Solon and Justice

Marble Bust of Solon in a Hellenistic copy

By Walter Borden, M.D.

The American Founders, including Madison, Jefferson, and Adams in creating our constitution studied the history of republics going back to Carthage, Greece and Rome. Adams in particular cited ancient Greece with long references to Solon, known as “the Law Giver”, one of the Seven Sages, and midwife to democratic constitutionalism and perhaps the Greek pioneer for legal justice. 

Solon cut through the Athenian fog and set a course to democratic government. Solon (ca. 638-559 BCE) advocated —“total separation of executive from legislative power, and of the judicial branch from both; and a balance in the legislature by three independent equal branches—” Madison wrote in “Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. We must like Solon make such a government as the people will approve.” 

In the at least seven or eight hundred years between the putative “Trojan War” – if early 12th c. BCE is an acceptable date for Troy’s demise- and the fifth century BCE, Greek society fought its way out of the Bronze Age and its demise and through the gates of civilization after a few centuries of presumed “darkness” and cultural contraction. There were social, political, and cultural upheavals; there was also social, political, and cultural evolution. Fundamental in these developments was the birth of science from the ashes of a failed theology. That does not mean that the gods disappeared. Greek society was pluralistic, and there were multiple belief systems, including a dwindling persistence of archaic pantheism. The growing dominance of rationality, however, extended to political life, with the key and vital development of the city-state, the polis, the emergence of secular law and democracy from divine law,

During the mid-sixth to early fifth century BCE, tragic drama arose out of the deep need of society to tell its story, to confront its primitive roots, to lay bare the savage forces in human nature that had to be controlled if people were to live together. A major purpose of Pisistratus, the Athenian “tyrant” (the term then meant simply then a benign authoritarian leader) in instituting the Festival of Dionysus in 534 BCE as a kind of Olympic Games of tragic drama was to emphasize tragic drama as the voice of the values underlying the polis. He wanted to make clear to the Greek people that they could either live by the principles of the polis or sink back into savagery. Tragic drama served basic psychological needs. Greek history was full of suffering. Wars, invasions, starvation, economic depressions, and plagues brought on enormous personal losses and cumulative tragedy. Whether in an individual or a people, pain needs to cry out in order to seek healing. The tragedies provided a connection with the past, a perspective that is fundamental in identity. The Athenians of the fifth century could see whence and how far they had come; such a perspective might well help them to choose their future direction. 

In order to do all of this, tragic drama had to take the tools of the scientists to look inside the human mind, to understand human pain, to express it so all might understand, empathize, and heal. Tragedians used myths to express their vision of the psychological, social, and political issues deemed responsible for society’s problems. They portrayed issues such as justice founded on revenge, oppression of women and children, violence to solve conflict or in the service of greed, governmental callousness, judicial callousness, and unresolved grief and its consequences. And all three principal tragedians illuminated the relevant psychological issues: identification with the aggressor, violence breeding violence, and punishment-seeking guilt that results in the crimes of the parent being acted out in successive generations. Aeschylus, for example, uses the myths surrounding the Trojan War in his Oresteia to express his ideas about the destructiveness of revenge and the need for humanistic, democratic justice. He changes Homer’s version of the Iliad, which left out Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia, and he introduces the Furies as prosecutors and Apollo as defense counsel in the trial for matricide, turning the mythology into a glorification of justice.  It is a dramatization of the evolution of justice on a grand scale.

Sophocles uses the same myth but shifts the focus from Orestes to his sister in Electra, in order to express very different ideas. He was more concerned with the psychological struggle within the individual who strives toward resolution of conflict, and how that struggle gets played out in character structure. The “trial” takes place within Electra herself; there is no outside court. Electra dramatizes what can happen when grief becomes encapsulated, and how that distorts character development. Euripides, too, uses the Trojan War; in his Troades. Hecuba exemplifies the terrible suffering and waste of war and the psychological issues involved in compounded grief.

The three tragic poets take the same mythology and bend it to their own ends, not to tell a simple story, not merely as a recounting of history (indeed, they change the myths to suit their purposes), but chiefly to communicate their ideas about human nature. Theatre was the medium of the era, and tragic drama is a window into the origins and evolution of Greek civilization, and our own.

America’s Founding Fathers read Plutarch’s portrait of Solon as they framed our Constitution, and they read Plato and Aristotle, whose views of law and government were shaped by Solon. Robert Kennedy quoted Aeschylus in his eulogy to Martin Luther King, ‘In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’” And John Adams in his “Defense of the Constitution of the United States” refers to Solon whose influence can be seen every day in our courtrooms. 

