“Every kairos is a chronos,
but not every chronos is a kairos.” — Hipporates
It seems simple enough on the face of it, but what does time really mean?
If you’d asked an ancient Greek to define it, he would have asked you which aspect of time you were talking about. You see, the Greeks had three distinct concepts of time: aion, chronos and kairos.
Personified as gods, Aion represented the everlasting eternity of the Greek Cosmos, whereas Chronos symbolized clock time, and Kairos the right time. Together, they explained humanity’s place in a temporal world as it moved forward through eternity.
Chronos: The March of Time
More on kairos later, but if aion is the ocean, then chronos is its current.
Chronological time is what we’re all familiar with. It’s linear and sequential. We measure it with clocks and use it to gauge the velocity of objects through space. Seconds lead to minutes, to hours to days. It’s the perspective that governs our daily lives.
Some believe we’ve become slaves to chronological time. We say, “Time stops for no one” and “Time is money.” It’s a commodity to be spent—to be saved or wasted. We even give slices of it an identity—those occasions we call Christmastime and springtime, or when we talk of “the time of the dinosaurs” or “Roman times”.
Our problem is that chronos is constantly ticking. We can’t slow or stop it, and once it’s lost you can’t get it back.
Speaking of my own experience, I often feel like I’m pressed for time, and I get impatient when I waste my time standing in an endless queue or if I’m left waiting on a platform for an overdue train.
Kairos: The Time is Ripe
When our ancestors came down from the trees and walked out into the world, they would have had an understanding of chronological time … how it stretched out into the future. Given their knowledge of the present, they would have observed that seasons passed and grasped the need to plan ahead for cycles of hunger and plenty. Their survival depended on long-term thinking.
But understanding the quality of time required a leap of cognitive ability.
Ancient Greeks made a distinction between the quantity of time and its quality—between chronos and kairos.
Nowadays, everybody craves more family time or ‘me’ time, as if these are endowed with better quality. Not so! These are meaningless boxes of chronological time. They may be filled with potential, but what determines our experience is how we fill that box. And whether we enjoy or not is subjective.
When I say kairos is about the quality of time, I’m not talking of it in terms of having a good time or a bad time. These are just labels we project into the box, often with hindsight. What may be a great time to one can be hell on earth to another. Our opinion says nothing about the intrinsic qualities of time itself.
I think that chronos and kairos are better understood in terms of questions. When we ask, “What time is it?” the answer is expressed in chronological terms. But when we ask, “What is it time for?” the answer brings us closer to the meaning of kairos.
Today we live in chronological world, and the concept of kairos is all but lost. We have no equivalent word in the English language, but kairos is the notion of an appropriate time. Something is about to happen; there is an opportunity to be seized, and what we decide will affect our future. Call it the moment of truth, or carpe diem. Kairos describes the moment when the time is ripe to take destiny into our hands.
Take 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…”
When the Greeks first translated the Bible from Hebrew, they expressed every reference to time in the above passage as kairos, not chronos.
If chronos is about measuring time, then kairos is about judging it — not its seconds or minutes, but its significance.
I think of kairos as an open door—an invitation to reflect before jumping in. Viewed like this, kairos doesn’t rule us. It gives us space to control our future. Time spent in Kairos is never wasted.
Stephen Chamberlain is the author of the fantasy novel Graëlfire. He draws inspiration from the impact of landscape on myth, and the association of liminality with the supernatural and magic. Stephen lives in Switzerland.