Masters of Chiasmus: Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

This month we look at chiasmus in the life and works of Winston Churchill, one of the most charismatic and influential leaders in world history. If you enjoy this feature, please let me know what you like about it, and why. If I fail to include an essential quote, or err in some way, let me know that as well. Your comments will make this a better site for other visitors in the future.

Winston Churchill possessed such impressive oratorical skills that historian Arnold Toynbee believed his wartime speeches were absolutely essential to the Allied victory in WWII. During the darkest days of the war, Churchill's words, so expertly crafted, so superbly delivered, buoyed the spirits and restored the resilience of the beleaguered English people. When the U. S. Congress voted to confer honorary American citizenship on Churchill in 1963, President Kennedy said, "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle."

Given his love of language and linguistic skill, it's not surprising to discover that Churchill was fond of chiasmus. In fact, no other political leader rivals him in the use of the technique (JFK comes in a very distant second). I'll present thirty of them here, selected from his speeches, writings, parliamentary debates, and everyday conversation.

“Now this is not the end.
It is not even the beginning of the end.
But it is, perhaps,
the end of the beginning.”

Churchill delivered these famous words in a 1942 speech at London's Mansion House, just after the British routed Rommel's forces at Alamein, driving German troops out of Egypt. The battle marked a turning point in the war, leading Churchill to write in his memoirs, "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat."

Churchill may have borrowed the first part of the expression from Talleyrand, who said, "It is the beginning of the end" after losing a battle in Napoleon's 1812 Russian campaign. There is also evidence that the entire thought was in Churchill's mind decades before WWII. British writer John Campbell reported Churchill saying virtually the same thing about the Battle of the Marne in 1914. According to Campbell, Churchill "remembered and tucked [it] away for use again twenty-seven years later."

“Our defeats are but stepping-stones to victory,
and his victories are but stepping-stones to ruin.”

From a World War II speech, Churchill is referring to Hitler in this well-known observation.

“All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol
than alcohol has taken out of me.”

I've found a number of versions of this quote, and I'm sure Churchill expressed the sentiment in different ways on different occasions—especially when someone made a critical comment about his legendary fondness for liquor. One other popular version begins with the words, "Always remember that I have … ." and the following was reported to be his response when offered a drink at a Washington, DC banquet during WWII: "I accept it for many reasons. One, because I am thirsty, and another, because I have gotten more out of alcohol in the course of my life than alcohol has gotten out of me!"

Many stories about Churchill's imbibing are told and re-told. The most popular has to do with a lady (in some versions, Lady Astor, in others Bessie Braddock) who approached a tipsy Sir Winston at a party and announced indignantly, "Mr. Churchill, you are drunk." "Yes I am," replied Churchill, "And you, madam are ugly. But I shall be sober tomorrow."

“We shape our dwellings,
and afterwards our dwellings shape us.”

This intriguing observation comes from a speech Churchill made in the House of Commons on October 28, 1944. Churchill made the speech during the rebuilding of the House of Commons, which had sustained heavy bombing damage during the Battle of Britain. A 1960 Time magazine article provided a slightly different version (it's also possible Churchill said it in different ways on separate occasions): "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." Embedded in the observation is a profound architectural truth that applies to all buildings, public and private. In the beginning, buildings reflect the qualities of the people who design and construct them. Once built, the people who live and work in them take on the qualities of the buildings they inhabit.

“An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity;
a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.”

I've had this quote in my collection for many years and don't recall where it originally came from. To my mind, it captures the nature of a man who experienced a number of calamities in his lifetime, and made opportunities out of each and every one of them. The observation has been attributed to a number of other people, and I'm not sure if the quote is original with Churchill or whether he was simply repeating a popular saying.

Winston Churchill

“All babies look like me.
But then, I look like all babies.”

The irrepressible Churchill apparently said this in response to a friend who remarked, "Winston! How wonderfully your new grandson resembles you!"

“What you should have done is
to have put your speech into the fire.”

