BMCR 1994.03.22

1994.03.22, Anhalt, Solon the Singer

, Solon the singer : politics and poetics. Greek studies. Lanham (MD): Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1993. xiii, 161 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780847677825. $52.50 (cl).

In the interpretive tradition Emily Katz Anhalt opposes, Solon’s poems and laws have been treated as two separate activities of the same man. Some information about his actions can be gleaned from the poems, but he mentions remarkably few specifics. Insofar as his two activities are related, scholars have looked in his poetry for reports about his experiences as a politician and for his statement of the attitudes or principles that shaped his legislative activity. Fraenkel concluded that he wasn’t much of a poet or a philosopher, and we know that his political reforms didn’t stop Peisistratus. However, his reputation as a model of moderation dedicated to a rational politics flourished, and the fragments are read to illustrate the temperament of the man.

Anhalt proposes instead that the poetry and legislation are two facets of the same activity: Solon made laws to change the inherited political structure, and he wrote poems to change the inherited poetic tradition, and the changes are the same. Anhalt does not mean that the politics and poetics are analogous. She assumes that a poetry that depends on oral performance for its existence is fundamentally a type of public action, and therefore can be identical in its content and aims with the more obviously public action of making laws. The audience is a product of its times, and poets shape their song in response to it. The song in turn gives an identity to the social structures by which it was brought into being. By carefully locating the Archaic parallels for passages of Solon’s poetry (especially in epos, elegy, and iambic), Anhalt demonstrates Solon’s fundamental innovations, and argues that they not only correspond to his political goals, but actually effect them. In Anhalt’s reading, the fragments record the work of a thoughtful and persuasive public voice.

In the brief Introduction Anhalt proposes to examine the fragments as the product of a self-consciously poetic activity, understanding that they are derived from the Archaic tradition of praise and blame poetry, and cautioning that elegy may be characterized by a certain tact required by the presence in the audience of the persons praised and blamed. The bulk of the book is divided into three long chapters, each devoted to one “Poem”: 13, 36, and 4 (West, 1st ed.). In each chapter she takes one section of its title poem at a time, analyzes its topic, and compares Solon’s handling of its key concepts and vocabulary to their occurrences in his other fragments (so that she covers much more of Solon’s poetry than the chapter titles indicate) and in the work of other Archaic poets.

Anhalt never gives an adequate explanation of the background of her method. She presents the problems that need interpretation as if they were self-evidently derived from the reader’s experience of the text; she begins the discussion in the first chapter with otherwise unmotivated rhetorical questions (I counted twelve questions-marks in the first three paragraphs). But she has reasons for asking these questions. One can reconstruct the background in general terms from her references (the book is well annotated) to M. Detienne, B. Gentili, and T. Figueira’s and G. Nagy’s collection of essays on the Theognidea, especially Lowell Edmunds’s on “The Genre of Theognidean Poetry.”1 Some important elements are: that Memory does not so much inspire the poet as it is directed by him to the use of his community; that a symposium attended by philoi is the traditional site of performance and represents the community; and that the Muses’ gift to the poet is sophia, which allows him to speak what will be understood only by his exclusive group of symposiasts. But because Anhalt never fills in the picture to make clear her own take on the functionalist theory she is adapting, her argument, which is in the details of the analyses, often comes over as arbitrary and incoherent.

The problems are perhaps most prominent in the first part of the first chapter, “Poem 13: Memory and Desire.” Anhalt assumes that the opening prayer to the Muses, as children of Memory, for olbos and doxa has to be justified in the rest of the poem. A survey of the semantics of doxa and olbos leads her to the conclusion that in this passage they refer to effectiveness in action and to knowledge. She maintains that Solon is asking for knowledge of the truth and success in telling it persuasively, that such knowledge is in particular an understanding of cause and effect, which in turns allows knowledge of the future, and that the audience for the persuasion is the city as a whole. The link between the opening and the remainder of the poem is Solon’s identification of the Muses’ gift with the knowledge that cause and effect exist, that actions have knowable consequences (which can be remembered and applied to the future ). The rest of the poem is about that knowledge. I did not find the emphasis on causality apart from specific consequences convincing, nor do I see, from the parallels she cites, that the preamble needs quite so much explication. Here and throughout the book, Anhalt does not come to terms with elements of typical or rhetorical structure. The consequence in this case is that there is no framework for isolating the significant elements that form the basis of comparison between passages. So she does not consider the problem of the opening prayer in terms of poetic openings generally, and she examines its contents as a lexical problem, rather than in terms of the manifold variations on the topic of εὖ πάσχειν καὶ ἀκούειν . But I also do not see that her explication of the opening is crucial to the appreciation of rest of her argument.

What is crucial, and what Anhalt demonstrates successfully, is that Solon distinguishes himself by not asking for the sophia to address a part of the city, that he practices an inclusive poetry. Solon’s attack on the pursuit of ill-gotten gain in lines 7-32 does not address the failings of the wealthy so exclusively that there is an abrupt transition when he considers the general human condition in the following lines. Looking at Homer, Mimnermus, Semonides and Simonides, Anhalt demonstrates how Solon departs from the view that humans alter their expectations with their immediate fortune to argue that they are incurably optimistic, expecting good whether they have it or not. Solon emphasizes the prevalence of misperception in human life, but instead of using this to contrast human and divine providence, Solon sees in this the source of all human activity (the poems on youth and age clarify his view of life as activity). According to Anhalt, Solon is arguing that the individual is responsible for his own fortune, since he creates it out of his hopelessly optimistic activity, even though the actual results depend on divine dispensation. Her conclusion, that Solon is urging attention to the single certainty that unjust gain leads to divine justice, seems inadequate and forced, but it leaves intact her demonstration of the novelty of Solon’s analysis of human psychology and of the importance of his innovation as a political statement within the genre.

