Kairos Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Kairos and archery
"Without what the Greeks called kairos--the opportune moment--even the most technically brilliant speech will fail" (Richard Toye, Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction, 2013). Hero Images/Getty Images

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. Adjective: kairotic.

"Kairos is a word with layers of meaning," says Eric Charles White. "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)" (​Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments, 2001).​

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

Likewise, his calculated hesitation to read the will aloud allow him to reveal the contents without seeming to do so, and his dramatic pause serves to heighten the crowd's interest.

Kairos in a Student's Letter to Her Parents

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. YOU ARE NOT TO READ ANY FURTHER UNLESS YOU ARE SITTING DOWN. OKAY!

Well then, I am getting along pretty well now. The skull fracture and the concussion I got 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
(Anonymous, "A Daughter's Letter Home")

More Observations

  • "Observe due measure, and proportion [kairos] is best in all things."
    (Hesiod, 7th c. BC
  • "Speeches are good only if they have a share in what is opportune [kairos], appropriateness of style, and originality."
    (Isocrates, Against the Sophists
  • "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. In short, kairos dictates that what is said must be said at the right time."
    (John Poulakos, "Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric." Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1983
  • "A fundamental notion in ancient Greece, kairos carried a number of meanings in classical rhetorical theory and history, including 'symmetry,' 'propriety,' 'occasion,' 'due measure,' 'fitness,' 'tact,' 'decorum,' 'convenience,' 'proportion,' 'fruit,' 'profit,' and 'wise moderation,' to mention some of the more common uses. In some critical ways, kairos is similar to another master term, logos, in that both concepts generated many significant definitions and interpretations and carried strategic implications for historical interpretation. Although many ancient writers from various arts have capitalized on the richness of kairos, one ancient Greek, in particular, stands out for having built an entire educational system on the concept--and that is Isocrates . . .."
    (Phillip Sipora, "Introduction: The Ancient Concept of Kairos." Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis, ed. by P. Sipora and J.S. Baumlin. SUNY Press, 2002)

    Pronunciation: KY ross or KAY-ross