Antimetabole Season

tumblr_inline_mvjmslKfjw1qbolbn“We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” That was Joe Biden (quoting Bill Clinton) at the Democratic National Convention, using perhaps a politician’s favorite rhetorical device: antimetabole. Great word, huh? It’s from the Greek, like so many literary terms of art, in this case a Greek word meaning “turning about.” This reversal of word order has been responsible for some of the most oft-quoted bits of political discourse in history, including:

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (John F. Kennedy, inaugural address, 1961)

“It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” (Winston Churchill, 1942)

“Just because you’re born in the slum does not mean the slum is born in you.” (Jesse Jackson, Democratic National Convention, 1984)

“East and West do not mistrust each other because we are armed; we are armed because we mistrust each other.” (Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate, 1987)

“You stood up for America; now America must stand up for you.” (Barack Obama, 2011)

We can chase plenty of odd insights by playing with antimetabole, from “I believe what I see, and I see what I believe” to “I never entertain wicked thoughts; wicked thoughts entertain me.” But what delights me more than the actual examples we can find or make up is the razor-thin difference between antimetabole and a couple of other handy literary devices.

Take, for starters, chiasmus, the parent of antimetabole. In chiasmus — from the Greek meaning “crosswise arrangement” — two clauses set off against each other convey opposite meanings. All instances of antimetabole are a type of chiasmus, but these examples of chiasmus are not antimetabole:

“Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.” (Socrates, 5th Century BC)

“We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us.” (John McCain, 2008)

“It is hard to make money, but to spend it is easy.” (Anonymous)

“Charm is a woman’s strength; strength is a man’s charm.” (Havelock Ellis)

The grandparent of both chiasmus and antimetabole, of course, is antithesis, a rhetorical figure that highlights contrast by juxtaposing phrases or clauses. All the above examples are antitheses, but so are these, which are neither chiasmus nor antimetabole:

“Folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” (Abraham Lincoln)

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (Martin Luther King)

“Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in. Those left behind, we will help to catch up.” (Richard Nixon, inaugural address, 1969)

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are filled with passionate intensity.” (Yeats, “The Second Coming”)

Some may see the small differences in the ways these sentences play with language as inconsequential. To me, they represent the way in which rhetoric truly is an art. Like any art, it takes talent, skill, and practice, and like any art, its subtle shadings are what elevate it above the ordinary and also make its practice a high-wire act. A lame antimetabole will produce more groans than cheers; a finely executed example of antithesis may gain its effect without anyone’s noticing the rhetorical trick.

I take the same delight in distinguishing other closely related rhetorical flourishes from each other. Years ago, I read somewhere that ours was a metonymic, rather than a metaphorical, age. I still have no idea who said that or what was meant by it, but I found myself listening more closely to phrases like The White House said today, or He’s the administration’s hired gun, where one thing stands in for another. The effect is different from the language of metaphor, which two things are directly or implicitly compared, as in It’s a puppet government or He’s just a figurehead. If you dig just a bit deeper, you can find synecdoche, that subset of metonymy in which a part stands for the whole, almost everywhere in political speech. Boots on the ground. Nominated for the bench. Earmarked.

It’s going to be a long political season ahead. We might as well amuse ourselves. Let’s distinguish enthusiastically among the devices of rhetoric, lest the rhetoric divide us, and extinguish all our enthusiasm.




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