Where is SOLON (640-560) when we need him?
(The Pattern)

Presented August 12, 2002 REALIA Conference, Bretton Woods, NH
Article forthcoming in Contemporary Philosophy Vol. XXIV

Synopsis: this essay gives a brief account of Solon’s legislation and monetary reform in the context of the ancient Mediterranean world’s debt crisis soon after paper and money had been invented. It is based on the relevant sections of Solon’s reforms in 594 BCE in Aristotle’s History of the Athenian Constitution and focuses on laws promoting nascent democratic institutions intended to increase prosperity by aiding industrious individuals and commerce. Solon enacted strict laws against charging usurious interest on commercial and agricultural loans. He also expanded the city-state’s moral responsibility with a new legislation that shielded all of Attica’s citizens against enslavement.

Solon, the great Athenian lawgiver, whom Plato called the wisest of Magna Graecia’s seven sages, would probably somewhat enjoy current revivals of ancient scandals involving wealth and power: they would confirm his sense of continuity in human affairs as well as his observation based knowledge of the human mind’s infinite capacity to modify the merely given by playing sound and unsound tricks. Solon, like Odysseus, had the ability to see through tricks and lies and, countering ingenuity with ingenuity (symbolized by the caduceus, the wand of Hermes with the two snakes that is also the trade mark of healers and messengers) could bring his renown to bear on behalf of the good of the citizenry. His words were his deeds translated into political practice by which he balanced the scales of justice amidst the perennial clash of contending social forces in favor of a truly new measure of justice-as-fairness for city and countryside.

On the philosophical plane one can observe that Solon’s underlying world view – the hypokeimenon of the Hellenic culture – was already proto-Platonic in that the Cosmos was understood, though chance-ridden and ruled by dour necessity, as endowed with lively intelligence and informed by justice. Language, thought and convention-as-law (nomos) had not yet begun to differentiate between the idioms of ethics and aesthetics. This fair cosmos was invented and/or discovered by the Greeks and offered the invitation to all and sundry to imitate its qualities and take it for the ideal model fit for a fair society. A fair society required in turn fair individuals, i.e. people with self-control and moderation unblemished by excess who lived their lives in harmony with and honor of the cosmos at large. Their number, though small, will grow over time. Though this was a world view that exalted harmony, it contained already the tense conflict, the agon, between being and becoming, sameness and difference, rest and motion, changelessness and constant change. Thus the question whether time or space was primarily responsible for the constitution of the cosmos was asked and needed to be answered. Solon, in concert with the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander, ranks time, not space as reality’s foremost constitutive principle. The cosmic quality of fairness is immediately buttressed by the evidence of sense perception and mirrored by the order of justice that rules all things in the universe. Here is Anaximander’s epochal definition of justice that underlies the order of time, i.e. the fountainhead of democracy.


Enough is said for now about the metaphysical foundation of Solon’s legislation and his politics. Today’s readers of the early texts reporting on the great man’s career cannot be but amazed by the dissonance-containing harmony of his way of life and his achievements as poet, politician, and legislator. Even when in 560 BCE Peisistratus came to tyrannical power in Athens, he kept his composure and balanced judgment. With amity he helped the new ruler to govern with wisdom as a good king and not as self-willed autocrat. In life and work alike he seems to rely on the personal knowledge that even the music of the spheres cannot subsist on harmony alone and needs the prodding of dissonance to keep on playing. In short, Solon was a master dialectician before the dialectic had a name.

Accepting life’s transitory nature as it applies to individuals and entire civilizations, in this and any number of yet to be discovered other worlds, he preserved into old age an admirably nimble unencumbered mind eager to learn something new by reflecting on his experience from a variety of perspectives ranging from profound to urbane. Solon shared the Greek conviction, given voice by Aeschylus, that wisdom drop by drop is distilled from agony by thoughtful patient re-collection. He also knew from his own life that such an intellectual and empathetic process has the power to transform people as well as circumstances ruled by necessity and chance toward the better.

