What Does 'Kairos' Mean in Classical Rhetoric?

Picking the Right Time to Make Your Point

Kairos and archery

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In classical rhetoric, kairos refers to the opportune time and/or place — that is, the right or appropriate time to say or do the right or appropriate thing.

"Kairos is a word with layers of meaning," says Eric Charles White, author of "Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments." White explains:

"Most usually, it is defined in terms of its classical Greek courtroom nuances: winning an argument requires a deft combination of creating and recognizing the right time and right place for making the argument in the first place. However, the word has roots in both weavings (suggesting the creation of an opening) and archery (denoting the seizing of, and striking forcefully through an opening)."

In Greek mythology, Kairos, the youngest child of Zeus, was the god of opportunity. According to Diogenes, the philosopher Protagoras was the first to expound the importance of the "right moment" in classical rhetoric.

Kairos in Julius Ceasar

In Act III of Shakespeare’s play "Julius Caesar," the character Mark Antony employs kairos in his first appearance before the crowd (bearing the corpse of Julius Caesar) and in his hesitation to read Caesar’s will aloud. In bringing Caesar’s corpse, Antony draws attention away from the character Brutus (who is declaiming about the "justice" that has been carried out) and toward himself and the assassinated emperor; as a result, Anthony gains an extremely attentive audience.

Likewise, his calculated hesitation to read the will aloud allow him to reveal its contents without seeming to do so, and his dramatic pause serves to heighten the crowd's interest. This is a classic example of kairos.

Kairos in a Student's Letter to Her Parents

Kairos can also be used in missives, such as this letter from a student to her parents. She uses kairos to draw her parents away from bad news and toward news, though imaginary, that is much worse.

Dear Mother and Dad:
It has now been three months since I left for college. I have been remiss in writing this, and I am very sorry for my thoughtlessness in not having written before. I will bring you up to date now, but before you read on, please sit down.
I am getting along pretty well now. The skull fracture and the concussion I received when I jumped out of the window of my dormitory when it caught fire shortly after my arrival are pretty well healed now. I only get those sick headaches once a day.
Yes, Mother and Dad, I am pregnant. I know how much you are looking forward to being grandparents, and I know you will welcome the baby and give it the love, devotion and tender care you gave me when I was a child.
Now that I have brought you up to date, I want to tell you that there was no dormitory fire, I did not have a concussion or a skull fracture. I was not in the hospital, I am not pregnant, I am not engaged. I do not have syphilis and there is no man in my life. However, I am getting a D in history and an F in science, and I wanted you to see those marks in the proper perspective.
Your Loving Daughter

Picking the Right Time

Kairos really means presenting information at the right and opportune time.

"Clearly, the notion of kairos points out that speech exists in time; but more important, it constitutes a prompting toward speaking and a criterion of the value of speech," says John Poulakos in a 1983 article titled, "Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric," published in the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric. "In short, kairos dictates that what is said must be said at the right time."

Note, for example, how the student in the previous section threw up a wall of obfuscation before choosing the right time (she hopes) to inform her parents of her poor grades. Had she told her parents right away of her bad grades, they may have offered some form of punishment, or at least criticism of her studies. By holding off and getting her parents to focus on supposedly horrible news, the student was able to pick the right time to deliver the true bad news, thereby, like Anthony, swaying her audience toward her view. That, then, is a perfect example of kairos.

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Does 'Kairos' Mean in Classical Rhetoric?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/kairos-rhetoric-term-1691209. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What Does 'Kairos' Mean in Classical Rhetoric? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/kairos-rhetoric-term-1691209 Nordquist, Richard. "What Does 'Kairos' Mean in Classical Rhetoric?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/kairos-rhetoric-term-1691209 (accessed March 26, 2023).