Solon, The Just #
Solon, is generally credited with the introduction of Justice and Democracy to Athens. His esteemed authority has stood the test of time. Both Plato and Aristotle bow to his acknowledged authority in law. Juvenal simply refers to him as “eloquent Solon, the Just”.
The people of Athens, suffering under the capricious and arbitrary jurisdiction of aristocratic judges, wanted Solon to use his popularity and his power to make himself a tyrant. Solon, who was a wise man, replied that:
“tyranny is indeed a very pleasant peak, but there is no way down from it”.
Solon ruled Athens for one year, expecting his reforms of wresting power from the aristocrats and vesting it in the lives of the people to last at least ten years. Five years later most of the power had aggregated back to the upper classes.
Three hundred years before Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Solonic authority decreed a fair and just society for all by establishing a system of government and justice that freed all members of the community from the oppression and injustice of the privileged, by freeing them from slavery due to their debts.
Solon believed the family to be the foundation of society and ensured that family disputes were resolved fairly and equitable.
Eunomia - Solon #
These things my spirit bids me
teach the men of Athens:
that Dysnomia (disorder - lawlessness)
brings countless evils for the city,
but Eunomia brings order (Good governance)
and makes everything proper,
by enfolding the unjust in fetters,
smoothing those things that are rough,
Eunomia (Greek: Εὐνομία) was a minor Greek goddess of law and legislation “Good order”, “governance according to good laws”),
The Man Whose Riches Satisfy His Greed
The man whose riches satisfy his greed Is not more rich for all those heaps and hoards Than some poor man who has enough to feed And clothe his corpse with such as God affords. Eunomia.
These things my spirit bids me teach the men of Athens: that Dysnomia brings countless evils for the city,
The relationship between the poetry of Hesiod (Works and Days) and Solon is profound. Solon, through a series of allusions, incorporates into his poem Hesiod’s authority on dikē to validate condemnation of injustice in his own city, and in the second half of the poem he turns the Hesiodic pessimism of this injustice into an optimistic hope for his city’s just future. Solon expands Hesiod’s notion of Zeus as the punisher of injustice to create a pessimistic view of human life darker than Hesiod’s own. A final discussion of the scholarly division on the question of whether dikē in Solon is essentially Hesiodic or something new in Greek thought rounds out the observations on the relation between the poets and confirms Solon’s dependence on Hesiod.
Solon’s Basic tenets: #
Solon was born into a well-to-do family of Athens. He worked as a merchant in the export-import trade, and he considered himself relatively poor. He did not worship money, as is evident from some poems of his.
Poetry was for Solon a way to entertain himself, and he also used poetry to give his ideas easy access to the minds of the Athenians. Communication was oral, so oratory was a key skill to be influential.
When Anacharsis, a wise man, saw Athenian democracy at work, he remarked that it was strange that in Athens wise men spoke and fools decided. Anacharsis laughed at Solon for drafting laws, imagining that the dishonesty and greed of the Athenians could be restrained by written laws. Such laws, are like spiderwebs: they catch the weak and poor, but the rich can rip right through them.
Solon knew that spite, is part of human nature, but he established certain places where it was illegal to indulge this weakness. To suppress it completely would have been impossible.
If the aim is to punish a few, moderately, as an example – rather than many, severely, to no purpose – the lawmaker must confine his law to the limits of human nature, and not try to legislate perfection.
It is not affection, but weakness, that brings a man – unarmed against fortune by reason – into these endless pains and terrors. Because they are always worrying about what might go wrong, most are unable to enjoy their present opportunities for happiness.
Athens at this time had three factions: the people of the hills, who favored democracy; the people of the plains, who favored oligarchy; and the people of the shore, who favored a mixed sort of government and prevented either of the other two factions from prevailing. The political turmoil had come to the point where it appeared that the only way any government at all could be established would be for some tyrant to take all power into his own hands.
Under Athenian law at that time, if a loan went into default, the creditor could seize the debtor and his family and sell them as slaves to get money to pay off the debt. The cruelty and arrogance of the rich caused the poor to form into gangs to save themselves and rescue those who had been made slaves through usury. The best men of the city saw Solon as someone who was partial to neither the rich nor the poor, and they asked him to lead. The rich consented because Solon was wealthy, and the poor consented because he was honest.
Solon’s task was dangerous and difficult because of the greediness of one side and the arrogance of the other. To placate both sides, Solon said: “Fairness breeds no strife." To the poor, “fairness” meant equal wealth; and to the rich, “fairness” meant keeping what they owned.
Both rich and poor, therefore, believed for a while that Solon was on their side. But soon the poor people became disgusted that Solon would not use his power to seize the property of the rich. Solon’s friends advised him that he would be a fool if he did not take advantage of the opportunity that fate had presented. Now that he had this power, they said, he should make himself a tyrant. Solon, who was a wise man, replied that “tyranny is indeed a very pleasant peak, but there is no way down from it.”
Solon could not change the state from top to bottom, so he worked only on what it was possible to improve without a total revolution. He only attempted what he thought he could persuade the Athenians to accept, with a little compulsion. Wherever possible, Solon made use of euphemisms, such as calling taxes “contributions.” With a judicious mixture of sweet with sour, justice with force, he managed to achieve some success. When afterwards Solon was asked whether he had made the best laws he could for the Athenians, he answered: “The best they were able to receive."
Solon’s first reform was forbidding mortgages on bodies. Even with the consent of the debtor, the creditor could no longer legally enslave him and his family. Those who had already become slaves were liberated, and those who had been sold to foreigners returned to Athens as free men. Solon also ordered that all outstanding debts were forgiven, so all mortgages on land disappeared.
When Solon was asked once which city he thought was well-governed, he said:
“That city where those who have not been injured take up the cause of one who has, and prosecute the case as earnestly as if the wrong had been done to themselves."
Accordingly, he allowed anyone to take up the cause of a poor man who had been injured.
Solon decided that he should leave the Athenians for a while so that they would cease bothering him, and work things out by themselves. He got permission to leave Athens and took a ship to Egypt [590 B.C.].
Croesus commanded that his treasure houses be opened so that Solon could see how many beautiful clothes he had, and how much gold. Solon politely looked at everything, then came back to the king.
“Well, Solon," said Croesus, “have you ever seen a man who was more fortunate than Croesus?"
“Yes, I have, and that was Tellus, a citizen of Athens. He was an honest man who left his children well provided for and with good will in the city. He lived to see grandchildren by his sons. Then he died gloriously, fighting for his country."
This frank answer enraged Croesus, but Solon pacified him by adding:
“Oh mighty king of the Lydians, the gods have given us Greeks only small things, and our wisdom is only of small things and not the business of men as important as you. We consider how a man’s life is so much subject to chance, and how disaster can come to us completely by surprise, so we don’t consider any man to be successful until he has died well, with his good fortune intact to the end. Otherwise, if we should say that a living man is a success, when there is so much that can still happen to him, we would be like soldiers celebrating victory before the battle is over."
Solon’s constitution reduced the power of the old aristocracy by making wealth rather than birth a criterion for holding political positions, a system called timokratia (timocracy). … The only parts of Draco’s code that Solon kept were the laws regarding homicide.