There is no wisdom without compassion and no compassion without wisdom. This is, according to Simone Weil, how the ancient Greeks intimated Christianity at the time when in Asia the Buddha already walked on earth. The influence of Solon’s well-tempered personality on the classical period’s philosophic self-perception and imagination is anybody’s guess but, I feel, difficult to overestimate. He looks to me very much like the model of Aristotle’s virtuous man and Plato traced the traits and balancing skills of the mythic figure of the demiurge, creator of the entire universe in the TIMAEUS, in the likeness of the historic lawgiver. Socrates’ praise of the Athenian laws in the CRITO also comes easily to mind as a veiled tribute to the Athenian sage.

In the year 594 BCE Solon was a well-traveled man of letters, as well as affairs, who owned his own ship for business and pleasure. He was at that time about forty-five years of age when all of Attica suffered once again outbreaks of violent civil dissensions. The population was divided into 3 factions, consisting of the relatively wealthy inhabitants of Athens and the surrounding plains, the by and large poor rural population of the hills in Attica’s hinterland to the north and east, and the seafaring mercantile people of moderate means scattered along the coast. The conflict among the people in the three regions and the parties which represented them was endemic and of immemorial standing. It was further aggravated by the class opposition between the few and the many, or the oligarchs and the people. The people were a mix of peasants, who were tillers or herdsmen and landless laborers, small and not so small shop-owners, artisans and their apprentices, traders, crooks and beggars, minstrels and a non-descript host of entertainers somewhat related to religious practices, servants, teachers, nurses, mid-wives, as well as a mix of managers and members of low and middling standing in the priestly and medical professions whose better placed membership partook of the class of ‘notables’. Poets, rhapsodists and other followers of the Orphic tradition, including the philosopher Pythagoras, were sparse in numbers and some of them founded schools and cults. To get a teaching license and open shop in Athens one had to apply for permission to open a place of cultic worship. Slaves, though indispensable were not admitted as members but were a sub-class largely unprotected by the civil law.

Neither academicians nor lawyers had yet arrived on the scene. Everybody had to be verbally adroit enough to perform as their own attorney and, once Solon’s reform took hold, serve the polis as member of the jury court in political deliberations and at civil and penal trials. The opposition between the few and the many was somewhat concealed by the different agendas separating the parties representing Attica’s three regions. But the division of the populace by opposing class interests between the few and the many is by far the most important factor in understanding the exemplary nature and essential fairness of Solon’s liberalizing legislation.

In 621 BCE the Athenian government’s last pacification campaign to put down an insurrection ended with the enactment of the Draconian legislation. Draco’s laws had been so severe that for a while the people, rich and poor alike, were reduced to a state of fear and trembling. But not for long. In 594 BCE, one short generation later, the people started to revolt and raised Cain thus precipitating a crisis of unprecedented intensity in the region that threatened to erupt into full scale internecine war. What on earth had happened to exhaust the peasants’ proverbial stoic capacity to bear up under hardship and earn their daily bread in the sweat of their brows by producing the food for the ungrateful covetous city? Whence derived the sheer force of the agrarian hinterland’s violent protest? What was the trigger for the desperate courage sparking the tinder of revolt? The answer is the spread of famine among landless laborers and the rapidly progressing threat of losing their farms and their freedom among tenant farmers and freeholders. Many farmers had already lost both and the entire productive segment of the rural population found itself pitted against the dreadful threat of slavery and extinction. Caught in the crunch of the economic transition from barter to money, farmers had to borrow money after a bad harvest at often exorbitant rates of interest upon the security of their property and their persons. If the fraction of the principal and the (usurious) interest due were not paid in timely fashion, the creditor, often a moneyman from the City, had legal power to seize the person as well as the land of the debtor and keeping or selling both at his discretion. Only the male head of household could serve as security when a loan was contracted. Women and children were regarded by the law as household chattel. They had to fend for themselves when the head of household lost his free status and was under the then prevailing laws of custom (nomos) branded as slave for the rest of his life without chance of redemption. The debt crisis worsened and the descent into slavery accelerated. Farmer after farmer had been torn from his home and sold into exile to foreign masters, while others were cultivating as slaves the lands of their wealthy new owners in Attica. Freedom’s core meaning, today just as much as at the beginnings of historic time is quite simply not to be a slave: The proverbial fate worse than death.

