Antithesis (literally “counterstatement”) is a special type of rhetorical parallelism wherein opposite or contrasting ideas are placed next to each other but expressed in a grammatically similar manner.
In other words, antithetical phrases and clauses are syntactically parallel but semantically opposite. The previous sentence is a good example of antithesis.
Here is another, even more representative, one:
I may forget everything else, but I will always remember you.
Even though quite straightforward, the meaning of the sentence above is built around three antithetical relations, only two of which (the highlighted ones) are explicit. However, as it frequently happens, it is the implicit ones which strike us most forcibly, even though (or sometimes precisely because) merely hinted at.
In this case, due to the parallel grammatical structure of the opposing clauses, we instinctively feel that “may” must also be annulled somewhere in the second clause. This contributes to making its promise (“I will always…”) even more certain and absolute.
All in all, the sentence effectively says: “I don’t know what the future may bring. It is quite possible that, at some point, I will forget everything that has ever happened to me. But, even then, I know for a fact that I will remember you.”
Antithesis Functions and Uses
The reason why we are able to grasp so much meaning from the sentence above momentarily is that antithesis has an immense power to clarify things. There are not many ways to better illuminate an idea than placing it next to one it visibly clashes with:
I had to leave him: he was a good father, but a bad husband.
Sometimes, the very use of the conjunction “but” between parallel structures clears things up and generates an antithetical relation even between decidedly similar ideas:
I suppose that I will always like you; but you should know that I will never love you.
Due to this persuading power for clarification, antithesis is most commonly used to express emphasis and, thus, produce memorable and quotable adages. The latter comes only naturally since the similar grammatical construction of the juxtaposed truths makes the contrast between them even more evident and the effect of reversal remarkably striking and convincing:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein (1922)
It’s easy to make a buck but hard to make a difference.
– Tom Brokaw, Time (June 21, 1997)
This is why didactic writers—and poets in particular—use antithesis more often than others; one can find numerous examples of it among the great authors of the Renaissance and, especially, the Enlightenment, whether in France (La Rochefoucauld, Voltaire, Racine, Corneille) or in England (John Lyly, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Edward Young, Edward Gibbon). Antithesis is also prominent in everyday speech and popular media, mostly in proverbs and advertising slogans.
Antithesis in a Sentence
Example #1: Common Proverbs
Many proverbs use antithetical structure to both clarify and emphasize certain points. Here’s an oft-quoted example:
Man proposes, God disposes.
The sentence above is a modern translation of a Latin phrase first put down in writing by a German cleric named Thomas à Kempis in his 15th-century devotional book The Imitation of Christ (i.19). However, largely because of the antithetical relation, it has become a common proverb in the meantime, and it has been adopted in many languages across the globe.
As is obvious even at a first glance, both the nouns and the verbs in this saying are antithetical. The antithesis of the latter is made even more prominent through the use of rhyme. Even though packed in no more than four words, the relatively complex meaning of the proverb as a whole is immediately clear. Namely, even though people are free to make plans, it’s God who ultimately decides whether they’ll be successful or not.
Example #2: Biblical Proverbs
You can find the above saying as a convenient translation of Proverbs 19:21 in quite a few versions of the Bible. There are many more antithetical proverbs in the same book of the Old Testament (almost every verse from Proverbs 10 to Proverbs 15). Here is just one example:
A kindhearted woman gains honor, but ruthless men gain only wealth. (Proverbs 11:16)
As you can see, the structure of this proverb is somewhat different than the one we usually expect from an antithetical pairing.
Namely, here it is the first clause which carries the positive meaning and the second the negative one. The first states an action which promises a blessing, while the latter a deed which leads to damnation. So, the second clause doesn’t question or reverse the meaning of the first one—it actually accentuates it retrospectively.
Examples #3-4: Advertising Slogans
Since antithesis produces instantly effective and memorable messages, it is unsurprising that it is one of the most common devices used in advertising slogans.
Consider the following example:
Huge discount! Our loss, your gain!
By using a double antithesis, this simple message creates the powerful illusion that the trading arrangement is made for the buyer’s benefit.
Advertisers often use antithesis in an even more creative manner—namely, to establish a distinction between themselves and their potential competitors:
We invent. They imitate.
Example #5: Political Speeches
Unsurprisingly, political speeches often use antithesis in a similar manner:
My opponent believes that the Federal Government should decide for you; but I know that you are smart enough to make the right choices for yourself. (Adapted from an October 4, 2004 speech by George W. Bush)
In the above example, the antithetical structure helps the speaker sway the audience in his direction, despite lack of proper argumentation. Once again, the most noteworthy effect is caused by the implied antithesis; if the speaker believes that the voters are “smart enough,” then his opponent greatly underestimates their intellectual capabilities.