In chapter 2, “Poem 4: Poetry and Community,” Anhalt shows how the opening evokes the language of an external threat of destruction to give force to Solon’s analysis of the threat brought on by internal division. She then reviews the literary history of the theme of the conflict between individual satisfaction and community benefit, particularly its expression as a problem of excessive consumption, and shows how Solon dramatizes the danger to the whole city—not just the community of philoi—posed by the problem of immoderate behavior. Through an extended collection of parallels, Anhalt shows how Solon takes up the traditional use of decorum or license at the symposium as the model for social order, and implicitly criticizes the falseness of the analogy. For Solon (followed by the Theognidea), the immoderate desire for wealth which disrupts a community is not like gluttony, because it has no natural limit or state of surfeit. In a succinct and enlightening discussions of the koros-hybris problem, she reviews the uses of koros from Homer to Pindar. In other authors it connotes the limit of surfeit, but because Solon is concentrating on wealth, he uses it to denote a lack of limit. Solon therefore reverses both the expectation that the absence of koros, that is, insatiability, leads to hybris, and the alternative formulation that hybristic excess produces surfeit. Solon, according to Anhalt, thinks that the dangers consequent on koros are possible whenever any one fails to recognize the difference between his own perception of “enough” and that of the community, which requires limits. So he polemically subordinates the distinction between the aristoi and the kakoi (so important to Theognis’s formulation) to the importance of this difference. The ambiguities in the language Solon uses to present the problem work not to hide his meaning from those outside his group but to make his language acceptable to everyone.

To interpret the conclusion of the fragment, Anhalt juxtaposes Solon’s references to slavery and his description of Eunomia with other, overtly political fragments. She finds that he rejects both the exclusive, aristocratic model of Theognis (and the poetic strategies of deceit which enforce it) and the tyrannical imposition of order, in favor of an all-inclusive polity whose members are responsible for their own behavior.

Chapter 3, “Poem 36: Poet and Polity” focuses on explicating Solon’s closing image of himself as a wolf encircled by dogs and shows just how powerfully striking it is. Anhalt examines the poetic tradition of each of the metaphors and similes that Solon uses to describe his own activity and demonstrates his consistent trick of introducing an unexpected or surprising element. Thus, to take the most obvious example, in 5.5-6 he stands throwing his shield protectively over both opposing sides—an act not only inconceivable in practice but oddly discordant with the heroic image of the strong defender. It fits, however, with his insistence on treating the factions as a uniform polity, and with a description of himself as standing outside them. The image of a warrior amidst dogs has its Homeric counterpart in Hector, and the frequent connection of dogs and defilement suggests the danger they represent to an aggressive defender of his city. But in Archaic literature and legend the wolf has no role as a defensive animal or even as a symbol of valor (like the boar or lion) when attacked. Alone or in packs wolves are savage and dangerous to the city, and represent the world outside its civilization—creatures to be expelled. Solon thus casts himself as a pharmakos who wards off the dangers of internal division by unifying the people against him. The unusual diction, ἀλκὴν ποιεόμενος, identifies his poetic activity with his political. Because the poem is retrospective, Anhalt interprets its generalizing descriptions of his activity as the sign of Solon’s desire to leave a poetic legacy of political action even in the face of the immediate failure of actual results.

Anhalt does not seems to notice that her final reversion to a biographical interpretation of Solon’s poetic career is at odds with the thrust of her original thesis, that the poetry does not comment on his politics but shapes the situation of performance in the same way that his legislation shaped the political body. And although she recognizes that the role of outsider is part of the tradition of the poet-lawgiver, she does not come to grips with the question of whether Solon is adapting it to his purposes or recasting his experience to conform with it. Given her starting assumptions, one could just as well argue (as Nagy does for Theognis) that fr. 36 represents incipient pan-Hellenization. This returns us to the problem of the unresolved methodological issues that plague the book.

In an interpretation based on passages selected and arranged by the interpreter, some parts will inevitably seem forced to a reviewer not committed to the thesis; Anhalt’s carelessness about the implications of the transmission (so that, for example, she treats 36.1 as the start of a “poem”) obscures the problems of each fragment’s context and raises further doubts about her analyses. Moreover, Anhalt’s fundamental uncertainty about the character of her argument makes it very difficult to follow in a number of ways. This is particularly unfortunate, because the book is obviously intended for a broad scholarly audience. Text is quoted generously in Greek and is always translated; important terms are in transliteration; the prose is plain and utterly free of jargon. But the structure wavers confusingly between a sequential commentary on the poem in question and a discussion of a series of topics. The long chapters (up to 55 pages) have no subheadings and the stages of the argument and the transitions between topics are not clearly set forth. The coordination of quotation and argument is often confusing (I found I had to keep West handy), and there is no index locorum to help sort out the treatment of the numerous passages.

For all the book’s faults, however, Anhalt has demonstrated, passage by passage, that Solon was profoundly engaged with the Archaic poetic tradition and that he innovated within it to a remarkable degree. While there is room to disagree over whether he was explicitly confronting the tradition or creating variations within it, as well as to offer other models to describe his role as a poet, Solon the Singer provides a new basis for our reading of this remarkable legislator.

  • [1] Thomas J. Figueira and Gregory Nagy, eds., Theognis of Megara: Poetry and the Polis, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985, pages 96-111.