Regarded by his contemporaries as a great orator, many people sought Churchill's advice about speechmaking. One day, a young member of Parliament asked, "Mr. Churchill, You heard my talk yesterday. Can you tell me how I could have put more fire in my speech?" It was a rare opportunity, and Churchill forged a perfect chiastic reply by reversing the man's words. It's probable that the inspiration for Churchill's response was a line from Charles Caleb Colton's 1820 book, Lacon: "In good truth, we should have a glorious conflagration, if all who cannot put fire into their works, would only consent to put their works into the fire."

“I am ready to meet my Maker.
Whether my Maker is prepared
for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

Often wrongly cited as his last words, Churchill said this on his 75th birthday on November 30, 1950, in response to a reporter who asked him if he had any fear of death. Churchill was in rare form that day. When the press arrived, one awestruck photographer said to him, "I hope, sir, that I will shoot your picture on your hundredth birthday." Churchill looked the young man over and, to the great amusement of those assembled, replied, "I don't see why not, young man. You look reasonably fit and healthy."

“No more let us alter or falter or palter
From Malta to Yalta, and Yalta to Malta.”

This couplet is interesting because it is Churchill's one and only attempt at poetry. In A Churchill Reader, Colin R. Coote describes it as Churchill's "only indulgence in verse of any kind." Coote adds, "Not a single poem has ever been attributed to him; and that is strange in one with so deep a sense of rhythm … It is queer that one with such a fine taste in words should not have tried his hand at serious verse."

Churchill said in The Second World War, Vol. VI that he wrote the couplet "for private use" after sending the following message to FDR in January, 1945 about the upcoming Big Three conference in Yalta: "We shall be delighted if you will come to Malta. I shall be awaiting on the quay. Everything can be arranged to your convenience. No more let us falter! From Malta to Yalta! Let nobody alter!" Churchill had invited Roosevelt to a preliminary meeting in Yalta before their scheduled meeting with Stalin, but FDR declined the invitation, fearing Stalin would be suspicious about a pre-conference deal that excluded the Russians.

Winston Churchill

“Au clair de la lune!
Si vous bombardez nous—
nous bombardez vous!”

In the 1960 book Irrepressible Churchill, K. Halle reports that Churchill was overheard saying this at a dinner meeting with August Nogues, the President General of Morocco, who Churchill suspected of having Nazi sympathies. Translated, it goes, "By the light of the moon! If you bombard us—we bombard you!" Churchill spoke a heavily Anglicized version of French that so bothered some people they felt compelled to correct him (feedback he usually took with good humor). He once quipped to Anthony Eden, "Will you please stop translating my French into French!" His most memorable French faux pas came when he said in a Paris speech: Quand je considère mon derrière, je constate qu'il est divisé en deuz parties égales. What he meant to say was, "When I consider what is behind me…" but in fact said, "When I consider my behind, I can state that it is divided into two equal parts."

“He has to conceal what he
would most wish to make public,
and make public what he
would most wish to conceal.”

This quote comes from The Memoirs of Anthony Eden. In it, Churchill characterizes the dilemma of a Foreign Secretary, who is not a free agent when it comes to disclosure and deception. The observation brings to mind Churchill's most famous remark about truth in wartime, which he said Stalin "greatly appreciated" when he shared it with him in 1943: "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."

“Instead of making his violent speech
without moving his moderate amendment,
he had better have moved his moderate amendment
without making his violent speech.”

I was delighted to discover that Churchill's first official words in Parliament included this chiastic put-down of prime minister David Lloyd George. Behind the quote lies an interesting story, which Churchill describes in his 1930 book, A Roving Commission: My Early Life. Churchill says he was extremely nervous as he prepared to make his first speech in the House of Commons in 1901. His turn to talk came after a highly animated speech by Lloyd George. Churchill expected the prime minister to make a motion regarding a particular amendment, and was surprised—and totally unprepared—when he didn't. When it was his turn to speak, the nervous young Churchill could think of nothing to say. He confided later, "A sense of alarm and even despair crept across me." At that moment, in a hushed whisper, a fellow MP by the name of Bowles suggested the foregoing remark to Churchill. Here's how Sir Winston finished the story, metaphorically describing his enormous sense of relief: "I was up before I knew it, and reciting Tommy Bowles's rescuing sentence. It won a general cheer … . I could already see the shore … I could scramble up the beach, breathless physically, dripping metaphorically, but safe… . The usual restoratives were applied and I sat in a comfortable coma till I was strong enough to go home."

