Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
“As to the Ring”: Solon’s Democracy
February 1, 2013
By Aaron Belz
Ancient Greek philosopher Solon (638-558 BC) was one of democracy’s pioneers. His fruitful and troubled times demanded it. The first metal coins were being minted; foreign trade was thriving and needed to be regulated. Abuses of power by wealthier classes necessitated a system of rules, some way to enforce fairness among people of unequal socioeconomic status.
Solon opposed unethical lending practices, wrote “Tables of Law” that were displayed on a public swiveling mechanism and came up with what I assume to be the first professional wage scale. The notion of “working class” was conceived in his day. He even created a panel of former Athenian governors to resolve differences between citizens. No wonder his sculpture is included with Moses’ and Confucius’ in the U.S. Supreme Court building’s east façade.
He was also, in good Greek form, a poet, writing about everything from love to the legend of Atlantis. As his political activism grew, his poetry grew along with it. “At first he used his poetry only in trifles, not for any serious purpose, but simply to pass away his idle hours,” writes the great biographer Plutarch (46-120 AD); “but afterwards he introduced moral sentences and state matters … to justify his own actions, and sometimes to correct, chastise, and stir up the Athenians to noble performances.” Plutarch’s account in Lives of the Noble Greeks is lengthy and fond. It also includes quite a few quotes from Solon’s mostly lost canon of poems.
Most of Solon’s poetry is axiomatic, expressed in pithy fragments such as, “Each day I grow older, and learn something new.” Critics seem to agree that Solon’s writing is generally unexceptional in a literary sense. It’s plodding and methodical, not as sharp as his contemporary Sappho’s. But his sense of poetic order does interweave with his political convictions, of oratorical declamation, and reveals the relationship between the two realms. The most apt quote Plutarch includes sounds almost constitutional:
Such power I gave the people as
Abridged not what they had, nor lavished new,
Those that were great in wealth and high in place
My counsel likewise kept from all disgrace.
Before them both I held my shield of might,
And let not either touch the other’s right.
This is the 2,500-year-old acorn of the oak tree of human rights we know today. We’ve grown accustomed to its shade—assume that people are born with the same natural status and entitled to the same legal protection, with special consideration neither to social or material position nor to ethnicity. These assumptions are now encoded in us, we’ve held them to be “truths … self-evident” for so long.
But in Solon’s day, as they would be again in 1776, 1789 and 1865, they were radical and necessary. They restored humanity to people that had been forced into slavery due to unpayable debt or on the basis of race. They ensured that manual laborers received fair wages. Solon’s Tables of Law served as a “shield of might” to those who would otherwise have been powerless while at the same time protecting the human rights of aristocrats. The sort of justice Solon envisioned didn’t flatten class but rather “Abridged not what [the rich] had, nor lavished new [upon the poor].” Members of a civil society are joined, to quote another of Solon’s fragments, “Hand to hand as in the ring”—a brief and perfect image of democracy.
So, again, what good is poetry to politics these days? Especially now, after a presidential inauguration that included a (some say) long-winded poem by the relatively obscure poet Richard Blanco. Must ancient artifacts be brought forward to establish the connection, or is it not only enduring but intrinsic? If the two are no longer perceived as connected, the fault lies with our culture’s movement away from truth and toward fantasy.
Quintilian’s (35-100 AD) famous definition of the “ideal orator” as “a good man … speaking well” applies as readily to poets as to politicians—as does the Apostle Paul’s command to “speak the truth in love.” But in the shadow of the post-Romantic myth of the purely aesthetic and the haze of Modernist experimentation, it might take a little Solon to illuminate the connection.
—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”