Kairos. Seize the eternal in the right moment [«Kairos: een nieuwe bevlogenheid» / Kairos: a new engagement – Introduction Chapter] – Joke J. Hermsen

Kairos. Seize the eternal in the right moment [«Kairos: een nieuwe bevlogenheid» / Kairos: a new engagement – Introduction Chapter] – Joke J. Hermsen

Kairos. Seize the eternal in the right moment [«Kairos: een nieuwe bevlogenheid» / Kairos: a new engagement – Introduction Chapter]

Kairos reappearing in Art, Literature and Philosophy



I – The resurgence of Kairos

There’s no life that couldn’t be immortal if only for a moment’.
The Moment, Wislawa Szymborska

The curious figure with winged shoulders and feet which graces the cover of this book is not all that easy to place for a twenty-first century reader. Is it an angel or demon from Antiquity, a fairy-tale character or even an allegorical figure from the Middle Ages? And why is he hunched over and staring in total concentration at the scales in his hands? Surely he is not extolling the virtues of a low-calorie diet? Let me reassure you. The scales, which sometimes balance on a sharp knife edge, refer to the careful weighing up of the right moment, the favourable opportunity and the right arguments. Does that mean he is related to Themis, the goddess of justice, who is often depicted with similar scales? Indeed, there are some parallels, since he helps us find ‘the right measure’ in all manner of issues, including legal ones.

What’s more, our character is related to Hermes, the messenger of the gods and the patron of travellers, who had winged feet as well. As Pausanias tells us, he once stood brotherly beside him in the Temple in Olympia dedicated to their father Zeus: ‘Hard by the entrance into the stadium there are two altars: one of them is called the altar of Hermes of the Games, the other the altar of Opportunity or Kairos’. Yet he also differs from Hermes, in that his head is shaven, save for one long lock that falls elegantly over his forehead. He sports this peculiar punk hairstyle because the person who suddenly glimpses him must be able to grab him by this forelock before the moment passes again. Hesitate too long and your hands will slide down his bald pate and your chance of insight, glory or the perfect opportunity to change your life is wasted. In short, the figure depicted here is none another than Zeus’ youngest son Kairos, also known as ‘the god of the opportune moment’. Until the late sixteenth century, this mythical god of time fired the imagination of many a philosopher, theologian, physician or poet, because Kairos was the time that mattered, the time that offered opportunities or brought about a breakthrough. He represented all those inspiring moments of beauty, insight and purpose that make life so special.

Attention, calm and the careful consideration of circumstances are the main conditions for creating the kairotic moment. In Antiquity, it meant both good timing and seizing the chance or the moment, which might reveal itself through concentration, attentiveness and profound analysis of the context. In fact, Kairos was a strategy for escaping that other Greek god of time, who went by the name of Chronos and brings order and structure to the world by counting and measuring time. Where Chronos stands for continuity and temporariness, Kairos represents disruption and change. During this interval we forget the ticking of the clock and experience a dimension of time, that is more abundant and bountiful, but that also conjures up new possibilities. It explains why this god of time played such a crucial role and indicated ‘the right measure’ for action in a wide range of disciplines.

What is time? To whom does it belong? Is there another kind of time apart from clock time? These are the questions that will guide this book. They are important questions, because time forms the basis of our human existence and as such determines the relationship we have with ourselves and with the world around us. When man started to think, he also thought about time, albeit without solving the mystery of it. ‘If no one asks me, I know, but if I have to explain to someone what time is, I no longer know’, wrote St Augustine in his Confessions, and many people experience such ‘learned ignorance’ to this day. However mysterious and complex the phenomenon of time, I would like to clarify in this essay that there is not simply one kind of time, the chronological time of clocks, but that time has at least ‘two faces’, as early Greek philosophers believed. Chronos and Kairos represent these two different experiences of time.

In Greek mythology Kairos was the youngest and most rebellious grandson of Chronos. Given his ability to bring about change, insight and reversal, he is depicted as a young, strong and muscular god. Grandfather Chronos, on the other hand, is portrayed as an old man with a long beard and a sandglass and a scythe in his hand, because he is all about finitude and measuring time. Time can be measured only if each unit of time – each hour, each minute – is universal and equal to another, regardless of circumstances, personal experience of time or time already gone by. Chronos is therefore a social time that helps us organise the world, make appointments and keep diaries. But it is also ‘a homogeneous and empty time’, as the German philosopher Paul Tillich wrote in Philosophie und Schicksal (1961; Philosophy and Fate), because it cannot do justice to the world’s changing nature nor to our subjective experience of time. Depending on our mood, age or activity an hour can either crawl or fly by, speed up or slow down, but according to the clock each hour is identical to any other. It is Kairos’ ability to escape this time regime by focusing our attention and creating an intermezzo in time. Where Chronos stands for universal, static and quantitative time, which is essential for a linear temporal system, Kairos represents the subjective, dynamic and qualitative moment that recognises specific and continuously changing circumstances; it can therefore also result in a shift in consciousness.

