Rhetoric & Homiletics: The Topoi Of Opposites


aristotle bustMuch has been previous presented about this “thought-generating” classical rhetorical concept.  It is one of the most important concepts in classical rhetorical theory, though virtually undiscussed and explained in the field of homiletics!

Aristotle discussed the concept of “topoi” (Greek for “places”) as a means for “discovering” or mentally instigating ways to develop a speech.  There were “places” that the mind could go to develop “the argument.”

Aristotle’s “topoi” are instructional, not comprehensive.  There are more topoi than delineated by him.  As you begin to understand the concept, an analytical listener will recognize how emergent they are.  Both those delineated by Aristotle, and many others, begin suddenly appearing as one listens to political, social, commercial, judicial, and religious speech.

It is like the purchase of a new car.  All of a sudden, you begin noticing how many others are driving the same vehicle!  Likewise, once a “topos” is understood, its use and usefulness continue to appear and reappear.

The topoi are natural categories of thought.  If I were to make the point . . . .

Knowing that there is a God, that His name is Jehovah, and the God of the Bible, is necessary, but it is not sufficient to be a Christian.

. . . we would agree with the statement.  However, the topos of “necessary, and but not sufficient” is a category of thought that operates in the human experience and thinking processes of life.  It may be stated differently at times,  — “You need to know that, but you need to know more than that.” — but it is a natural category of thought, part of our logic, which applies to all areas of life, beyond the religious — Medically: Being infected with HIV is necessary to develop Aids, but it is not sufficient.  Ask Magic Johnson about that reality.

Topoi are based on . . . .

  • the nature of a thing
  • value of something
  • what causes things to happen
  • what courses of action can be taken to alleviating a problem
  • the way something is defined
  • how people view things
  • the way relationships should operate
  • the way problems should be handled
  • what is and is not acceptable behavior
  • how one ought to respond
  • how position and status operate in a culture
  • etc.

The Topos Of Opposites:

This topos has some similarity to the topos of “what it is not.”  However, “opposites” are not the same as “nots.”  While “opposites” are different, and therefore “not” (since something cannot be what it is and what it is not at the same time in the same sense), an “opposite” is . . .  as different as possible.

All opposites are “nots,” but not all “nots” are opposites.

What It Is Not: Being loquacious is not the same as being guarded, reserved, or prudent.

Opposites: Being loquacious is the opposite of being quiet or silent.


What It Is Not: What is your “calling.”  Not what is your career, but what has the Lord called you to be doing in your career, or in your leisure, in your family, in your neighborhood, in your friendships.

Opposites: Your career is what you do to make a living.  That is what you do to pay your bills.  The opposite is what you do when making a living is unimportant.  If you are not careful, you will look at other parts of life the same way as your career — always seeking to help the bottom line, part of your livelihood.

Don’t approach the opportunities God has given you — the people he has placed into your life — those who fellowship with you in the church — your friends — your wife and/or family — as part of making a living, as your livelihood.


Now you can further break down the topos of “opposites” by the following categories of being . . . . 

Volitional:  You can either resist what God says, or you can cooperate with His revealed will.

Mental: It is either His thinking that is guiding your life, or your thoughts are making the decisions.

Emotional:  You can either respond with mourning or with joy.
Your choice, respond as an epicurean or as a stoic.

Socially: You will have to decide whether you will go with the group or stand up individually.

Spiritually: It is saved or lost.  There is nothing in between when it comes to our eternity.  

Physically: There will be those who have health of body and others who deal with chronic sickness.

Applying Topoi:

What do you do with these “topoi?”  As you work on a message, you run your mind through these categories of thought.  They have the potential of developing thoughtful content for your message. The topoi are “brainstorming helps” that can excite your mind to go directions that were not previously considered.

Sermonic Example:  Let me throw in a simple sermonic example which I heard this morning as I was taking my daily walk.  This familiar rhetorical car showed up . . . .

“If you as a husband are not excited about that truth, I can tell you that your wife is (or relatives are).  She knows that you need this in your life.  You may not see the need for this truth to change the way you think and behave, but your wife knows that it would turn around the direction of the head of that family! 


Other Examples of Opposites:

Common Sense vs. Philosophical

Fantasy vs. Reality / Reality verses Pollyanna / Reality vs. Illusion

i.e. Suffering is real.  Pain is real.  There are epereinces i nlife which hurt and hurt deeply.  Don’t believe those like the Christian Scientist, [ as taught by Mary Baker Eddy, Glover, Paterson, White (married three times — her first husband died of yellow fever, and her second marriage ended in divorce, and she then married Asa Eddy who later died ] that pain is merely an illusion.


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