A mighty people

A mighty people

In Brief

Figure of speech. In the John F. Taylor speech recited by Professor MacHugh, an Egyptian high priest bludgeons the young Moses with contrasts between the highly achieved civilization of the Egyptians and the Hebrews' backwardness. These two paragraphs constitute an eloquent demonstration of the rhetorical principle of antithesis. Later in Aeolus, the professor observes that Stephen has employed the device in his characterization of two old women.

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Antithesis (an-TITH-uh-sis, from Greek anti- = against + tithenai = to set, place) means "setting things against" one another. The American Heritage Dictionary defines its rhetorical meaning as "The juxtaposition of sharply contrasting ideas in balanced or parallel words, phrases, or grammatical structures; for example, 'He for God only, she for God in him' (Milton)." Ancient rhetoricians associated it with the very similar principle of antitheton (an-TITH-uh-ton), whose etymology is identical. Antitheton was a figure of thought, building a persuasive argument from contraries. Antithesis was the corresponding figure of speech.

Joyce's sentences clearly perform both functions. Their finely balanced expressions are built on conceptual contrasts that hammer home the utter disparity between the two cultures, urging Moses to accept the inevitablity of subjugation and assimilation:

     — Why will you jews not accept our culture, our religion and our language? You are a tribe of nomad herdsmen: we are a mighty people. You have no cities nor no wealth: our cities are hives of humanity and our galleys, trireme and quadrireme, laden with all manner merchandise furrow the waters of the known globe. You have but emerged from primitive conditions: we have a literature, a priesthood, an agelong history and a polity.

     — You pray to a local and obscure idol: our temples, majestic and mysterious, are the abodes of Isis and Osiris, of Horus and Ammon Ra. Yours serfdom, awe and humbleness: ours thunder and the seas. Israel is weak and few are her children: Egypt is an host and terrible are her arms. Vagrants and daylabourers are you called: the world trembles at our name.

This is probably the most powerfully moving instance of a rhetorical device in the Aeolus chapter. It is also the longest, but antithesis can operate in smaller spaces, as in these examples from oratory and literature: "To be, or not to be" (Hamlet); "My only love sprung from my only hate" (Romeo); "Float light a butterfly, sting like a bee" (Muhammad Ali); "Give me liberty or give me death" (Patrick Henry); "The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me" (Frederick Douglass); "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" (Martin Luther King); "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here" (Abraham Lincoln); "The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, / And wretches hang that jurymen may dine" (Alexander Pope).

When Stephen gives names to the women in his story, he also attaches qualities to each: "Anne Kearns has the lumbago for which she rubs on Lourdes water, given her by a lady who got a bottleful from a passionist father. Florence MacCabe takes a crubeen and a bottle of double X for supper every Saturday." The professor remarks approvingly on the contrast: "— Antithesis, the professor said nodding twice. Vestal virgins. I can see them."

JH 2023
The opening sentence of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.
Source: prowritingaid.com.
A sentence from Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria.
Source: www.thoughtco.com.