BMCR 2007.05.28

Solon the Thinker. Political Thought in Archaic Athens

, Solon the Thinker : political thought in archaic Athens. London: Duckworth, 2006. ix, 178 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780715634561 $70.00.

In recent years Solon has been enjoying a veritable renaissance of scholarly interest. Solon the Thinker is one of the latest additions in a host of studies, including a recent “companion”-style volume,1 dealing with various aspects of Solon’s ideas, poetry and reforms. In what follows I first summarize the book’s main arguments and then I proceed to present some reflections regarding their efficacy and place in current scholarship.

In the Introduction, L. spells out his methodology and explains in clear terms how his approach differs from previous works. L. divides the latter into three broad groups: a) socio-historical analyses of Solon’s poetry and reforms, relying heavily on late authors such as Aristotle and Plutarch; b) studies by literary critics who view Solon as part of a wider archaic poetic tradition; and c) philosophical studies which are, L. points out, much thinner on the ground than studies under a) and b). That is mainly because Solon does not display a systematic account of a political and moral theory that can, at face value, be associated with the intellectual constructs of Presocratic philosophers, and as a result modern scholars tend to overlook or under-study Solon’s role in the development of archaic political thought. But despite the lack of a coherent, self-contained cosmology in Solon’s poetry, for L. Solon is essentially one of the Presocratics. Their writings, including Solon’s poems, are symptomatic of a novel, influential set of ideas that greatly contributed to the transformation of the archaic world. As a result of this state of affairs, L. sets out to rectify the perceived lack or deficiencies of modern philosophical treatments of Solon’s poetry, but in a manner that greatly differentiates his book from historical and literary accounts of the Athenian lawgiver. In order to achieve the desired result, L. proposes a reading of Solon “on his own terms” (p. 5). That entails a dissociation of Solon’s poetry from late literary traditions which describe his reforms and wider historical context (the focus of most studies under a). Similarly, L. is critical of studies emphasizing literary and performative aspects of Solon’s poetry (most studies under b). Comparisons with Homer and Hesiod serve primarily to highlight the innovative features of Solon’s thinking, but that is as far as L. would normally allow such comparisons to go: “his [i.e. Solon’s] words must be taken as a singular point of view at a particular time — not merely as an appendage to a poetic tradition” (p. 5). Likewise, performance context and audience response have little to contribute in L.’s analysis: “the basic meaning of his [i.e. Solon’s] words as [sic] is clear — and not dependent upon the audience” (p. 5).

With his approach clearly defined, L. puts it to the test in seven chapters dealing with various aspects of Solon’s thought. Chapter 1 examines the role of the divine in Solon’s perception of the polis based primarily on frs. 4.1-4 and 11.1-2 and, to a lesser extent, fr. 31 and 13. L. maintains that contrary to Homer and Hesiod who depict the gods as a major catalyst in human affairs, Solon displays an understanding of the polis as a self-sustained entity divorced from “vertical despotisms directed by wilful, external forces” (p. 16). Other Presocratics such as Thales and Xenophanes had expressed, L. maintains, similar views. The separation of human agency from divine authority is also precipitated by archaic perceptions of the kosmos as an integration of discordant parts into a cohesive whole, resulting in the concept of the polis-kosmos adumbrated by Solon.

Chapter 2 builds on the conclusions of the previous chapter and probes the internal energy of the Athenian polis-kosmos as it emerges from Solon’s poetry. L. sees the interaction between noos on the one hand with koros, hubris and stasis on the other as critical in understanding Solon’s perception of the polis. Noos is not simply the depository of cognitive processes; it is also “a faculty of virtue” (p. 39). When the noos of a citizen is flawed, i.e. unable to grasp the proper way to conduct himself in the context of the polis, and instead is heavily disposed towards a disproportionate ( koros) pursuit of power and wealth, then hubris and stasis almost certainly ensue. L. argues that, by presenting these views, Solon constitutes a departure from earlier perceptions of the role of the public figure within a competitive political arena: whereas figures like Hector publicly perform a set of internalized social expectations of leadership, excellence and honour, Solon breaks the mould and castigates the values and ideals that motivate power-driven, greedy Athenians.

Contrary to the realities of early sixth-century Athens, Solon advocates in his poetry the ideal of “the polis as a moral kosmos ordered by dikê” (p. 59). L. rightly views dikê as central in interpreting Solon’s poetry and as a result Chapter 3 is largely dedicated to an analysis of the semantics and significance of this multifaceted term. After arguing against unilateral interpretations of Solonian dikê, L. argues that the term is relevant to both the practical circumstances of the administration of justice (e.g. legal procedures; judicial verdicts) as well as to “a wider sense of order and propriety” (what L. calls “natural dikê“, p. 53). These two major manifestations of dikê accrue in Athens not through divine intervention (as in Hesiod) but are dependent on the interactions and contentions of individual members of the polis. Eunomiê and dusnomiê can also be understood in perceptual terms (the state of good or bad order in the polis) and in terms of social interaction (the results of individual conduct).

