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Dialogue of Cultures

On the Athenian Constitution
by Solon of Athens

(c. 580 B.C.)

translated by David Shavin

Reprinted from FIDELIO Magazine, Vol . II, No. 2 Summer 1993. Most figures and graphics are not included online. Click to order this issue or to subscribe.

Solon's Poem

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Introduction- Notes on the Poem

The founding of the Western tradition of constitutional government can be located with Solon's role in the birth of Greece's classical culture. Solon lived in Athens, approximately from 640 to 560 BC, and was called upon to rule Athens in 594 BC, during a deep financial and social crisis.

Under the Draconian laws preceding Solon, a creditor was allowed to claim the debtor's person in payment on money owed. This debt-slavery, which reduced humans to being but an extension of their own financial agreements, progressively emiserated Athens. Usurious rates of interest exceeded the profit margins of otherwise healthy enterprises, and enslaved otherwise free laborers. In a bold step, Solon ended debt-slavery with his "Seisachtheia," which 'shook off the burden' of the debt. (The event was commemorated by Athenians with an annual public feast.) His constitution attempted to re-formulate relations between the powerful and the powerless, based upon a higher standpoint, as his poem relates.

Solon's poem progresses in stages to its climax. Present evils are due to men's actions, not abstract fate. Human frailties of greed, pride, and immoderation must lose out sooner or later to justice. Evil enslaves humans, and destroys society. It invades each individual's most intimate private life. Mankind can and must order their affairs according to "eunomia," which has the power to destroy evil.

The word itself, "Eunomia," meaning "a healthy ordering of law, or as translated here, "a good constitution," is quite unique in the poem. In a relatively short word, the whole spectrum of vowels are heard. Considering the invariant ordering of vowels, "u, o, a, e, i," "eunomia" can be said to sweep from one side ("e-u") to the other ("o-i"), and come to rest near the middle ("a"). The very sound of the word conveys a sense both of encompassing the universe of vowels, and of bringing order out of wild gyrations.

"Eunomia" stands at the climax of the Greek poem, followed by a cascade of rippling effects, starting with the phrase "Trachea leiainei," or "Rough things (a good constitution) makes smooth." Again, the words perform the action described, the verb "leiainei" smoothing out the rough "Trachea."

This particular phrase, along with the parallel phrase refering to 'the making of crooked judgments straight,' would have struck a chord, for an early Christian reading the Greek text of the New Testament. For example, when Luke describes John's role in preparing the way for Jesus Christ, by refering back to Isaiah's description of the coming of the Lord, he uses the same two pairs of Greek words as used in Solon. Though the relationship, if any, between the earlier texts of Solon and of Isaiah, can only be hinted at here, the power of the passage (as found in Luke's Greek) has echoed throughout Western civilization.

Early Americans heard this passage from Isaiah in their King James Bible: "and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth." Today, many have heard this passage in the masterwork by Handel, the "Messiah" oratorio: "the crooked (shall be) straight, and the rough places plain."

Finally, there is a secondary link between Luke's composition and Solon's that should not be ignored. The recitation of the evils of greed and lust in Athens, heightens the effect of the power of "eunomia" to structure a path for goodness. Similarly, before Luke introduces John, he chooses to specifically reference the evils of the Roman Emperor Tiberius and his underlings, by name. In contrast then, John's coming from out of the wilderness, seemingly powerless, is cast into relief, enhancing the overall effect.

In Solon's time, his fellow citizens would have recognized his allusions both to Homer and to Hesiod, in preparing the necessary transformations in his population's mind. Two hundred years later, Plato would hold up the tradition of Solon as a model. Plato goes further to cite Solon as the source of his breath-taking story of Atlantis, referring to an unfinished work on Solon's part about the ancient history of Greece, conveyed to Solon by the wise men of Egypt. Both Solon's and Plato's cultural connection to the remnants of the scientific faction in Egypt can only be cited here. Regardless, the power of informed, deliberative human action to change history for the better, is a quality of classical culture that owes no small debt to Solon.

The Constitutional Order
Solon Of Athens

Never will our city be destroyed by Zeus' decree,
Nor by the will of the bless'd immortal gods,
For, born of a potent father, great-hearted guardian
Pallas Athena spreads her hands o'er our city
But, by money seduced, the Athenians themselves
Seek mindlessly to corrupt the greatcity,
Joined by the iniquitous schemes of their leaders,
Who from arrogance great woes shall suffer:
For they understand not how to restrain gluttony,
Nor best to order their feasting in quiet.

[ The Greek manuscript breaks off here; a fragment
refers to "corrupt ones becoming rich."

Sparing neither sacred ground nor public goods,
Greedily they steal from the one place or the other.
They fail to protect the rev'rend temples of Justice,
She who notes silently the "what is and what has been ,
Who in time shall come exacting retribution.
Behold, an inex'rable harm visits all Athens:
To vile slavery is she swiftly progressed,
Which rouses up from slumber civil strife and war
War that wipes out for many their cherished youth;
Now our much-loved city is soon worn down by faction,
While the wicked stir them to confrontations.
These evils ensnare the whole people; but the poor,
Many of them, depart to a foreign land,
Plundered, and bound up in shameful fetters.
[For the slave's yoke bears all other wickedness.
Thus does the public evil come home to each of us:
Straining, the courtyard gates no longer hold fast,
The evil leaps o'er the high walls; it finds everyone,
Even him fleeing to the inmost chamber.

This my soul commands me teach the Athenians:
A bad constitution brings civic turmoil,
But a good one shows well-ordering and coherence,
As it puts shackles 'round about wrong-doing
It smoothes out the rough; it checks greed, tempers hubris,
And withers the fruits of reckless impulse.
It takes crooked judgments and makes them straight,
Softens arrogant deeds, halts seditious acts,
And ends the bile of grievous strife. And so under it,
Everything for mankind becomes whole and wise.

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