figures of opposition
figures of speech
groupings index

Opposition is a central component of rhetoric and occurs broadly across rhetorical theory, practice, and figures of speech and thought.

On the broadest levels, rhetoric has achieved its identity as a discipline in opposition to dialectic (Aristotle, Ramus) or to philosophy (Plato). From the time of its origin among the sophists in ancient Greece, rhetoric has embraced oppositions both philosophically and pragmatically. Protagoras (c. 485-410 BC) asserted that "to every logos (speech or argument) another logos is opposed," a theme continued in the Dissoi Logoi of his time, later codified as the notion of arguments in utrumque partes (on both sides). Aristotle asserted that thinking in opposites is necessary both to arrive at the true state of a matter (opposition as an epistemological heuristic) and to anticipate counterarguments. This latter, practical purpose for investigating opposing arguments has been central to rhetoric ever since sophists like Antiphon (c. 480-410 BC) provided model speeches (hisTetralogies) showing how one might argue for either the prosecution or for the defense on any given issue.

This pragmatic embrace of opposing arguments permeates rhetorical invention, arrangement, and rhetorical pedagogy:

Opposition in Invention
Among the general categories for finding arguments, or topics of invention, is one that considers opposing ideas, Contraries. The Special Topics of Invention, associated with each of the three Branches of Oratory are themselves set up as opposing pairs:

Judicial Oratory
Deliberative Oratory
Ceremonial Oratory
justice (right)
injustice (wrong)
the good
the unworthy

the advantageous
the disadvantageous
virtue (the noble)
vice (the base)

Opposition in Rhetorical Arrangement
Among the Canons of Rhetoric, Arrangement describes the parts and order of an oration. The heart of this arrangement is the pistis or confirmatio, where arguments are offered for one's case, which is followed by a section where one answers opposing arguments, the refutatio.

Opposition in Rhetorical Pedagogy
Students of rhetoric were early introduced to dealing with opposing arguments within the progymnasmata exercises, each of which prepared them for complete speeches. Some of these exercises map directly to the arrangement of a speech (narrating a fable, for example, correlated with the narratio or recounting of the facts in an oration); however, the exercise in refutation preceded that of confirmation in this graduated set of exercises, suggesting that at rudimentary stages facility in argumentation is best achieved by learning how to oppose another's arguments.

Opposition and the Virtues/Vices of Style
The virtues of style are qualitative, relative terms for describing style. These are not absolute terms, but achieve their meaning in opposing contrast to vices of style. For example, the stylistic virtue of "clarity" (perspicuitas) is opposed to the vices of ambiguity (ambiguitas, amphibologia) and obscurity (obscuritas).

Opposing Pairs of Figures
Similarly, many figures of speech are understood contrastively as opposing linguistic or argumentative strategies:

the absence of conjunctions
multiple conjunctions


Addition and Subtraction

Opposition perfectly illustrates the way that a strict distinction is not always made between figures of speech and figures of thought. Some terms, like contrarium or antithesis, have sometimes referred to both. Clearly, opposition is an essential tool both for constructing arguments (invention) and for stylistic expression.

  • antithesis
  • antitheton
  • contrarium

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Gideon O. Burton, Brigham Young University
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