Permit me at this point a comment on what I take to be the present state of affairs: Antiquity’s horrific forms of slavery have not been left behind by modern times. They have proliferated. Ever growing numbers of people find themselves living under the debasing pitiless vicissitudes of bondage at the beginning of the third millennium. Reduced to faceless desperation, no drop of wisdom can be extracted from the pain; apathy and violence rule around the clock and new forms of bondage are generated every day. Conditions of slavery, under many euphemisms, thrive within and across borders, not recognized by but embedded in globalization’s rigidly dogmatic institutional matrix. This matrix was created with hope and good intentions in Bretton-Woods in 1944. Guided by the liberal shrewd spirit of John Maynard Keynes, a latter day Solon, new global monetary institutions were created to make the peoples of the globe prosper. Now, almost sixty years later, bureaucracy and corruption have wrought havoc on the Bretton-Woods new order and terror is endemic the world over. Combating terror is the mandate of the hour now. But doing so effectively requires the re-emergence of Solon’s fair wisdom to countervail the rapacity of the world of power-and-greed. Thus let us return to democracy’s origins and grasp the pattern of Solon’s legislation from the record.

Aristotle in his History of the Athenian Constitution (v.2) describes the situation in Athens and Attica: "The land was divided among few owners and loans were secured on the person. Such being the system in the polity, and the many being enslaved to the few, the people rose against the notables. The party struggle being violent and the parties being arrayed in opposition to one another for a long time, they jointly chose Solon as arbitrator and archon and entrusted the government to him, after he had composed the elegy that begins: “I watch, and sorrow fills my breast to see Ionia’s oldest land being done to death”. In this poem Solon casts himself as doing battle on behalf of each party against the others. He enters the fray as moderator and mediator and exhorts all factions jointly to stop the quarrel that prevailed between them. Solon was by birth and reputation of the first rank, but by wealth and position belonged to the middle class, as is admitted on the part of the other authorities, and as he himself testifies in poems exhorting the wealthy not to be covetous:

Refrain ye in your hearts those stubborn moods,
Plunged in a surfeit of abundant goods,
And moderate your pride! We’ll not submit,
Nor even you yourselves will this befit.

And he always assigns the blame for the civil strife to the oligarchs’ love of money, overweening pride and insolence.

As soon as Solon was installed as archon (principal magistrate) with full executive powers he instituted measures to safeguard the civil status of all citizens by outlawing loans secured on the person. Those sold into slavery he bought back with government funds so they could return from exile; those enslaved at home he restored to free citizenship and set free by law by canceling their debts. At the same time he also undertook a bold currency reform in tandem with a land reform bill. Farming families who had lost their land during the debt crisis would be compensated and have a fresh start. These measures were as beneficial as they were controversial and have become known as the Seisachtheia, i.e. the Shaking-Off of the Burdens. Yet, soon after the new laws were enacted as well as publicly celebrated they proved a mixed blessing and the reports of what happened in the wake of the new reforms are disconcerting and perplexing.

Some two-hundred-fifty years later Aristotle sorts this out in his History of the Constitution of Athens where he defends Solon’s measures and reputation: “In these matters some people try to misrepresent him; for it happened that when Solon was intending to enact the Shaking-off of the Burdens he informed some of the notables beforehand and, afterwards, as those of popular sympathies say, he was out-foxed by his friends, but according to those who want to malign him he himself also took a share. For these persons borrowed money and bought up a quantity of land, and when not long afterwards the cancellation of debts took place they were rich men; and this is said to be the origin of the families subsequently reputed to be ancestrally wealthy. Nevertheless, the account of those of popular sympathies is more credible; for considering that he was so moderate and public-spirited in the rest of his conduct that, when he had the opportunity to reduce one of the parties to subjection and so to be tyrant of the polis, he chose to incur the enmity of both, and valued honor and the safety of the state more than his own aggrandizement, it is not probably that he besmirched himself in such worthless trifles. And that he got this opportunity is testified by the disordered state of affairs, and also he himself alludes to it in many places in his poems, and everybody else agrees with him. We are bound therefore to consider this charge to be false.”

