Lewis Illuminates Solon's Political Thought

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Lewis Illuminates Solon's Political Thought

by Ari Armstrong, February 3, 2006

What do ancient Greek political thinkers have to do with our world today? John Lewis, a history professor at Ashland University, addressed aspects of the issue at Ridgeview Classical School in Fort Collins on January 26. That evening, the school held its Third Annual Young Aristotle Competition, a "quiz bee type event" in which four elementary students competed in answering questions about ancient Greece. Lewis addressed scores of parents, teachers, and students regarding "Solon of Athens and the Discovery of Freedom Under Law."


John Lewis, left, greets Joe Collins following Ridgeview Classical School's Young Aristotle Competition. Collins, a teacher at the school, invited Lewis to offer the keynote address.

My main goal here is to briefly review Lewis's book, Solon the Thinker: Political Thought in Archaic Athens. But first I thought I'd say a few more words about the evening in Fort Collins. (I further discuss Lewis's talk, along with two others he gave in Colorado, in another column.)

It was a remarkable event in many ways. I would not have defeated these sixth-graders in the competition (at least without serious preparation). At one point in the competition, moderator and teacher Joe Collins told a student that an answer was incorrect; Lewis rose from the back of the room to explain why the answer was acceptable.

I had a question in mind for the Q&A session with Lewis. But I was a minute late getting back into the room, and the line at the microphone was already too long. Most of the questioners were less than half my age and more than a foot shorter than me. Here are some of the students' questions. "This is a constant point of contention at our school... Based on principle, were the 'Dark Ages' dark?" "In your view, do you think that, politically, Rome was better than Athens, in the two different times?" "If he said to the people why it rains, would you consider Solon somewhat of a scientist?" Finally Collins had to cut off the questions and send the rest of the (visibly disappointed) students back to their seats.

I had just read much of Lewis's book, and it can be rough going for a non-specialist. It is filled with Greek terminology and discussions of academic disputes. I wondered how Lewis was going to translate the themes of the book for an audience of young students accompanied by their parents and teachers. He pulled it off by focussing on two main ideas: first, the city-state is understandable as driven by human actors, and, second, law is essential for justice. This made the broad themes of the book more clear to me. After the event, students surrounded Lewis and continued to ask him questions. And I overheard two parents praise the talk for making these old ideas relevant to our lives. The evening was a delight.

Solon the Thinker (published by Duckworth) sheds light on the development of the ideas of causality and justice. It explains the historical bridge between Homer and the major Greek philosophers.

Lewis writes, "Solon, selected as chief official of Athens around 594 BC, is one of the most revered figures in Greek history. The classical Greeks, the Romans and the American Founders crafted pedestals for him: Plato made him one of the Seven Wise Men; Aristotle thought him among the most serious lawgivers; ... Cicero saw him as a fount for Roman law; ... [and] James Madison admired the immortal legislator..." (page 1).

Yes Lewis's goal is to understand Solon primarily on his own terms, not the terms of his interpreters, whether ancient or modern. For example, Lewis warns against reading Solon's doubts about certain types of knowledge according to "the Christian view that understanding transcends the body" (page 91) or the modern distinction of "Appearance and Being" (page 93).

Lewis's careful translations of many of Solon's lines of poetry are one of the best features of the book. Even though I don't know Greek, Lewis's explanations of his terms are consistently convincing. For example, Lewis takes issue with the common interpretation of one of Solon's lines as discussing "monarchy." Lewis argues that, while Solon held a more general understanding of tyranny, the concept of monarchy "was at best implicit in the early sixth century" (page 110). These are the sorts of details that help make clear the thinking of the time.

Indeed, my main criticism of the book in terms of its format is that it does not include a stand-alone section for Lewis's complete translation. (Only a few hundred lines of Solon's works remain.) Lewis said that such a section was omitted for considerations of space, but he may put his translation on the internet. [March 22, 2007, update: Lewis has since placed his entire translation online.] I also wish the book had included a more complete glossary of Greek terms. The limited glossary is invaluable for readers who don't know Greek, but often I found myself flipping back several pages to remind myself of the meaning of a term excluded from the glossary. I understand that publishing extra pages costs money, and such a specialized book is aimed at an academic market. Still, the divide between academia and the lay audience is only reinforced by such omissions. (Lewis also occasional includes a windy phrase -- his claim that Solon "vivifies [a] noetic failure" [page 114] might have been, well, "vivified" with more usual language.)

