Bill Long 12/08/04
Antithesis and Synoeciosis, with a word on Oxymoron
Contrasting words side by side are often powerful because they capture the paradoxical nature of reality. Paradox rears its head when linear thinking seeks to triumph in a culture. Linear thinking is characterized by bundles of declarative sentences that supposedly "build" upon one another until a conclusion is reached. Just when the conclusion is preening itself as king or queen of the mountain, graciously bowing to those all around, paradox enters to bring it crashing down. The three building blocks of paradox are oxymoron, synoeciosis and antithesis. When you begin to think with these three words in mind, you can never go back to being a simple "logical" thinker. Or, better said, you will experience the joyful "logic" of paradox.
Derived from two Greek words meaning "sharp" (oxy) and "dull" (moron), an oxymoron is a short phrase presenting opposing ideas. It is a compressed paradox. Often oxymorons are cited to amuse, such as "postal service," or "military intelligence," or "jumbo shrimp," or "pretty ugly." But many express more searching concepts, such as "civil war" or Milton's "darkness visible" or Simon & Garfunkle's "sounds of silence." A more complete list can be accessed here. But we can expand our understanding of contrasting words by stretching out the contrast a little more, which brings us to synoeciosis.
Synoeciosis (or Synoeceosis)
Synoeciosis is often not listed as a rhetorical device because of the difficulty of separating it from antithesis (see below). Yet, the term appears in both the OED and Century Dictionary, and helps us massage the idea of contrasting words. Synoeciosis, derived from two Greek words meaning "to live together," or "unite as friends or kinsmen," synoeciosis is defined as a "combination of statements seemingly contradictory" or "a figure by which contrasted or heterogeneous things are associated or coupled." Look, then, for contrasting ideas and see how they are "coupled."
Puttenham actually calls this figure the Crosse-couple, "because it takes me contrary words, and tieth them as it were in a paire of couples, and so makes them agree like good fellowes, as I saw once in France a wolfe coupled mastiffe, and a foxe with a hounde (Poesie, p. 172)." He gives a few examples:
"The niggards fault and the unthrifts is all one,/ For neither of them both knoweth how to use his owne."
"The covetous miser, of all his goods ill got,/ Aswell wants that he hath, as that he hath not."
"Thus for your sake I dayle dye/ And do but seem to live in deede."
Two contrasting individuals (niggards and unthrifts) are, in fact, one. One individual in has contrasting needs/desires (wants what he has and doesn't have). One person both dies and lives at once. Aristotle might not like the logic, but it is impeccable for one who knows the inner life of man.
St. Paul and Synoeciosis
Paul is an impressive figure in earliest Christianity because of the vigor of his life, the boldness of his theological formulations and the vividness of his language. There are tons of things in Paul with which one may easily and vehemently disagree, but it doesn't alter my appreciation for his use of language.
The Epistle to the Philippians is one of his most personal and beautifully-constructed letters. In Phil 3 he contrasts his former life as illustrious Pharisee with his current life as persecuted Christian. The verses that brings it all to a head are 3:7-8, "Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." Gain and loss. Gain is loss. At the same time. Well, Aristotle may let us off the hook because at least the gain and loss are in different relationship (the view of the things then, the view now), but still we are stretching the concept of linear thinking to its limits.
When I was in California over last weekend promoting my latest book (A Hard-Fought Hope: Journeying with Job Through Mystery, Upper Room Books, 2004), a person came up to me because he said he had been thinking for 9 years about a statement I made when I addressed a conference he attended in 1995. I was thinking about the problem of loss and its relationship to our ability to trust and I tried to capture my entire discussion in a three-word phrase, "loss endangers trust." He, in 2004, came up to me and said, "I have been thinking of that phrase since then, and now I would like to say the following: 'loss endangers trust; loss engenders trust.'" He spent 9 years and came up with a contrasting phrase. Who says that verbal contrasts don't rivet the imagination?
The next essay will probe synoeciosis and antithesis further.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long