What Gorgias Would Say to Sisyphus

On Sunday the pastor at Christ Church preached on kairos and God’s time; specifically, the notion of the kingdom of God as “already and not yet” simultaneously. While I don’t disagree, I want to offer another take on kairos and the personal importance of that word to my own philosophy.

For this I draw on Gorgias of Leontini, one of the most underrated ancient philosophers (unfairly maligned for over 2 millenia because of Dumb & Dumber, ie Aristotle & Plato). From Gorgias and the Sophists we get the concept of the “kairotic moment,” loosely meaning “seizing the opportune opening.” Originally a sports term (archery), the Sophists applied it to rhetoric to mean the key moment in a debate when you trip up your opponent or drive him into a logical corner.

The kairotic moment can be much larger than that however. It was a concept ignored by Plato because, as Bruce McComiskey points out, it “functions best in the context of a contingent worldview.” It is the moment of decisive action to create our destiny, to re-shape or re-determine our reality. In this we see the beginnings of proto-existentialism. Camus’ daily revolt was against the status quo in an effort to “challenge the world anew every second.” His emphasis was on action, on doing: “We get in the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.” Hear also Pierre Thevenaz: “Man acts and speaks before he knows. Or, better, it is by acting and in action that he is enabled to know.” Thus the kairotic moment is siezing the chance to act and in doing so, open up avenues to thought.

It also opens up ethical burdens. Kairos, for Gorgias, carried weight because it placed moral responsibility solely on the individual. The kairotic moment is thus the opening in which we do right or wrong, the decisive point in which the responsibility to act is upon our shoulders. It echoes the existentialists — Camus asks us to turn “every idea and every image into a privileged moment.” Every act, as well. Sisyphus must face the fact that every step up that mountain is an opening to act, a kairotic step. To privilege every moment forces us into an ethical framework. To misappropriate Walter Benjamin, we ought to see every instance as an opening in which the Divine might enter. To push the boulder uphill is a moral choice: Derrida asks us to see every decision as our own personal Mt. Moriah: this or that, yes or no, sacrifice or wait. This is what leads to unconditionality, that blessedly horrid, unbearable ethical burden that Derrida prescribes.

Suffice to say that I mostly fail, especially these days, to view each minute as pregnant with purpose, for good or ill. Right now I am aimlessly whiling away the days in Bangkok, deeply subject to big city bourgeoisie malaise. But on my better days I try to think of Gorgias and look for the key opportunity to act in the interests of justice & peace — the kairotic moment when I am gifted/burdened with a perpetual ethical choice about what kind of world I want to help shape.

One thought on “What Gorgias Would Say to Sisyphus

  1. I think I should’ve also pointed out another reason Plato steered clear of kairos: depending on how you read the Sophists, it’s possible to see the kairotic moment as entirely irrational. I’m not sure this is required — though it can be, at minimum, sub-rational (perhaps think of Malcom Gladwell’s “blink” moments here). Sisyphus, in fact, unaware of either Gorgias or Camus, may be incapable of articulating what nevertheless still drives him: “I am, therefore I push.”

    Gorgias tells Sisyphus, “It’s coming, waiting for the kairotic opening to act!” But Camus turns to Sisyphus: “It’s here and now! You’re alive, so this step – and every step, up or down – is the decisive point.”

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