Kairos has nothing to do with counting down seconds or minutes, nor with stringing together moments into a chronological line, rather it transcends this linear time and binds together past, present and future into the ‘fullness of a visionary moment’, as Martin Heidegger put it in Being and Time (1928). What reveals itself in the Kairos moment as an ‘event’ is nothing less than the authenticity of Dasein, of man’s most authentic existence, because it is only then that his ‘being in the world’ is linked to the ‘fullness’ of time. Heidegger also labels this the Anfängliche Zeit, (‘initial time’), the time that frees up new beginnings and possibilities, because the Kairos moment creates a rupture or caesura with the repetitive Chronos time. From the ancient Greek philosophers till 20th Century thinkers like Heidegger, Foucault or Deleuze, Kairos provided ‘the supreme opportunity’ for initiating a turning point in any given area. Kairos’ moment is also comparable to Archimedes’ eureka moment, so called because he shouted ‘Eureka! Eureka!’ (I have found it!) while running through the streets of Syracuse after discovering the law of the buoyancy force exerted on a body.

Likewise, Kairos can also be associated with the principle of serendipity, which is known within science as ‘the gift or faculty of ‘making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’, as the sociologist Robert Merton describes it in The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity (1958). It refers to the surprising observation of an unknown phenomenon, which then prompts the development of a new theory. A well-known example is Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin. While tidying up his laboratory, he noticed that a fungus on a culture slowed down the growth of bacteria. Chance and fortune played an important role, as did his intuition, alertness and acumen. Fleming was not looking for penicillin, but he kept his eyes peeled, remaining open to the unexpected and seizing the opportunity offered to him at that moment. On the one hand, he had to be brave enough to defy prevailing theories, while on the other hand he had to be thoroughly prepared when the moment arose. Louis Pasteur said something similar: ‘The ability to be surprised at the “right moment” is the mind’s first step towards discovery.’

In Antiquity Kairos represented all those exceptional moments when thoughts and events could take a different turn, which is why he was seen as more powerful and influential than Chronos. However, much like a vertical axis and its horizontal counterpart, the two forms of time always remained connected. They constitute the two faces of time that cannot be considered separately or independently from one another. It is therefore not a question of choosing one or the other, but of maintaining the right balance between both, which is why Kairos is always depicted with scales in his hands. To my mind, this dual face of time can help broaden and deepen our thinking about the phenomenon of time, which in our Western culture tends to be rather narrowly based on chronological clock time only. Besides, clock time has increasingly become an economic instrument, since it measures our wages according to the hours spend on the job. This connection between clocktime and money resulted in a constant speeding up of time one the one hand and the awareness of a structural lack of time on the other, provoking stress, haste and impatience, as I demonstrated earlier in my book Stil de tijd (2009; Stop the clocks). The one-sided Chronos regime in Western, capitalist society has alienated us from a more subjective, creative and above all more profound and truthful approach to time. It is therefore time, I believe, to reconsider time, not only in our daily lives, but also in philosophy, politics and science.

From Antiquity until the late Middle Ages, Kairos was such an all-encompassing concept that it cannot really be captured in a single word in any modern language, according to Phillip Sipiora, who published his book of essays Rhetoric and Kairos in 2002. But this experience of time was accorded such great importance that it makes sense to have a closer look – not least because in recent years Kairos has been popping up all over the place, in philosophical studies as well as in graphic novels, political movements and cultural events.

II – Kairos and the right measure

The Kairos fresco reproduced at the start of this chapter was created around 1552 by the Florentine painter Francesco de’ Rossi, or Francesco Salviati (1510-1563), and continues to grace the walls of the Palazzo Sacchetti in Rome. It would remain for some time one of the last depictions of Kairos, since the advent of the Enlightenment faded him into the background. Above his head we see all the promises that await us if we manage to seize the right moment: jugs of wine, baskets full of fruit and helmets symbolising the trophies of military triumph. The message is clear: Kairos is generous if we pay him heed. He showers us with rich insights and glorious victories provided we prepare for his arrival and manage to grab his lock of hair. Several decades before Salviati painted his fresco, Erasmus collected some Greek and Roman proverbs, adages and aphorisms about Kairos in his Adagia from 1508. He thought Kairos to be the ‘most efficient cure for things incurable’ and also the creative force that ‘changes the nature of everything’. Knowing the right moment is crucial for doing the right thing, according to Erasmus. Only if you know this true essence of time, you will catch sight of new opportunities.


