Time as Kairos

What is time? There are found in Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) there at least two meanings given concerning time: ‘what is measured’ and ‘when something happens or should happen.’ The former time is an objective and calculable measure shared by all the members in society, while the latter creates a subjective and unique experience independent of others. When it is said that “customers have only a limited amount of time to examine the goods,” time is something measured, say, ten or fifteen minutes. But if I’m at home and decide that it’s time for lunch because I’m starving, then it means that I should make lunch happen now; I feel it should be now and I don’t need any clock or watch to confirm it; it is opportunity, timeliness. Without the former measure common to all of us, we can hardly make an appointment, work in cooperation, or form a society, but at the same time, we are far from any accomplishment unless we grab the latter opportunity. In my opinion, any attainment requires time in the latter meaning.

So time has two faces. This parallelism is already seen in the ancient way of thinking, such as in Greek philosophy. Greek had two different words for time, Chronos and Kairos. Chronos refers to numeric or chronological time, what is measured, whereas the other term Kairos means the qualitative idea of the right moment, when something happens or should. In Japanese, I think Chronos can be referred to as Jikan, and Kairos as Toki, which suggests the two aspects of time are universal.

It seems to me that Greek thinkers put more emphasis on the Kairos, or subjective, side of time. Speaking of ethics, for instance, Periander of Corinth, one of the seven wise men of ancient Greece, said, “be moderate in prosperity, prudent in adversity.” Another, Pittacus of Mytilene, stated “know thine opportunity.” Both of their words show the subjective aspect of time. We should in time of prosperity be moderate, and be prudent when in adversity. And we should take the chance if we desire any immediate fulfillment, a timely time. These thinkers also imply that life is a sequence and repetition of ups and downs, a cycle: there is a time which favors us, and there is a time that goes against us, so we should seize favorable moments.

Another good example of this ethical timeliness is provided by Socrates, and a detailed account of this is given by Aristotle. The twentieth century French moralist Alain, or Emile Auguste Chartier, seems to be a big fan of Socrates. In his IDEES, Platon, Descartes, Hegel, Comte, ed., Alain depicts Socrates as patient, tenacious, tireless, and fearless; precisely, his description of Socrates is that he is, according to time and place, a modest guest or a heavy but calm and collected drinker in parties. So Socrates is one of the greatest performers to the amazing conductor, Time; he knows when to be tolerant, persistent, indefatigable, daring, reserved, or desirous. Aristotle, on the other hand, appears to be not so much of a man of action, like Socrates, but a theorist. His statements on the ethical timeliness, or the Golden Mean, as far as I believe, leaves nothing to be desired. Here I show you just a few of his vivid and concrete depictions of what he thinks is morally appropriate behavior.

This philosopher writes, “any one can get angry- that is easy- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy.”[bk2, chap9] What he means by the saying is that we should feel and do the right thing at the right moment, towards the right person, for the right purpose, and in the right way, and that this is the very virtue we should attain.

It is true that Aristotle’s writing does not necessarily focus on timeliness but on rightness. However, in a sense, rightness can be reduced to timeliness. I have to give this draft to Matt. Matt is the right person. When I see Martin, I shouldn’t give it to him; it’s not the time yet. When I meet Matt, then it’s the time. So ‘to the right person’ can mean ‘at the right time.’ A pupil gets a low mark in a test for the first time. His teacher kindly suggests to him that he be more diligent. Then his marks get worse and worse due to his neglect. So the teacher scolds him rather harshly since he thinks it the right way. It is the time to be hard on him. This shows that the correct way to treat students depends on timeliness. Thus, timeliness encompasses not just ‘whom’ and ‘when’ but also ‘how’ ‘where’ ‘what’ and so on. As a matter of fact, anything that is done properly can be deemed to be timely. The conclusion is that time counts.

This may be why in Ecclesiastes in the Old Testamentm, the following can be found:

“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;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

What counts is timeliness. A person who knows when is a sage. In ancient China, according to Mencius, Confucius is one of the sages who is the master of time. In Wan Zhang II in his book Mencius, he compares four sages, Bo Yi, Yi Yin, Hui of Liu Xia, and Confucius, all of whom are politicians just like the seven sages in ancient Greece, and asserts Confucius is the best. Let’s see what points Mencius makes.

Bo Yi was pure but rigid: “he would not serve a prince whom he did not approve, nor command a people whom he did not esteem. In a time of good government he took office, and on the occurrence of confusion he retired.” So “when men now hear the character of Bo Yi, the corrupt become pure, and the weak acquire determination.”

Yi Yin served any king and commanded any people, and had a strong sense of responsibility. This is because he thought, “among all the people of the kingdom, even the common men and women, if there were any who did not share in the enjoyment of … benefits,” then he felt “as if he himself pushed them into a ditch-for he took upon himself the heavy charge of the kingdom.”

Hui of Liu Xia was flexible and tolerant. He cared little and worked hard if his prince lacked virtue and his position was low; he didn’t have any ill feelings toward any prince if he was dismissed and was at ease, even happy, with unenlightened villagers. “Therefore when men now hear the character of Hui of Liu Xia, the mean become generous, and the niggardly become liberal.”

What about Confucius? “When Confucius was leaving Qi, he strained off with his hand the water in which his rice was being rinsed, took the rice, and went away. When he left Lu, he said, ‘I will set out by-and-by’ – it was right he should leave the country of his parents in this way. When it was proper to go away quickly, he did so; when it was proper to delay, he did so; when it was proper to keep in retirement, he did so; when it was proper to go into office, he did so – this was Confucius.”