Nevertheless, any mature reader with an interest in law, politics, philosophy, or Greek history will discover many treasures in this book. Its main body of 130 pages may be slower reading than popular books of similar length, but, if so, the rewards of Lewis's book more than compensate. Lewis's book on Solon casts light on all of ancient Greece -- and thus on our own ideas and institutions.

I turn now to three major themes of the book. My purpose is not to put myself in the middle of the academic debates, but rather to summarize the essential points of the book, with a view toward encouraging the reader to pick up the book for a deeper discussion. I'll briefly review Solon's view of the city-state as part of the causal order, the essential tie between justice and the law, and the role of fate in Greek thought.

Lewis contrasts the Zeus-centered worldview of Homer and even Hesiod, another Greek thinker who preceded Solon, with Solon's naturalistic theory of the city-state. Hesiod wrote that "mortal men" are tossed about "as great Zeus wills." This contains "the essential element of a magical view of the world..." Hesiod's "conflation of weather and just action" is tied with his view of "divine power" (page 13).

Consider the contrast in Solon's work:

Our polis will never be destroyed by a dispensation
from Zeus or the plans of the blessed immortal gods
for truly... Pallas Athena holds her hands over it.
The citizens themselves by their foolishness desire
to destroy the great city, persuaded by material goods,
and the leader of the people has an unbalanced mind, by which they are about
to suffer many pains from great hubris.

(Note: I am not relating Solon's lines to page numbers in Lewis's book, because in many cases the lines are dispersed across a number of pages and quoted in different places.)

Solon here refers to the deities, but, rather than impose her arbitrary will on mortals, Solon's Athena protects the city-state from the interference of other gods. We must blame the decline of the city on ourselves, not the gods. If we wish to improve the city, we cannot merely petition the gods; we must improve our understanding, check our hubris, and prevent the unjust acquisition of wealth. The success of the city-state depends on us, on our comprehension and actions, not on divine caprice.

Solon also distinguishes the world of men from the natural world:

Snowstorm and hail come from a cloud
and thunder comes from lightning,
But the ruin of the city comes from unjust men
and the people fall into slavery by ignorance.

Solon gives a rudimentary naturalistic explanation for some natural phenomena. This anticipates the later theories of the Presocratic philosophers. Lewis compares Solon to Thales, another early Greek thinker who began to look for explanations of things "inside phenomena... rather than an external power" (page 17).

The world of men operates by different forces, but these forces too arise from the nature of the thing in question. As "hail comes form a cloud," so "the ruin of the city comes from unjust men." The cause is different, but there is a cause that can be grasped by thinking people. Furthermore, because we are part of the city-state, we can affect the city-state in a way that we cannot control the clouds.

What is Solon's answer to injustice and disorder? In a word, it is law:

...Lawlessness brings the worst evils to the city,
and Lawfulness manifests good order and everything perfect,
and often puts chains on the evil-doers.

Solon discusses

men sold... and others fleeing...
and others holding a shameful slavery,
now trembling before their masters,
I set them free. By my own power,
fitting together force with justice...
And statutes alike to the base man and to the noble
fitting straight justice onto each man's case,
these I wrote...

"I set them free." Freedom is the consequence of just law. Without law, freedom is impossible. Lewis expanded this idea during his talk at Fort Collins. Adapting the ideas to more recent political theories, Lewis took issue with the notion that "freedom" can exist within a "state of nature." The sort of "freedom" that's relevant is not the freedom to smash your neighbor's face, but rather the freedom from such unjust use of force. Nor is "freedom" the ability of the majority to enforce its arbitrary will. The law fits "together force with justice" and "often puts chains on the evil-doers."

