Mercury and Saturn as Kairos and Kronos
(from an alchemical manuscript; source unknown)

There is a tide in the affairs of men Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Brutus, from Julius Caesar

The Ancient Greeks had two different words for time – Kronos and Kairos. Kronos referred to the time that can be measured by the clock; it is from this that we get the terms Chronometer and Chronology, which signify the passing of time. The other view of time – Kairos – was quite independent of the passing of hours and minutes, and referred to the right or opportune moment to act. This other view of time has not survived into the modern era.

Perhaps the reason why Kronos has survived into the modern era and Kairos has not, is because the measurement of time is based on logic, whereas the impulse to act is intuitive.

Time is one of the great unknowns. It is hidden from us either by its nonexistence beyond the present moment or by the limitations of our experience. Because we cannot see anything beyond the present moment, we compensate for this by dealing with the one aspect which is under our control, namely its measurement by the clock.

The history of clock-making is synonymous with the history of Western civilization. The earliest clocks were sun-dials, which employed the shadows cast by a moving sun to tell the time. The open-air sun-dial was improved by the invention of the clock-tower, which measured the sunlight as it came into a building. Both of these had their limitations, notably a clear sky, and so the need to measure time more exactly gave rise to the hourglass, and then to the water clock.

Water clock designed by Su Song (1020 – 1101)

Then with the conquest of America and the increase in ocean traffic, the need for stricter and more accurate time-keeping gave rise to the much more accurate marine chronometer. The discovery of electricity gave rise to the quartz clock, and eventually to the digital clock. Each improvement was brought about by the need to measure time, and to do so with increasing accuracy.

Tower of the Winds by Edward Dodwell (1767 – 1832)
(Sufis holding conference inside a clock tower)

The other view of time, Kairos, referring to the right or opportune moment to act, has been lost to the ongoing progress of Western civilisation. This is because the dominance of logic has caused us to focus on the measurement of time rather than on our experience of it. We have rendered our decision-making over to the mechanics of the clock, rather than to accept that we alone are responsible for our most important decisions and choices.

In order to understand this other approach to time, we must turn momentarily to the East. It is a repeated truism that the West is logical and the East is intuitive, nonetheless, it does point to a difference of approach, and particularly to the phenomenon of time. If the aim of logic is to define and classify time into hours, minutes and seconds, the aim of intuition is to grasp it as a coherent whole. The most striking example of this difference of approach can be seen in the I-Ching, or the Chinese Book of Changes. Carl Jung, in his introduction to Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I-Ching (1950), explains the difference of approach this way:

‘While the Western mind carefully sifts, weighs, selects, classifies, isolates, the Chinese picture of the moment encompasses everything down to the minutest nonsensical detail, because all of the ingredients make up the observed moment.’ [2]

The I-Ching provides an interesting example of what happens when time is studied from an intuitive point of view. Whereas in the West the focus is on material nature, through physics, biology and chemistry, in the East – as can be seen in the I-Ching – the focus is on the intuitive experience of time. Examples of this intuitive approach can be found in the Hexagrams and their meaning, which are drawn directly from the experience of time; some of the names of the hexagrams include sprouting, leading, treading, following, nearing, returning, persevering, retiring, prospering, ascending, holding and sojourning.

Tibetan tablet showing the Hexagrams, from L. A. Waddell’s ‘The Buddhism of Tibet’ (1895)

Intuitively, we recognise that an action may be right in one circumstance and not in another. To be drunk at midnight is fine; to be drunk at midday is not. To start a business in a time of prosperity is sensible; to do so in a recession is problematic. So there is the action and there is the context in which the action takes place. A context is more than the sum of its parts, and can include the seasons, the time of day, the local and national conditions, the political and economic climate, our own vitality and health, and our mental outlook. Any action taken will include such elements, even if we are not aware of them.

This is the essence of Kairos, which is to recognise the fuller context in which an action is to be taken, and then to act appropriately. This totality cannot be deduced logically, simply because it only exists as a totality.

We might ask why such things matter. After all, if we get up on time and wash and eat and then travel to work, we will arrive on time for the morning duty and so be able to pay our rent and go on making a living. It follows that if the impulse to act was so important, we would treat it with equal importance.

The impulse to act, particularly when the outcome cannot be known, is intuitive. The dominance of logic in Western culture means that this element – the intuitive grasp of time – is neglected. In many respects, that is why the impulse to act independently of necessity can appear irrational and even daring. It was Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), regarded as the father of existentialism, who wrote in his book Fear and Loathing:

‘If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.’ [3]

Soren Kierkegaard, by his cousin, Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840

Even practical people recognise the importance of seizing the opportune moment. Carl von Clausewitz (1780 – 1831), the Prussian general and military theorist who wrote On War, employed the term ‘coup d’oeil’, by which he meant the ability to grasp in an instant the totality of the situation and so to be able to act decisively. He had the following to say about its importance in battle:

‘When all is said and done, it really is the commander’s coup d’oeil, his ability to see things simply, to identify the whole business of war completely with himself, that is the essence of good generalship. Only if the mind works in this comprehensive fashion can it achieve the freedom it needs to dominate events and not be dominated by them.’ [4]

Carl von Clausewitz by Karl Wilhelm Wach, 1830

This points to the question of free will. To be free, we must be able to act quite independently of circumstances, and on a basis other than necessity. If our actions were determined purely by the laws of cause and effect, then we would be little different from machines. The hallmark of the modern era is not just that we live with machines, but that we think like them too. This is particularly noticeable in our understanding of human nature.

Present day psychology, which studies the individual purely from a material point of view, will not admit to any non-physical element in human nature. The behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904 – 1990), took the view that there was little difference between human beings and machines beyond the degree of complexity. In his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, he wrote:

‘Man is a machine in the sense that he is a complex system behaving in lawful ways, but the complexity is extraordinary.’ [5]

There can be no room for free will in such a conception of the world. This would be the case if – not just in the wider world, but also in our inner life – we were governed purely by mechanics. If even our thoughts were subject to mechanical laws, there could be no Kairos, only Kronos. So the question is whether Kairos is more than simply wishful thinking, or whether this can be proven by the individual, through direct experience.

It is to be noted that the Kairos moment, or an instant of spontaneous action, can only be the product of insight. No amount of calculation will provide us with an instant grasp of a complex situation; only insight is capable of such a thing. Whereas logical solutions are linear – one premise is connected with another to form an argument or conclusion – insight solutions arrive whole and spontaneously. An insight solution can change all that we thought and knew about a situation, and reveal much that we didn’t even suspect at all. Insight can lead to invention, creativity, new hypotheses and, above all, to inspired action. Kairos is the product of insight, and insight is intuitive.

To attend to the moment, the intuitive mind must be active. If the modern era has become mechanised, it is due to the dominance of logic over intuition. Kairos, or inspired action, does not depend on any theoretical definition for its existence, but solely on the experience itself. We have either been in receipt of an inspired idea or we haven’t, and if we haven’t, then we need to attend to our intuitive mind. Without inspiration, there can be only repetition and routine, and no freedom worth speaking of.

From the Spring 2021 edition of Nascent State magazine

References:

  1. William Shakespeare, Brutus, from Julius Caesar, (IV. 269–276)
  2. Carl Jung, Introduction to I-Ching by Richard Wilhelm (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951), 4
  3. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Alistair Hannay, (London: Penguin Books, 1985) p. 74
  4. Carl von Clausewitz, On War (London: Trübner, 1873), Ch 1, Introduction, p. 2
  5. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, 1971) p.197