“The old wars were decided by their episodes
rather than by their tendencies.
In this war, the tendencies are
far more important than the episodes.”

From a 1915 House of Commons speech, Churchill is referring to World War I—the first great "modern" war—in which ultimate victory didn't hinge on one or two great battles, as was true in the past, but on the cumulative effect of a multitude of forces, patterns, and developments.

“In finance everything that is agreeable is unsound
and everything that is sound is disagreeable.”

The point of this remark is that, in financial affairs, what feels good is often bad to do, and vice versa. Churchill's observation is similar to the advice many financial advisors give their clients, which goes something like this: "Free spending feels good in the short term, but is ultimately unwise; while financial discipline is the wise course ultimately, even though it generally doesn't feel so good while you're doing it."

“The whole history of the world
is summed up in the fact that,
when nations are strong,
they are not always just,
and when they wish to be just,
they are no longer strong.”

Churchill was a student of history and this observation reflects his belief that strong nations have historically believed they can force their will on others; and, further, that when nations argue for justice and fair treatment, it's usually because they're not—or are no longer—mighty powers.

“Solvency is valueless without security,
and security is impossible to achieve without solvency.”

Churchill believed that financial solvency and military security were indispensable to the well-being of a nation, and this is his way of saying that one can't exist without the other, offered in a 1953 speech in the House of Commons.

Winston Churchill

“I hope I shall never see the day
when the Force of Right
is deprived of the Right of Force.”

Here, Churchill expresses his conviction that being right is not sufficient; one must also have the might to back it up. A summary of his philosophy—also expressed chiastically—might go this way: "Right needs to be supported by Might, and Might needs to be guided by Right."

“Those who can win a war well
can rarely make a good peace,
and those who could make a good peace
would never have won the war.”

Also from A Roving Commission, this thought may be regarded as an extension of the two previous quotes, and suggests that nations tend to be either good at making war or good at keeping the peace, but not both.

“The first duty of a university
is to teach wisdom, not a trade;
character, not technicalities.
We want a lot of engineers in the modern world,
but we do not want a world of engineers.”

Churchill valued scientific and technical expertise but believed it had to be balanced by people well-grounded in history, philosophy, literature, and the arts. This quote comes from a 1950 address at the University of Copenhagen. He issued a very similar warning against an over-reliance on technically-educated people two years earlier in a 1948 speech in Oslo, Norway: "Young people at universities study to achieve knowledge and not to learn a trade. We must all learn how to support ourselves, but we must also learn how to live. We need a lot of engineers in the modern world, but we do not want a world of modern engineers."

“Elections exist for the sake of the House of Commons
and not
the House of Commons for the sake of elections.”

This comment came during a 1953 House of Commons debate on whether or not to change the way parliamentary elections were conducted in England. Churchill believed that a government with a small majority should be allowed to run its natural course, arguing that a proposed law to mandate annual elections would turn the House of Commons into a "vote-catching machine looking for a springboard."

“In Great Britain,
governments often change their policies
without changing their men.
In France, they usually change their men
without changing their policy.”

Churchill loved to compare the French and the English, with the English predictably faring better in his assessments. His point here, offered in the 1939 book Step by Step, is that England was capable of changing its policies without a new government coming into power, while even a new French government would continue to implement the policies of the past. He added an additional chiastic comparison a moment later: "The British are good at paying taxes but detest drill. The French do not mind drill but avoid taxes."

“It is very much better …
to have a panic feeling beforehand,
and then be quite calm when things happen,
than to be extremely calm beforehand
and go into panic when things happen.”

From a 1935 debate in the House of Commons, Churchill said this in response to Stanley Baldwin, who had asked him not to panic over a matter they were debating.

“They have done what they like.
Their difficulty is to like what they have done.”

From a 1936 letter, Churchill is referring to the short-sighted policies adopted by the French government in the decades after WWI. Here's the complete passage, from which this chiastic observation was taken: "For good or for ill the French people have been effective masters in their own house, and have built as they chose upon the ruins of the old régime. They have done what they like. Their difficulty is to like what they have done."

