Definition and Examples of Paradox

Paradox is a seemingly self-contradictory statement, but nevertheless appears to be true.

In terms of etymology, paradox is derived from the Greek paradoxon, literally means “against opinion,” or “contrary to expectation”. A paradox usually has two parallelOpens in new window elements that appear to be logically inconsistent and yet contain a truth. For example, the Socratic paradox:

  • “No one does wrong willingly, but is unwillingly that all who do wrong do wrong”

Paradoxes are typically known to engender shocking effects, because one element denies the other while each is based in different reasoning.

Paradox functions rhetorically by forcing the audience to confront beyond the literal meaning of the statements to find a deeper, usually more philosophical meaning which will reconcile the inconsistency that is posed as consistent. The incongruity is meant to be uncomfortable, spurring insight by probing habitual assumptions.

To analyze a paradox, the prerequisite would be to identify the contexts or dimensions in which statement or element does hold an explication of why two conflicting statements are proposed.

Examples in Literature
  • “what a pity that youth must be wasted on the young.”
  • — (George Bernard Shaw)

  • “Where there is no law, there is no freedom”
  • — (John Locke)

  • “The bright Way looks dim.”
  • “The more you look, the less you see.”
  • “The smooth Way looks rugged.”
  • “my heart leaps up when I behold
    a rainbow in the sky:
    so was it when my life began;
    so is it now I am a man;
    so be it when I shall grow old,
    or let me die!
    the child is father of the man;
    and I could wish my days to be
    bound each to each by natural piety”
  • — (William Wordsworth, My Heart Leaps Up)

    William Wordsworth's paradox “the child is the father of the man” may seem nonsense out of context, but upon closer reflection, the reader can conclude that childhood experiences become the basis for the shaping of who we are as adults, so the child, in a sense, fathers the man who he will become.
    Paradox can also teach us how to conduct ourselves:
  • “Bend and you will be whole.”
  • “Curl and you will be straight.”
  • “Keep empty and you will be filled.”
  • “Grow old and you will be renewed”
Further Readings:
Melanchthon IR c8r (“paradoxum” “inopinatum”);
Day 1599 90 (“paradoxon”);
Puttenham (1589) 233 (“paradoxon,” “the wondrer”).