Antithesis is not only a revered literary device that only the best wield, but it’s a rhetoric device some of the most famous speakers in history have used to emphasize their points. It’s rousing in a speech when you juxtapose two opposites to show a contrasting effect that’s as wide as the ocean.
While that may be good and true, few writers use antithesis because, if forced, it sounds contrived and sanctimonious. Let’s look at antithesis closer to see if—or how—you can use it to reach deeper meaning.
What does antithesis mean?
Antithesis literally means "opposite." It’s used by writers and speakers to compare two opposite ideas to achieve a contrasting effect. It parallels two contrasting phrases or classes with a similar structure to draw attention to their significance or importance.
Let’s look at a few examples.
The most famous statements of antithesis
Who remembers one of the most famous statements of rhetorical antithesis in the public arena:
- "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." — Muhammad Ali
How about this one:
- "That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." — Neil Armstrong
You might not have heard the second part of this gem:
- "Money is the root of all evil; poverty is the fruit of all goodness."
But you’ve no doubt heard these:
- "To err is human; to forgive divine." — Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism
- "Give me liberty or give me death." — Patrick Henry
- "We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools." — Martin Luther King Jr.
Famous examples of antithesis in literature
Everyone should know the following example:
- "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
Dickens knew how to contrast the conflict of that age.
That’s rhetorical antithesis, but you can also highlight characters using antithesis. Consider how in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Brutus is the "noblest of Romans" because he loves Rome and Caesar. Antony, in contrast, is an evil man with evil intentions who wants to harm Caesar and take charge of Rome.
How to use antithesis like a pro
Use words to convey ideas by combining common words and expressions in ways that contrast everyday life. You can easily emphasize two contrasting ideas, or characters, and even make a subtle judgment, much like Dickens did in A Tale of Two Cities.
The key to using antithesis is not to set out to use it. You can see how powerful a rhetorical device it is for rousing speeches, but try to force it, and it becomes trite. Just like with theme in your manuscript, you can’t set out with an idea of presenting it because then you're preaching.
Antithesis must come naturally in your work. You'll find it comes with rewrite after rewrite when you finally narrow down your thoughts into powerful words that convey your meaning. And it will come when you realize you’re at a crossroads: you have a stark choice between two alternatives. It’s an emotional upheaval that leads to some of the most poignant and mesmerizing statements in history like:
- "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not." — Edward Kennedy in his eulogy for Robert F. Kennedy