Kairos (καιρός) is an
Ancient Greek word meaning the right,
critical, or opportune moment. The ancient Greeks had two words for
time: chronos (χρόνος) and kairos. The former refers to
chronological or sequential time, while the latter signifies a proper
or opportune time for action. While chronos is quantitative, kairos
has a qualitative, permanent nature.
Kairos also means weather in
Modern Greek. The plural, καιροί (kairoi (Ancient and Modern
Greek)) means the times.
Kairos is a term, idea, and practice that has
been applied in several fields including classical rhetoric, modern
rhetoric, digital media, Christian theology, and science.
2 In classical rhetoric
3 Modern rhetorical definition
Kairos in digital media
5 In Christian theology
6 In science
7 See also
9 Further reading
In Onians' 1951 etymological studies of the word, he traces the
primary root back to the ancient Greek association with both archery
and weaving. In archery, kairos denotes the moment in which an arrow
may be fired with sufficient force to penetrate a target. In weaving,
kairos denotes the moment in which the shuttle could be passed through
threads on the loom.
In the literature of the classical period, writers and orators used
kairos to specify moments when the opportune action was made, often
through metaphors involving archery and one’s ability to aim and
fire at the exact right time on-target. For example, in The
Suppliants, a drama written by Euripides,
Adrastus describes the
ability to influence and change another person’s mind by “aiming
their bow beyond the kairos.”
Kairos is also an alternate spelling of the minor Greek deity Caerus,
the god of luck and opportunity.
In classical rhetoric
In rhetoric, kairos is "a passing instant when an opening appears
which must be driven through with force if success is to be
Kairos was central to the Sophists, who stressed the rhetor's ability
to adapt to and take advantage of changing, contingent circumstances.
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 the proof.
In Ancient Greece, "kairos" was utilized by both of the two main
schools of thought in the field of rhetoric. The competing schools
were that of the Sophists, and that of their opposition, led by
individuals such as
Aristotle and Plato. Sophism approached rhetoric
as an art form. Members of the school would travel around Greece
teaching citizens about the art of rhetoric and successful discourse.
In his article "Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric", John
Poulakos defines rhetoric from a Sophistic perspective as follows:
Rhetoric is the art which seeks to capture in opportune moments that
which is appropriate and attempts to suggest that which is
Aristotle and Plato, on the other hand, viewed Sophistic
rhetoric as a tool used to manipulate others, and criticized those who
Kairos fits into the Sophistic scheme of rhetoric in conjunction with
the ideas of prepon and dynaton. These two terms combined with kairos
are their keys to successful rhetoric. As stated by Poulakos, Prepon
deals with the notion that "what is said must conform to both audience
and occasion." Dynaton has to do with the idea of the possible, or
what the speaker is attempting to convince the audience of.
the Sophistic context is based on the thought that speech must happen
at a certain time in order for it to be most effective. If rhetoric is
to be meaningful and successful, it must be presented at the right
moment, or else it will not have the same impact on the members of the
Aristotle and his followers also discuss the importance of kairos in
their teachings. In his Rhetoric, one of the ways that
the idea of kairos is in reference to the specificity of each
Aristotle believed that each rhetorical
situation was different, and therefore different rhetorical devices
needed to be applied at that point in time. One of the most well known
parts of Aristotle's
Rhetoric is when he discusses the roles of
pathos, ethos, and logos.
Aristotle ties kairos to these concepts,
claiming that there are times in each rhetorical situation when one
needs to be utilized over the others.
Kairos has classically been defined as a concept that focused on "'the
uniquely timely, the spontaneous, the radically particular.'"
Ancient Pythagoreans thought
Kairos to be one of the most fundamental
laws of the universe.
Kairos was said to piece together the dualistic
ways of the entire universe.
Empedocles was the philosopher who
connect kairos to the principle of opposites and harmony. It then
became the principle of conflict and resolution and was thus inserted
as a concept for rhetoric.
Modern rhetorical definition
In his article "Critical-Rhetorical Ethnography: Rethinking the Place
and Process of Rhetoric," Aaron Hess submits a definition of kairos
for the present day that bridges the two classical applications. Hess
addresses Poulakos’s view that, “In short, kairos dictates that
what is said must be said at the right time.” He also suggests
that in addition to timeliness kairos considers appropriateness.