“You were given the choice between war and dishonor.
You chose dishonor and you will have war.”

Churchill made this prophetic pronouncement in a House of Commons speech in 1938, just after prime minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement with Hitler. Chamberlain returned from Germany with the signed agreement in hand, proclaiming that "peace in our time" had been achieved. Churchill attacked Chamberlain's "politics of appeasement" in this and many other speeches.

“I cannot help reflecting that if
my father had been an American
and my mother British,
instead of the other way around,
I might have gotten here on my own.”

This quote illustrates how expressions like vice versa and "the other way around" are simply shorthand ways of expressing chiasmus. (For more information, click here). Churchill's point is that, had things been reversed, he might have been elected to Congress rather than invited there as a guest. Churchill's mother was an American citizen and, as a result, Churchill always had a special fondness for America (and, of course, Americans always had a special fondness for him). He delivered the remark in a famous December 16, 1941 speech to Congress, which was broadcast by radio to an audience of many millions.

“All for Al,
and Al for All.”

Churchill demonstrates a facility for political sloganeering with this belated suggestion for Al Smith, the former governor of New York, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1928. Here's how Churchill described the matter a couple decades later, when he gave a speech at an Al Smith memorial event in New York City in 1947: "I had followed Al Smith's contest for the Presidency with keen interest and sympathy. I was in the fullest agreement with his attitude on prohibition. I even suggested to him a slogan—'All for Al and Al for All.'"

“Socialism would gather all power to
the supreme party and party leaders,
rising like stately pinnacles
above their vast bureaucracies of
civil servants no longer servants, no longer civil.”

Churchill was an ardent foe of socialism, and this observation comes from a 1946 speech in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, socialism isn't unique when it comes to producing civil servants who are neither servants nor civil, as many people have discovered when they renew their licenses at the Department of Motor Vehicles, try to settle a mistaken tax bill with city hall employees, or are "greeted" by sullen security guards in government buildings. Churchill's entire life was devoted to slowing the steady growth of socialist concepts in English society. His two most famous quotes on the subject are worth recalling, even though they are not chiastic:

“It is a socialist idea that making profits is a vice; I consider the real vice is making losses.”
“The inherent vice of Capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”
Winston Churchill

“In both our lands, it is the
people who control the Government,
not the Government the people.”

After WWII, Churchill became a strong spokesman against the repressive regimes he saw springing up behind what he called the "Iron Curtain." This remark comes from a 1948 speech in Oslo, Norway. He concluded the remark by adding: "That is the great dividing line between the States of the present day and it is just this point that is the cause of so much trouble in the modern world."

“The tank was originally invented to clear a way for
the infantry in the teeth of machine-gun fire.
Now it is the infantry who
will have to clear a way for the tanks.”

This observation, from Volume IV in Churchill's The Second World War, describes how the advent of anti-tank weaponry in the late 1930s changed the way tanks were deployed from WWI to WWII.

“Some men change their party
for the sake of their principles;
others their principles
for the sake of their party.”

Even Churchill supporters will forgive Churchill for the mild hypocrisy contained in this quote. Churchill changed parties twice early in his career, first from a conservative Tory to a liberal Whig, and a few years later back from a Whig to a Tory. Both times, he said he was motivated by principle, but many observers—and all of his opponents—saw him motivated as much by political opportunism.

Just as Churchill used chiasmus to express his thoughts and ideas, others have used chiasmus to describe Churchill. Here are two examples from the English writer Colin R. Foote, in his A Churchill Reader (1954).

“Sir Winston's great war speeches …
have the quite unusual quality
of reading as well as they sounded …
Similarly his writings, if you speak them aloud,
sound as well as they read.”
“Much of what has been said about him as a writer
applies to him as an orator.
That must, of course, follow from a habit of
writing speeches and of speaking writings.”

This completes our look at Winston Churchill. In our next edition, we'll take a look at another chiastic master, John F. Kennedy. If I were to list the most memorable chiastic quotes in world history, JFK's immortal "Ask not what your country can do for you" line would have to be included in the top five. While that is his most famous creation, JFK was responsible for many other wonderful chiastic constructions as well.


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