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Understanding the Paradox : Some Contradictions Make Perfect Sense

May 18, 1986|JACK SMITH

"Why not devote a column sometime to the paradox?" asks the Rev. Vance Geier.

Well, for one thing, anything as simple as the paradox is very hard to write about, the easiest things being the most difficult.

If those two statements seem contradictory, I'm getting to the point.

G. K. Chesterton, the British essayist and master of the paradox, observed, "It's the little things in life that are colossal."

There is no point in my writing yet another literary exercise on the paradox, this form of essay having undoubtedly been revived to death by many high school English students, but an understanding of the paradox may help us comprehend our incomprehensible times.

As Geier points out, the paradox is often used by government to illuminate some otherwise invisible truth. For instance:

"We had to destroy it in order to save it."

This little gem, so handy as an explanation for the napalming of villages in the Vietnam War, has since found application in the business world.

"We had to take over the corporation to save it."

"We had to destroy the land to save it."

"We had to kill the herd to save it."

And Gen. Sherman no doubt excused the Plains Wars with the explanation that we had to destroy the Indians to save them.

The remarkable thing about a paradox is the docile way in which its seeming inconsistencies are accepted as truth.

We have all heard the paradox of Epimenides, the Cretan philosopher who made the statement that all Cretans were liars.

One at first accepts it as true. Being a Cretan himself, Epimenides should know. But wait. If all Cretans are liars, and Epimenides is a Cretan, then is he not also a liar? And if Epimenides is a liar, then is not his statement that all Cretans are liars a lie itself? If it is a lie that all Cretans are liars, is it not then possible that Epimenides is not a liar, and is telling the truth? And so on.

Can we not sense a paradox in current news stories about Nicaragua, in which the contras , who are described as murderers and terrorists, are also said to be freedom fighters?

In their book "Modern English: A Glossary of Literature and Language" (Grosset & Dunlap), Lazarus, MacLeish and Smith define paradox simply as "a seeming contradiction; whatever sounds impossible yet is in fact possible."

Cudden's "Dictionary of Literary Terms" defines it as "an apparently self-contradictory (even absurd) statement which, on closer inspection, is found to contain a truth reconciling the conflict-opposites."

The dictionary notes that paradox is at the heart of the Christian faith: "The world will be saved by a failure."

The paradox has always been popular in poetry and in folk speech. The poet John Donne sounded modern indeed when he wrote, ". . . that he may raise, the Lord throws down."

George Bernard Shaw spoke for all times when he rued that "youth is wasted on the young"; and the Irish spoke for the modern freeway driver when they invented the phrase, "You can't rightly get there from here."

A charming paradox is William Congreve's line, "Careless she is with artful care. . . ."

Before getting lost in paradoxes, we'd better think about oxymorons. An oxymoron is simply a paradox expressed in very short form--usually two words that seem to contradict each other.

For example, "a wise fool," "a friendly enemy," "a virgin adulteress," "a generous miser," "an honest thief."

They are examples of a kind of figure of speech that all of us make up every day, without trying.

Oxymoron comes from the Greek ( oxy , sharp, pointed; and moron , foolish). Milton employs an oxymoron in "Paradise Lost" when he describes hell: "No light, but rather darkness visible."

It was an interesting figure for a man who was blind.

Willard R. Espey notes in "An Almanac of Words at Play" (Potter), that the oxymoron is common in advertising. He cites a cosmetic ad that says "Honest makeup!" and he points out, "One would think such an oxymoron would cancel itself out, but the effect seems to be synergistic."

We are all familiar with "Less is more," a paradox that helped to make a culinary fad out of nouvelle cuisine , in which a sliver of veal is placed on a plate where the steak used to be, surrounded by three or four artistically arranged string beans, a glazed carrot, six peas and a sprig of parsley.

Unfortunately, the corollary of "less is more" was not "less is cheaper." It was its own corollary: "Less is more (expensive)."

There is no doubt that we seem to love paradoxes and oxymorons and happily give ourselves up to their inconsistencies.

As Espey wrote of us, we are:

Modestly arrogant,

Sadly amused,

Cheerfully mournful,

Clearly confused.

And that's all I know about the paradox.

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