According to Hess, kairos can either be understood as, "the decorum or
propriety of any given moment and speech act, implying a reliance on
the given or known" or as, "the opportune, spontaneous, or
timely." Although these two ideas of kairos might seem
conflicting, Hess says that they offer a more extensive understanding
of the term. Furthermore, they encourage creativity, which is
necessary to adapt to unforeseen obstacles and opinions that can alter
the opportune or appropriate moment, i.e. kairos. Being able to
recognize the propriety of a situation while having the ability to
adapt one’s rhetoric allows taking advantage of kairos to be
successful. Hess’s updated definition of kairos concludes that along
with taking advantage of the timeliness and appropriateness of a
situation, the term also implies being knowledgeable of and involved
in the environment where the situation is taking place in order to
benefit fully from seizing the opportune moment.
Hess's conflicting perspective on kairos is exemplified by the
disagreement between Lloyd F. Bitzer and Richard E. Vatz about the
rhetorical situation. Bitzer argues that rhetorical situations exist
independent of human perspective; a situation invites discourse. He
discusses the feeling of a missed opportunity to speak (kairos) and
the tendency to later create a speech in response to that unseized
moment. However, Vatz counters Bitzer's view by claiming that a
situation is made rhetorical by the perception of its interpreter and
the way which they choose to respond to it, whether with discourse or
not. It is the rhetor's responsibility to give an event meaning
through linguistic depiction. Bitzer's and Vatz's perspectives add
depth to Hess's ideas that kairos is concerned with both timeliness
and appropriateness. On one hand, Bitzer's argument supports Hess's
claim that kairos is spontaneous, and one must be able to recognize
the situation as opportune in order to take advantage of it. On the
other hand, Vatz's idea that the rhetor is responsible reinforces
Hess's suggestion of the need to be knowledgeable and involved in the
surrounding environment in order to fully profit from the situation.
According to Bitzer,
Kairos is composed of exigence, audience, and
constraints. Exigence is the inherent pressure to do something about a
situation immediately, with the action required depending on the
situation. The audience are the listeners who the rhetor is attempting
to persuade. Constraints are the external factors that challenges the
rhetors ability to influence, such as the audience’s personal
beliefs and motivations.
Additionally, factors such as cultural background, previous social
experiences, and current mood, can influence the capacity to see and
understand the correct and opportune moment of action.
Thus, the difficulty of using kairos in a modern rhetorical setting is
understanding and working within its constraints, while also carefully
considering unexpected situations and encounters that arise, in order
to present one’s rhetorical argument as naturally as possible.
'Kairos' modern English definition is vague. There is no one word in
today's English language that completely encompasses the definition of
kairos, similar to that of Ethos, Logos, and Pathos. In his article
"The Ethics of Argument: Rereading
Kairos and Making Sense in a Timely
Fashion," Michael Harker says, "Like the 'points' on the rhetorical
triangle, the meaning of kairos is not definitive but rather a
starting point for grasping the whole of an argument." Kairos'
inclusion in modern composition has not been implicitly made, but
there are undertones. Various components of kairos are included in
modern composition and have made profound effects on modern
Kairos' purpose in modern rhetoric is mostly focused on the placement
of logos, pathos, and ethos.
Kairos is used as a "starting point" in
modern rhetoric. Kelly Pender's article "'Kairos' and the Subject of
Expressive Discourse" states the inclusion of kairos within discourse
"would try to shift the focus of personal writing from the writer's
experiences and emotions to a broader perspective that explicitly
concentrates on the rhetorical situation..."
Kairos is an
expressive inclusion within the overall subject of discourse, and one
that has an effect on the entire rhetoric.
Kairos in digital media
The historical context of the definition of kairos may make the
concept appear outdated. However, the relevancy of kairos is at its
peak as the world has rapidly transformed into a society dependent on
digital technology. In order to recognize how kairos can be applied to
online media and the challenges that occur as a result, a broad
definition of the term is required. One definition makes the
application of kairos to digital media easy to recognize, as it states
kairos can be referred to as particular moment in which success is
achieved when an opening is pursued with force. This definition
prompts a main issue within the application of kairos to online
content: if timing is crucial to the message of communication that is
being received, how can we communicate effectively online, where
anything can be published at any time?