(Further Reading: 10 Examples of Antithesis in a Sentence)
Antithesis in Poetry
Example #1: Homer, Odyssey XI.489-491
I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead. (tr. Samuel Butler)
The above is what the shade of Achilles says to Odysseus when the latter meets him in the Underworld. The antithesis serves to make a striking point: even the worst life on earth is better than the best one below it. More than two millennia later, John Milton skillfully inverted the meaning of this quote in one of Satan’s most memorable claims. Do you know that line?
Example #2: Petrarch, The Canzoniere XXII.13-14
When night drives out the clarity of day
and our own dark is cause of others’ dawn… (tr. Mark Musa)
“Essential in Petrarchan rhetoric,” antithesis is the literary device to which Petrarch’s poetry owes most of its fame even today. At a stylistic level, it represents the poet’s constant and desperate—if not often hopeless—search for balance and harmony. Interpreters have noted that this specific antithesis has some political connotations as well: “the shadows over Europe force the way to dawn over the opposite hemisphere” (Mark Musa).
Example #3: Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock II.31-32
Resolved to win, he meditates the way,
By force to ravish, or by fraud betray.
Alexander Pope was one of the unsurpassed masters of antithetical arrangements. Here he depicts the either/or of Baron’s plans with regards to Belinda. The syntactical parallelism is made even more apparent by the use of alliteration (force/fraud).
Example #4: George Gordon Byron, Stanzas for Music (“I Speak Not, I Trace Not, I Breathe Not Thy Name”) 4-5
Too brief for our passion, too long for our peace,
Were those hours…
Pope was Lord Byron’s favourite poet: no wonder he acquired a keen sense for antithesis from him. The current verses are taken from a poem which features several more antithetical (and unforgettable) verses, such as “thine be the gladness, and mine be the guilt” and “stern to the haughty, but humble to thee.”
Example #5: T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men 95-98
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
“Probably the most quoted lines of any 20th-century poet writing in English,” the final stanza of T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men concludes with a well-known antithetical verse. It has become so widely used in the meantime that today it is a common idiom employed when someone wants to suggest that certain things end in a less spectacular fashion than expected—but end, nevertheless.
(Further Reading: 10 Examples of Antithesis in Poetry)
Antithesis in Literature
Example #1: John Lyly, Euphues
Is it not far better to abhor sins by the remembrance of others’ faults than by repentance of thine own follies?
Just like Petrarch’s, John Lyly’s style employed an abundance of antitheses; however, this was done in such a deliberate manner that it immediately gave birth to a host of imitators called euphuists after the title of Lyly’s most famous novel. The fashion—as it usually happens—quickly devolved into a parody of itself. There are, nevertheless, one or two still quotable euphuistic examples in Lyly.
Example #2: Sir Philip Sidney, The Arcadia
Neither the one hurt her, nor the other help her; just without partiality, mighty without contradiction, liberal without losing, wise without curiosity.
Sir Philip Sidney was one of the most prominent critics of Lyly’s style, but that didn’t stop him from using antithesis regularly as well. The sentence above is so rich with them there’s no need to point them out.
Example #3: Samuel Johnson, Rasselas
Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.
The antithesis in this remark upon private life—uttered by the Princess to Rasselas in the 26th chapter of Samuel Johnson’s eponymous novel—is heightened by the use of alliteration in two of the contrasted nouns (pains/pleasures).
(Further Reading: 10 Examples of Antithesis in Literature)
Songs with Antithesis
Example #1: Bob Dylan, Just Like a Woman
You shake like a woman
Yes, you fake just like a woman
And you ache just like a woman
But you break just like a little girl
The parallelism of these four verses (a bit different in the studio version), gradually intensified by the use of middle rhymes, contributes to making the antithesis in the final verse (woman/little girl) all the more painful and effective.
Example #2: Brian May, Too Much Love Will Kill You
I used to bring you sunshine
Now all I ever do is bring you down
The antithesis in this song—recorded by both Queen and Brian May—is especially interesting, since it skillfully juxtaposes a verb+noun construction (“bring you sunshine”) with a transitive phrasal verb which has the same structure (“bring you down”).
Example #3: Taylor Swift, Blank Space
…’cause darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream
In possibly the most memorable line of her enormous hit Blank Space—in addition to the “Starbucks lovers” mondegreen—Taylor Swift cleverly elucidates her true essence (“nightmare”) by contrasting it with her superficial appearance (“daydream”).