Francesco de’ Rossi [Francesco Salviati] – Kairos [ 1552-1554 – Palazzo Sacchetti, Roma]


French classicist Monique Trédé was one of the first European academics to present a comprehensive overview of the concept Kairos in her book Kairos. L’à-propos et l’occasion (1992; Kairos. Chance and opportunity). For Hesiod – after Homer the oldest Greek poet known to us – Kairos was simply the ‘best in all matters’ for man: ‘Observe due measure, and proportion is best in all things.’ To the Greek physician Hippocrates, Kairos represented the critical moment when a doctor has to intervene: ‘Life is short, art long, opportunity [Kairos] fleeting’. Moments of crisis offered the ideal opportunity to grab Kairos by his lock of hair, because when things are at their worst, time forces you to interrupt the course of events and create an intermezzo, from which the crisis can be averted. In art and education, Kairos played a similarly decisive role. For tragedians such as Sophocles and Euripides, it meant a significant source of inspiration as well as ‘the best guide for all human action’. Trédé also quotes the sculptor Polykleitos, who described Kairos’ role in a successful work of art as follows: ‘Now in every piece of work, beauty is brought to perfection through the right size of Kairos, guided by symmetry and harmony’.

Within the school of Pythagoras, the harmony that Kairos could bring about was all about reconciliation or finding a new ‘equilibrium’ between two polar opposites. Wisdom, to these Greek thinkers, lay in realising a new balance within ten pairs of opposites – including single and plural, rest and movement, man and woman, good and bad – and they linked this new equilibrium to Kairos. As we shall see in a later essay, the ‘right time’ also bears an affinity with ‘the soul’ or the animating principle that Pythagoras saw as the ‘harmonising movement that brings about a new balance of opposing qualities’. In that sense, the kairotic moment can be seen as an important moment of inspiration or soulfulness, when the restored balance between two poles can give rise to new thought and new engagement.

Finally, Kairos played an important role in rhetoric and pedagogy. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, for example, it is known as the moment when listeners become convinced of a particular opinion, with the speaker constantly tailoring his argument to his audience. The philosopher and educationalist Isocrates, who was actually more influential than Plato, even ranks Kairos as the only meaningful goal of education and upbringing. In practically all of his texts he links the art of upbringing and education, the paideia, to the Kairos moment. However many facts and principles pupils might know, their education can only be deemed a true success if they have the wherewithal to apply them to the ever-changing reality. In Against the Sophists Isocrates criticises the Sophists’ inability to include Kairos in their orations: in his view, they are concerned with neither the right timing or measure nor specific circumstances, but instead turn argumentation into a game for its own sake, severed from its context and therefore pointless.

In his final lectures at the University of California Berkeley in 1983-1984, the French philosopher Michel Foucault links Isocrates’ kairotic moment to the Greek concept of parrhesia, which means frank, honest and truthful speech. To him this form of truth telling – ‘le dire vrai’– means that the speaker chooses honesty, subjectivity and truth over and above reiterating clichés, that he or she is not afraid to express criticism of established opinions and puts moral obligation above self-interest. Another element of parrhesia is that in expressing his or her ‘truth’ the speaker must be prepared to take risks and put his or her social position on the line. Instead of spouting accepted wisdom that bolsters one’s position in society, the speaker has to summon the courage to voice his or her truth at the right moment, which can then not only bring about a shift in consciousness, but also introduce the necessary heterogeneity or plurality to society. Foucault sees reflection and self-awareness as important conditions for the appearance of Kairos. In Antiquity, ‘know the right moment’ was closely linked to the oracle of Delphi’s motto ‘know thyself.’ Only a thorough reflection on one’s strengths and limitations and care for one’s soul – viewed by the Greek philosophers as man’s most important task – enables you to judge the world and others.