Mencius concludes: Bo Yi was the sage of purity, Yi Yin of responsibility, Hui of Liu Xia of harmony, and Confucius of time. Since all the virtues are subsumed under the category of time, or timeliness, Confucius is the most virtuous sage of the four.

Not only was the ethical side of time was dealt with by Greek philosophers, but it was also one of the main themes in natural philosophy. According to Simplicius, Anaximander poetically wrote,

“Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.”

This means that every transient being is to return to the elements from which they came[apeiron] ‘with the ordinance of Time.’

Time as a Cycle

As is implied in the sayings of Ecclesiastes, “to every thing there is a season.” Time is a periodic repetition of momentum, both in human affairs and in nature; sometimes things are in an active and dynamic state, and at other times they are inactive and static. Spring is a time for living things to spring; Mother Nature is active and dynamic; birds fly high, fish jump out of water into the air, and cats and dogs are out of their home running, rolling, and leaping. Fall is a time for them to fall; Mother Nature is inactive and static, ready for rest. Flowers are withered, lying, and insects are dead on the ground, often upside down. Again comes spring and again comes fall. Thus can be found a cycle of activation and inactivation, a cycle in nature. It can also be seen in human affairs; a boy is not always a bad boy. Sometimes he is a hard worker, and teachers are not irritated at him, but sometimes he takes things much too easy, leaving his assignments undone, in which case teachers cannot help but feel they have to tell him off. And this whole history more or less repeats itself, a cycle in human affairs.

Things repeat themselves. So it seems that Kierkegaard, in his Repetition, should have asked, not “Is repetition possible?”, but “Is repetition not possible?”

What I mean by the above is that time manifests itself through cycles. Time cannot be perceived without repetition. And repetition is not so much that of physical things in general, like Nietzsche seems to have believed, as the alternation of internal activation and inactivation, which appears to have been not to Newton’s taste. First, let’s see what Newton thought as time.

Issac Newton’s definition of time is worth consideration. According to Newton, time is the constant flow of homogeneous moments beyond our perception and independent of anything in the universe. At the same time, it is like a big river through and within which all the physical phenomena occur. We can just have a mathematical understanding of it. This concept of time is the so called absolute or Newtonian time. In Newton’s own words: “absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.” This concept is, in a sense, very akin to that of Nietzsche.

In spite of the fact that Nietzsche harshly argued against egalitarianism, it seems to me that this super-human, at least in regards to time, was in favor of equality of moments when he contended, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, that the center is everywhere, that all those years are like one another, and that we ourselves, in every great year, are like ourselves. Each and every moment is exactly the same as all the other moments which shows the objective, or Chronos, aspect of time, and is much different from the subjective, or Kairos, side of it.

In addition, Nietzsche’s concept of ‘eternal return’ differs from what the Greek thinkers seem to have thought to be the cyclic side of time. Eternal return appears to mean that everything, including the universe as a whole, goes back to the former state over and over again. On the contrary, what they mean by cycle seems to me to be the alternation of activity and inactivity, the former aspect of which is an opportunity we should not miss grasping. More importantly, cycle is not necessarily material but spiritual, meaning the cycle, not of physical objects so much as of activation and inactivation.

There is a difference between Nietzsche’s concept of return and that of cycle by the Greek philosohers. Return is recurrence of the former state with every passage of time bearing the same value. Cycle is sort of a wave, regular periodical repetitions of the similar states, consisting of ups and downs, such as business cycle or circadian rhythm. The Greek thinkers thought that they can “seize the day” when they can spot the activated moment, and attain morality and so self-actualize.

The whole philosophy of Empedocles is comprised of cosmological cycle. In his theory, there are two principles governing the universe, Love and Strife. And there are four elements, such as earth, air, water, and fire, which observe the law. This concept is briefly summarized, by Bertrand Russell as the following:

“I come now to his cosmology. It was he, as already mentioned, who established earth, air, fire, and water as the four elements” (though the word “element” was not used by him). Each of these was everlasting, but they could be mixed in different proportions and thus produce the changing complex substances that we find in the world. They were combined by Love and separated by Strife. Love and Strife were, for Empedocles, primitive substances on a level with earth, air, fire, and water. There were periods when Love was in the ascendant, and others when Strife was the stronger. There had been a golden age when Love was completely victorious. In that age, men worshipped only the Cyprian Aphrodite (fr. 128). The changes in the world are not governed by any purpose, but only by Chance and Necessity. There is a cycle: when the elements have been thoroughly mixed by Love, Strife gradually sorts them out again; when Strife has separated them, Love gradually reunites them. Thus ?even-compound substance? is temporary; only the elements, together with Love and Strife, are everlasting.”

So there is a time of the predominance of Love, unity, and formation; there is a time of the prevalence of Strife, separation, and decomposition, the former being the time of activation, and the latter of inactivation. Which can be regarded as the cycle of ups and downs. Every minute of time is not homogeneous, as Newton and Nietzsche defined. Empedocles’s idea of time does not concern Nietzsche’s time nor Newtonian time.


Nicomachaen Ethics by Aristotle


Mencius by Mencius

THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA by Friedrich Nietzsche, Translated by Thomas Common
LVII. The Convalescent.1.

History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell


3 thoughts on “The Duality of Time in Eastern and Western Philosophy

  1. Killer!
    I would add that a Sage is one who might be perceived as knowing the right time to do something – as in a Chronos or Chronic time, the subjective places into social ideological norms for seeing and knowing. However, the Sage herself simply does not ever know when to do things. This is more Karios. Or. Objective time in the sense of “in the universe’s time.

    Reposting ! Thx.


  2. Pingback: Out of Time: Reposting and comment on The Duality of Time in Eastern and Western Philosophy – The Dog Walks

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