I. What is a Paradox?
A paradox is a statement that contradicts itself, or that must be both true and untrue at the same time. Paradoxes are quirks in logic that demonstrate how our thinking sometimes goes haywire, even when we use perfectly logical reasoning to get there.
But a key part of paradoxes is that they at least sound reasonable. They’re not obvious nonsense, and it’s only upon consideration that we realize their self-defeating logic.
This statement is a lie.
This is the most famous of all logical paradoxes, because it’s so simple. These five simple words are self-contradictory: if the statement is true, then it’s a lie, which means it’s not true. But if it’s not true, then it’s a lie, which makes it true. Yikes!
In literary analysis, “paradox” can sometimes have a looser meaning: a person or situation that contains contradictions. For example, a character who is both charming and rude might be referred to as a “paradox” even though in the strict logical sense, there’s nothing self-contradictory about a single person combining disparate personality traits.
We’ll distinguish these two definitions by calling the strict definition “logical paradox,” and the loose definition “literary paradox.”
II. Examples of Paradox
Nobody goes to Murphy’s Bar anymore — it’s too crowded.
If the bar is crowded, then lots of people are going. But if so many people are going, it makes no sense to say “nobody goes” there anymore. (It’s possible, though , that this paradox can be escaped by suggesting that by “nobody” the speaker just means “none of our friends.”)
A time traveler goes back in time and murders his own great-grandfather.
Time-travel paradoxes are very common in popular culture. In this classic example, the time traveler murders his own great-grandfather, meaning that the time traveler cannot exist. But if he does not exist, then there’s no one to kill the great-grandfather, and thus he must exist. Logical paradoxes of this sort are one of the many reasons why time travel is such a difficult proposition for science.
III. The Importance of Paradox
Logical paradoxes have been used for centuries to demonstrate the fallibility of human logic. although logic is a valuable tool, it sometimes breaks down, as in the example of “this statement is a lie.” Philosophers and mystics often use paradoxes to prove that human beings have to approach their world using intuition as well as logic.
The literary paradox, on the other hand, may help “art imitate life.” The world around us is full of contradictions, especially when it comes to people’s behavior and personality. So when a character combines disparate elements, it seems very lifelike and three-dimensional. Most people are paradoxes in one way or another, so a main character who wasn’t somehow paradoxical could seem stilted or dull! Such paradoxes can also lend mystery to a story, which helps to make it more compelling.
IV. Examples of Paradox in Literature
Example 1: Literary Paradox
I must be cruel only to be kind (Hamlet III.IV.181)
This is a nice literary paradox, but not a logical one. Cruel and kind are apparent contradictions, but of course it’s perfectly logical to say that one must be cruel (in some minor way) in order to be kind (in some other, more important way). There’s no logical contradiction, and therefore no logical paradox. The character Hamlet, however, combines disparate attributes of kindness and cruelty, so his personality is loosely paradoxical.
Example 2: Logical Paradox
A Chinese folk tale tells of a blacksmith who created the best armor and weapons in the world. He once created a spear that could pierce any object. He then created a shield that could deflect any attack. When a young boy asked him what would happen if he tried to pierce the shield with the spear, the blacksmith realized he could not answer. Because of this story, the Chinese character for “paradox” is a spear next to a shield.
Example 3: Logical Paradox
Zeno’s paradox, one of the oldest paradoxes that we know of, states:
A man approaches a wall 10 feet away. To get there, he must first go half the distance (5 feet), then half the remaining distance (2.5 feet), half the remaining distance (1.25 feet) and so on. Therefore in order to reach the wall he must complete an infinite number of actions, which is impossible, before he can reach the wall. Therefore it is impossible to reach the wall.
Of course, we know from experience that it’s quite easy to walk twenty feet and touch a wall — but the logic shows this to be impossible!
Although this was considered a difficult paradox by the ancient Greeks, most philosophers today believe that it can be escaped because the “infinite number of actions” theory is invalid. (In other words, the underlined portion is not a logically valid step, and therefore there is no genuine logical paradox, but rather a simple logical error.)
