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Updated Jun 12, 2023

Understanding the Rhetorical Device of Contrarium


In the realm of rhetoric, speakers and writers often employ various techniques to enhance their persuasive abilities. One such technique is the use of rhetorical devices, which are linguistic tools that add depth and impact to communication. One such powerful device is the "contrarium," which involves presenting contrasting ideas or elements within a discourse. In this article, we will explore the concept of contrarium, explain its significance, and provide accurate examples to help you grasp its usage and effectiveness.

What is Contrarium?

The term "contrarium" is derived from the Latin word "contrarius," meaning "opposite" or "contrary." In rhetoric, contrarium refers to the deliberate use of contrasting elements or ideas within a text or speech. It involves presenting opposing viewpoints, concepts, or perspectives to highlight a stark contrast, emphasize a point, or create a memorable impact on the audience.

Contrarium serves as a powerful device to evoke emotions, engage the audience, and reinforce arguments by juxtaposing contradictory elements. By exposing the dichotomy between opposing ideas, contrarium can effectively persuade and influence listeners or readers.

Examples of Contrarium

To better understand how contrarium functions in rhetoric, let's explore a few examples from famous speeches and literary works:

  1. Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities": "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..."

    Here, Dickens employs contrarium to emphasize the stark contrast between the best and worst of times, wisdom and foolishness, highlighting the turbulent nature of the era in which the story takes place.

  2. John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address (1961): "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

    Kennedy's famous line exemplifies contrarium by contrasting the self-centered desire for personal gain with the altruistic duty to contribute to the welfare of one's country. This rhetorical device prompts the audience to reconsider their priorities and inspires a sense of national unity.

  3. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech: "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."

    In this memorable line, King employs contrarium to underscore the choice between unity and division. By juxtaposing living together as brothers and perishing together as fools, he urges the audience to embrace unity and equality, and reject the path of ignorance and division.

Importance and Impact of Contrarium

Contrarium holds significant importance in rhetorical discourse due to its ability to captivate an audience, evoke emotions, and reinforce arguments. By presenting opposing viewpoints or contrasting elements, speakers and writers can effectively highlight the significance of their main ideas, make their arguments more memorable, and engage their audience on a deeper level.

The use of contrarium adds a layer of complexity to communication, encouraging critical thinking and inviting the audience to reflect on the presented contrasts. This rhetorical device not only makes a message more impactful but also facilitates a deeper understanding and appreciation of the subject matter.


Rhetorical devices, such as contrarium, play a crucial role in persuasive communication. By incorporating contrasting elements or ideas, speakers and writers can effectively emphasize their points, engage their audience, and leave a lasting impact. Contrarium's ability to juxtapose opposing concepts allows for a richer, more memorable discourse that encourages critical thinking and reflection.

Whether employed in famous speeches or revered literary works, contrarium serves as a powerful tool that compels listeners and readers to consider the dichotomy of ideas and make meaning out of contrasting elements. So, the next time you encounter a persuasive piece of writing or a thought-provoking speech, pay attention to the artful use of contrarium, and appreciate the impact it has on shaping our understanding and beliefs.

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