III – Kairos and Benjamin’s Angelus Novus

Until the late sixteenth century, Kairos continued to exercise philosophical, artistic and political minds. He not only signalled the opportune moment for new insights and strategic decisions, but he was also associated with an honourable way of life or a moral art of living. Kairos was a modus vivendi, writes Sipiora. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries we see or hear little of him, but he reappears in Nietzsche’s work and makes his comeback in the course of the twentieth century. He takes on the role of inspiration, revolutionary, visionary or ‘knotter of time’ in texts by the likes of Heidegger, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin and Charles Taylor. More than a century after Nietzsche wrote that it takes a great many hands to grab Kairos by the forelock, we encounter the Greek god of the opportune moment in numerous studies highlighting the importance of a different experience of time. In books as diverse as Kairological Economics (2012), Nicholas Laos’ economic analysis of time, the philosophical study The Time of Revolution. Kairos and Chronos in Heidegger (2013) by Felix Ó Murchadha and Rifat Odeh Kassis’ political treatise Kairos for Palestine (2011), to name but a few, Kairos is associated with ideas about a break or caesura with prevailing notions and the creation of an interval from which a new insight, a political revolution or a fundamentally new way of thinking can spring. Incidentally, the book by Kassis references the publication of the Kairos Palestine document in 2009, in which several international organisations advocate the rights of the Palestinian people, thereby following in the footsteps of the group of South African bishops who made the case for the abolition of apartheid in their Kairos Document of 1985.

We actually live in times of technological transition, economic uncertainty and political revolt. Many of us believe we are heading towards some kind of turning point of history, but the question is whether we are well prepared for such a transition. Do we focus sharply enough upon the new possibilities, risks and opportunities of this turning point, or do we seek shelter in short term solutions or conservative nostalgia only. In Infancy and History (1979) Giorgio Agamben points out that the need for creating the ‘right moment’ is born not only out of internal struggle and reflection, but also arises from the external conflicts on the world stage. Time is running out for the survival of the planet, but we seem not to be able to create an interval, a temporary pause, to reflect thoroughly upon our actions and visions for the future. However it is ‘now’ the right moment to do so, to change course and create new ways of modus vivendi. We need the attention, intuition and revolutionary potential ascribed to Kairos, as it is described by the historian Michael Edward Moore in his book Nicholas of Cusa and the Kairos of Modernity (2013). Moore links the classical concept of Kairos to concepts such as ‘now time’, ‘Jetztzeit’ and ‘messianic time’ in the works of modernist thinkers such as Gadamer, Bloch, Benjamin and Cassirer. The kairotic moment brings about a revolutionary potential which cannot be calculated or reckoned with in advance, but which can be surmised and intuitively ‘prepared’ for. It demands a heightened attentiveness to both the legacy of the past and the current state of the world. It’s the unlocking of ‘the truth [aletheia] of a revolutionary time’, as O Murchhadha calls it.

Kairos has also been associated with utopian ways of thinking that focus on the ‘not yet’, as Ernst Bloch, author of The Principle of Hope (1955) calls it; not a blueprint or a predetermined ideal model, but an orientation towards ‘what has not yet been realised, thought or developed’. In this study Bloch lays out the myriad ways in which hope and desire for liberation and fulfilment appear in art, philosophy, fairytales, myths and in our everyday lives while musing and daydreaming. The kairotic moment is full of awareness of this ‘not yet conscious’ or ‘not yet become’. According to Bloch the ‘now’ of the moment is not the apparent presence, but the utopian prefiguration of the ‘not yet’. The qualitative time of Kairos’ is based on both memory and the revolutionary and utopian disruption of continuity. Like Walter Benjamin, Bloch calls this moment ‘Jetztzeit’ as a kind of messianic arrest of time, which should merely be understood as ‘a rupture in history’ and the advent of the new.

Like Isocrates, Bloch thought that education should be aimed precisely on those kairotic moments of exceptional focus, because it is in those moments that ‘the boundlessness of the utopian prospect and the depth of perceived proximity’ come together as one. According to Bloch, these are the perfect moments of inspiration because they do not only help transcend what already exists, but also motivate man’s inner process of existence. It is at such kairotic moments that we are like horsemen riding to meet ourselves in the deep of the night. The old me, seated firmly in the saddle of established certainties, and the me yet to come, which is merely promise and possibility, gallop towards each other, and out of the subsequent lightning collision comes the new idea or insight that makes the new us. In that ‘fulfilled moment’, we get a glimpse of the new beginning in something that ‘appears but is not yet manifest’, something that lights up as a beacon on the horizon of our thoughts and fills us with the hope of something different and better. Bloch’s way of thinking focus entirely on making people aware of the importance of that creative process of ‘becoming’. ‘Man is’, he wrote. ‘But that is not enough. That is indeed the very least.’

Education should not so much confirm the status quo or simply measure and rehearse facts, but rather focus on this process of becoming. In this respect, Bloch reintroduced the concept of docta spes, ‘educated hope’. It is precisely at times when materialism and the meritocratic spirit dominate society that he considered it essential for us to ‘learn to hope again’, because otherwise we might ignore the most fundamental aspect of humanity, namely that we are not established facts (like objects), but rather beings in the making that are anchored in time. His concept of ‘time as hope’ can be regarded as a constantly reaching for the unreachable, which provides wings for our thoughts and our imagination. A better future is not as far away as we sometimes think it is. New possibilities lie in wait in the present for the alert and creative spirit that know how to conjure up the right kind of amazement at the right time.

