Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fortune Favors the Brave: Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot

The following is a dramatic retelling of a story found in Arrian, Anabasis 2.3.

 The Gordian Knot

Alexander stood before the rude and weathered remnants of what was once an ox-cart. Ancient ropes wrapped it in an impossibly complicated knot to a tree that looked as though it had stood there since the beginning of time itself.
He knew the story as well as the Phrygian nobles who stood by, watching with baited breath. In the dawn of history, the peasant Gordias had become king of Phrygia when an oracle declared that the next man to enter the city would have that distinction. In came Gordias on his ox-cart. His son Midas offered the ox-cart to their god Sabazios in gratitude for this kingship, which he would one day hold himself. The ox-cart was tied to a tree and over time a new legend arose. The man who could ever undo this knot, would rule all of Asia.
Alexander began to pull at immovable rocks of ropes, quickly learning why no one had ever untied this knot in the previous hundreds of years before he entered Asia Minor with his armies, setting out on his mission to conquer the Persian Empire and beyond. He turned to his trusted friend Cleitus and saw worry in his companion’s eyes.

“If you do not untie this knot,” his friend whispered, “the news will spread around the earth.”
Alexander winked at him and turned to the gathered nobles. “Tell me again the legend,” he said loudly.
A white haired man in a bright blue robe stepped forward. “The man who can undo this knot will rule all of Asia,” he said. “And no one has ever done it yet. And it doesn’t seem that anyone will today.”
A burst of laughter ensued, quickly suppressed.
“Undo?” Alexander asked. “That is not the same thing as ‘untie’.”
With that, Alexander drew his sword. It sang through the air as he sliced three times at the knot. It split open. The crowd gasped as a jumble of ropes seemed to flail about as if alive and fell to the ground.
Alexander put his sword back in its sheathe. “Asia has a new ruler,” he said. “Let that news spread around the world.”
The Gordian Knot is any impossible task. The Alexandrian solution is any approach that envisions a way forward which in retrospect may seem obvious but had never before been imagined. Locking our ideas around only one definition of success will close us off from a surprising success to come.

Some ancient sources reported that Alexander did not cut the knot with his sword. The alternative, but certainly less dramatic, account is that he slid a pole out from the middle of the knot, thus loosening the whole and allowing it to be untied (Plutarch, Life of Alexander 18.4 [quoting Aristobulus, whose writings are lost]). The alternative account is no less an example of solving the problem with a previously untried method.