Synoeciosis and Antithesis II
Bill Long 12/08/04
Another brief definition of synoeciosis is "a composition of contraries or extended paradox." A Brown University website gives several examples of this figure from Shakespeare. Let's quote a few and comment on them.
In what looks more like a use of oxymoron than synoeciosis, Hamlet says, "They have a plentiful lack of wit (2.2.201)." That is, a "plentiful lack" is a "sharp/dull," which is characteristic of oxymoron. But, since we are not drawing a fast distinction between the two (or three, if we include antithesis), we are not bothered. Again, Hamlet says, in contemplating how to treat his mother, "I must be cruel, only to be kind (3.4.178)." Or, Diomed, in Troilus & Cressida, says, "A juggling trick--to be secretly open (5.2.24), while Bottom says in Midsummer Night's Dream, "I'll speak in a monstrous little voice (1.2.54)." When Flavius is mourning over the untimely death of Timon of Athens he says, "O monument and wonder of good deeds evilly bestow'd (Timon 4.5.466)." And then, in that most richly textured problem play, Measure for Measure, Claudio says: "To sue to live, I find I seek to die,/ And seeking death, find life. Let it come on (3.1.42f.)." We almost hear echoes of St. Paul when he says, "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21)." The Epistle to the Philippians is so powerful precisely because of the developed use of paradox/synoeciosis/antithesis.
Antithesis may be defined as "a figure consisting in bringing contrary ideas or terms into close opposition." Normally the juxtaposition of these contrasting words is in a parallel structure. If synoeciosis entertains or probes, antithesis inspires and stimulates to action.
Again, from St. Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2: 19-20)." With the awareness of Christ's indwelling presence, Paul can "do all things through him that strengthens me (Phil. 4: 7)." So the Galatians, as well as others, should be motivated to act.
And, Paul just doesn't stop with one antithesis. When speaking of the threats he faces daily, the dishonors and distresses, the challenges and threats to his very existence, he doesn't just list his foes or complain about his condition. He uses several antitheses:
"we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;"
And then, as if he is pulling out all the rhetorical stops by adding an example of synoeciosis to the multiple paradoxes he has just given, he says:
"always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies (II Cor. 4:8-10)."
Antithesis in Richard III
Richard III is one of Shakespeare's plays most plentiful in antitheses. Something about the twisted and crabbed nature of the hunchback Richard will come out in the antithetical use of words. We begin with the small figure on stage, looking directly at us, telling us that he is going to cause great havoc:
"Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this son of York.... Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings...Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front...As if King Edward be as true and just/ As I am subtle false and treacherous (1.1.1,2,7,9,37,38)."
Antithesis is used here to tell us that the world will soon be turned as topsy-turvy as the language used to describe it. And, isn't that also the function of antithesis in Paul? As a person describing the early Christians says in the Book of Acts, "These people who have turned the world upside down have come here also (Acts 17:6)." The early Christians, of whom Paul was the most visible example, turned the world upside down through language, the language of Christ dead and alive, betrayed yet vindicated, humiliated but triumphant, rejected but now crowned.
Thus, the person following Christ would experience the same fate, but the fate doesn't become finalized until the language of antithesis makes it so. For how do we know that Paul is "perplexed, but not driven to despair" unless he puts it thus antithetically? Antithesis is the friend of those who want to experience the peaks and valleys of life and then try to make their language correspond to their experience. Antithesis belongs to those who have learned to live deeply.
Examples of antithesis abound and are not hard to find. Abraham Lincoln said, "folks who have no vices have very few virtues." Another said, "When our vices leave us, we flatter ourselves to leave them." "Excess of ceremony shows want of breeding." And, to conclude with that most famous of all series of antitheses in English literature, from the opening lines of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities:
"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..."
Reclaiming antithesis, but not antithesis that merely repeats the experience of another, may well be the key that opens the door to a richer emotional and spiritual life, as well as a more imaginative vocabulary, for us. It is exceedingly hard to come up with antitheses on your own, but if you develop an antithetical way of thinking, you may just begin to come up with them. Ever since I began to think about life through aphorisms, I decided to invent the category called Billphorisms, and I see them now wherever I turn.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long