Blochs friend, the philosopher Walter Benjamin, also wrote a form of ‘philosophical kairology’, agrees Ralf Konersmann, who collected Benjamin’s essays in 2007 under the title Kairos. Schriften zur Philosophie (Kairos. Writings on philosophy) and furnished them with an afterword. The famous Angelus Novus of history from Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940) is tasked with moving backwards into the future with his face turned to the rubble of history, ‘to represent the new age from the interruption of the kairotic moment’. Unlike chronological time, in which the future is ahead of us and we have our backs to the past, here it is the sight of the past that brings about the interval of Kairos. Elsewhere I already described how in both ancient and modern Greek culture the future is seen not so much as something ahead of us, but as something that ‘comes up from behind’. Time is a river we stand in – Heraclitus’ panta rhei. We can still see the recent past flow past us, but the distant past is already shrouded in the mists of the hazy distance, whereas the future, something we can neither know nor see before us, pushes us from behind into the river of time. As a consequence, our actions are always prompted by the past and thus by what we already know and see before us. Turning our backs on the past – as expressed in idioms such as ‘let bygones be bygones’ or ‘what’s done is done’ – and viewing the future as a tabula rasa will not equip us with the right measure for our actions. Despite certain similarities between Benjamin’s angel and Kairos – they both occupy the interval between past and future, viewing the ‘now’ as a past that gains momentum in the present – Konersmann may be skimming over the differences a little too easily. Whereas Kairos leans over the opportune moment with the utmost concentration, the wide-eyed angel appears to recoil from it.


Paul Klee – Angelus Novus [1920 – Israel Museum in Jerusalem]


Benjamin describes his angel of history in response to a Paul Klee painting: ‘There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.’

The kairotic moment in Benjamin’s work differs from the angel of history, because the former can intervene in the course of events and bring about change, while history itself can only watch ‘the rubble-heap’ grow. To my mind, this moment has therefore more in common with what Benjamin, in the fifth thesis, calls the Dialektik im Stillstand, or dialectics at a standstill: a moment of immobility and reflection that actually manages to disrupt the continuity of history. At the moment of standstill and sharpened attention, history – and with it the continued piling up of rubble – is interrupted to force a caesura in the chain of events and to facilitate ‘revolutionary’ change. In other words, the new inspired by Kairos is not the result or logical outcome of a certain historical development, but is fundamentally different in nature and therefore better viewed as a push-off point. It is precisely because you are facing the past that you have a view of the heaps of rubble and you push off against recent historical developments. In that respect, history functions more like a springboard towards the new or the unknown, which cannot be described, planned or programmed in advance, but only intuitively and creatively sensed. The classless society, for instance, something Benjamin and other pre-war Marxist intellectuals dreamed of, is not the goal or outcome of historical progress, but its interruption.

In that sense, as it was for Heidegger and Tillich, Benjamin’s kairotic moment is utopian in nature, in the original double meaning of the word ou-topos: both no place and a good place. What may manifest itself during this exceptional moment does not appear out of thin air but, as Benjamin believes, it has its roots in history as well as current events; it joins ‘now’ and ‘then’ in a new way. On the one hand, a sound knowledge of history provides the ‘springboard’ to a kairotic moment, while on the other, Benjamin believes, dreams for the future are always coupled with repressed elements from time immemorial, which remain stored somewhere in the collective unconscious. As an example of such an ancient dream he cited, as one of the few Marxists of his day, the archaic, matriarchal society that boasted not just a fundamentally different relationship between man and woman, but also a more harmonious bond between man and nature.

Kairos thus messes with fixed antitheses. As we saw earlier, he shakes things up, because he links polar opposites in a new way. Kairos is the ‘middle voice’, writes Eric Charles White in his book Kaironomia (1987): the voice of the intermezzo that inserts itself between both poles in order to discover a new structure. When you observe things from the middle, you are bound to discover or initiate something new. But if you fix both poles and thus inevitably prioritise one pole over the other, whether it be man or woman, black or white, young or old, mind or body, things will grind to a halt and get rusty and both the dynamism and resilience that characterise life will disappear. For Benjamin the ‘dialectic’ moment is therefore not the elimination of two poles – thesis and antithesis – the resolution of opposites into a synthesis, as it was for Hegel, but the quest for a new, harmonious relationship within the opposition itself. With this viewpoint he follows in the tradition of Pythagoras.

