• Daniel Ethan Finneran

The Sphinx or the Gordian Knot

June 2018


Oedipus, in what would prove a seminal moment, crossed his path with that of the sphinx. Hitherto, that frightful beast—conceived in Egypt and appropriated by the Greeks—had been the very bane of the city of Thebes. Beset with her riddle, that ancient town through which seven gates granted access couldn’t get a wink of sleep. The blood of its merchants, its journeymen, and its soldiers spilled every time one or the other stumbled across her path. From the sphinx’s alcove, she’d emerge with serpentine tail—harrowing on its own and with a bulbous tip. Add to that her leonine limbs, her aquiline wings, and her gentle, tempting, all-too familiar feminine face, and with one move, she’d devour you whole.


And while the doughty Thebans were armed with lances, shields, foreknowledge, and derring-do, they found themselves absolutely, and for that reason, fatally paralyzed in her presence. In one breath, her single inquiry vanquished their years of military training while displaying, to mortal affect, their slow wit. What was this most inscrutable question by which the city was burdened? She asked of these countless sons of Thebes an answer to her once ancient, now obvious riddle that even today’s school children know by heart. That riddle, of course, deals with the enigmatic ambler—he who had legs of four, of two, and then of three in that order from dawn until dusk.


Seeing that his city’s mortality rate was climbing ever higher by the day, Laius—father and eventual victim of Oedipus—set out to put an end to the curse. However, much to his misfortune, deliverance of his city by means of his own ingenuity wasn’t to be. He never had a chance to confront the indefatigable sphinx. Stopped at a convergence in the road somewhere between Corinth and Thebes, Laius’ expedition met a premature end. There, along a road beside that ancient Attic land, he met an eerily familiar foreigner by whom he was slain.


Oedipus left the scene of his crime. Should he have stayed and learned something of himself, he might’ve realized that regicide, and indeed parricide were the sins of which he was unwittingly guilty. But he stayed not and learned less. As though the task had been transferred unbeknownst from father to son, he went on to conquer that ghastly sphinx. He did so with an acuity and sharpness of mind that no other person had yet shown. At least at that moment, and unfortunately for dear Jocasta, not a moment thereafter, that upstart Oedipus was cautious, sagacious, and wise in dealing with history’s most bewildering issue. By responding to the sphinx’s question with the simple answer, “a human being”, Oedipus displayed the type of wit and legerity to which men still aspire. Such shrewdness was as resilient as the steel with which he smote the king but moments prior.


One could say that his triumph over the sphinx was the highlight of an otherwise inauspicious political career. Things thereafter went terribly wrong. His city, now liberated, was returned just as quickly to a state of disrepair. His wife, once his mother, opted for self-violence with a recognition of her commitment of incest. For his own part, Oedipus excised from his own skull his two eyes. Impaired of vision, both physically and metaphorically, he’d be rendered a sightless and wretched man for whom none would have pity.


Yet who could really blame him for failing to be history’s greatest statesman? There hasn’t been a political leader against whom the deck was so ill-fatedly stacked. It didn’t take long for his house literally to fall down. How was he to know that ambition and incest would be his sins, ignominy his destiny, tragedy his genre?


But destiny doesn’t always augur ill. For Alexander—born one hundred years after and two hundred miles north of Sophocles’ mythical synonym for Freud’s greatest idea—a grand destiny seemed to have been preordained. Already a precocious leader and a rambunctious fighter before the second decade of his age, every Macedonian with eyes could see that Alexander’s future was bright (perhaps even Oedipus could’ve somehow sensed it). More than anyone else, and—as it came to be—with more anxiety than anyone else, King Phillip saw this scintilla of greatness in his and Olympia’s son. Humbly acknowledging the inevitable majesty of this boy, Phillip—in a flicker of prophecy—said of his Alexander that “Macedonia is too small for you; seek out a larger empire, one worthier of you”.


Honoring the dictate of his father, that’s precisely what he did. Not only did Alexander seek, but he found a Eurasian continent wholly begging for his annexation. It was decadent, ripe, and ill-guarded, and it required only of a general his picking. With the military acumen of a Theban (where his father learned the advantages of the phalanx, which he applied masterfully in war) and the philosophic touch of an Aristotelian (trained, as he was, by the Stagirite himself), Alexander the barbarian—not yet was he so great—marched his army south and conquered civilized Greece. A magnanimous monarch, he abolished all of the dictatorships on the peninsula and recommended instead for these beleaguered city-states a republican form of government. Some protested his arrival and his reformations (of such dissidents, one thinks of Demosthenes. He was an orator who coined with his biting diatribes the term philippic—eponymously aimed first at father and then at son) but most Greeks succumbed to his martial vigor and his broad-minded rule.