Solon also talks about the "grievous strife" and contests of plunder that result from lawlessness. He writes of tyrants, "You yourselves increased the power of these men, providing them with arms, and this is why you have dreadful slavery..." Some men "with rapaciousness... rob from one another..."

Solon discusses the wound that...

awakens civil strife and sleeping tribal war...
and from its troubles the much-loved city is swiftly
worn out, friendships destroyed in unjust factions.

I was particularly surprised and impressed to find so early a discussion of "unjust factions." This reminded me of more modern concepts of "Public Choice" economics, zero-sum games, and interest-group warfare.

The essential problem is that of taking wealth by force, whether by criminals, larger gangs or Mafias, warring armies, or governments. In modern politics, the problem is interest groups that compete for wealth transfers and political favors (as I discuss elsewhere). In each case, the problem is the initiation of force to gain values at the expense of others. And in each case the result is the destruction of wealth that results from fighting (by blood or by politics), the diversion of resources to defense, and the loss of productive incentive. Obviously Solon would not have viewed the problem in the same terms that I view it, but I found his ancient commentary on the matter fascinating.

Lewis focusses on the polis in the first three chapters of his book (out of seven chapters). In the final chapter, Lewis discusses "tyranny, slavery and freedom." In Chapter 4, Lewis closely analyzes one of Solon's major poems about civil strife and traces the various ways that strife damages a community and its members. The memorable line from this chapter is "justice surely comes later."

The other two chapters (five and six) are quite different. Here, Lewis focusses on the role of fate in personal life. Lewis writes of Solon, "When he deals with the polis he deals with something that is conceptually distinct from a person's bios" (page 78). If I may simplify, for Solon the city-state is governed by justice, while one's own life is subject to capricious fate. Thus, Solon falls into Greek fatalism (page 80). While the city-state is comprehensible and can be ordered by law, "[t]he world of bios remains incomprehensible, subject to whimsy and disobedient to anything remotely akin to the laws of causality" (page 94).

Lewis offers a particularly helpful segment to help moderns understand this Greek fatalism:

The material goods that allowed one to live above subsistence level remained fundamentally unable to affect one's health, to influence one's span of life, or to stave off old age and death. ... [A] sick man of means might avail himself of elixirs and rituals that would give him no advantage over a poor man, and would attain the same results for both. This could have fed Solon's view that knowledge and control of our ultimate ends is impossible... Only in the modern world, with capital markets... prescription drugs, intensive care units and MRI scans, can the possession of material wealth be so closely linked to good health -- but our time is not his. (page 101)

Here is a key passage from Solon on the matter:

Surely neither augury
nor sacred rites can protect against one's allotted fate. ...
Often from a little pain comes a deep disease
and he cannot be released from it by gentle remedies;
Another one, in the grip of a deep debilitating disease,
he [the healer] cures by placing his hands on him.
Moira [fate or one's lot] brings good and evil to mortals,
the gifts of the immortal gods may not be escaped.

Nevertheless, the seeming gain of "unjust deeds... swiftly mixes with calamity." So, while the course of our life is basically fated and beyond our control, our actions are properly restrained by the requirements of justice. In addition, we ought not "exchange our virtue" for wealth, because virtue alone "abides forever." So Solon definitely makes room for a virtue ethics (though not one amenable to Ayn Rand's virtue of productiveness, which links production to thriving).

Lewis is consistently careful to treat Solon on the poet's own terms and not according to later ideas. For example, even Solon's conception of justice is not fully apparent without Lewis's careful consideration of the the meaning of related Greek terms of the age. Yet what's extraordinary about Lewis's book -- and about Solon himself -- is the writer's ability to show the power of ideas to explain the world in which we live. "Justice surely comes later." Good consequences follow right understanding, while evil results from flawed thinking, hubris, the unjust acquisition of wealth, and tyranny. Yet we might also take Solon's phrase in a different way: because of the ground that Solon prepared, the concept of justice and the potential for it surely come later, into our own age.


Lewis talks with Jim Manley, a law student at the University of Colorado at Boulder who helped to organize Lewis's January 25 talk at the college.

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