I admit that this notion of Kairos time is not easy to digest for us twenty-first-century Westerners living entirely by Chronos time. Nonetheless, it can be experienced when we focus sharply or concentrate deeply or when we escape the regime of the clock while musing, strolling, reading or daydreaming and end up in a different experience of time, one described by Ernst Bloch as a ‘clock without hands’. We sometimes refer to this as ‘a timeless’ experience, but what we really mean to say is a ‘clock-timeless’ experience, because precisely at these moments we are more closely connected to the heterogeneous, changeable and dynamic character of time itself. The political potential of kairotic time lies in both exposing or revealing what is covered up and obscured from view in history and reacting acutely and adequately to the contingencies and possibilities of the present day. ‘Succomb neither to the past nor to the future’, as Karl Jaspers pointed out, ‘it is important to be completely in the present’. The creative potential of Kairos is made manifest in the attention to and preparedness for the new opportunities the present offers us. We are in search of new forms of coexistence and new, harmonious relationships to keep the world liveable and the earth habitable. We live in times of increasing individualisation and technological and digital transformation, and this calls for new interventions and considerations. Since Antiquity, Kairos has been linked to contingency, and hence unpredictability, but also to opportunity and chance. In our current period of transition from one form of coexistence to another, archaic and mythical imagery is surfacing that may help us interpret this era, but above all prepare us for our present actions.

As such, it is not by pure ‘chance’ that Kairos is reappearing in all kinds of scientific and philosophical texts and, in recent years, in popular culture too. Like science fiction, popular culture and youth culture often identify new trends on the horizon. Examples include Paul E. Hartman’s much-lauded thriller The Kairos (2011), Kate Milford’s mythical young adult novel The Kairos Mechanism (2012) and the graphic novel trilogy Kairos (2013) by French artist Ulysse Malassagne. ‘The time has come for Kairos,’ writes Robert Leston in his essay ‘Unhinged. Kairos and the Invention of the Untimely’ (2013), which was published in The Atlantic Journal of Communication. In it he describes modern film techniques and storyboards as a creative method particularly well-suited to illustrating the kairotic moment. Likewise, Kairos helps to establish cross-connections between philosophy and other forms of art, for instance in Chan-fai Cheung’s Kairos: Phenomenology and Photography (2010). To mark the opening of the French pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013 Susan Kleinberg presented the exhibition ‘Kairos’, in which microscopic images of a Mesopotamian statue unfolded into a filmic landscape described by Kleinberg as ‘an avalanche of the possible’.

In this book I will be connecting the Kairos moment with many different aspects of reflection and creativity, including inspiration, engagement and enthusiasm, as well as with its potential role in art, politics and education. Likewise, I will be outlining the conditions that need to be met before we can grab him by his lock of hair, such as concentration, attention and reflection on the past. A reinterpretation of Kairos may provide a counterbalance to our increasingly mechanised and technology-led view of man and the world, as I shall sketch below, and also offer some insight into the growing desire to escape Chronos’ regime, which in barely a century has turned us into obsessive clock watchers, hounded by an almost permanent lack of time.

IV – Kairos and ‘homo digitalis’

At the start of the twenty-first century we find ourselves in an era described by some not merely as a shift but ‘a transition’ or ‘transformation’, because the technological changes we are witnessing are so comprehensive. Besides, we have now reached a turning point in several areas, including that of climate, environment and ecology, and will have to pull out all the stops to halt what are practically irreversible processes. In addition, we will have to somehow convert these times of economic, moral and financial crisis into new ‘moments’ of value. In short, we live in pretty kairotic times and could do with some attention to that other face of time. For this we will have to reacquaint ourselves with it and, more importantly, learn to recognise it. Our complex, social-media driven lives make it hard for us to distinguish between Chronos and Kairos time. We seem to allow our lives to be almost entirely dominated by clock time, leaving us with too few moments of calm, attention or mindfulness to grab this winged Kairos firmly by his forelock. Yet I think this is precisely what we ought to be doing.

Now that homo digitalis mobilis and the digitalization of the world are irreversible facts, it is important to sharpen our thinking – as sharp as the knife edge on which Kairos’ scales balance – so we can identify and make sense of the impact of the digital transformation and act on it accordingly. One of the questions this throws up is precisely the kairotic question about ‘the right measure’. How should we position ourselves in relation to technology to prevent it from controlling us? What should be our approach to technology to ensure it does not take over our lives? In one of his last interviews with Der Spiegel Martin Heidegger argued that we have not sufficiently explored the question about the essence of technology, so that man is at risk of being dominated by technology: ‘We have no path that corresponds to the essence of technology as of yet’ and underestimate that ‘technology is in its essence something that human beings cannot master of their own accord’. Technology threatens to ‘uproot’ people and ‘tear them away” more and more from themselves and from the earth.

