Do no harm — an important litotes

Nosiree, I didn’t commit a typographical error in the title. A litotes* is a figure of speech, and a common one at that. It is, according to a Webster clone, an “understatement for effect”, especially when expressed by a negative to the contrary. In plainer words, you use a negative when you mean a positive.

An example: You say, “I have not a few regrets.” You mean, “I have many, many regrets.”

Another example: You say, “That’s not bad.” You mean, “That’s really good!”

A third example, and I’ll get to my point. You say, “He’s no dummy.” You mean, “He’s quite intelligent.”

The Bible uses litotes as well, as we might expect.

We know that when the angel says to Mary that “with God nothing will be impossible” (Lk. 1:37, NKJV), he means to say that with God all things are possible.

Paul calls his hometown of Tarsus “no insignificant city” (Acts 21:39, NASB), meaning quite an important city.

To the Galatians, Paul says, “You have not injured me at all” (4:12, NJKV), and he wanted them to understand, “You treated me very well.”

So this contrary understatement shows up not infrequently (oops! another litotes, there) in the Bible.

I suspect Romans 13:10 brings us another case.

“Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Paul had a reason for putting this in the negative. He has just cited several of the ten commandments, “Thou shalt not.” So Paul continues the idea of the negative when he sums up. But the studied apostle knows that the commandments just cited aren’t mere “don’t-do” orders. They go beyond the prohibition to give life to how one is to love neighbor as self.

So his “do-no-harm” affirmation is understatement. Between him and his readers, everybody understands that love does much more than refrain from injuring others.

There are plenty of people who will tell you God must like them because they don’t steal, murder, rape, or set fire to the neighbor’s yapping poodle. Aren’t they wonderful people? (Especially the last class.)

Love is a positive. Love not only does no harm to one’s neighbor, but actively promotes his good. Love searches for ways to serve, is on 24/7 guard duty for opportunities to do a fellow right. Love is good will in action.

But you didn’t need a litotes to tell you that, now did you?

*Most people pronounce it LIGHT-uh-tease.

Share your thoughts: