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Solon the Politician

This paper is intended only as food for thought. It was written for a class in 1997, and was certainly researched thoroughly, but not exhaustively. I welcome comments or debate on the subject.

I don't know that I've found much to support the legend that Solon is the "father of democracy." Rather, he seems to have been concerned primarily with law, and the keeping of it. He must have been a damn good politician, though. He contradicts himself frequently, especially where it concerns the division between agaqoi, "noble," and kakoi, "base." Or maybe that contradiction comes primarily from the most common translation.

There are a few pieces which, looked at narrowly and specifically, could be construed to espouse a proto-democratic political view. The one of these that I would like to bring forward, fragment 4, sounds like nothing so much as a good campaign speech. Since this was pre-democracy, I would assume that this was probably a relatively seditious speech. After all, ultimately, the "nobles" were still in control, and here is Solon, rabble-raising.

Or was he? That certainly is how he seems to have been translated these days. His use of "Hmetera," an emotionally charged word, instead of "H," which is an emotionally neutral term, (sel 2, line 1) as the first word of a speech would definitely draw in his audience and incline them to listen to what he has to say.

The use of emotionally charged words is a tactic still commonly used to make the audience identify with the speaker or writer. I use it myself in my weekly opinion columns. In this fashion, it is hoped, the spectators or readers are less likely to reject out of hand the ideas which follow, because the author/speaker is making a "we" that exclusively contains the rhetorist and the receptor. However, is that "we" the common people, as Miller's translation implies, or is it someone else?

Whoever the audience is, that feeling of exclusivity is exactly what Solon needs. He has some pretty strong things to say, and he needs every ounce of sympathetic reaction he can garner. The city is on the edge of a revolution, and he has decided that someone needs to address the problems (he, of course, is the only appropriate person to do so, he would have his listeners believe). He subtly jabs the citizens, reminding them that they are protected by the gods, but also that the gods are constantly watching them, Athena in particular (so watch your step!). Then he blames all the city's current problems on money, particularly those who are persuaded by wealth.

He sounds just like the choices I was given to vote on last election.

From Miller's translation, it sounds like Solon is condemning the nobles, the city's leaders, for their "unjust... mind," and for "putting trust in money." Miller's translation of fragment 15 reinforces that thought:

"Many bad men are wealthy, and many good men are poor;
     but we shall not exchange with them
Our goodness for their wealth, because the one is sure forever,
     while money belongs to different men at different times."

(Miller selection 8, pg 72)

Reading this translation, it really talks Solon up. He seems to be breaking the old stereotype of "good" being exclusive to the upper class. I read that fragment several times, but something kept niggling at the back of my mind, telling me that there was something under Miller's translation that he didn't address. So I decided to find the original and try to find out what was bugging me.

I discovered that Miller's translation is something of an illusion, created by the use of the common and two-dimensional English translation of the words kakoV and agaqoV as "bad" and "good," or "evil" and "brave." Language is never two-dimensional, though.

The word for bad and evil (kakoV) also means ugly. It can mean cowardly. It can mean worthless. It can also refer to those of the lower class, the "ill-born" as Liddell and Scott put it. In fact, it means all of those things, because to the Greeks those things were frequently interchangeable.

AgaqoV can mean good, as Miller uses it. It's other stated meanings are gentle, noble, brave, worthy, powerful, and useful, among other things.

The definitions of each of these words would not have been a list of synonyms, however, for the Greeks. These things were all tied up together in the word, and the use of the word implies all of these meanings at the same time. So a good man, o agaqoV anqrwpoV, was also a nobly-born man, as well as a worthy, powerful, and useful man, while the commoner, o kakoV, was evil, base, and useless. A Greek from the time period would not have separated these meanings, and, since Solon is a Greek from this time period, it would not be true to his thoughts for us to separate them now.

It was also common in the time to refer to Homer's work through allusion or through word order and choice. Since it was considered the "learned" thing to do, attention should be paid when a word pairing parallels a Homeric usage. According once more to Liddell and Scott, this is one such case. When agaqoV and kakoV are paired as opposites, they say under the headings for both words, then the intention is one of birth and rank, and the author set out as reference for this is Homer.

For comparison to Miller's translation (quoted earlier), I set forth Solon's words, and then my own translation.

Polloi gar plouteusi kakoi, agaqoi de penontai
     all hmeiV autoiV ou diameiyomeqa
thV arethV ton plouton, epei to men empedon aiei,
     crhmata d anqrwpwn allote alloV ecei.