The difficulty with modern rhetoric in the digital space is that the
audience is less easily influenced by the rhetor. As such, it is
difficult for rhetors to utilize kairos to the best of their
abilities. Due to the nature of which modern audiences in the
electronic age consume media, it is highly possible that they are
multi-tasking, with their attention divided among multiple sources.
This difficulty is compounded with the fact that this audience can
consume discourse at different times, in different places, and through
varying mediums. As a result, the audience is able to assign
encountered discourse at various levels of personal priority. With
this, they are able to discern which discourse they think is vital or
interesting, and discard those they deem trivial or unworthy of their
There are also multiple external factors that lead to the difficulty
in using kairos in a modern setting. Since computer hardware,
software, and even the underlying operating system all differ between
people, it is difficult for the orator to take account for every
permutation possible. Couple this with the lack of a true shared
community online, since such virtual “cloakroom communities” are
only temporary, and the difficulties in using kairos in the digital
age becomes painfully clear.
Some scholars studying kairos in the modern digital sphere argue that
the aspects of body/ identity, distribution/ circulation, access/
accessibility, interaction, and economics are handled differently in
an online setting and therefore messages that are sent digitally need
to be altered to fit the new circumstances. In order to reach online
audiences effectively, scholars suggest that context of the
information's use, which includes considerations of legal,
health-related, disciplinary, and political factors paired with smart
rhetorical thinking can solve the issue of miscommunicated messages
distributed on online forums.
In Christian theology
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 and the kingdom of God is at hand). "Kairos" (used 86 times
in the New Testament) refers to an opportune time, a "moment" or a
"season" such as "harvest time,"  whereas "chronos" (used 54
times) refers to a specific amount of time, such as a day or an
hour (e.g. Acts 13:18 and 27:9). Jesus makes a distinction in John 7:6
between "His" time and "His brothers'" time: paradoxically, it is
"always" (Greek: πάντοτε) his brothers' time. In the context,
they can go to
Jerusalem any time they wish.
Eastern Orthodox and
Eastern Catholic churches, before the
Divine Liturgy begins, the
Deacon exclaims to the Priest,
'Καιρὸς τοῦ ποιῆσαι τῷ Κυρίῳ' (
poiēsai tō Kyriō), i.e. "It is time [kairos] for the Lord to act",
indicating that the time of the Liturgy is an intersection with
In The Interpretation of History, neo-orthodox
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
Karl 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.
In Hippocrates’ (460-357 B.C.E) major theoretical treatises on the
nature of medical science and methodology, the term “kairos” is
used within the first line.
Hippocrates is generally accepted as the
father of medicine, but his contribution to the discourse of science
is less discussed. While “kairos” most often refers to “the
Hippocrates also used to term when referencing
experimentation. Using this term allowed him to “express the
variable components of medical practice more accurately.” Here the
word refers more to proportion, the mean, and the implicit sense of
Hippocrates most famous quote about kairos is “every kairos is a
chronos, but not every chronos is a kairos.” 
Rhetoric of Doing: Essays on Written Discourse in Honor of James
L. Kinneavy by Stephen Paul Witte, Neil Nakadate, Roger Dennis Cherry
also discusses the art of kairos in the field of science. Citing John
Swales, the essay notes that the introduction sections of scientific
research articles are nothing more than the construction of openings.
This idea derives from the spacial aspect of kairos, or the creation
of "an opening," which can be created by writers and discovered by
readers. This opening is the opportune time, or kairos. Swales created
what he called the "create a research space" model, wherein kairos, or
an opening, was constructed. It consisted of four rhetorical moves.
1.) establishing the field. 2.) summarizing previous research. 3.)
preparing for present research, and 4.) introducing the present
research. The third step is one where a gap in previous research is
indicated, thus creating the need for more information. The writer
constructs a need, and an opening. Because kairos emphasizes change,
it is an important aspect of science. Not all scientific research can
be presented at the same time or in the same way, but creating an
opening makes it possible to construct the right time.
This can easily be related back to
Hippocrates statement that not
every opening is an opportunity. Yet, in science, the message can be
adapted in such a way that chronos becomes kairos.
The idea can also be expressed in the words of Carolyn M. Glasshoff
who wrote that, specifically in the field of scientific writing,
“any text must be influenced by the kairos that exists both before
the text is created and during the presentation. In addition, each
text helps create a new kairos for texts that come after.” 
Kairos (Madeleine L'Engle)
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