This sentence is false. That’s four little words—but an entire universe of meaning. Why? “This sentence is false” is a self-contradicting statement. If the sentence is false, and it says it’s false, then it must be true. But if it’s true, and it says it’s false, then it must be false. Tearing your hair out yet? Welcome to the weird, mind-bending universe of the paradox.
But while you may be familiar with the time traveler’s paradox (if you accidentally cause the death of your grandfather, how were you ever born to go back and cause the death of your grandfather?), this universe is even bigger than you imagined.
What Is a Paradox?
Let’s start with a simple paradox definition. A paradox is a self-contradictory statement, idea, or scenario. In other words, the facts within a paradox should be enough to cancel out the internal logic of that same paradox.
One key to remember: Paradoxes are typically illusory. Think of them more as thought experiments than observations of everyday life. Consider a Penrose triangle, an object that can’t exist in the three-dimensional universe as we know it. We can draw it, sure. We can imagine it. We can visualize it.
But ultimately, just like the statement “this sentence is false,” the Penrose triangle doesn’t hold up to logical scrutiny. Let’s examine some common examples of paradoxes to explain.
Imagine you’re ten feet away from an object. To reach it, you first have to travel half of the distance. Now five feet remain. Now, to reach the object, you must travel half of that distance. And so on, and so on.
If this is true, can you ever reach the object?
This is one of those paradox examples that’s so common, you might have talked about it with your friends when you were a kid. As Zeno’s paradox states, it should be theoretically impossible to travel from any two points, because you can only travel halfway there first. So, how can we get to another place if we have to go halfway there an infinite number of times?
This is a great example of a false paradox, a logical error we invented with our own minds. Of course we can go and touch an object 10 feet away if we want. Our lived experience proves this.
So why doesn’t the paradox play out in reality? Because it’s a mathematical question (dividing by one half, ad infinitum) to a physical problem—a simple matter of rate of speed. Zeno’s paradox is a great example of winding oneself in a paradox just by thinking about an idea from the wrong perspective.
The Ship of Theseus
This thought experiment dates back to the days of Plato. First, imagine a wooden ship. Over time, the ship wears down. One person replaces the mast. Another replaces a plank of wood in the hull. Eventually, the ship outlasts all of its original materials; it is a ship of repairs and replacements only.
Is it still the same ship?
The question, of course, is rhetorical. If yes, the ship is a paradox: The same ship, but without any of the original components. If not, when did it become a new ship?
In trying to summon an answer, minds ranging from Noam Chomsky to Heraclitus have written about philosophical concepts like externalism and perdurantism. In other words: The question is such a paradox, we have to resort to philosophy to even attempt to answer it.
The Art of War
There’s a reason Sun Tzu’s The Art of War still seems fresh after all of these years. It contains enough wisdom to both grasp and express paradoxes.
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” writes Sun Tzu. What? “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” Huh? Where?
Yet on closer examination, these paradoxes highlight ancient truths. It is better to avoid a war when you can in order to stay strong to your advantage. There often is more opportunity in chaos than in times of peace—if you’re able to keep your head on straight.
“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle,” Sun Tzu says. And of course, this is true. If you can avoid bloodshed but still achieve your ends, haven’t you out-generaled the best battlefield generals? Sun Tzu uses paradoxes to encourage fresh thinking about your goals.
Paradoxes in Everyday Language
We might not always realize it, but we constantly utter paradoxes without thinking. Consider some common English phrases:
- Less is more.
- You have to spend money to make money.
- The only constant in life is change.
Fortunately, most of us understand these aren’t thought experiments. They use a paradox as a literary device. By saying “less is more,” for example, we’re highlighting that sometimes, a small statement can have a greater impact. By saying “you have to spend money to make money,” we’re saying that someone has to first invest if they want to get returns.
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Examples of Paradoxes in Poetry
When Shakespeare wrote that “Cowards die many times before their deaths,” it created one of the most famous paradoxes in literature. How do you die before death? Of course, it’s not meant literally—Shakespeare is forcing us to reexamine the life of cowards and the tiny deaths they experience due to shame and ridicule.
In literature, paradoxes work as pattern-breakers. They force us to stop, consider the weight of the apparently false statement, and reevaluate the thinking that made it seem false in the first place.
Let’s borrow another literary paradox from the “blank verse” poetry of Shakespeare. In Hamlet, Shakespeare has his protagonist issue an odd statement:
I must be cruel to be kind.
On its face, the statement can’t be true—cruelty and kindness are polar opposites. But Hamlet is explaining that what he has to do through the course of the play is going to seem contrary to his true, underlying motives.
In Homer’s epic poem, Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is Nobody. When he finally springs his attack on the Cyclops, the monster can only shout that nobody is killing him. This creates a paradox, of course. If nobody is killing him, then how is he dying?
Homer expertly uses this effect to create irony from poetic paradox, since the audience is aware of something the Cyclops is not: “Nobody’s” real name.
The Red Wheelbarrow
Not all examples of poetic irony are so straightforward. Let’s consider a simple image: William Carlos Williams’ famous red wheelbarrow. On the surface, this poem is nothing but a photograph. Williams presents us with the image of a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rainwater, beside white chickens. That’s it.
You can practically hear the high school poetry students rolling their eyes. But look deeper. The poem begins with a phrase that defines what comes: “so much depends upon…”
How can so much depend on a simple object like that? It doesn’t. The description that comes after creates a paradox, a self-contradictory statement. With just three words—“so much depends”—Williams hints at a deeper meaning that must be rumbling underneath the surface.
The Difference Between Paradox and Oxymoron
In the above examples of paradox in poetry, we see why a paradox can be more than an oxymoron. The former is a contradiction in a statement or in abstract ideas (for example, the idea of going back in time and causing the accidental death of your grandfather), while the latter is a contradiction in terms—think of it as a zoomed-in version of a paradox.
This can get a little confusing. Essentially, both devices come from the same idea of self-contradiction, but anytime you can wrap up your paradox in a few tight, incongruous words (like “awfully good”), you’ve likely got an oxymoron on your hands.
Using Unrealistic Ideas to Add Life to Your Writing
Executed well, a paradox can accomplish a lot in your writing. You can use it to demand closer examination, like William Carlos Williams and his famous red wheelbarrow. You can highlight a character’s dualistic nature, as Shakespeare did with Hamlet.
You can even use a paradox to create tension, as so many science fiction writers have done with the Time Traveler’s paradox. Consider the 1985 film Back to the Future, where all of the dramatic tension arises out of Marty McFly’s need to avoid creating a self-destructive paradox.
A paradox might seem like an impossible knot to untie. But as a literary device, you’ll find it’s a powerful tool. Consider a paradox as an effective way to cut yourself loose from cliches and consider wholly original ways to characterize your story. The next time you decide to describe a character, ask yourself: What is the central, self-contradictory paradox that defines this person?
Oddly enough, in identifying their self-contradictory instincts, you’ll find that rather than destroying these characters, they tend to spring to life. Quite the paradox.
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