunity’ and ‘season’.
This idea of seizing occasion, serving the time, temporizing, pervaded the Renaissance worldview, and it had a significant effect on developments in philosophy, politics, art and literature. It is the project of the research presented here to better understand these developments from the classical period onwards, in the hope of further unearthing this fascinating and dynamic history.
Selections of the above taken with permission from Paul (2014). See our Further Reading page for more.