Antithesis (Greek for "setting opposite", from ἀντί "against" and θέσις "position") is used in writing or speech either as a proposition that contrasts with or reverses some previously mentioned proposition, or when two opposites are introduced together for contrasting effect.
Antithesis can be defined as "a figure of speech involving a seeming contradiction of ideas, words, clauses, or sentences within a balanced grammatical structure. Parallelism of expression serves to emphasize opposition of ideas".
An antithesis must always contain double meanings due to the reproduction of two ideas within one statement. The ideas may not be structurally opposite, but they serve to be functionally opposite when comparing two ideas for emphasis.
According to Aristotle, the use of an antithesis makes the audience better understand the point one is trying to make through their argument. Further explained, the comparison of two situations or ideas makes choosing the correct one simpler. Aristotle states that antithesis in rhetoric is similar to syllogism due to the presentation of two conclusions within a statement.
The term antithesis when used in speech is sometimes confused with the use of irony, or "words [used] to convey a meaning opposite to their literal sense". The two are often mistaken for one another due to their creation of an opposite situation for the audience. The antithesis deals with two parallel ideas, whereas in irony, when used as a literary device, the words are implying an opposite idea directly through tone or word choice.
To make the meaning more clear, consider this example of irony: I cut my hand on a Bandaid box. The example is not an antithesis because it does not present two parallel ideas, instead it gives an implication of the opposite idea through its tone.
A simple counting of the elements of dialectics (any formal system of reasoning that arrives at the truth by the exchange of logical arguments) is that of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Hell is the antithesis of Heaven; disorder is the antithesis of order. It is the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, usually in a balanced way. In rhetoric, it is a figure of speech involving the bringing out of a contrast in the ideas by an obvious contrast in the words, clauses, or sentences, within a parallel grammatical structure, as in the following:
- When there is need of silence, you speak, and when there is need of speech, you are dumb;
when you are present, you wish to be absent, and when absent, you desire to be present;
in peace you are for war, and in war you long for peace;
in council you descant on bravery, and in the battle you tremble.
Antithesis is sometimes double or alternate, as in the appeal of Augustus:
- Listen, young men, to an old man to whom old men were glad to listen when he was young.
Other literary examples
Some other examples of antithesis are:
- A) Man proposes; God disposes.
- B) Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)
- C) Many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14)
- D) Rude words bring about sadness, but kind words inspire joy.
- E) Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. (by Winston Churchill)
- F) It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way... (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
Biblical use of antitheses
Matthew's Antitheses is the traditional name given to a section of the Sermon on the Mount[Matt. 5:17–48] where Jesus takes six well known prescriptions of the Mosaic Law and calls his followers to do more than the Law requires. Protestant scholars since the Reformation have generally believed that Jesus was setting his teaching over against false interpretations of the Law current at the time. "Antithesis" was the name given by Marcion of Sinope to a manifesto in which he contrasted the Old Testament with the New Testament and defined what came to be known as Marcionism.
The Jewish Encyclopedia: Brotherly Love states:
As Schechter in J. Q. R. x. 11, shows, the expression "Ye have heard..." is an inexact translation of the rabbinical formula (שןמע אני), which is only a formal logical interrogation introducing the opposite view as the only correct one: "Ye might deduce from this verse[Lev 19:18] that thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy, but I say to you the only correct interpretation is, Love all men, even thine enemies."
Jesus' six antitheses are on six topics. In each of them, Jesus opens the statement with words to the effect: "You have heard it said...but I say to you...." These antitheses only appear in Matthew. At the outset, Jesus made it clear that he greatly respects Old Testament Law in the Torah, and fulfilling the Law was one of his purposes for coming to Earth.
Daniel J. Harrington believes that the community for which Matthew wrote primarily but not exclusively were Jewish Christians. If so, that may explain why Matthew could use Jewish rhetoric and themes without explanation. Harrington says that is not the case for 21st-century Americans and others who read the Gospel today. In the six antitheses Jesus either extends through the Commandment's scope by going to the root of the abuse (avoiding anger and lust to prevent murder and adultery) or going beyond a biblical commandment as in the case of divorce and oaths. Harrington writes that Matthew presents the six antitheses as examples of the principle that Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.— Jesus, Matthew 5:17-20
The first antithesis (vv. 21-22) attacks anger as the root of murder. The two loosely connected illustrations (23-24, 25-26) point out the value of reconciling with one's enemy.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, "Do not murder,[Ex 20:13] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment." But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, "Raca," is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, "You fool!" will be in danger of the fire of hell.— Jesus, Matthew 5:21-22
The second antithesis (vv. 27-28) attacks lust as the root of adultery. The sayings about the right eye in the right-hand as causes of scandal (29-30) are further instances of going to the sources of sin.
You have heard that it was said, "Do not commit adultery."[Ex 20:14] But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.— Jesus, Matthew 5:27-30
It has been said, "Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce."[Deut. 24:1] But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.— Jesus, Matthew 5:31-32
The fourth antithesis (vv. 33-37) about oaths says to avoid oaths entirely so as never to swear falsely.
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, "Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord." But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your "Yes" be "Yes," and your "No," "No"; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.— Jesus, Matthew 5:31-32
An eye for an eye
The fifth antithesis on non-retaliation (vv. 38-39a) also urges the followers of Jesus to not seek revenge through violence. The examples not only prohibit violence, but also require that brutality and force be met with goodness.
You have heard that it was said, "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth."[Ex 21:24] [Lev 24:20] [Deu 19:21] But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.— Jesus, Matthew 5:38-42
Love for enemies
The final antithesis (vv. 43-48) defines "neighbor". Here Jesus urges that love include even enemies instead of restricting love only to those who either can benefit us or who already love us.
You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor[Lev 19:18] and hate your enemy." But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.— Jesus, Matthew 5:43-47
Rhetorical uses of antitheses
Antitheses are used to strengthen an argument by using either exact opposites or simply contrasting ideas, but can also include both. They typically make a sentence more memorable for the reader or listener through balance and emphasis of the words.
Famous examples of antitheses
- "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." -Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at St. Louis, 1964
- "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." -Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 1863
Note that in these quotes, the words are arranged in a way that includes opposing ideas (live/perish, brothers/fools, remember/forget). Antitheses are not used to say one thing and mean another, see irony. They are used to compare for emphasis.
Hegel and antithesis
An antithesis is a component in Hegel's triadic structure, which is the original, fractal form of dialect. Antithesis is the second component and is to propel the affirmation of negation. It is designed to be the opposite of the first component, thesis, (antithesis) to add emphasis to the topic before being re-negated by the third component, synthesis. However, Hegel never actually used the terms thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
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- Some manuscripts say "brother or sister without cause"─NIV notes
- "Raca" is an Aramaic term of contempt.─NIV notes
- Nick Skellon, "Antithesis: examples and definition," Speak Like A Pro. 2013
- Llyod Spencer and Andrzej Krauze, Hegel for Beginners, 14-175; via marxists.org: Hegel-by-HyperText Resources