V. Examples of Paradox in Pop Culture
Example 1: Logical Paradox
In an episode of Futurama, Fry (one of the main characters) travels back in time to the 1940s, where he comes face-to-face with his own grandfather, Enos. He knows that if he kills him, it will create a logical paradox that may destroy the universe, but Fry’s clumsy efforts to protect Enos from harm put the pair in greater and greater danger. Finally Fry accidentally causes Enos to be destroyed by a nuclear test. (This logical paradox is resolved, however, because it turns out that Enos was not actually Fry’s grandfather to begin with.)
Example 2: Literary Paradox
In the television show House, the main character is a rude, narcissistic, and abrasive man who constantly alienates those around him. However, he is a brilliant doctor and deeply committed to saving his patients’ lives. Thus, he combines a gruff, mean exterior with a deep sense of compassion and morality.
Example 3: Literary Paradox:
I close my eyes so I can see (Fugazi, Shut the Door)
In the lyrics to Fugazi’s song Shut the Door, there’s an apparent contradiction between closing eyes and seeing. However, this is merely a literary paradox (or an oxymoron, since it employs a double entendre). Clearly, the word “see” isn’t being used literally in this case, but rather figuratively – closing one’s eyes to the outside world allows one to “see” internal truths.
VI. Related terms
Because time-travel paradoxes are so common in popular culture, we often confuse them with self-fulfilling prophecies. The basic difference is which direction you’re traveling. Because the future does not have logical consequences (it’s considered “open”), only traveling back in time can produce a paradox. However, traveling or looking forward in time can produce a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A scientist peers into the future and sees a terrible apocalypse. When he returns, he tries to warn humanity, but everyone laughs at him and in his anger he turns on them with his machines, thus causing the very destruction that he witnessed in the future.
No part of this story contradicts or makes itself impossible, so it’s not a paradox.
Time Travel Paradox:
A time traveler from 2025 builds a time machine in order to assassinate Hitler and prevent the second world war. He succeeds, meaning that the war never happened and he (in 2025) would have had no reason to build the time machine in the first place, meaning Hitler was never assassinated.
In this story, the logical consequences of the character’s actions imply that those actions could never have happened. There’s a contradiction, and therefore a paradox.
Some people mistake dilemmas for paradoxes, but they’re actually quite different. A dilemma is a difficult choice, whereas a paradox is a violation of logic itself. In a dilemma, we may have conflicting needs or desires, but those desires are logically compatible, so there’s no logical paradox. Moreover, the dilemma involves two possible situations, not one actual situation, so there’s no literary paradox either.
For example, say a single dad wants to provide for his kids with a better job, but in order to do that he needs to go back to school, which will take him away from his kids. Should he spend more time with them? Or go back to school, get a better job, and give them a better life? It’s a difficult choice – a dilemma. But there is neither a logical paradox nor a literary paradox in this situation.
Irony (or, to be precise, situational irony) is an event or circumstance that violates our expectations. However, it is not a violation of logic, so it is not a logical paradox. This is a common mistake!
For example, it would be ironic if an ethics professor was stealing money from her students. (Because we have an expectation that a professor of ethics will be an expert on doing what’s right, and therefore won’t be a thief.) But that situation would not exactly be paradoxical, since a person’s position teaching ethics doesn’t logically imply that he or she must be a good person.
However, the professor could be seen as a literary paradox, since her personality combines two disparate elements: expertise in ethics, and an inability to behave ethically.
An oxymoron is an apparent paradox that can be escaped through puns or double entendre. For example, “jumbo shrimp” is an oxymoron. It would be a paradox if shrimp necessarily meant “something small.” But shrimp can also mean a specific animal, and thus the apparent paradox is just an illusion. Similarly, the phrase “a poor man of great wealth” appears to be a paradox, but the contradiction disappears once we realize that the “wealth” is not money, but spiritual, moral, or intellectual fulfillment.
When an author places two or more disparate elements next to one another, this is referred to as juxtaposition, but it can also fall under the broad definition of literary paradox. For example, one of the most famous images of juxtaposition shows a group of anti-war protesters surrounded by soldiers who are pointing rifles at them, with one man out of the crowd placing flowers in the barrel of each gun. The image juxtaposes violence against the gentle harmlessness of flowers. This combination of disparate elements could also be seen as a literary paradox.