With pleasing ambivalence, the sundial at Ely Cathedral bears the words καιρὸν γνῶθι: ‘know the right time.’ *

The word καιρός is used to mean a number of things to do with exactitude. But Liddell and Scott say that it is especially used for ‘…the right point of time, fit proper time, the season of action…’

This is how Demosthenes uses it in the Philippics and the Olynthiacs when he tries unsuccessfully to persuade the Athenians to send an expedition against Philip of Macedon. The word kairos comes up again and again. Now, he keeps repeating, is the kairos, which will not recur. He is insistent on the point—but to no avail.

Brutus, in Julius Caesar Act IV Scene 3:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

Ambivalence here also—the more basic meaning of tide is a portion or a point of time. It can have a similar meaning to kairos, for which the OED quotes Spenser:

‘1590   Spenser Faerie Queene iii. ix. sig. Ll5v,   Then Paridell,..Yglad of so fitte tide Him to commend to her, thus spake.’

The idea is that of a critical or pivotal moment, when a choice can be made that will change things permanently.

It is odd that Latin has no word to translate kairos, even though the Romans were so insistent on the importance of moments. They celebrated important ones ever afterwards, giving to Europe the custom of observing anniversaries and birthdays (even if the pre-Celtic builders of Stonehenge had the idea first); and generally preserving for our contemplation a whole series of pivotal moments: the moment when Manlius woke up on the Capitol, the moment of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the moment when Cicero decided to face death… and so on.

But the moment that never stopped fascinating and mystifying Romans themselves was the kairos after the battle of Cannae, when Hannibal decided not to march on Rome, even though he could have dined on the Capitol that evening.

Later Romans could not get their heads round it. It was indeed a pivotal moment. A transactional analyst might have had suggestions about Hannibal’s motivation: was he, in their terms, engaged in The Conquest of Rome rather than the conquest of Rome?

*See Images menu.


Next post: Carpe diem (which is something different.)

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