Ancient Athens in the 600s BC
Ancient Athens didn’t have a king. It was ruled by nine archons. These were men from the largest landowning families in Attica. When an archon finished his term, he became a life member of the Senate that met on Ares’ hill (the Areopagus), where true power resided.
Large tracts of land were held and farmed by families. The families grew and fathers divided the land among their sons until individual tracts could no longer support a family. The tracts were sold to large landowners and the previous owners became tenant sharecroppers. Others mortgaged (and mortgaged and mortgaged) their land to large landowners until the mortgages became unpayable. The land was then forfeit and the previous owner and his family were sold into slavery.
Meanwhile, merchants in the towns were growing wealthy, often using the newly disenfranchised landowners for cheap labor. The large landowners became jealous of the merchants’ greater wealth so they started selling their corn abroad for profit instead of using it to feed their tenants, and then they started to sell their tenants.
Things were falling apart.
Draco Made Things Worse
The ruling class put Draco in power (around the year 620 BC) to come up with a new set of laws to fix the system.
Instead, he just reinforced the system by imposing incredibly harsh punishments on anyone who bucked it.
Draco did nothing to relieve debtors of slavery. He did nothing to mitigate exploitation. He left in control the ruling class that had caused the problems in the first place.
Things got worse. The poor got poorer. They couldn’t get help from the government because it was controlled by the wealthy. When they sought redress in the courts, they realized the courts were controlled by the men they were suing. They could no longer pay their debts, which meant the rich didn’t have the cash flow they expected, so they in turn grew angry.
The poor were beginning to revolt and the rich were arming themselves to put it down.
Solon Righted the Athenian Ship
Into this storm walked a giant of peace and moderation.
He was the compromise candidate between the merchants and competing rich landowners. They named him, effectively, the leading archon and also gave him dictatorial powers to establish a new constitution to restore stability.
His reforms worked. The Athenian ship was righted and it sailed into greatness. It became the “Cradle of Western Civilization” and gave us history, plays, sculpture, poetry, geometry, and philosophy: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Simonides, Phidias, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid.
He canceled debts, freed slaves, eliminated Draconian penalties, issued new coins, and added new legislative bodies to share a measure of power with the Senate (who, however, retained ultimate power). He established a new popular judicial system that wasn’t controlled by the rich.
The radicals criticized him; the conservatives criticized him. But his reforms saved Athens and would remain in effect for 500 years, albeit with significant interruptions (like the dictatorship of Peisistratus that would occur while Solon was still alive).
After serving as dictator for 22 years, he retired at age 66.
He understood cognitive science’s recent discovery of the brain’s continuing elasticity and said, “I grow old while always learning.”
He traveled to Egypt and the East to study. He traveled to Cyprus. He impressed everyone he met.
He is numbered among the Seven Great Sages of Ancient Greece. He was praised by Cicero, Plutarch, and pretty much anyone else who studied him. To this day, his name is nearly synonymous with “wisdom” and you can find the noun “solon” (meaning, “a wise lawgiver”) in English dictionaries.
Solon: A Practical Man of the Tao
Solon appears to have been a man with a great balance between his right hemisphere (the “master,” in the cognitive story told by Iain McGilchrist) and left (the “emissary” of the right hemisphere). The right hemisphere is the hemisphere of the Tao: it respects that there’s a whole being that we can’t grasp, control, understand, or articulate. The left hemisphere is the hemisphere of action: logic, measure, efficiency, tasks.
The right appreciates harmony; the left, lyrics. The right hemisphere writes in poetry. The left in prose.
Solon was a practical man who was in tune with the Tao, as evidenced by his poetry (a right-hemisphere way of “thinking”) and his written laws (a left-hemisphere activity).
Solon Stamped the Tao onto Athens
The reforms bulleted above were crucial but they were merely the skin of Solon’s body of work. The deeper work was the restoration of peace.
Specifically, Solon sought to restore eunomia: righteousness or “right order.”
For eunomia to exist, human action needs to be embedded in a cosmic order that is governed by the gods.
Zeus, through the goddess Dike (justice), watches over human affairs. If they’re marked by pride and force and the pursuit of wealth, Zeus’ wrath will grow slowly but surely. The goddess Moira (Fate) is greater than any human aspiration and Zeus doesn’t appreciate it when men ignore his daughter or otherwise show her disrespect.
Humans, Solon knew, live in illusion (doxa).
Riches are the biggest illusion of all. Instead of wealth, Solon said, people needed to obey the universal order, even though the fullness of that order is known only to the Gods.
It is very hard to know the unseen measure of right judgment; and yet it alone contains the right boundaries of all things.
If more and more people would renounce their illusions like the pursuit of wealth, said Solon, and instead fit their actions into the unseen measure of the gods, then peaceful life in community would become possible.
Eric Voegelin calls his last part “the Solonic discovery.”
Plato captured it with his pithy phrase, “Society is man writ large.”
Society, in other words, is only as healthy as its individuals.
The best citizen is, well, the best citizen: the citizen that is the best version of himself because he's in tune with the Tao.
If we want to make things better, we need to start there: ourselves. By getting in touch with the Tao, even if it's frustratingly elusive.
And if you encounter an unruly person who doesn’t have himself in order but wants to tell society what it should do, scorn him. Look for the man or woman who appears to have the hemispheric balance that Solon had, who appears to respect the Tao.
“Do not associate with bad people.”
“Even if you know, keep silent.”
“Call no man happy until he is dead.”
“No more good must be attempted than the nation can bear”
“Seek to learn constantly while you live; do not wait in the faith that old age by itself will bring wisdom.”
“In giving advice seek to help, not to please, your friend.”
“Reprove thy friend privately: commend him publicly.”
“Many bad men are rich, many good men are poor; but we shall not exchange wealth for honour, for money flits from man to man but honour abides forever.”
Will Durant, The Life of Greece (Simon & Schuster, 1939), pp. 109-119.
Eric Voegelin, The World of the Polis (Louisiana State University Press, 1991), pp. 194-199.
Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary (Yale University Press, 2009).