Sunday, February 03, 2008


Chiasmus, Part I

H.W. Smyth in his Greek Grammar defines chiasmus as "the crosswise arrangement of contrasted pairs to give alternate stress. By this figure both the extremes and the means are correlated."

I divide chiasmus into two main categories, which I call reflecting and interlocking. With reflecting chiasmus, the word order produces a sort of mirror image, in which both halves are self-contained; with interlocking chiasmus, one half is not complete, grammatically or logically, without the other.

As an example of reflecting chiasmus, take Shakespeare, Macbeth 3.4:
Hence, horrible shadow!
Unreal mockery, hence!
Here the extremes are the two occurrences of "hence," and the means (or inner terms) are the vocatives "horrible shadow" and "unreal mockery." Each sentence stands by itself, and the word order of the second sentence reflects and reverses, as in a mirror, the word order of the first sentence.

As an example of interlocking chiasmus, consider Shakespeare, Macbeth 2.1:
O horror, horror, horror!
Tongue nor heart cannot
conceive nor name thee!
Here the outside pair are the subject "tongue" and its verb "name," and the inner pair are the subject "heart" and its verb "conceive." The clauses interlock, and the first two terms ("tongue" and "heart") are grammatically and logically incomplete without the final two terms ("conceive" and "name").

The English word chiasmus comes from the Greek χιασμός, which itself comes from the Greek letter chi (χ). The letter χ is formed by two strokes crossing, and chiasmus is thus a "crosswise arrangement."

The ancient Greeks meant something very different by χιασμός from what we mean by chiasmus. At some later date, I'll discuss the ancient Greek meaning of χιασμός, but now I'll give a few examples of reflecting chiasmus in its modern sense from an ancient Greek text, Plato's Republic. Existing translations often obscure examples of chiasmus, and in what follows I've revised Paul Shorey's translation as necessary to show chiasmus (highlighted in italic font).

In reflecting chiasmus, the words reflected in reverse order are often either (1) opposites or contrasted pairs, or (2) synonyms or related pairs.

We see the opposite notions many and one in this example (4.423d):
The purport of all this was that the other citizens too must be sent to the task for which their natures were fitted, one man to one work, in order that each of them fulfilling his own function may be not many, but one, and so the entire city may come to be one, but not many.

τοῦτο δ’ ἐβούλετο δηλοῦν ὅτι καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους πολίτας, πρὸς ὅ τις πέφυκεν, πρὸς τοῦτο ἕνα πρὸς ἓν ἕκαστον ἔργον δεῖ κομίζειν, ὅπως ἂν ἓν τὸ αὑτοῦ ἐπιτηδεύων ἕκαστος μὴ πολλοὶ ἀλλ’ εἷς γίγνηται, καὶ οὕτω δὴ σύμπασα ἡ πόλις μία φύηται ἀλλὰ μὴ πολλαί.
Elsewhere in the Republic we see reflecting chiasmus with contrasted pairs at 1.332b (to lend / to return), 3.401a (grace / lack of grace), 3.413a (good / evil), 4.421d-e (wealth / poverty), 5.470b-c (another's / one's own), 5.470c (Greeks / barbarians), 5.476c-d (dream / wakefulness), 6.609d (intelligible / visible), 9.582a-b (lover of gain / lover of wisdom), 9.583e-584a (pleasurable / painful), and 10.598a (not to differ in reality / to appear different).

An example of chiasmus with synonyms or related pairs (to deem it worthy / to think it just) is 1.349b:
But how would he treat the unjust man—would he deem it worthy and think it just to outdo, overreach, or go beyond him, or would he not?

He would think it just and deem it worthy, he said, but he wouldn't be able to.

τοῦ δὲ ἀδίκου πότερον ἀξιοῖ ἂν πλεονεκτεῖν καὶ ἡγοῖτο δίκαιον εἶναι, ἢ οὐκ ἂν ἡγοῖτο;

ἡγοῖτ' ἄν, ἦ δ' ὅς, καὶ ἀξιοῖ, ἀλλ' οὐκ ἂν δύναιτο.
Elsewhere in the Republic we see reflecting chiasmus with related or synonymous pairs at 1.343c (the just / justice), 2.376b-c (loving learning / loving wisdom), 4.438c (what / of what sort), 5.461d-e (sisters / brothers), 5.465a-b (fear / respect), 5.470b (war / civil strife), 6.500c-d (divine / orderly), 7.538c-e (obedience / honor), and 9.576c (for the longest time / most).

To be continued.

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