“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.
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.
I’ve almost completed a new book that will explore the concept of chiasmus not only as a figure of speech but also, and more importantly, as a figure of thought. The book will show how the concept can be generalized beyond its literary meaning and that chiasmus, and the way it turns things around, is a powerful conceptual tool that enhances the poetics of perception.
Finally, for your contemplation, a progression of forms to suggest the contours, the topography, the crisscrossing . . . of chiasmus:
Propagating Light Wave