What is Paradox? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Paradox Definition


From Middle French via the Latin paradoxum, meaning “a seemingly absurd yet true statement,” paradox (PAIR-uh-docks) is a figure of speech that seems to contradicts itself but, upon deeper probing, contains some universal insight. One could say it’s a statement so incorrect that it becomes intensely true. A famous example of a paradox is the Socrates quote “I know only one thing: that I know nothing.”

Note that this definition corresponds to literary paradox. There are also logical paradoxes, which are the opposite of literary paradoxes. A logical paradox is a statement that appears logical but is ultimately an unsolvable problem. One example is the sentence “This statement is false.” It sounds perfectly normal to the ear, but upon further consideration, it falls apart. If the statement is telling the truth, then how can it be false—and how can a statement that claims to be false be true? Logical paradoxes like this can’t be resolved.


Testing Paradoxes


To determine if something is a paradox, you must ask two questions: 1) Does the statement contradict itself? and 2) Is there a seed of truth to it? Here are some examples:

  • “Humility is something to be proud of.” This statement contains a contradiction; how can someone who is humble be proud? Pride and humility are opposites. But, is there a seed of truth to this statement? Yes. Humility is a virtue, and confidence in your positive traits is an indicator of healthy self-esteem. Thus, this is a paradox.
  • “Sickness is a way to become well.” Does the statement seem to contradict itself? Yes; wellness is the absence of sickness, so one can’t be sick and well at the same time. But, when one is faced with any type of illness, they begin to take better care of their health. Therefore, this statement is a paradox.
  • “Compliments can be harmful.” Unlike the other examples, this statement doesn’t contradict itself because a compliment isn’t considered something that heals or repels harm. But it does contain a seed of truth because an excess of compliments can lead to an inflation of ego.


The Effect of a Paradox


Paradox isn’t the easiest concept to wrap one’s head around, which is why it’s often the right tool for conveying another complex concept. Writers can use paradox to prove that a long-held truism is too simple to be relevant. Similarly, they can use a paradox to shine a spotlight on some hypocrisy or great injustice in the world by proving its prevalence. Paradoxes can also slow down the reader or even set them up for a surprise twist. This device can also be used simply for charm or humor.


Paradox and Other Literary Devices


Paradox vs. Antithesis

Antithesis is a type of parallel structure that juxtaposes two unlike or opposite entities for effect. A popular example is Neil Armstrong’s moon-stepping quote, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It’s a fairly straightforward comparison with an accessible meaning—“This is important.” A paradoxical version of the quote might read something like, “The distance covered by this enormous stride is minute.”

Paradox vs. Oxymoron

An oxymoron is much closer to paradox. In fact, it’s a compact version of it, as an oxymoron is a seemingly contradictory two-word phrase that contains a seed of truth. When, in Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” she is expressing complex human feelings. The affection and intimacy of saying goodbye to someone you love is sweet; leaving them (especially when you don’t know when you’ll meet again) is sorrowful.

Paradox vs. Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is akin to sarcasm: you say something contrary to the way you feel to make some kind of impact, often a humorous one. Someone who remarks, “It could use a little salt” when eating very salty soup is using verbal irony. The main difference between verbal irony and paradox is that paradox is an apparently contradictory statement spoken sincerely, whereas verbal irony is an untrue statement spoken for effect.


Paradox’s Role in Riddles


Riddles are often apparent paradoxes that use wordplay to prove themselves to be straightforward true statements. Here is a popular riddle: “A man arrives at an inn on Friday and stays two nights, leaving on Friday. How is this possible?” The answer is that the man was riding a horse named Friday.

Some riddles are designed to be unsolvable paradoxes. One way that Zen Buddhists teach their students to focus and access their subconscious is by asking koans, riddles that don’t conform to everyday logic. They’re exercises to wear out the ego and analytical impulse to give way to the higher self. The most famous is the koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, which is attributed to 18th-century Japanese monk Hakuin Ekaku. Merriam-Webster’s definition of clap is “to strike (two things, such as two flat, hard surfaces) together so as to produce a sharp percussive noise.” Therefore, it seems impossible that a hand could clap on its own. The consciousness recognizes that it’s unsolvable, but it’s still a compelling thought exercise.


Examples of Paradox in Literature


1. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

In a famous scene, Don Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza overhears a nearby conflict. Judges are listening to the case of a bridge owner who proclaims that anyone seeking passage must state their destination, and all who tell the truth may cross safely while anyone who lies will be hanged. However, the latest traveler tells the owner that he is going to be hanged. This creates a paradox, as judges can’t decide whether to let the traveler pass unharmed—which would mean he lied about being hanged and therefore would need to be hanged—or to hang him—which would mean he was telling the truth and shouldn’t have been hanged.

2. Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

A celebration of nonsense, this children’s classic is rife with riddles and other assorted absurdity.

Halfway through a tea party, the March Hare asks Alice whether she would like more tea. She remarks that she hasn’t had any yet, so it would be paradoxical to say that she would be having more tea. To this, the Hatter retorts, “You mean you can’t take less. […] it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

3. Ralph Waldo Ellison, The Invisible Man

Ellison’s modernist criticism of racial injustice deals with the theme of being forced to adhere to a nonsensical existence in order to survive.

When the protagonist is invited to take on a leadership role in a radical anti-racism group called the Brotherhood, the position is described as follows: “You will have freedom of action—and you will be under strict discipline to the committee.” This statement, and by extension the goals of the group, is a paradox.

4. William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

In this comedy, Shylock famously demands a pound of flesh from Antonio, the play’s titular hero. In Act 4, Scene 1, the Duke, whose job it is to uphold the law, says to Shylock:

To the last hour of act, and then ’tis thought
Thou’lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange
Than is thy strange apparent cruelty.

The Duke is calling Shylock’s bluff, saying no one believes he will try to take the pound of flesh, which would be a shocking act. However, if Shylock showed mercy, this would  somehow be more shocking because he has spent the play plotting revenge against Antonio.


Further Resources on Paradox


Hey Riddle Riddle is a podcast that celebrates a healthy love/hate relationship with riddles with improv comedy.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an exploration of logical paradoxes with examples


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