In short, this is ‘the opportune moment’ to ask that question. And it is not just the screen addicts among us who ought to ask what technology is doing to us. We all struggle to determine ‘the right measure’ of modern communications technology. Sometimes it looks as if the screens have become an extension of ourselves and part of our bodies. At home, in the street, at outdoor cafés and in pubs, the smartphones appear to be glued to our hands, and we are more likely to be ‘communicating’ with absent parties than with those sitting next to us. Contemporary man avoids thinking about this, according to Heidegger –about the mindful, reflective thinking of Kairos, that is – because we tend to restrict ourselves to calculating, economic and analytical thought. As Heidegger puts it, we are reluctant to acknowledge the flipside of technology, namely that ‘an attack with technological means is being prepared upon the life and nature of man’. Is this a hyperbolic statement from an unworldly philosopher? Maybe. Still, we had better not let technology overtake us and this digital transformation catch us unawares, simply because we failed to think about it.

Thinking about our relationship with technology could start with the question to what extent we would like ‘digital man’ to be distinguishable from a future hubot or cyborg. How can we delineate or draw dividing lines between man and machine? How does man differ from a thing and how can we retain our specifically human qualities? Do we willingly let ourselves be steered to a ‘post-human’ era or do we appeal against it by drawing up new designs for a (post)humanist vision of man, as Rosi Braidotti persuasively suggests in her book The Post-Human (2013)? Like Martha Nussbaum, she fears that the humanities will be demoted to ‘personal hobbies’ and that the ‘neoliberal’ and ‘technocratic spirit’ will therefore be calling the shots at the universities, so that the digital man of the future will be even more of a willing victim of commerce. Among other things, she argues in favour of an interdisciplinary ‘multiversity’, where, in an effort to save the humanities from extinction, the focus will be both on a joint approach to problems and on cultural plurality instead of universality.

We will have to ask ourselves what the word ‘homo’ in ‘homo digitalis’ refers to before we can determine the ‘right measure’ to save those specifically human qualities and faculties from the clutches of the automaton, as Henri Bergson called automated man. Man, ‘as an alienated, automaton-operative’, is capable only of ‘compulsory reaction to environmental stimuli’, Bergson believed, thereby losing not only his freedom, but also his conscience, creativity and humanity. This French thinker and mathematician, who engaged in a debate about time with Einstein at the Collège de France in Paris in the 1920s, argued the case for a different experience of time, one similar to kairotic time on a number of points. He considered it crucial for our creativity as well as our moral consciousness and mental wellbeing. ‘The moments at which we … grasp ourselves are rare […] the greater part of time we live outside ourselves, hardly perceiving anything of ourselves but our own ghosts. […] We live for the external world rather than for ourselves […] we ‘are acted’ rather than act ourselves.’

Because we live in an age of ‘digital transformation’ it is important for us to hold our relationship with all those digital artefacts up to the light and ask ourselves, with Bergson, to what extent they still create the ‘moments in which we recover ourselves’. If we merely calculate the possible pros and cons of digital innovation or deploy it only for economic motives we will not get a clear picture of this relationship and therefore also not of the degree to which they either diminish or enhance our humanity. There is no point here in taking sides and positioning oneself as either an outspoken technophile or technophobe, as the opponents and proponents of ‘tech man’ do, and digging one’s heels in to the point where a productive discussion between both parties is practically impossible. As soon as authors such as Evgeny Morozov (2013) and Nicholas Carr (2011) express reservations about the use of the internet and social media, as I will explore later in this book, they are dismissed as technophobes, which does not exactly further the debate. It is more interesting to examine man’s specific relationship and approach to technology than to dwell on its desirability. How does modern technology impact our experience of time? To what degree is techno stress responsible for our lack of attention and concentration? How can we find ‘a right human measure’ in our rapidly developing digital world?

Throughout my philosophical quest for the potential humanity of man, which I began in Heimwee naar de mens (2003; Melancholy for humankind) and followed up in Stil de tijd, I kept encountering three specifically human qualities which, upon closer reflection, are strongly associated with Kairos. One of those is the creative ability to start or set something new in motion, something that is completely different from what has gone before and can therefore be characterised as ‘unexpected’ and ‘unpredictable’. That is precisely the moment of insight Kairos initiated in Antiquity. Hannah Arendt described it as the principle of natality or of the new beginning, which, as I will elaborate elsewhere in this book, she saw as man’s supreme capacity. Secondly there is the human capacity of enthusiasm, inspiration or engagement, which can produce new insights or actions. Where exactly does the concept of enthusiasm come from and, more pertinently, how can it be generated? The role of education as well as art and culture in this process will be addressed later in the book. Finally, there is the human facility for ethical consciousness, which enables us to find the ‘right moral measure’ for our actions.