With the great lawgiver’s reputation intact, perhaps we should ask before looking at some of the laws more closely at how modern they are. There’s no account of a vision in a cave or of writings on the wall, or reports of burning bushes, trumpets, lightening and loud thunderclaps. No, there is not even a strong wind from any of the four directions. All the paraphernalia of ancient lawgiving are absent and no supernatural revelation or inspiration is invoked by anybody as authoritative source; least of all by Solon himself. Priestly as well as prophetic talk both is tinged by irony. Solon’s reputation for probity and wisdom is deemed sufficient by the leaders of the three contending factions. They entrust Solon with legislative as well as executive powers to fairly balance and reconcile their vital differences. He in turn consolidated what was best in Greek tradition and, with keen foresight made laws that promote and safeguard the citizenry’s common good for the next hundred years.

In retrospect one may wish to wonder how Solon with his live-and-let-live nonchalance, his sober self-knowledge and modesty, his businessman’s grasp of risks could be willing to take on the labor to come up with laws that would save the ship of state from sinking and set it on safe course. The ancient sources are silent. So permit me a few moments to speculate on this matter: It would be foolish to entertain the possibility that this man was inured against feeling flattered by the request, or immune against the temptation of fame and glory. And it would be equally foolish to maintain that greed for earthly and/or eternal rewards was able to hold him in chains for long. Solon, if we know anything about the man, had a genuinely philosophic disposition. He knew time, reason and justice to be constitutive of the cosmos at large, as well as of the city state and each of its citizens in health and crisis. Slaves, though necessary as labor force at the time, were human and their unfortunate situation needed to be remedied sooner rather than later. Solon’s laws and writings show his affinity to the concept of evolution already anticipated by Anaximander’s moral law of the universe quoted above. Cosmic, political and personal ‘reality’ is understood by him as primarily constituted by the order of time. That means it is open-ended and ongoing, subject to changes people can initiate and not a closed self-replicating hierarchical structure in space. If life’s order is experienced as ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’, change ceases to be seen as threat. For those of intelligence and imagination the inevitability of change may even come to serve as an invitation to overcome inertia and actively envision possibilities for small and big improvements. Solon, by his understanding of the moral nature of the temporal within the universal order was delivered from the tyranny of fear that so often cripples our mental faculties. He was free to use his ingenuity, inventiveness, empathy and imagination to invent and discover new ways for people to live together not just enduring but actively enjoying to do their part in ordinary and extraordinary situations.

When the representatives of the three warring parties asked Solon to assume the office of presiding archon of the Athenian city state, he accepted the request. With deliberation he proceeded with negotiations that led to a dynamic and fairly equitable reconciliation of the three warring factions’ vital interests. This reconciliation was based on some hard won compromises that redounded over time to Athens’ and Attica’s benefit. In the concrete circumstances of economic and political crisis Solon performed the required balancing act and remade his riven society. His laws were not mysteries from on high but the tools of the trade for the politician-statesman. He tinkered with the existing situation and cobbled together as best he could a new arrangement where all citizens were protected against the dreaded descent into slavery. Enmity among the factions was reduced, wars avoided, usurious lending practices punished, the crafts and arts, especially the language arts were assiduously cultivated, and trade within the country and with other regions expanded rapidly. Since the new political arrangements, Solon’s pattern, were all based on mutual compromise no faction was completely satisfied. But the spreading discontent was kept in check most of the time by the economic and social improvements which were real enough so they could not be effectively gainsaid by would be demagogues as long as the people had enough food and freedom to hold on to their common sense. By instituting a most ingenious judicial system where the people who could pass the means test had to serve as jurors and obtained the corollary right to bring suite he balanced the state’s power in favor of civilians, guarded against tyranny and increased the individual citizens’ awareness for his own stake in the common good. An Athenian citizen’s dues were proportionately payable in time and money.