(Tyler pg 19)

For many low-born men are rich, and high-born men are working;
     but we ourselves will not exchange
our worth (rank + virtue) for wealth, since worth (rank + virtue) is certain always,
     whereas the goods of men at another time are held by another man.
Areth is another of those words that can mean goodness and virtue while subtly implying ranking and power. In this context, trebled with agaqoV and kakoV, and considering their use, I would argue that rank is a shade of meaning that should not be removed from areth.

From this, I begin to wonder just who Solon's audience for fragment 4 really was. In fragment 4 he blames those who are witless and persuaded by money, but in fragment 15 he then implies that the ones with the money are the kakoi, the low-born and base, and that those agaqoi with areth, nobility or rank coupled with virtue, are above such things.

From this, I believe that Solon was not quite the egalitarian that he has been painted. He was obviously conscious of class differences, both through money and through birth.

  • Adkins, AWH. Poetic Craft in the Early Greek Elegists. pgs 108-125 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1985)
  • Liddell and Scott. An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon 7th edition. (Oxford, 1996)
  • Mastronarde, Donald J. Introduction to Attic Greek (Berkeley, LA, London, University of California Press, 1993)
  • Miller, Andrew. Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation. pgs 64-76 (Indianapolis and Cambridge, Hackett Publishing, 1996)
  • Tyler, Henry M. Selections from the Greek Lyric Poets with an Historical Introduction and Explanatory Notes. pgs 12-19. (Boston, Ginn & Co, 1894)
Fragments I have included a copy of those fragments which I wanted to use and was able to find. All fragments have been taken from Tyler, and fragment 4 has been cross-checked with Adkins.

(Solon fragment 4, selection 2 Miller)

1hmetera de poliV kata men DioV oupot oleitai
     aisan kai makarwn qewn frenaV aqanatwn
toih gar megaqumoV episkopoV o(m)brimopatrh
     PallaV Aqhnaih ceiraV uperqen ecei
5 autoi de fqeirein megalhn polin afradihsin
     astoi boulontai crhmasi peiqomenoi,
dhmou q hgemonwn adikoV nooV, oisin etoimon
     uprioV ek megalhV algea polla paqein
ou gar epistantai katecein koron oude parousaV
10     eufrosunaV kosmein daitoV en hsuxih. ...
...ploutousin d adikois ergmasi peiqomenoi...
     ...ouq ierwn kteanwn oute ti kemosiwn
qeidomenoi kleptousin ef arpagh alloqen alloV
     oude fulassontai semna qemeqla DikhV (DikhV qemeqla, Adkins)
15 h sigwsa sunoide ta gignomena pro t eonta
     tw de crovw pantws hlq apotisomenh
tout hdh pash polei ercetai elkoV afukton
     eis de kakhn tacewV hluqe doulosunhn,
h stasin emqulon polemon q eudont epegeiprei,
20     os pollwn erathn wlesen hlikihn ek gar dusmenewn tacewV poluhraton astu
     trucetai en sunodoiV tois adikousi filaiV (filouV, Adkins).
tauta men en dhmw strefetai kaka twn de penicrwn
     iknountai polloi gaian es allodaphn
25 praqenteV desmoisi t aeikelioisi deqentes,
     [kai kaka doulosunhV stugna ferousi bia.] (not in Adkins).
outw dhmosion kakon ercetai oikad ekastw
     auleioi d et eceiv ouk eqelousi qurai,
uyhlon d uper erkoV eperqoren, eure de pantwV,
30    vei kai tiV feugwn en mucw h qalamou.
tauta didaxai qumoV AqhnaiouV me keleuei,
     wV kaka pleista polei dusnomia parecei,
eunomia d eukosma kai artia pant apofainei
     kai qama toiV adikoiV amfitiqhsi pedaV
35 tracea leiainei, pauei koron, ubrin amauroi,
     auainei d athV anqea fuomena, euqunei de dikaV skoliaV uperhfana t erga
     praunei, pauei d erga dicostasihV,
pauei d argalehV eridoV, colov, esti k up authV
     panta kat anqrwpouV artia kai pinuta.

(fragment 15, selection 8)

Polloi gar plouteusi kakoi, agaqoi de penontai
     all hmeiV autois ou diameiyomeqa
thV arethV ton plouton, epei to men empedon aiei,
     crhmata d anqrwpwn allote alloV ecei.

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