Antithesis serves as both a linguistic tool and a device in rhetoric. It is a contrasting position of certain concepts or ideas, which are usually shown as complete opposites.
In literary pieces, the antithesis can take various forms. It can be presented as two opposing ideas, for instance, faithfulness and betrayal or doubt and determination. However, two different characters can also be presented in the form of antithesis. This requires the characters to possess contrasting features that allow them to balance each other out and create a certain juxtaposition of their personalities.
In rhetoric, antithesis is more limited than in literary works. In the majority of cases, the rhetorical antithesis implies a specific sentence structure, which requires the orator or the speechwriter to put one of the sentence segments against the other one in order to juxtapose the ideas for a stronger impact.
The term “antithesis” derives from the old Greek “antitithenai”, which can be translated as “to oppose”, “to set against”. It was first mentioned in English somewhere around 1520-1530, firstly as part of the science of rhetoric, then as a literary tool.
Antithesis oftentimes gets confused with the related term, juxtaposition. Because those two have a similar meaning, they are easy to be mistaken for one another. However, despite being related in their definition, these two linguistic tools have some obvious differences. While antithesis requires a certain sentence construction (parallel and opposing positioning of the ideas, objects, or concepts), juxtaposition isn’t limited to specific syntactical arrangements. Moreover, antithesis implies presenting two completely opposite objects, while juxtaposition allows the authors to put even similar objects or ideas in close proximity in order to accentuate their differences. This way, juxtaposition is a more subtle way to present the contrast between certain phenomena.
The antithesis use options are quite versatile. The most prevalent way to employ antithesis is to emphasize the key features of certain concepts or objects by contrasting them with each other. For instance, when opposing two characters to each other, the author allows the reader to discover the traits each of them possesses and lacks.
Antithesis is also employed to deliver a message in a more vivid manner. When a certain object or concept is being contrasted with another one, it makes a stronger impact on the reader and helps the author convey the idea more clearly and memorably.
Emphasizing the importance of the argument is also possible with the use of antithesis. When putting two completely unlikely objects in close proximity, the author is able to accentuate the significance of the first one by opposing it to the less significant another one. This is one of the reasons why antithesis is such an effective tool in rhetoric: it provides the orator with more possibilities to persuade the audience.
Surprisingly, antithesis can be employed to illustrate not only the differences but also the similarities of certain concepts or objects. When those are opposed to each other, it is easier for the reader to compare them and discover the traits that they might share.
Antitheses can create paradoxes, which can be used in order to enhance the artistic style of the text and make the descriptions more vivid. It is also a great way to provoke deeper thinking and even to create an argument on the part of the reader.
Being a rather versatile tool, antithesis is prevalent in both rhetoric and literary pieces. In rhetoric, it’s employed to have a stronger effect on the audience and to make the speech more memorable. For instance, in his famous speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. offered a choice and created a contrast by stating that people must either coexist together like brothers or perish one by one like fools.
Literary works have many examples of the masterful use of antithesis. The most famous is probably the expression “to be or not to be” from the play “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare. By using this simple phrase, the author does a couple of things. Firstly, he raises the question concerning the very existence of the hero and every person in general. Secondly, Shakespeare here illustrates the depth of the character’s personality. He depicts the way Hamlet thinks by continuing creating antitheses and setting the contrast between opposing the hero’s troubles and humbly suffering his fate.
Jack London masterfully implemented antithesis in one of his pieces called “Credo”. Here, the author contrasts two concepts (to live and to exist), which have a very similar meaning on the whole. However, London’s goal is to present the opposite: how different these concepts are. While existence implies something dull or even pointless, living involves bold actions, development, and bright experiences. Here, the antithesis helps the author distinguish the major features of the two concepts (both similar and discrepant) and highlight the significance of one of them.