The words paradox and contradiction are used interchangeably these days. They aren’t synonymous however, and point to very different phenomena. In the following examples, which is a paradox, and which is a contradiction?
Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the U.S. military training exercise ‘Jade Helm,’ echoing right wing fears of a takeover by the Federal Government. In the next breath, Abbott cited Texas’ “long history of supporting our military forces.”
Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, said, “I came to work for President Obama because of how much he cares about the consequences of decision-making, whether to do something or not do something.” Speaking of Obama’s Syrian policy in the same interview, she said, “I seek counsel from Henry Kissinger.”
America fought a revolutionary war to free itself from a despotic monarchy, but historically Britain has been our closest ally, while America has devolved into two necrotic dynasties, flip-flopping between the Bushes and the Clintons.
And two quotes:
“As fleetly as Hillary Clinton vacuums up the money, she piles up the paradoxes.”
“Yes, I’m full of contradictions; that’s just who I am.”
The first two are obvious contradictions, the warp and woof of politics the world over. The third is both a paradox from a historical perspective, and a contradiction in recent decades. (Especially when you factor in the liberal Blair siding with a reactionary Bush to invade an irrelevant Iraq.)
The first quote refers to a contradiction, not a paradox. The writer just couldn’t resist the alliteration.
The second quote is commonly heard in the West. And when you hear it, you should quickly and quietly walk away.
A philosopher is a person with a low threshold for contradiction, within themselves and with others and society. As one thinker put it, “Mistake one is that the existence of a paradox implies the existence of a contradiction. Not so. A paradox involves an apparent contradiction, i.e. two statements that appear to contradict.”
To have contradictions makes one human; to accept them makes one inhuman. Unseen and unacknowledged contradictions are the soil of conflict, and the ground of decay.
A contradiction needs to be held without conflict, one in each hand, until it is understood; a paradox needs to be held in both hands as one, until it is appreciated.
There’s a paradox about contradiction. When one is self-knowingly aware of one’s contradictions, they don’t produce conflict and one doesn’t act out of them. In fact, when one acknowledges and questions contradictions within one, they become a source of learning and growth. When one isn’t self-knowing, contradictions become a source of imbalance and deterioration.
A paradox may appear to be a contradiction, but it is not. We are all too well acquainted with contradiction, but not with paradox. When two disparate things are held in tension, but not opposition, there is a paradox. A paradox always has an element of mystery, and is tinged with symmetry and beauty.
Man is a tremendous contradiction, unseen by most people, and misanthropically reacted to by many. Humankind’s essential contradiction is an existential one, between humans and nature itself.
In my youth, this was my great philosophical obsession. How could man, who evolved from and within nature, be in growing contradiction to nature? I talked to everyone from Gandhi’s grandson to Einstein’s intellectual son, and no one could give me a satisfactory explanation.
After 15 years of inquiry and study, there was literally a gut-shaking insight, and it came clear. But with it I saw that the explanation won’t change the explained—man and me, at bottom the same thing.
It would take a book I have little urge to write, but essentially, the human adaptive pattern evolved to separate, store, recombine and manipulate reified objects in our environment. However, we mistook our capability for our capacity, subconsciously carrying over the function of separation into the psychological dimension, where it became divisiveness and continues to be the source of our alienation from nature, each other and the sacred.
We cannot go back; the Garden never existed. We can only meet the original and ongoing ‘sin’ (synonymous with mistake) within ourselves now, for the present and future of humanity.
With the ultimate contradiction resolved, the human condition becomes a profound paradox. Over 30 years later, I still feel compassion when I contemplate it, feeling that after all, as Robinson Jeffers put it, “the poor doll humanity has a place under heaven.”
The difference between paradox and contradiction is the difference between symmetrical tension and oppositional incongruity. Upon the ability to resolve the latter and perceive the former turns our capacity to grow as human beings and live harmoniously on this magnificent earth.