“Ask not what your country can do for you,
ask what you can do for your country.”
That sentence, spoken by President John Kennedy in a famous speech, is a good example of chiasmus, a rhetorical figure that reverses the terms of the two clauses that make up a sentence, or a part of a sentence.
Chiasmus is thus a linguistic twist or turn that you can use to express a crosswise mode of thought. Chiasmus (ky-AZ-mus) means “a crossing,” from the Greek letter chi, X, a cross. You “cross” the terms of one clause by reversing their order in the next.
Two of my favorite thinkers, Zen Master Dogen and Alfred North Whitehead, were very fond of this figure and it enjoys pervasive expression in their writings.
If Dogen and Whitehead found it necessary to use the rhetorical figure of chiasmus, over and over again, to express some of their insights—this made me stop and wonder whether the form of chiasmus might be related to some crosswise forms found in the structure of reality. A browse of the Internet then revealed that chiasm is the name of an X-shaped structure in the hypothalamus where the optic nerves intersect or “cross” . . . and, in the science of genetics, there is a crossing-over process, also called chiasm, in biological cell division.
Furthermore, the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty uses chiasm as a technical term to refer to a reversibility whereby we humans, by means of our bodies, our flesh, can both see and be seen, listen and be heard, touch and be touched.
As the many examples in my essays will show, chiasmic structures range from simplicity itself to marvels of complexity and beauty. Such a range, and the extensive use chiasmus enjoys, suggest that chiasmus is not only a figure of speech but also, and more importantly, a figure of thought.1
As theologian John Breck puts it: “The ubiquity of chiasmus suggests that the human mind itself ‘thinks’ in terms of concentric parallelism. Chiasms may in fact be what structuralists call ‘deep structures.’ Like historical narrative and certain forms of myth, the literary form itself may be inscribed in the human brain. In other words, whether we realize it or not, we all tend to think chiasmically. We express meaning from beginning to end, from A to Z; but we also express meaning in terms of the concentric parallelism that constitutes the particular rhetorical form known as chiasmus.”2
The Greek letter chi ( χ ), the initial letter of chiasmus, is my symbol for chiasmic structures, or crosswise modes of thinking and expression. A famous line from “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” a poem by John Keats, can be represented as:
beauty is truth
truth [is] beauty
Matthew 19:30 states a simple chiasmus: “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.”
first shall be last
last shall be first
Indeed, the Bible is chock-full of chiasmic structures of varying degrees of complexity. For example, take note of the structure of 1 John 4:7-8:
Beloved, let us love one another.
A For love is of God
B and whoever loves is born of God and knows God
B He who does not love has not known God
A for God is love.
And from the book of Amos:
A Seek ye me, and ye shall live.
B But seek not after Bethel,
C Nor enter into Gilgal,
D And pass not to Beer-sheba:
C' For Gilgal shall surely go into captivity,
B' And Bethel shall come to naught.
A' Seek Yahweh, and ye shall live.
If you compare the first and last lines, and so on, you will see that the italicized words reflect parallel correspondences in this A-B-C-D-C'-B'-A' chiasmus. A and A' are what may be called “thought-rhymes,” as are B and B', and C and C'.
Some chiasmic structures in the Bible are marvels of complexity. The Gospel of John is a good example. Not only are there, throughout John’s Gospel, many chiasmic units nested one within the other, but the book itself, as a whole, is a complex interlocking chiasmus that goes so far beyond the ordinary sense of chiasmus that it must be called a meta-chiasmus. To read more about this, please see my essay, A Miracle of Composition.
1. Another way that chiasmus transcends the merely rhetorical can be seen in Shakespeare’s plays where chiasmus, as a dramatic figure, traces an X-shaped pattern of rising and falling action, or arc of character. Hal and Hotspur, in I King Henry IV, present a clear example of this. At the beginning of the play, Prince Hal starts off at the bottom, as it were, only to rise to the top by the play’s end, whereas Hotspur does just the opposite.
Hal χ Hotspur
2. John Breck, Scripture in Tradition, p. 94.
The two chi graphics, the one at the top of this page, and the one immediately above, were created by my friend Ben Udell.