Antithesis is a figure of speech which brings out the contrast between two opposing ideas by placing them next to each other in a grammatically parallel structure. It has an immense power to both clarify and simplify matters, which explains why it has been a favorite of both rhetoricians and politicians ever since Ancient Greece. Read on and see how the most eloquent among them utilized this power to shape some of the most memorable sentences in history.
10 Examples of Antithesis in a Sentence
#1. Isocrates IV.47 (~ 380 BC)
Philosophy… has distinguished between the misfortunes that are due to ignorance and those which spring from necessity, and taught us to guard against the former and to bear the latter nobly.
Isocrates’ celebrated speech Panegyricus is the earliest to advocate that the Greeks should form a union and wage war against Persia. At one point, the influential Athenian rhetorician singles out the study of philosophy while listing Athens’ contributions to Greece, and he uses the antitheses above (ignorance/necessity; guard/bear; former/latter) to illustrate some of the benefits of this discipline. Aristotle cites Isocrates’ antitheses from this very speech several times in his Rhetoric (Reference).
#2. From the Rhetorica ad Herennium IV.15.21 (~ 80 BC)
Flattery has pleasant beginnings, but also brings on bitterest endings.
Formerly attributed to Cicero and currently of unknown authorship, Rhetorica ad Herennium (Rhetoric: for Herennius) is the oldest surviving Latin book on rhetoric, making this one of the most cited Reference; the whole phrase “pleasant beginnings” is here contrasted with its exact opposite: “bitterest endings.”
#3. John Ruskin, Modern Painters V (1860)
Government and cooperation are in all things and eternally the laws of life; anarchy and competition, eternally and in all things, the law of death.
In this often-quoted 1860 formulation of “The Law of Help” by John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic makes a comparison between two different ways to organize the economic system. He uses an effective double antithesis to persuade the reader that the one based on competition is, by its very nature, destructive and can only lead to anarchy and death.
#4. Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address” (November 19, 1863)
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
These words—and merely 250 more—were articulated by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. This sentence so skillfully contrasts the transience of words with the durability of deeds that, ironically, it is still remembered—maybe even more vigorously than the Gettysburg Union casualties.
#5. Jules Fournier, My Inkwell (1922)
Canada is the businessman’s paradise, the man of letters’ hell.
One of Canada’s most respected journalists at the turn of the 20th century, Jules Fournier uses a rather straightforward antithesis here to bemoan the state of affairs in his home country for intellectuals such as him. Notice the absence of the conjunction “but.” It almost makes the antithesis sound natural—as if the latter (“the man of letters’ hell”) follows necessarily from the former (“businessman’s paradise”).
#6. John F. Kennedy, “Inauguration Address” (January 20, 1961)
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
John F. Kennedy’s most celebrated claim demonstrates how well antithesis—even if subtle—works when combined with a chiasmus. Namely, it is the chiasmic structure of the clauses which lures the listener into the trap of the false dichotomy (either/or), but it is the actionable verb-based antithesis (“ask”/”ask not”) which convinces him that the only thing left for him is to choose. Naturally, Kennedy is clear on the matter of which one is the right choice.
#7. Neil Armstrong, “Moon Landing Speech” (July 21, 1969)
That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.
One of the most famous antithetical sentences ever uttered. It is exactly because of the pervading and graduating antitheses (small/giant, step/leap) that we can now be sure that the indefinite article “a” before “man” was either omitted by mistake or somehow went unrecorded in the transmission. Anything else denies us the final and crowning antithesis (“a man”/”mankind”). In fact, without the article, “man” becomes a synecdoche for “mankind,” and renders the sentence tautological and all but meaningless.
#8. Mother Teresa, “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech” (December 10, 1979)
And yet that man, when we brought him to our home for the dying, he said just one sentence: I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die like an angel.
Mother Teresa believed that poverty shouldn’t be understood merely as the lack of necessary means for living, but as the absence of proper treatment. Here she quotes the words of a maggot-covered “man of the street” brought inside one of her facilities to merely die in peace. His sentence is memorable exactly because of the antithesis which juxtaposes living a life like an animal with dying an angelic death.
#9. Martin Luther King, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963)
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Few—if any—have contributed to the wealth of the English language with as many antithetical sayings as Martin Luther King has. Here he memorably elucidates his belief that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Just two sentences below, King uses another antithetical construction to enhance the effect: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
#10. John M. Gerrard, “Stephen Cavanaugh vs. Randy Bartelt, et al.” (April 12, 2016)
This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension.
This sentence is taken from an actual sentence. Signed by Nebraskan U.S. District Judge John Gerrard on April 12, 2016, it uses two antitheses (“is not”/”is,” “question”/”matter”) to imply a third one (namely, that “theology” is something beyond “basic reading comprehension”). According to the ruling, Pastafarianism is not a valid religion, but a satirical undertaking. Go figure!