Antithesis in Literature: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

It was the best lesson; it was the worst lesson. You can be the judge when you learn more about 'antithesis' in this lesson, where you'll see the device defined as well as employed in some familiar literary works!

Opposites Attract: Antithesis Defined

At some point in our lives, we've probably all heard a sound bite of Neil Armstrong's iconic first transmission from the Moon: 'That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.' You may have been too inspired by Neil's words to realize it at the time, but his famous phrase very purposefully employs a rhetorical and literary device known as antithesis, that is, the use of words that are opposites or noticeably different to highlight contrasting ideas.

As its origins in ancient Greek would suggest, antithesis (Greek for 'opposition,' 'contradiction') has been a popular tool for writers since antiquity, especially among Roman poets of the 1st century A.D. (i.e. Vergil, Ovid). Authors have been using this technique for millennia in order to emphasize the distinctions between important ideas by using groups of words that vividly differ from one another.

Take for example Armstrong's moon transmission. Here, we can find the opposition in his use of 'small step' and 'giant leap,' as well as in the appearance of 'man' and 'mankind.' But antithesis is about more than merely using contradictory words. Neil could've just as easily stated his idea with something like 'This occasion is insignificant in terms of one person, but has overarching consequences for all humanity.' However, the astronaut's concise quote has inspired so many because it vividly highlights the ramifications of one human's relatively insignificant footstep on the advancement of all humankind through the notable differences between the antithetical elements employed. Let's turn from the space program, now, and look at a few instances of antithesis in some literary works you're sure to recognize!

Examples of Antithesis in Literature

Paradise Lost, John Milton's classic of 17th-century English literature is full of profound uses of various literary devices. One of those just happens to be antithesis. While discussing his exile from Heaven to Hell, Lucifer makes the very poignant argument that it is 'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.' For all intents and purposes, this represents the ultimate opposition - not only in terms of locale, but of position, as well. What Milton has done in this instance of antithesis is to equate dominance to eternal damnation and servitude to salvation. Like Armstrong, the author of Paradise Lost was able to summarize Satan's previous pontification on frame of mind by using a powerfully concise yet vivid antithetical comparison.

You might've heard the antithetical phrase 'To err is Human; to Forgive, Divine' cited in a number of ethical situations, but you might be surprised to discover its original context. Alexander Pope first included this example of antithesis in 1711 in his An Essay on Criticism, a poetic treatise on critiquing literature. Prior to this closing line of one of his stanzas, Pope had been discussing the tendency of literary critics of his day to judge the work of others harshly through some claim to almost divine authority in the matter. However, Pope wishes his colleagues to remember their own humanity as they criticize other humans, so he appeals to their sense of superiority by concisely letting them know the source of true divinity.

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