Solon’s non-utopian measures proved sufficient for the fledgling democracy, the first open society based on the rule of man-made laws to start its astonishing precarious career. Laws protecting the right to private property of citizens and desirable foreign residents were enacted as spur to increase the city-state’s wealth. New inheritance laws tied property to the individual, male or female, overriding tradition’s and convention’s claims that all personal property of the deceased automatically belonged to the family and/or clan. Sons and daughters had no automatic right to inheritance. Daughters had a right to dowry and sons the right to an education which meant most of all ample access to schooling in writing, reading and public speaking. In one stroke Solon had invented the social conditions for the (nearly) self-made democratic individual to enter the stage of world history. The democratization of education was essential to make the new institutions work well and the birth of democratic government, rhetoric and philosophy is no accident: all three are rooted in tradition and in Solon’s reforms. Today the question to ask is whether our generation will be able to prevent the demise of democratic government which is under grievous assault from many quarters from within and without the republic. In other words: can this generation help to enable Solon’s pattern to improve and prevail?

Giving generous time and thought to this question might help enhance the chance for a new quickening of the democratic process itself provided two things are remembered and firmly kept in mind. The first is that wealth’s moral worth, its social desirability hinges on the condition that it is obtained by fair means and managed with prudence and foresight which is the Greek pair of ‘phronesis’ and ‘pronoia’. Never mind how much glamour the entertainment media bestow on crime nor how much material wealth, especially in the fungible form of money is idolized, sober decency of work and worker is democratic prosperity’s bedrock. The second is intimately connected to the first. It concerns the core skills of cultural transmission that enable individuals to stay clear of the illusion of pleasure and thus of ideational obsessions and behavioral compulsions. Each individual, Solon knew, has to acquire the ability to carefully moderate, not repress, his natural drive toward insatiability, Saint Augustine’s and Freud’s libido, i.e. what the Greeks called pleonexia. The threat of pleonexia, the pleasant-seeming yet absolutely relentless brutal tyranny of insatiability, whether manifest in private or public excess, is ever present to play havoc with the interlocking personal, civic and global orders’ precarious balances, imperfect as they are. Democracy’s abiding task is to moderate human insatiability by turning it from curse to benefit.

Solon knew of no forms of government which could prevent insatiability’s insidious power other than the democratic pattern he enacted. He had traveled far and wide and had not encountered a polity that could provide a pattern to be adopted by imitation. Crete’s fabled Minoan civilization had already faded. Perhaps the Egyptian pharaonic system knew how to curb the King’s appetites, but in Egypt political rule was the monopoly of priests. Persia’s despotism was not a pattern to be imitated especially since Persian insatiability for territory was a threat to Hellas. How about Sparta? This ancient city state had become Hellas’ most admired due to the rules Lycurgus had four generations earlier successfully imposed. Though Sparta in the Greek self-understanding of the time was not a tyranny, the Spartan constitution of grim autarchy and totalitarian militarism was not acceptable to a life and people loving cosmopolitan individualist from Athens. Solon, knowing his Homer, based his pattern for democracy not on raw power and slave labor, but on the belief that time will favor people who love language and the arts, are quick-witted as well as devoted to a full measure of prosperity for themselves and their trading partners. They all, in their different ways, rely on ingenuity and industry to flourish. A politician-statesman of great skill and eloquence he succeeded to spread the peaceful influence of the Athenian city state by art and trade across the regions of the Mediterranean world. His influence was midwife to Periclean glory and, in this corrupted form, still lingers on today. In 404 BCE Sparta won the power contest against Athens on the ground while Solon’s democratic pattern in various contextual forms may be winning the great contest in historic time. This contest’s agony is far from over and has entered on September eleven 2001 a new vexatious phase. Today Solon’s pattern of democracy is not well understood by the very people who are its heirs. The pattern has been shamelessly perverted by the very people who use the word ‘democracy’ most often. Yet there is no point in fighting for democracy as word alone. The fight is only desirable as well as moral if what is fought for is the ‘real thing’: The justice-as-fairness pattern that made Athens’s citizenry free and turned their freedom into a beacon is but a premonition for a time where the present moment is no longer sacrificed in a Faustian bargain for immediate sensations of gain and illusory pleasure but joined to the slow beat of time’s unchanging law of cosmic justice in concord with the moments that may arrive tomorrow. In sum: this excursus into Solon’s Athens is but an attempt to direct a compressed, memorable American saying “Attention must be paid” toward tomorrow and the day thereafter.

Bibliography is available on request.