Like pretty much
all geeks everyone, I am a huge Alexander the Great fan. Except for the story of The Gordian Knot. When I got to that part of his legend I was sorely disappointed. Here’s one of the smartest badasses ever, presented with an intellectual challenge of epic proportions, and what does he do? The same thing any thug with a sharp hunk of metal could do. No finesse, no show of genius. It reminded me of what the mouth-breathing jocks I despised would do.
But lately I’ve had a change of heart. Allow me to digress.
Alone, when commenting on The Milgram Experiment, noted that even the supposedly “good” people only refused to shock the test victim. Not a single one kicked over a chair, tore a fluorescent bulb out of the ceiling, smashed it on the floor, and then swung the jagged remains around like a lightsaber demanding that the torture victim in the other room be freed or by god the blood of evil-doers would be spilled!! (Alone can get dramatic in his blog posts sometimes). Which, upon relfection, is a good fucking point.
Likewise, in a lot of fairy tales, heroes are presented by the villain with a test they must pass. Recently I read the story (ok, listened to) of a heroine who must match the remembered heartbeat of her lover against dozens of variably-ticking clocks. If she truly loves him and knows his heartbeat, she’ll be able to pick the matching clock, and the witch will return her lover. In these stories, the hero/ine always goes through with the test. They never grab the witch, put a knife to her throat, and say “Fuck you and fuck your stupid test. Give me my lover or I will skin you alive.” Which is really the best course of action. First, you shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists out of principle. And second, this person has already proven themselves to be evil, why would you trust them to keep their word if you do pass their test?
These characters have lost sight of their true goals. Originally their goal was “Rescue my lover,” and when they were told that passing this test would return their lover to them, they immediately shifted to the instrumental goal of “pass this test” without thinking about whether that best fulfills their terminal goal. It’s a wonderful trick, and it seems to be extremely easy to pull on most people (and is probably what the bulk of politics is about).
One could speculate that, confronted by orders to harm others, the participants in the Milgram experiment lost track of their “do not let evil prevail” terminal goal in their agonizing focus on “do not personally do evil” goal, which should rightly be only a subset of the former.
All that being said – my problem was that I had taken my eyes from Alexander’s true goal. I saw the Gordian Knot as a test, an opportunity to show off his superior intellect and wits. A chance to dazzle all those who admire him, and perturb all who would oppose him. I would have tried to untangle the knot. Alexander never lost sight of his true goal, which was to rule the world. The Gordian Knot was an obstacle, and he swept it aside in the most expedient and least risky way possible.
It’s only recently that I realized this. I’ve come to respect this focus on brutal problem solving much more lately. Looking good in front of others is still very useful, and can be of utility in pursuing your other goals. But if it doesn’t solve the problem, your effort is probably being wasted. Stop being the witch’s toy, and start cutting your way to your goal.