There is at least one classical analogue for Glyn Davies MP and his recent remark about not considering academics to be ‘experts’ because they lack experience of the real world: Alexander of Macedonia. This is not intended as a compliment.
According to legend, the Gordian Knot had been tied by a legendary king of Phrygia (centre of modern Turkey), Gordias, who used it to tie his ox-cart to a post (being one of those kings who began life as a humble peasant before being unexpectedly elevated by meeting the terms of an oracle). The cart was dedicated to the chief god of the Phrygians and kept in the royal palace; centuries later, Alexander paused there in his campaign to conquer the known world, and decided to untie it. Depending on which version you believe, he either cut the knot with a sword or pulled out the post so it unravelled; either way, Success!, and some oracles were hastily written to explain that untying the knot made you king of the universe, rather than just being a bit of gratuitous vandalism of priceless heritage.
Alexander the ‘Great’ is the archetype of the unreflective ‘See thing; hit thing with stick’ man of action, of the ‘Must do something; this is something; therefore must do it’ politician. He makes Homeric heroes look introverted and sensitive. He is celebrated, and certainly celebrated himself, for having Done Things that others counselled against or considered impossible, turning the world upside down for the sake of his own inflated ego, without any concern for the consequences. He Thought Outside The Box, and the Gordian Knot has become the go-to metaphor (as a quick Google will demonstrate) for any problem that looks complex and nigh-on insoluble – or so those ivory-tower ‘experts’ will try to tell you – that actually just needs some decisive action from a proper Man Of Action to slice away all the unnecessary nuance, ambiguity and qualifications.
This is such a terrible model for anything, and yet it’s incredibly powerful: the idea that complexity only appears to be a problem to those who think too much, and can actually be disposed of in an instant of decisiveness. The Gordian Knot feeds into the legend of Alexander the Prat, and his military successes legitimise taking his actions as exemplary leadership. It’s the dream of politicians, and of the popular media: a world that really is simple, if only we could cut through the nonsense propagated by those who have an interest in making it seem complicated. Brexit Means Brexit; all we need to do is leave Europe and everything will fall into place; the refugee problem can be solved with a firmer hand; build a wall; and so forth.
The obvious points: there was no need to do anything to the Gordian Knot in the first place, beyond Alexander’s restless desire to Do Things; even if there had been a solid reason, it can easily be argued that he’d missed the point completely by cheating; and solving problems by destroying the object of puzzlement is rarely without consequences. Put another way; this sort of thinking – not exactly magical thinking, though it’s clearly allied to it – is precisely what makes politicians dangerous; Alexandrian Leadership is at best futile (because most problems in the Real World are resistant to being hit with a sword) and more often destructive, both because hitting things with a sword often makes them worse and because it reflects and encourages a general reluctance to accept that the world is complex and things are difficult – and that experts may know what they’re talking about.
I was delighted to discover that this isn’t a new idea; in a lecture of 1957, Albert Camus depicted the history of the twentieth century up to that point as the violent cutting of the intricate knot of civilisation by the sword of totalitarian and populist politics. We need, he argued, to re-tie the knot, not just to accept that everything is intertwined but to celebrate this; we need anti-Alexanders. Absolutely; and now more than ever.
Update, 6/11: courtesy of @ByzantJustice on the Twitter, I learn that another great literary figure of the 20th century was unimpressed with Alexander’s actions: Erich Kästner. He imagines what his mother’s reaction would have been, on the basis of how she told him off for even thinking of opening a parcel in such a manner: “Das gehört sich nicht, Alex! Strick kann man immer brauchen!” Yes, the Alexandrian Leaders of today are exactly the sort of people who forget, or have never needed to know, that you always need string.