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What is the Gordian Knot?

The Gordian Knot is similar to the concept of splitting the baby, introduced by King Solomon in the Bible.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2014
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The Gordian Knot is a metaphor to describe a very difficult, or seemingly impossible problem to solve, which is then solved by quick, decisive action. The origin of the metaphor lies in legends surrounding Alexander the Great. According to stories about Alexander, King Midas of Phrygia had claimed the kingdom by fulfilling a prophecy that the next man who rode into the city on an ox-cart would become king. In gratitude for his kingship, Midas, dedicated his ox-cart to an ancient god, securing it to a post with a very difficult knot.

When Alexander the Great came to Phrygia in the 4th century BCE, he desperately attempted to untie the knot, but could find no way to do it. Instead of wasting more time on it, he simply sliced the Gordian Knot in half with his sword. This was an interesting approach to the puzzle, representing the ability for Alexander to think outside the box. Alexander’s solution of slicing the Gordian Knot in half is often called the Alexandrian solution.

The Gordian Knot is a similar concept to the idea of “splitting the baby” occurring in the Old Testament. When King Solomon is presented with two women claiming parentage of the same baby, he offers to cut the baby in half. Of course he rescinds his offer when the true mother begs Solomon to let the other woman raise the baby, rather than having the baby be killed. Thus, the precedent for Alexander’s solution exists prior to it.

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The trouble with solving a Gordian Knot problem with the Alexandrian solution is that you really don’t untie the knot. Instead you destroy the knot, and the rope by cutting it in half. Usually, a problem is too complex to allow a broad stroke or silver bullet approach that makes it immediately fixable. Hasty action can translate to neglecting to pay attention to the finer details of a challenging issue.

Most complex issues of today can be seen as modern versions of the Gordian Knot. If you look for example, at the poverty in many African countries, the Alexandrian solution might simply advocate sending money to these countries to help the poor. Yet this solution does not quite untie the Gordian Knot of poverty, because in some cases, there are no guarantees that such money will ever reach the impoverished.

Also, poverty is just one aspect of the problems that plague certain African countries; poor health, lack of education, increasing HIV infections, and corrupt or insufficient governance all play a role. Sending money clearly doesn’t untie the Gordian Knot of countries that need our aid. Instead it takes many people, on many different levels to offer numerous solutions to the numerous complex issues involved.

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