May 1:  Paradox Day

Today is the anniversary of the 1961 publication of the Joseph Heller novel Catch-22. In the novel, the anti-hero Captain Yossarian serves in the United States Air Force on a Mediterranean island near Italy during World War II. In order to survive the war, Yossarian attempts to avoid flying on dangerous bombing missions. His efforts are thwarted, however, by the paradoxical rule called Catch-22:

Catch22.jpgThere was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. [Bomber pilot] Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

According to Twentieth Century Words, the expression catch-22 to refer to “a supposed law or regulation containing provisions which are mutually frustrating” began to gain widespread use after the release of a film version of the novel in 1970 (1). The fact that the title of a novel took on a life of its own and developed a generic meaning in the language is a unique occurrence. For example, even a person who has never heard of Yossarian or Heller’s novel might be aware of the expression. After a job interview, for example, a frustrated teenager might return home and tell his mother: “They won’t hire me unless I have experience, but how can I get experience if no one will hire me? I’m caught in a catch-22.”

A catch-22, then, is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ type of situation. It’s a no-win situation; a chicken and egg problem that traps you in a double bind of circular logic wrapped around a conundrum. In other words, it’s a kind of paradox.

A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself, yet is true. In a paradox, truth and falsehood collide and synthesize into wisdom. Great quotes, great poetry, and great speeches of all kinds are full of paradox. The etymology of paradox is Greek paradoxon, meaning conflicting with expectation. An excellent anthology of paradoxes, is the book Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths. In this book, Dr. Mardy Grothe has collected over one thousand examples of paradoxical quotes, including the following one from Joseph Heller: When I grow up I want to be a little boy.

Today’s Challenge:  True Lies

What are some examples of quotations that express paradoxical truth?  Do some research to find a paradoxical statement that you think shows great insight about a universal idea, such as the examples below.  Record the complete quotation and cite its author; then, explain what specifically you like about the paradox.

-Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s own ignorance. -Confucius

-When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other. -Eric Hoffer

-We are in bondage to the law in order that we may be free. -Cicero

-The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth. -Jean Cocteau

-Success is ninety-nine percent failure. -Soichiro Honda

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:   A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it. -Mark Twain

1- Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

2-Grothe, Mardy. Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

April 30: Advantageous Day

On this day in 1939, New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig played his 2,130th consecutive major league game.  The game he played that day against the Washington Senators would also be the final game of his career. Not long after his final game, Gehrig learned that he had an incurable and fatal disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — a disease known today as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  

Lou Gehrig as a new Yankee 11 Jun 1923.jpgIn his 17 seasons, all as a Yankee, Gehrig was a World Series champion six times, an All-Star seven consecutive times, an American League Most Valuable Player twice, and a Triple Crown winner once.  Gehrig was the first major league baseball player to have his number (4) retired, and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in 1939.

In June 1939, the New York Yankees officially announced Gehrig’s retirement, and on July 4, 1939, they invited him to speak at Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day (1).

On that day, Gehrig gave what has become not just one of the single most memorable speeches in sports history, but one of the most memorable speeches in history, period.

It was a speech of startling magnanimity.  Everyone in Yankee Stadium that day came to honor Gehrig and to share the sorrow of a career and a life that would be cut short.  Under the circumstances, it would be natural for the speaker to give a mournful, gloomy speech about himself, about his bad luck, and about all he had lost.  Instead, Gehrig spoke in positive and thankful tones, focusing not on himself but on all the people who helped to make him the “luckiest man in the world.”

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day?

Sure I’m lucky.

Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?

Sure I’m lucky.

When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something.

When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that’s something.

When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body — it’s a blessing.

When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that’s the finest I know.

So, I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.

The effectiveness of Gehrig’s speech illustrates an ancient principle of rhetoric.  Aristotle taught that giving a speech is about much more than just what you want to say; instead, it’s important to consider the audience.  The Aristotelian triangle is a model that helps speakers and writers assess the rhetorical situation. The triangle’s three points are the speaker, the subject, and the audience. Looking at all three points of the triangle reminds us that the speaker is only one part of the formula for successful persuasion.  Truly successful speakers, like Gehrig, must appeal to the audience’s advantage. Therefore, when we think about our purpose in speaking, we should not just ask, “What’s in it for us?” Instead, we should ask, “What’s in it for them?”  As the American humorist, Will Rogers put it: “When you go fishing you bait the hook, not with what you like, but what the fish likes” (2).

Winning rhetoric always employs “The Advantageous” by considering the rhetorical situation from the audience’s point of view.  Gehrig might have made his speech all about himself; instead, he made his message much more inclusive by considering his audience.  His thankful and optimistic tone transformed a seemingly sad, hopeless occasion into a positive, hopeful reminder of the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

Today’s Challenge:  Aristotle, Ads, and Addresses

What are some examples of great speeches or classic advertisements where the speaker or the writer has employed the advantageous for effective persuasion?  Analyze a specific speech or advertisement that is an example of effective persuasion. Use the Aristotelian Triangle to discuss the relationship between the speaker, the audience, and the subject.  How did the speaker specifically relate and appeal to his or her audience to effectively fulfill the purpose? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Today’s Quotation:  . . . you need to convince your audience that the choice you offer is the most “advantageous” — to the advantage of the audience, that is, not you.  This brings us back to values. The advantageous is an outcome that gives the audience what it values. -Jay Heinrichs


2-Heinrich, Jay. Thank You For Arguing. Three Rivers Press, 2007.