I. What is Chiasmus?
Chiasmus comes from a Greek word meaning “crossed,” and it refers to a grammatical structure that inverts a previous phrase. That is, you say one thing, and then you say something very similar, but flipped around.
Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty
Chiasmus usually occurs on the sentence level, but can also be found in much broader structures – that is, you might have a paragraph that talks about a town, a state, a country, and the world, then goes back down in reverse order at the end. However, these structures are much harder to see (and their rhetorical value is pretty debatable), so this article will focus only on chiasmus at the sentence level.
Chiasmus is also called chiasm or chiasmic structure.
II. Examples of Chiasmus
Live simply so that others might simply live. (Gandhi)
This quote is often attributed to Gandhi, though no one is exactly sure where it comes from. It uses a chiasmus to amplify its moral point, which is that people should not be too caught up in material gain and prosperity, but should live simply and dedicate themselves to helping those in need, those whose very survival may depend on our help.
Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (John F. Kennedy, 1961)
This line has survived for over half a century as one of the most memorable calls to patriotic sacrifice ever made by a US President. The chiasmus in its structure may help to account for its staying power.
III. The Importance of Chiasmus
The chiasmus creates a highly symmetrical structure, and gives the impression of completeness. We seem to have “come full circle,” so to speak, and the sentence (or paragraph, etc.) seems to tie up all the loose ends. This is, of course, largely an illusion! A chiasmus can easily leave out extremely important details or considerations that make a big difference to the author’s point. But in rhetoric, what matters is the audience’s perception, and chiasmus is a great way to make readers perceive your writing as more complete.
In addition, chiasmus often uses parallelism, one of the most important structures in all of rhetoric. Parallelism is extremely effective because our brains process it much more quickly. After the brain processes that first phrase, it has already “practiced” dealing with that grammatical structure. So when it sees a second phrase with the same grammatical structure, the processing is much more efficient. Sentences with parallelism are often perceived as more memorable, humorous, and persuasive than those without parallelism, probably due to this feature of the reader’s brain.
IV. Examples of Chiasmus in Literature and Philosophy
In the pre-capitalist stages of society, commerce rules industry. In capitalist society, industry rules commerce. (Karl Marx, Das Capital)
Karl Marx loved the chiasmus. His books are full of sentences written with this structure, and they’re often pretty confusing. In this case, he’s saying that the production of goods (industry) was once dependent on the needs of shops and buyers (commerce), and thus that the goods produced were primarily valued for their usefulness. In a capitalist society, on the other hand, goods are produced as commodities, and their sale price is more important than their use-value; thus, industry becomes the dominant force and commerce adjusts to its needs instead of the other way around.
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27)
In this passage, Jesus is reminding his followers that religious practices and rituals are important, but not as important as human characteristics like love, charity, and compassion. Although religious law matters, in Jesus’s view it matters far less than being a good person. His chiasmic sentence encapsulates this point quite elegantly.
All for one and one for all! (The Three Musketeers)
This very simple chiasmus has become a popular slogan with movements, organizations, and even sports teams.
V. Examples of Chiasmus in Pop Culture
The Russian Reversal is a type of joke that was very popular during the Cold War, and still influences pop culture today. Often associated with the comedian Yakov Smirnoff, this joke involves flipping the subject and object around to create a simple chiasmus. For example: “In America, you can always find party. In Soviet Russia, Party always finds you!” (Referring, of course, to the Communist Party rather than a celebration.)
The things you own end up owning you. (Tyler Durden, Fight Club)
This iconic line sums up the anti-consumerist morality espoused by Tyler Durden in Fight Club. The presence of a chiasmus, in combination with the anti-consumerism, makes the line strongly reminiscent of Karl Marx’s philosophy, and many people have seen Tyler Durden as, among other things, a symbol for an updated version of Marxism.
You can take the tiger out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the tiger. (Hobbes, Calvin & Hobbes)
This is Hobbes’ gleeful explanation for why he’s always pouncing on Calvin at random moments. No matter where a tiger goes, it’s still wild at heart. Calvin’s sardonic response is: “But how can you get the tiger back in the jungle?”
VI. Related Terms
In general, chiasmus is a form of parallelism – that is, the two parts of the chiasmus use the same sequence of parts of speech in the same order. To go back to our first example:
Don’t sweat the petty things
Don’t pet the sweaty things
Structure: Don’t [verb] the [adjective] things
Notice that the Gandhi quote from Section 2 is an example of a chiasmus without strict parallelism – can you see why?
Antithesis is also a two-part structure, and it can look very similar to a chiasmus. But there’s one very important difference: in a chiasmus, the order or relation of the ideas is inverted; in an antithesis, the ideas are replaced with their opposites. Here are a few examples of antithesis:
- “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
- “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”
Notice that the underlined terms are actually replaced, rather than just being switched around as they would be in a chiasmus. A small step is the opposite of a giant leap; human is the opposite of divine, etc. If the examples were chiasmic instead, they would read:
- “That’s one small step for a man, and one man for a small step.”
- To err is human; to be human is to err.”
Often, a chiasmus juxtaposes two images. The Gandhi quote from Section 2 is a good example. In this quotation, one image is of “living simply” – that is, choosing to live a modest, humble life without too many frills or material possessions. The other image is of a person “simply living,” i.e. surviving in poverty without much opportunity for prosperity or wealth. When these two images are juxtaposed, it creates a powerful moral image. It forces us to come to terms with the question of whether our wealth and prosperity has been bought at the expense of impoverished people all over the world, and in our own cities and towns.