Definition of Kairos

Derived from a Grecian root, kairos means the right time for doing something or presenting something. It refers to “opportune presentation” in rhetoric. It is mostly used in rhetoric but is also common in Christian theological presentations.

In rhetoric, kairos is part of four important rhetorical strategies used by a speaker or an author. The other three are ethos, pathos, and logos.

Examples of Kairos in Literature

Example #1

I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King

i am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where our quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Although Martin Luther King, a great rhetorician of his time, does not need any other strategies, his use of kairos rather baffles his opponent and proponents alike. The situation he was placed in during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States demanded of him to lead from the front and intensify his rhetoric about the rights of the African Americans. This passage shows how he used that moment, demonstrating the effective use of kairos. The repetition of “go back” points to the appropriate timing of his speech that he asks the same people at that moment and does not delay his rhetoric.

Example #2

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

I found it in his closet, ’tis his will:
Let but the commons hear this testament—
Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read—
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar’s wounds
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
And, dying, mention it within their wills,
Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
Unto their issue.

These lines occur in Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Mark Antony, here, praises his friend Julius Caesar and asks the people that he wants to show them the will of Julius Caesar. As the timing is post-Caesar period, it is an opportune time for him to speak to the public. The use of present tense shows this when he shows and states that “commons hear this testament” and uses it when they die themselves. This shows the perfect use of kairos in a speech.

Example #3

The Introduction of A Rhetoric of Doing: Essays on Written Discourse in Honor of James L. Kinneavy edited by James L. Kinneavy, Stephen Paul Witte

Miller credits Kinneavy (“Kairos”) for “bringing Kairos to our attention” and for nothing that the construct has a “close analogue” in the contemporary notion of “situation context.” According to to Miller, the importance of kairos, “the principle of timing or opportunity in rhetoric, “is that it “calls attention to the principle of discourse as an event rather than an object, “thereby showing us “how discourse is related to a historical moment” and alerting us “to the constantly changing quality of appropriateness.”

This passage occurs in the book edited by Kinneavy and others. They discuss kairos, its derivatives, and how it is used in rhetoric. The passage shows that Miller is of the view that kairos means the principle of timing by which he means the use of time to speak to the public. Therefore, they attribute Miller to give importance to kairos that it is the historical moment that matters the most in rhetoric. This passage is about the importance of kairos instead of their practical usage.

Example #4

Animal Farm by George Orwell

“Comrades, you have heard already about the strange dream that I had last night. But I will come to the dream later. I have something else to say first. I do not think, comrades, that I shall be with you for many months longer, and before I die, I feel it my duty to pass on to you such wisdom as I have acquired. I have had a long life, I have had much time for thought as I lay alone in my stall, and I think I may say that I understand the nature of life on this earth as well as any animal now living. It is about this that I wish to speak to you.

This is the speech of Old Major in Animal Farm. He addresses the animals calling them his comrades saying that he has a dream and that the moment has arrived that he should relate this dream to them. This moment is the timing of his speech on which he stresses upon saying that he may not live long to tell them the wisdom but that he is telling them that it is the right time, the reason that he says that “I wish to speak to you.” This is the best use of kairos in a practical way.

Functions of Kairos

As kairos relates to the moment, it is very important in rhetoric. A rhetorician uses kairos to urge his audience to act or join him. If the events of the speech relate to the past and that speech is taking place long after it, it would not have the same impact. It also happens vice versa when the timing does not synchronize with the acts or events of the speech. Also, kairos merely points out the timing with relation to the urgency of the issue rather than the time to do it.


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