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428. Innocence (V)

The ancient Greeks distinguished between chronus (mundane clock time) and kairos (eternal time). Kairos derived from the force and perception required to release an arrow at the precise moment in order to hit the target, whereas chronus simply referred to sand’s progress through an hourglass—the difference is between the right time, and the time you have to arrive at an event; the difference between the divine eternal realm and perpetual nature. We lack these terms in English, although we all know that there is a difference between, “Time to move out, son,” and the chronological age at which it happens. What we call serendipity or fortune occurs when kairos and chronus coincide; the man who maximises the coincidence between the two aspects of time is a lucky man.

The divide was neatly illustrated in recent years by the maverick—and extremely lucky—British government adviser, Dominic Cummings. Cornered by rabid journalists, Cummings answered a question with a gnomic rhyme from a children’s TV series: “The night time is the right time to fight crime.” This rhyme explicates kairos, for three reasons: firstly, crime—such as rape and burglary—often occurs at night, so this is the right time to look out for it; secondly, if you want to catch a suspect, just before dawn—when you know they are abed—is the best time; and thirdly, crime involves entry into a “dark moral realm”, even to fight it. The view from chronus is that crime-fighting occurs whenever a policeman clocks on for his shift; yet we all know that the shift has nothing to do with effective action; it has more to do with paper-pushing and clock-watching, not crime-fighting. Hence, “The night time is the right time to fight crime.”

Similarly, it feels wrong to watch a film in the daytime at home. This is because there is a right time for mythic story relation; as Eliade observed, the myth must be enacted in illuminated night, as with Greek theatre or round a camp fire. Cinemas solve this problem very neatly—being in the myth business—because the screen is darkened as a requirement for the film to be projected; hence chronus always coincides with kairos: the screen artificially creates the right time, darkness, to make myths—no matter what the clock time says.

Kairos: comic timing, etiquette (“There’s a time and place for that, and this is not it), and death (“It was his time, I suppose.”). We understand that someone might marry late because “it was the right time” for him, or that a teenage pregnancy might be “the right time” for her—and this is connected to an individual’s personal fortune, to their personal connection to eternity; and for some people there is never a right time to have children or, if adopted, to meet their biological parents.

Notice also how if you only live in chronus—as most people in the West do, being tied to mechanistic clock time—you will force yourself to do things at the wrong time; hence it is important to remain quiet and listen to the silence to know when it is the right time to act.

The difference between chronus and kairos is also the difference between the mundane world and eternity—the right time is eternal. Kairos is usually represented as a young man, whereas chronus is aged; kairos is Aion, a child at play—and it is represented by a circle; just like Machiavelli’s beloved wheel of fortune. Eternity is Jung’s synchronicity; fortune occurs when it “just clicks”—and it clicks because it was the right moment, created by the coincidence of opposites. As with the archer, constant discipline leads to extraordinary luck—you make your own luck, you make it when you become empty like a circle; then eternal nothingness speaks, the silence speaks. The Greeks also likened kairos to the shuttle when it passes through the threads on the loom; hence fate is spun, and the Fates were depicted as weavers.

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