Chiasmus is a rhetorical device used most commonly in literature in which two or more clauses are balanced against each other by the reversal of their structures in order to produce an artistic effect. After all, emotional aesthetic resonances are the main aim of these literary tools.
A popular example of a chiasmus is the popular almost-cliched saying “Never let a fool kiss you or a kiss fool you.” If you try to look at that sentence closely, you will notice that the second half of it is just an inverted form of the first half, both grammatically and logically. This shows us that chiasmus, in its simplest sense, refers to crisscross structures, and as weird as that concept may sound, it’s actually pretty common these days.
Chiasmus comes from the Greek term meaning “diagonal arrangement.” It is used to describe two successive clauses or sentences where the keywords or phrases are repeated in both clauses, but in reverse order. Because of this system, chiasmus is sometimes known as a crisis-figure of speech.
Another popular example of chiasmus is the phrase “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going!” The words going and tough are reversed in successive clauses, while the other words (when, the, and gets) bind them together and often include straightforward repetition (the, get/gets). The general pattern will tell us when your first clause contains two words A and B, then the second clause will contain the same words but in reverse order.
Symmetry is key to chiasmus. However, the repeated phrases don’t necessarily need to be symmetrical. Which means that a latter phrase might be a much longer elaboration of the preceding phrase which it echoes.
The use of chiasmus as a rhetorical device date back to the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. Its traces have been found in the ancient texts of Sanskrit and also in ancient Chinese writing. However, the Greeks, unsurprisingly, have developed an unmatched inclination to this specific literary device. They’ve made it a point to make it an essential part of their oration. Here are a few exemplary examples.
Example #1: Aeschylus, 5th Century BC
“It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.”
Example #2: Bias, 6th Century BC
“Love as if you would one day hate, and hate as if you would one day love.”
Example #3: Socrates, 5th Century BC
“Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.”
That’s the big question, isn’t it? It’s the mystery we all want the answers to, so bad that we’ve arrived at this article in our attempt to know the answer. First of all, you must understand that writers don’t simply use chiasmus—or any other literary device, for that matter—because they feel like it or because they need to add a little flair to their writing.
No, they use chiasmus to present and elaborate upon an idea, while persuading and moving an audience and simultaneously lending a harmonious quality to writing through an organized, although not always exact, repetition. That need gave birth to chiasmus.
When chiasmus involves repeated concepts rather than simply repeated words, the structure can allow an idea to be deepened or expanded in the latter clauses. Take the following sentence as an example:
“All the schoolchildren were cruel. Killing ants, pinching legs, and stomping on flowers was the favorite habits of the children.”
As you can see, the first half of the sentence uses the adjective “cruel,” an abstract concept, one that can be easily misinterpreted or even exaggerated. However, the second half of it elaborates on that assumed cruelty by describing the actions of the children that can make them deserving of the adjective used to describe them.
The second half of the sentence gave valuable and concrete detail and imagery. You are no longer dubious of the ability of mere schoolchildren to be cruel, because you have read yourself what they are capable of doing, and upon reading it, the very adjective used popped into your head as the perfect summation of what those kids are. Cruel.
This is the aim of writers when they make use of chiasmus. They seek to make their audience understand by telling them what is happening and letting them decide for themselves what to make out of that situation. This has been successfully achieved by the sentence even though if you’ve observed, the halves aren’t of symmetrical length since the second half is much longer than the first.
Like all figures of speech based on repetition, chiasmus can also be a tool to craft persuasive rhetoric. It can be used to reiterate concepts, to summarize a complex idea to a manageable size, and to draw connections between contrasting concepts. Although it’s not very common, chiasmus appears in many forms, from axioms to antimetabole. (But these two are topics for a different day.) The inverted grammar that chiasmus boasts of can bring a sense of gravity to a sentence.
Chiasmus can be pretty difficult to grasp at first, especially since we are so unfamiliar with it. Not its examples, though, since we’ve read Shakespeare and the guy’s great at it, but the technicalities of the concept is foreign to us. So here’s a closer look at the most important elements of chiasmus.
Chiasmus is not as popular a figure of speech as your superstars simile and metaphor because it tends to create a language that feels too formal or even stilted. Even so, it does appear on your occasional prose and poetry to produce a lyrical and balanced effect. In fact, Chiasmus was very important in some ancient texts since it is entrusted with the responsibility of striking balance in a work of literature.
Othello by William Shakespeare
“But O, what damned minutes tell he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves.”
Essay on Man by Alexander Pope
“His time a moment, and a point his space.”
Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful? by Oscar Hammerstein
“Do I love you because you’re beautiful?
Or are you beautiful because I love you?”
Paradise Lost by John Milton
“. . .in his face
Divine compassion visibly appeared,
Love without end, and without measure Grace. . .”
Quote by Judith Viorst
“Lust is what makes you keep wanting to do it. Even when you have no desire to be with each other. Love is what makes you keep wanting to be with each other. Even when you have no desire to do it.”
Quote by John Marshall
“In the blue grass region,
A paradox was born:
The corn was full of kernels
And the colonels full of corn.”
Quote by Alfred P. Solan
“Some have an idea that the reason we in this country discard things so readily is because we have so much. The facts are exactly opposite—the reason we have so much is simply because we discard things so readily.”
Quote by Voltaire
“The instinct of a man is
to pursue everything that flies from him, and
to fly from all that pursues him.”
Quote by Thomas Szaz
“When religion was strong and science weak, men
mistook magic for medicine;
Now, when science is strong and religion weak, men
mistake medicine for magic.”
Quote by Peter de Vries
“The value of marriage is not that adults produce children, but that children produce adults.”
Quote by Alfred North Whitehead
“The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order.”
Quote by Jacquelyn Small
“Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things.”
Quote by Judy Joice
“This isn’t a bar for writers with a drinking problem; it’s for drinkers with a writing problem.”
Quote by Jim Calhoun
“They don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”
“For ’tis a question let us yet to prove, whether love lead to fortune, or else fortune love.”
MacBeth by William Shakespeare
“Foul is fair and fair is foul.”
John F. Kennedy in His Inaugural Address
“Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
“The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them.”
He Lit a Fire with Icicles by Kay Ryan
“This was the work
of St. Sebolt, one
of his miracles:
He lit a fire with
icicles. He srruck
them like a steel
to flint, did St.
Sebolt . . .”
Although our examples of the use of chiasmus only include great men and writers, you mustn’t consider it beyond your abilities to create your own chiasmus for your speeches. Here are a few guidelines to help you along:
We hope that this article helped you understand one of the most important yet underrated types of figure of speech.