The Surprising Paradox of Proverbs

We often quote proverbs and pithy statements that appear to hint at larger self-evident truths. Yet, most of these adages have directly contradictory counterparts. What does this mean about our understanding of the world? Do adages have any truth to them?

This apparent paradox indicates there isn’t a particular overarching truth to any of these expressions. However, their usage reflects the values of the individual or group, and are highly dependent on the particular situation. In that way, adages are used more as a contextual nugget of specific advice than an absolute truth.

To illuminate the contradictory nature of adages, we’ve compiled a list of pairs below.


Birds of a feather flock together.
Opposites attract.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.
The clothes make the man.

The early bird gets the worm.
Better late than never.

Never give up.
Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. — Dalai Lama

Try and fail, but don’t fail to try.
Better safe than sorry.

You are never too old to learn.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Be about actions, not distractions.
Stop and smell the roses.

Strike while the iron is hot.
Look before you leap.

Many hands make light work.
Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Actions speak louder than words.
The pen is mightier than the sword.

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
A man who does not plan long ahead will find trouble at his door. — Confucius

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
The nail that stands up gets hammered down.

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Turn the other cheek.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.


Thanks to Nihar Madhavan for the collaboration on this! We hope you found this interesting. If you can think of more pairs of contradictory adages, post them in the comments below!

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