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Okay, second in our series of Greek terms for rhetorical devices is antithesis. You’ve probably heard this word before in some context or other. ‘Hollywood films are the antithesis of art,’ says your literature teacher, wrinkling his nose. ‘MacFarlane’s fan base is pretty muich the antithesis of the Oscars’ audience,’ says one film critic (this one, actually). What they mean is ‘the absolute opposite.’ We’re talking about people and things here, mind, not words – we can’t say ‘big’ is the antithesis of ‘small’, ‘big’ is the opposite of ‘small’. And since we’re not talking about words, and since no one is literally an antithesis, calling someone or something an antithesis of someone or something else is a matter of opinion:

           ‘Oh you’re not watching soccer again, Terence. You know, the culture surrounding mass attendance sporting events is the very antithesis of real culture. It really is quite below you.’

           ‘Au contraire, Bronwen. A game well played is the apotheosis of art.’

           ‘No talking during the game, kids.’

           Etc. etc.

But I digress. We’re talking about the other meaning of antithesis, to wit: ‘the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases’ (as the invaluable Richard Nordquist puts it.)

The best known antithetical statement is Neil Armstrong’s:

That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

(Yes, ‘a man’, though the article was inaudible due to static. If he had just said ‘man’ the sentence would not be antithetical at all, but blatantly contradictory as ‘man’ means the same thing as ‘mankind’)

The antithesis here is to draw our attention to the difference between the smallness of the action and its significance. Antithesis is often used like this – to eloquently express the complexity within an idea or a person, or to express a paradox.

Here is a quotation from our book of the week, this one from the valedictory despatch of H.G. Balfour-Paul on completing his post as ambassador to Jordan:

Jordanians and their rulers, like other Arabs and theirs, display to Western observers a singular combination of opposites, are singularly inconsistent. Heart-warmingly open and genuine one moment, they can be devious and deceitful the next. Hospitable and generous to a fault with individuals, especially foreign ones, they can be singularly indifferent to social abuse and group suffering. They admire honesty but tolerate corruption; welcome outside opinion but continually disregard it. Their intellects are at once acute and sloppy, their imaginations effervescent but uncreative. They are masters of good argument but martyrs to rhetoric. Genuinely attached to their country, they know next to nothing of it, and desecrate what little they explore. They point proudly to their traditional arts and fill their houses with the vulgarest imported kitsch.

(Hugh Glencairn Balfour-Paul, 1975)

The second part of Nordquist’s definition of antithesis is ‘in balanced phrases’. What does that mean? Well, each of the sentences above has two phrases or clauses of the same grammatical structure. To take a simple example:

They admire honesty but tolerate corruption

They (verb subject) but (verb subject)

Sometimes the constructions don’t quite look parallel:

Their intellects are at once acute and sloppy, their imaginations effervescent but uncreative.

Their (plural noun) (verb) (adverb)(adjective and adjective), their (plural nouns) (adjective and adjective).

But they are  – that the verb is not repeated in the second phrase makes the sentence more, not less, pleasing to the ear. The omission of verbs in the second phrase is common, and, when the meaning is clear, good practice.

 

Challenge

Write a description of a group of people, or an individual. Use antithesis and try to keep your sentences well-balanced.

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