A paradox is a statement that apparently contradicts itself and yet might be true. Most logical paradoxes are known to be invalid arguments but are still valuable in promoting critical thinking.
Some paradoxes have revealed errors in definitions assumed to be rigorous, and have caused axioms of mathematics and logic to be re-examined. One example is Russell's paradox, which questions whether a "list of all lists that do not contain themselves" would include itself, and showed that attempts to found set theory on the identification of sets with properties or predicates were flawed. Others, such as Curry's paradox, are not yet resolved.
Examples outside logic include the Ship of Theseus from philosophy (questioning whether a ship repaired over time by replacing each of its wooden parts would remain the same ship). Paradoxes can also take the form of images or other media. For example, M.C. Escher featured perspective-based paradoxes in many of his drawings, with walls that are regarded as floors from other points of view, and staircases that appear to climb endlessly.
In common usage, the word "paradox" often refers to statements that are ironic or unexpected, such as "the paradox that standing is more tiring than walking".
Paradox can prove to be very revealing about human nature and the way that we speak. If someone says to you "I'm a compulsive liar," do you believe them or not? That statement in itself is a paradox, because it is self contradictory, which is precisely what a paradox is.
At the most basic level, a paradox is a statement that is self contradictory because it often contains two statements that are both true, but in general, cannot both be true at the same time. In the aforementioned example, can someone be both a compulsive liar yet telling the truth at the same time?
Paradox Concept: Starts with Shrimp
Starting with some very basic examples of paradox will lead to the examination of how and why paradox is used in literature.
One of the most well known examples that teachers frequently use to introduce the idea of a paradox is a "jumbo shrimp." Certainly, "jumbo" and "shrimp" are contradictory statements. However, that is merely an introductory example, since a shrimp can certainly be jumbo sized in comparison to other smaller shrimp. Still, it is an appropriate starting point for students who are new to the concept of paradox.
Here are some more examples of paradox in simple forms in order to further define the term "paradox":
- You can save money by spending it.
- I'm nobody.
- "What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young." - George Bernard Shaw
- Wise fool
- "I can resist anything but temptation."-Oscar Wilde
- I'm a compulsive liar- am I lying when I say that?
- A rich man is no richer than a poor man.
- Nobody goes to that restaurant because it is too crowded.
- You shouldn't go in the water until you know how to swim.
- If you didn't get this message, call me.
- The person who wrote something so stupid can't write at all
- Men work together whether they work together or apart. - Robert Frost
- Be cruel to be kind
- The beginning of the end
- Drowning in the fountain of eternal life
- Deep down, you're really shallow.
Paradox in Literature
Have a better idea of what a paradox is now? Let's continue on to some larger examples of paradox that appear in works of literature. In doing so, examining their purpose will become an important part of the process.
In George Orwell's Animal Farm, the words "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others" are part of the cardinal rules. Clearly this statement does not make logical sense. However, the point of a paradox is to point out a truth, even if the statements contradict each other.
Orwell is trying to make some sort of political statement here. Perhaps it is that the government claims that everyone is equal when that is clearly false, or perhaps it is that individuals have skewed perceptions of what it means to be equal. The interpretation is up to the reader to decide.
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the title character states "I must be cruel to be kind." On the surface, once again, this statement does not seem to make much sense. Can an individual convey kindness through evil?
However, Hamlet is speaking about his mother, and how he plans to ultimately slay Claudius in order to avenge his father's death. His mother is now married to Claudius, so of course this will be a tragedy for her. However, he does not want his mother to be the lover of his father's murderer (unbeknownst to her) any longer, and so he believes the murder will be for her own good.
Purpose of Paradox
After examining the examples from works of literature, one will see that a paradox is not just a witty or amusing statement. Paradoxes have serious implications in the world of literature, because they make statements that often sum up the the main ideas of the work.
What is the purpose of using such a statement then, instead of just forthrightly stating the work's intent?
One reason is that to do so would be boring. It is much more interesting for a reader to carve out the meaning, than to have it fed to them on a silver platter.
Furthermore, summing up the totality of the work in one statement is more memorable. "I must be cruel to be kind" is a famous statement that has transcended history, whether or not people know where the words originally came from.