Solon the Thinker

Solon and CaseySolon the Thinker:  Political Thought in Archaic Athens

Duckworth Press, Sept., 2006
Paperback edition, 2008

SOLON THE THINKER presents the hypothesis that Solon (ca. 640-560 BC) saw his beloved Athens as a self-governing, self-supporting system akin to the early Greek conceptions of the cosmos. Solon’s polis (city-state) functions neither by divine intervention nor the force of a tyrant, but by its own natural, self-governing internal energy. An orderly, understandable polis is founded on the intellectual health of its people, depends upon their acceptance of justice and moderation as orderly norms of life, and leads to the rejection of tyranny and slavery in favor of freedom under written laws. Solon is the thinker who conceives this ideal for the Athenians, and the teacher who brings it to them.

But Solon’s views of order are limited; each person in his own life is subject to the arbitrary foibles of moira, the inscrutable fate that governs human life, and that brings us to an unknowable but inevitable death. Solon represents both the new rational, scientific spirit that was sweeping the Aegean – and a return to the fatalism that permeated Greek cultural life. He deserves credit not only as a poet and a lawgiver, but as a thinker who was at the cutting edge of an intellectual revolution.

From the Introduction:

“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 each put him on a pedestal: Plato made him one of the Seven Wise Men; Aristotle thought him among the most serious lawgivers; Demosthenes used him to attack his opponents; Cicero credited him as a source for the Twelve Tables of Roman Law; Plutarch saw him as a moral icon; Clement of Alexandria preserved him on behalf of Christian ideals; James Madison admired him as the immortal legislator; and Woodrow Wilson said he gave to Athens ‘a fixed and definite constitution’. Yet Solon’s reputation as a constitution-maker bears little resemblance to what is left of his poems. Many studies of Solon have focused on an historical understanding of his social reforms, political institutions, economic policies and laws, while studies of his verses have often tended to reinforce his position as a not-quite-great poet. But these examinations, and the reputation created for Solon by Greek and Roman commentators, may obscure his own thoughts and distort his real importance. This book proposes an approach that looks to his verses neither to reconstruct Athenian history, nor to relate him to a poetic tradition, but rather to discern the remains of early sixth-century Athenian political ideas.”

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