The problem with a prophecy, though, at least in the case of King Phillip, is its ambiguity: exactly how large an empire, Alexander wondered, did his now deceased father intend him to seek? Two nervous continents—that of Africa and Asia—shared in this prophetic uncertainty. Mercifully, an answer wasn’t unforthcoming. Soon these continents were to learn just what this proto-Napoleon had in mind. Like that stolid, regal Corsican, Alexander set his aims upon Egypt. He’d heard of the grandeur of its cities, the beauty of its women, and the paradisiacal plentitude of its Siwa Oasis. He wanted to bathe and anoint himself in all three. Unlike that Bonaparte, however, Alexander made Egypt his own. He left that fertile Nile bedizened with the spoils of conquest and the ornaments of a king.


The limits of his father’s vision still unknown, Alexander—standing now astride two continents with the Mediterranean at his feet—had it in his restless mind to make it three. Crossing the Sinai, he began to rumble his army east toward the Hindu Kush. There, along the Indus River valley, an unimaginably different civilization grew in size and sat in wait. They were a foreign people with dark skin, high turbans, and martial virtues. They were overflowing with piquant spices, complex languages, and polytheistic supplications the west hadn’t known. Yet before he could reach the Punjab and witness, as few other Europeans before or after him would, the insuperable power of a mounted and armored elephant, Alexander made a stop at Gordium.


Today, the city would be located somewhere in northern Turkey. Three hundred years before Christ, it was nestled in Asia Minor. Known for its namesake knot, Gordium was at Alexander’s time under Persian control. It was a tempting satrapy that he hadn’t yet conquered and, for that reason, he simply couldn’t ignore it. More than that though, the city was best known to house an impenetrable “Gordian” Knot. None was so strong as to be able to untie it; none so clever as to deconstruct its sinuous bulk. To he who might unfurl it, a continent was to be won. Asia was the prize for this jumbled ball of yarn, and Alexander wanted nothing more than to watch it unravel like a red carpet before his feet.


Abridged of the challenge, and thinking himself divinely suited for this and every task, the young conqueror removed his blade from its scabbard and sliced the knot in two. Just like that, the problem was gone. The knot became nothing more than another limp piece of string. After all, no one said that such an instrument couldn’t be used on the knot, and surely no one (knowing full well to what other ends that sword might be applied in the hands of an Alexander) dared to call a foul on the play. With one swift, forceful chop, the intractable problem was solved.


On the one hand a Macedonian, on the other, a Theban, Alexander and Oedipus went about their problems in starkly different ways. The former applied force where it hadn’t yet been tried. He, blade in hand, thrust his will brazenly and decisively. The latter employed wit, wisdom, and subtlety. His move was rather perspicacious than pugnacious. Both means proved ultimately successful; they addressed their respective issues and settled the ancient questions that were deemed insurmountable by all.


The lessons to be gleaned from these two legends transcend myth and lore; they can be applied to the issues of our own day. Take, for example, their application to international relations. In dealing with a foreign problem—be it an adversary acting up or lashing out—the responding nation can be Alexandrian. It can be swift in imposing its force and its virile might, either by sword or by word. It can bend, if not overstep (or, in Alexander’s case, undercut) the rules so long as the end justifies the move. You might question said nation’s legitimacy in attempting such a coup, but you can’t deny its efficacy in its achievement.

On the other hand, a nation can be Oedipal. Confronted with a problem similar to that importuning the first, this second nation can be more circumspect and less brash. It can rely rather on subtlety than strength, on the mind rather than the muscles. It can prod the impregnable riddles of the world with caution, cognitive prowess, and unusual tact.


In the coming months, perhaps more so than in the recent past, America will have to decide who she’ll be. Will she be the beardless Alexander or the blinded Oedipus? How will she treat the sphinx that is China and that country’s subversive practices as they pertain to trade? This puzzle requires more subtlety than slapping on Beijing broad tariffs and the like. One hopes America will be deft and shrewd in her dealings with the east and secure for her economy a propitious deal. Staying, as it were, in Asia, we ask how too America will treat the Gordian Knot that is North Korea? What will come of this intractable blight, this rogue regime that’s made a mockery of liberty and justice for all? Will she approach this month’s meeting at Shanghai with a strike to the impenetrable Hermit Kingdom and a necessary blow? Will she have the strength to thrust with a démarche that means more than words? Or will the sphinx devour us whole and the knot bind our hands?

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