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What Is Antithesis?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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The antithesis of something is its opposite. In linguistics, it is a direct contrast similar to an antonym. It is also used to mean an opposite position or counter position in discourse. Antithesis is used in a general sense to say that something or someone is the opposite of something else; “He was the antithesis of everything she stood for.”

Antithesis is used in literature to portray two opposites. This usually takes the form of two characters with opposite personalities, but can also be applied to places and objects. In novels with simplified characters, sometimes called two-dimensional characters, this can be the simple use of good and evil archetypes.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is a good example of more complex antithesis characters. There are several opposite pairings including Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf and the good-bad wizard pairing of Gandalf and Saruman. One pairing in particular is noteworthy: Theoden, King of Rohan, and Denethor, High Steward of Gondor. Both characters see their ultimate doom and the futility of fighting it, yet both react in different ways. Theoden finds courage in doom and in an Anglo-Nordic way decides to fight the doom regardless of the likelihood of victory, while Denethor gives in to the doom and kills himself.

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If the two men, Theoden and Denethor, were scholars, they would have engaged in an argument regarding someone’s reaction to doom. Antithesis occurs when a perfectly sound, but opposite, argument is given to counter another perfectly sound argument. This exchange of positions is called a Hegelian Dialectic, named after Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

In such a Hegelian Dialectic, the antithesis is an intellectual attack on someone’s thesis, and rhetoric is the defense of said thesis. It is a two-way process. Hegel is also wrongfully associated with the three-way process of intellectual discourse. In the system outlined by Heinrich Moritz Chalybaus, the first element is the thesis, the second is the antithesis and the final element is the synthesis. In the final element, a concord of sorts is reached between the thesis and the antithesis.

Antithesis has long been used in rhetoric as well. In pure rhetoric that is not part of the Chalybaus-Hegel system, it is used by the speaker to propose an argument and its opposite. It can also be used for inspiration such as calling for freedom or for death. The use of the opposite highlights the appeal of the proposition.

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