No Comment, Quotation — March 14, 2010, 9:32 am

Solon – Fragment 4

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Our city never will perish according to the decree of Zeus
or the will of the blessed gods immortal.
For such a great-spirited guard holds her hands protectingly above it,
Pallas Athena, she of the mighty father.
Rather, the townsmen themselves, in their folly, wish to destroy
our great city, persuaded by wealth,
and unjust is the mind of the leaders of the demos: for them
many grievous sufferings are certain, the fruit of their great hybris.
For they do not know how to suppress koros or how to conduct the present
joys of their feasting in decorous fashion,
but instead they grow rich, putting their trust in unjust deeds.

. . .

. . . sparing not at all either the sacred possessions or those
of the demos, they plunder rapaciously, one here, one there,
nor do they beware the sacred ordinances of Dikê,
who silently notes events as they happen, as well as those that came before,
and, in time, comes, surely, bringing retribution.
This ineluctable wound comes now against the entire city,
and she has come quickly into wretched slavery —
slavery, which rouses from their sleep internal strife and war —
war, which brings an end for the lovely youth of many.
For by its enemies this lovely city quickly is being
destroyed, amid the cabals dear to the unjust.
Such are the evils that roam among the demos, while, as regards the poor,
many have arrived in foreign lands
sold into slavery, bound in shameful fetters.

. . .

In this way does the misfortune of the demos come to each man’s house:
doors no longer suffice to keep it out,
it leaps above the outer wall and finds a man in any case,
even if he, fleeing, should cower in the recesses of the inner chamber.
These things my spirit bids me teach the men of Athens:
that Ill-governance brings evils a thousand-fold for the polis,
but Noble-governance yields a city where all things are decorous and sound,
thickly enfolding in fetters those who are unjust:
it smoothes those things that are rough, it stops koros short, it sentences hybris to obscurity;
it causes the burgeoning flowers of atê to whither,
and straightens crooked judgments; calms the
deeds of arrogance and stops the deeds of faction;
it stops the bilious anger of harsh strife and in its control
are all things proper and thoughtful among men.

Solon (?????), Fragment 4 (ca. 580 BCE)(J. Porter transl.)

In addition to Solon the lawgiver, there is Solon the lyric poet. The thoughts his poems present are much the same, and indeed the poems give considerable definition to the policies that underly his laws. In Fragment 4, Solon speaks with the voice of a physician who has studied the body politic of his native Athens. He identifies its ills and he prescribes a cure. It is not the gods which have or would ever bring the city low, he says, but rather it is the citizens themselves. Indeed, he is quite focused in his criticism: “townsmen themselves, in their folly, wish to destroy/ our great city, persuaded by wealth,/ and unjust” and a few lines later “they grow rich, putting their trust in unjust deeds.” They “plunder rapaciously.” The way he uses the term “townsmen” (agathoi) suggests that he means propertied classes. The elites of Athens in Solon’s day pursued private wealth without regard for the well-being of their city-state, and they adopted practices (like debt slavery, to which he refers specifically in the poem) which brought oppression and misery to their fellow citizens–this is the thrust of Solon’s complaint. The disparity between haves and have-nots grew, and the social compact which held Athens together began to unravel. As this meltdown progressed, the people turned to Solon to restore the city. The situation that Solon describes is remarkably like that of America in the last years. Like Athens, America has been dominated by elites whose greed has been excessive. They gamed the economic and political system in ways that benefited themselves and did great damage to the state.

The contemporary equivalent of Solon’s attack on the “townsmen” was delivered this week by Delaware senator Ted Kaufman. He identified the crux of the current problem in five pieces:

  1. The deregulation of the financial services industry under both Democratic and Republican administrations in the period from 1980-2000, he argued, led directly to the economic catastrophe in 2007-08, and also to a massive transfer of wealth into the pockets of those who instigated it.

  2. The Depression era reforms, things like Glass-Steagall, which compartmentalize the financial services industry and subject it to regulations keyed to the industry segment and designed to protect consumers against unwarranted risk, were essential, correct, and need to be re-resurrected.

  3. We need to avoid banks that are too big to fail, he argued. Is it too much to expect a Delaware senator also to look at the banking industry’s current credit card scams, which is the modern manifestation of what Solon called “debt slavery”?

  4. We should tighten capital requirements substantially.

  5. And he calls for the tight regulation of derivatives–the product which more than any other caused the current crisis, and which few participants in the industry–including those who buy and sell them–can even explain.

The “townsmen” of today are those fixed on the accumulation of person wealth at all cost and prepared to do great harm to the economy and the interests of their fellow citizens to achieve it. Call them the investment bankers who take multi-billion dollar bailouts from the federal treasury and use a generous portion of the money to pay themselves multi-million dollar bonuses. But they are no new apparition. They were on the political stage before Solon. Their interests and conduct antedate democracy as we understand it. Moreover, Solon teaches us something fundamental: democracy properly understood includes the appreciation of the destructive forces of greed and salutary measures to hold it in check, even as such steps must be balanced against the interest of liberty for the people and promotion of the market.

The gods will not destroy Athens, Solon tells us. But then he seems to contradict this statement. He speaks of “the sacred ordinances of Dikê,” which is how Solon presents the notion of moral justice, as an animating principle for the state. But the Dikê is also a sort of goddess and he presents her as wrathful: “who silently notes events as they happen, as well as those that came before,/ and, in time, comes, surely, bringing retribution.” There is no real contradiction as Solon wields these images. His Dikê is the spirit of moral justice. A healthy state respects her and turns her values into law; it then fairly applies and upholds these laws. And in so doing, it saves the citizens from their own worst enemies: their unrestrained and rapacious natures. A government and a people who know and value justice will prosper, he suggests, and those who disdain justice will sink in their own morass.

To be sure: the Dikê does not require that credit cards be limited to 18 percent per annum compound interest. But she does require some safeguards to protect the poorest and neediest from exploitation, and she requires that the power of greed be recognized and grappled with. And in America in 2010 there is a sinking recognition that she has been too long ignored.


Listen to a tribute to another goddess – Andreas Scholl performs John Bennet’s “Venus’s Birds” (ca. 1600):

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