Before ‘homo digitalis’ transforms into one of Plato’s cave dwellers – chained to his tablet, ‘capable only of staring straight ahead in silence’ and mistaking his screen for reality – it is time for reflection. In her remarks on Plato’s cave, Arendt argues that these cave dwellers are devoid of the two most significant human activities – speech and action (lexis and praxis). She subsequently draws a comparison with the man addicted to entertainment and television, who runs the risk of becoming so alienated from those two activities that he struggles to put forward his own views or insights. Her essay ‘The Crisis in Culture’ was published back in 1954 and we can only speculate on what her arguments would be had she been able to catch a glimpse of our present-day digital world. To what extent are constantly zapping and digitally multitasking human beings capable of achieving profound reflection on themselves and the world?

For Arendt being no longer capable of expressing one’s personal insights signalled the decline of democracy, the most significant pillar of which is plurality, or being able and allowed to differ from each other. In her view, ‘homo digitalis’ could easily fall prey to manipulative forces, be they commercial or political in nature, since he has not properly mastered the art of independent and critical thought. When the world is threatened or human values are under attack, for instance in the case of a personal data breach, homo digitalis will be in a poor position to offer resistance. The little protest there is against government agencies or companies such as Google or Facebook, which monitor, store or sell our data without permission, strikes me as a good illustration here. Of course the internet also provides a forum for opinion forming and political debate, but the high level of anonymity, the pressure of topicality and the speed with which people surf, post and vlog means there are downsides that call for more in-depth reflection on the medium.

Because the new communications technologies developed so rapidly we have had little or no chance to determine our relationship to them. But we will have to find that right measure, so we can apply it to a world in which both the natality and plurality that Arendt advocated so emphatically can take a concrete and appropriate shape. The right measure will differ from person to person, but few technophiles will deny that it is wise to switch off our screens for at least a few hours every day so we can calm down and give our brains a chance to process the information. In fact, the realisation that acceleration is not always the best mode for attaining new insights has already become common currency in western society. In recent years we have not just witnessed a Kairos revival, but we have also seen the advent of one slow movement after another. These ranged from slow cooking to slow travel and from slow living to slow cinema and even slow television, for instance in Norway where a seven-hour train journey along the Bergen line was broadcast in its entirety. Although the economy continues to call for growth and acceleration, people are beginning to ask for a slowdown and tranquillity. Likewise, we are seeing many new initiatives that testify to the desire to organise society in a more sustainable, creative and inclusive way. For inspiration, I have included an ‘abecedarium of the new beginning’, an alphabetical list of new initiatives, concepts and projects, as a kind of practical compendium to the philosophical meditations in this book. The essays seek to confirm, encourage and consolidate all of these initiatives in a philosophical thesis that links the human capacity for a new beginning to Kairos’ right moment and right measure. Together, they reveal a kind of wishful thinking that reflects the need for formulating hopes, ideals, guidelines and principles with the aim of actually bringing about a change.

At times, readers may have the impression that the past, with so many ancient Greek philosophers milling about in these essays, clashes with the present, which is populated by contemporary thinkers, and even veers into the future through the ABC – in other words, that there is a veritable mishmash of times without a clear chronological line. But that is the whole point. One of my aims when writing this book was to tie kairotic knots in time, as Charles Taylor puts it in A Secular Age (2009), and thus establish new links between ancient, contemporary and future ways of thinking. I am trying to create an intermezzo by ‘breaking open’ our current age and connecting it to all manner of philosophical, literary and mythical facts from days gone by and extrapolations to times to come, thereby uncovering an experience of time that is not only inspiring but unifying as well.

My quest for a contemporary interpretation of the Kairos moment will be guided not just by philosophy, but by literature and art as well. Kairos turns out to have played an important role in the writing and thinking about time of writers as diverse as Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Ian McEwan and Marlene van Niekerk. Likewise, the visual arts are experiencing a distinct Kairos moment, as I shall illustrate using Peter Sloterdijk’s essay ‘You Must Change Your Life’ (2011). As well as being an exploration of this other face of time, these essays will hopefully also enhance our insight into man’s creativity and solidarity, thereby bringing about the experience of a kairotic moment in which we feel connected to the past and inspired to make the most of our future possibilities.


Dr. Joke J. Hermsen



Joke J. Hermsen. Kairos: een nieuwe bevlogenheid. De Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam, 2014. ISBN: 978-9029505017.

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