Antithesis—which is Greek for “counterstatement”—is a rhetorical device which occurs when two opposing ideas are juxtaposed in parallel grammatical structures. Since this contributes to clarity, emphasis and memorability, it is not surprising that antithesis has delivered some of the most remarkable lines ever written. Here are the most representative 10—in chronological order, from Cicero to Queneau!
10 Examples of Antithesis in Literature
#1. Cicero, Against Catiline II.25 (November 9, 63 BC)
For on the one side are fighting modesty, on the other wantonness; on the one chastity, on the other uncleanness; on the one honesty, on the other fraud; on the one piety, on the other wickedness; on the one consistency, on the other insanity; on the one honour, on the other baseness; on the one continence, on the other lust; in short, equity, temperance, fortitude, prudence, all the virtues contend against iniquity with luxury, against indolence, against rashness, against all the vices; lastly, abundance contends against destitution, good plans against baffled designs, wisdom against madness, well-founded hope against universal despair.
Rhetoricians and politicians often turn to antithesis to simplify matters and present their positions as if diametrically opposed to the wrong ones—that is, the ones defended by their rivals. Cicero does precisely that in his second speech against Catiline (a Roman Senator accused of conspiracy) to persuade the common people of Rome that everything in the case is as clear-cut as it actually never was; namely, a battle between good (him and Rome) and evil (Cataline and the conspirators).
#2. John Lyly, Euphues (1579)
The freshest colours soonest fade, the teenest razor soonest turneth his edge, the finest cloth is soonest eaten with moths, and the cambric sooner stained than the coarse canvas; which appeared well in this Euphues, whose wit, being like wax, apt to receive any impression, and bearing the head in his own hand, either to use the rein or the spur, disdaining counsel, leaving his country, loathing his old acquaintance, thought either by wit to obtain some conquest, or by shame to abide some conflict; who, preferring fancy before friends and his present humour before honour to come, laid reason in water, being too salt for his taste, and followed unbridled affection, most pleasant for his tooth.
There are so many antitheses in this example that it is difficult even to list them all; however, unlike above, here they don’t sound at all balanced—mostly because the majority of them are made to stand out through the use of forceful alliterations. Compare: freshest/fade, teenest/turneth, cambric/canvas, conquest/conflict, fancy/friends, taste/tooth. This excessiveness is what contributed to John Lyly’s style being extensively parodied by many of his more talented contemporaries.
#3. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar III.2.22 (1599)
Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
This is how Brutus defends his action to conspire to kill his dear friend Caesar in William Shakespeare’s history play. What makes this justification so memorable is the skillful use of antithetical adverbs (less/more) to transform a harsher antithesis (love for Rome vs. hate for its enemies/Caesar) into a subtler and more humane one.
#4. John Milton, Paradise Lost I.263 (1674)
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Lucifer’s most famous utterance is modeled after Achilles’ claim in the Odyssey (XI.489-491) that he would rather be a paid servant on earth than a king of kings underground. As you can see, Milton here reverses Homer’s truism into a much more controversial antithetical statement which puts freedom and power before meekness and wellbeing. No wonder William Blake believed that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”!
#5. James Thompson, Sophonisba (1729)
The fairest, but the falsest of her sex.
Sophonisba was a legendary Carthaginian beauty who, though betrothed to the Numidian chief Masinissa, eventually married his rival, Syphax. Masinissa utters these words to the kneeling Sophonisba in James Thompson’s play soon after he defeats Syphax in a battle and captures his former wife-to-be. The antithesis is enhanced by the use of similarly-sounding superlatives (fairest/falsest).
#6. Alexander Pope, Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot 203-206 (1735)
…willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike;
Alike reserved to blame, or to commend,
A timorous foe, and a suspicious friend…
It was never a good idea to irk Alexander Pope: he was capable of attacking one with antitheses the same way armies attack with weapons. Here, the object of the attack is a former friend of his, Joseph Addison, who made the mistake of supporting a rival translation of Homer and ended up being depicted as the talented, but timid, Atticus in Pope’s brilliant Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot.
#7. Alexander Pope, Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot 317-325 (1735)
Whether in florid impotence he speaks,
And, as the prompter breathes, the puppet squeaks;
Or at the ear of Eve, familiar Toad,
Half froth, half venom, spits himself abroad, . . .
His wit all seesaw, between that and this,
Now high, now low, now master up, now miss,
And he himself one vile Antithesis.
Speaking of Pope and his enemies, here’s what the Augustan poet says of Baron John Hervey, aka Sporus in the Epistle. The passage adroitly uses quite a few antitheses to depict the antithetical nature of the man himself—both as a talentless “puppet” (“now high, now low”) of Horace Walpole (“the prompter”) and as a rumored bisexual (“now master up, now miss”).
#8. Lord George Gordon Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage II.73 (1812)
Immortal, though no more! though fallen, great!
Lord Byron was an adept user of antithesis as can be witnessed from this description of Greece. Here two antitheses (“immortal”/”no more” and “fallen”/”great”) are canopied under a chiasmus, which groups the negatives on the inside and allows for the positives to both introduce and conclude the portrayal.
#9. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
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…
One of the most famous opening sentences in the history of literature wouldn’t have acquired that status if it wasn’t for Dickens’ deft use of antithesis throughout (best/worst, wisdom/foolishness, belief/incredulity, etc.) Introducing the novel’s universal interests, the sentence suggests “an age of radical opposites.”
#10. Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style (1947)
It was neither the morning, nor the evening, but midday. It was neither a baby, nor an old man, but a young man. It was neither a ribbon, nor a string, but a plaited cord. It was neither a procession, nor a brawl, but a scuffle. It was neither a pleasant person, nor an evil person, but a bad-tempered person… (tr. Barbara Wright)
True, antithesis is responsible for some of the most memorable sentences ever written or pronounced; however, as can be seen in example #2 above, it has also served as the foundation on which some of the most tedious and trivial ones have been put together. And this pseudo-antithetical style is what Raymond Queneau parodies in this paragraph, taken from his influential collection of 99 retellings of the same story, Exercises in Style. Here each thesis (say, “a baby”) is contrasted with its antithesis (“an old man”) only so that it can be resolved later into a rather obvious and anticlimactic synthesis (“but a young man”).