In Chapter 4 L. proceeds to examine the internal structure of poem 4. The question is: how do prominent facets of the life of the polis that manifest themselves in the poem (e.g. noos, koros, hubris, dikê) relate to each other? Following a close line by line examination, L. detects instances of ring composition which must have enhanced the perfomative appeal of the poem and which suggest an ability on the part of Solon “to think on more than a simple linear level” (p. 66). What Solon is trying to achieve, L. asserts, is to expand his audience’s understanding of what is not immediately observable while remaining true to what they can perceive. Critical in this endeavour is Solon’s use of “archaic causality” (p. 71) which must be distinguished from the deductive causality that most modern commentators are accustomed to. Solon’s causality perceives all elements of a situation (in this case the aspects of social life that can or cannot be perceived by Solon’s audience) as constantly interacting to produce “a vivid, integrated picture” in the poem and, by extension, in the polis.

In chapter 6 L. identifies a fundamental dichotomy in Solon’s thought between polis/dikê and bios/moira and then proceeds to explore the significance of moira in the Solonian corpus, primarily in poem 13. The inability of dikê to prevent the failure of individuals to guide their actions to a successful end forces Solon to turn his attention to moira as the authority that bestows to each person his lot of life: in poem 13 ” Moira fills in the vacuum of Dikê’s default” (p. 89). Wealth, although an important factor in the crisis that afflicted Solon’s world, is precarious and often ephemeral and ultimately does not necessarily affect a person’s moira. Moreover, L. maintains that the power and arbitrariness of moira can be associated with a fatalism that is prominent in archaic thought as well as with a view, echoed also in Xenophanes, according to which the gods have lost much of their power over human affairs.

Finally, chapter 7 (a chapter in which many of the points made in earlier parts of the book converge) L. turns to a discussion of tyranny, slavery, freedom and written laws in the kosmos that is Solon’s polis. Once again, Solon emerges as a great intellectual and political innovator. He is the first extant author to denounce tyranny and equate it with slavery. He is the first to develop the concept of political freedom (p. 121) in opposition to tyranny and slavery. And he is the first to base the political order inspired by freedom on the “idea of justice under enforced written laws” (p. 122). The respect for written laws is associated with hêsychia, the ideal of moderation and disavowal of transgression that Solon aspired to establish in his polis.

L.’s study is based on a careful and at times insightful discussion of Solon’s poetic fragments. But since everything written about Solon is bound to be somewhat contentious, it should come as no surprise that many readers might find themselves in disagreement with aspects of this book. For instance, L.’s readings of particular fragments sometimes border on the idiosyncratic, e.g. when he favours (p. 110) turannou over monarchou in fr. 9.3 despite the very strong textual tradition (with one exception) and the consensus of all editors and commentators, on the grounds that “possibly the Greeks did not distinguish the various forms of political rule until they had the experience of democracy in the fifth century” (p. 110). On other occasions, one feels that particular arguments would have been greatly enhanced if L. had cast his net wider: on p. 128 he credits Solon with an attempt to create “a new normative standard that subsumes traditionally accepted revenge actions” through the enactment of written laws which L. perceives as an objective, “immutable point of focus for all to see” and as “the centre of political integration”. A brief discussion of Draco at this point would have put Solon’s achievements in perspective and would have highlighted their importance.

Looking at the big picture, readers might also object to the lack of a deeper consideration of issues of public performance (a highly politicized activity) and audience response which are — many would argue, despite L.’s assertions to the contrary — relevant to the kind of analysis that L. pursues. Other controversial points regarding particular readings or wider issues could be adduced. All the above should not distract from the qualities of the book, including L.’s commendable efforts to project Solon thinking more in tune with the Presocratics, a line of inquiry that has been neglected by many recent commentators.

The volume is in general well produced and I found it very helpful that L. quotes extensively the texts he discusses and provides a glossary of the political terms used by Solon. Moreover, the clear exposition of the methodological foundations of the study in the introductory chapter is quite useful and provides much needed guidance for the complex, thorough and competent discussion in the remainder of the book. At $70/£45 a piece I would hesitate recommending this book to my students. But this is nevertheless a contribution that will find its place in the ongoing scholarly debates on Solon and archaic political thought.


1. J. Blok and A. Lardinois (eds.), Solon of Athens: New Historical and Philological Approaches, Leiden 2006.