America’s Founding Fathers read the classics, Plutarch’s biography of Solon, and Cicero’s writings as they framed our Constitution. They read Plato and Aristotle, whose views of law and government were shaped by Solon. His influence can be seen every day in our courtrooms. But before we look at that influence, let us look at some background 

         The Athenian city-state, or polis, was shaped by a geography and demography conducive to the development of small, independent political units. Beginning in the eighth century BCE, some three hundred years before Solon, social and political forces were evolving that would prove most important in the rise of the city-state. Population increase and the emergence of a cohesive underclass, facilitated by a merging process in clan-tribe structure contributed to urbanization. People gravitated into towns for protection but also increasingly for political functions, such as governance. The family, clan, and tribe became subject to the community. This evolving polis also became an important economic unit, a center for trade and transactions. The polis nurtured, educated, and served as the center and foundation of Hellenic community.

         The basic elements of our western democratic civilization took root in the developing polis. Though it was a time of class conflict, economic depressions, starvation, invasions, migrations, pestilence, and wars, Greece was emerging from her dark archaic past. In the emergence we see the sprouting of philosophy, justice, science, and humanism’civilizing forces powered by the development of written language, music, poetry, art, and theatre. The late eighth century is also the era of Homer and Hesiod’bards, poets, the quasi-historical account of the mythological past reaching back into prehistory.  

Homer – if this is a single person – is the culmination of the epic tradition and the greatest surviving expression of the Greek mind, immortalized in the newly developed written word during the latter half of the 8th to early 7th century BCE using the new alphabet recently borrowed from the Phoenicians – called “Kadmean Letters” from Tyre as the myth of Europa suggests: her brother Kadmos went to Greece searching for her. This new Greek alphabet was used to write down the old bardic stories about the same time other languages like Etruscan also adopted roughly the same Phoenician-derived alphabet after Hebrew had also done so some centuries earlier, apparently by at least the 10th c. BCE. Before the end of the Late Bronze Age, spoken Proto-Greek had been using the Linear B syllabary script derived from Aegean scripts like Minoan Linear A, known via clay tablets from places like Pylos, Knossos, Tiryns, Mycenae and other sites. This new alphabet proved so much more workable for the epics Homer, Hesiod and other bards needed to generate, epics soon shared in art in the Late Geometric Age that began to develop narratives on their ceramic vases and jewelry.

The Iliad and the Odyssey are windows into centuries of history, bringing to life, through powerful, emotional poetic narrative, a people, their origins, their cultural heritage, and the principles that came to shape their society, and ours. From the mythic past Homer drew the first Greek theology, a primitive religion of Olympic gods’mirror images, flaws and all, of his epic mortal heroes. He addresses the basic issues of humankind’s origins, of creation, but also the history of our progress from primitive savagery to civilization. In the Iliad we see the origins of urban social organization in the early polis, with communal life centered on the agora, the open marketplace. Religion was practiced there, but also business, trade, and justice. Homer portrays a fundamental problem and the struggle to solve it through the poetic symbol of Achilles’ shield, which pictures two means of conflict resolution: On one side of the shield is a battle scene and on the other an agora, the communal marketplace where judges sit hearing the two sides of conflict before a jury of citizens. The shield symbolizes violent as against peaceful resolution, war versus the justice system.  

         Hesiod, the other oldest epic poet, came from a rural background more plebeian than the aristocratic Homer. Where Homer’s epics are intended for the elite, Hesiod speaks to a different audience and from another perspective. He writes and sings about and to his roots, the common people. He puts into song and verses the story of the poor and the grinding toil of the farmer. He gives voice to the underclass, to those who are economically and socially beaten down and exploited by the nobility. The conflict between the haves and have-nots had gone on all during the evolution of the city-state, through wars, famines, and migrations; the merging of families, tribes, and clans; the relatively brief flirtation with monarchy; and the gradual assumption of power by a ruling aristocracy

By 700 BCE, some hundred and fifty years before Solon, Hesiod produced Works and Days, his hymns on humanity and its ills, in which he brings Justice, which he terms “Just Retaliation,” down from Olympus in the form of a goddess called Dike. Hesiod saw the need for justice here on Earth, for the oppressed, and he expressed it in theological, mythic terms.  

The hundred years or so after Hesiod were revolutionary, with an impact that created cultural waves that still carry us. During that century, Thales articulated a new philosophy but was actually a whole new way of understanding. Thales sought rational explanations for natural phenomena, laying the foundation for scientific thinking and for science as a means of understanding and explaining the world we perceive through our senses.  He attempted to grasp with his rational mind such phenomena as the movement of sun, moon, and stars; tides; storms; diurnal and seasonal cycles. He rejected mythology as an explanation of creation and of nature, searching for an understanding of the world around him by explorations divorced from mysticism. He suggested that under the seeming chaos of the likes of lightning, floods, thunder, tides, and drought there might be order reflecting knowable, fundamental laws of nature. His thinking had a profound impact on the development of physical science, but also on drama, the arts, medicine, psychology, law, and governance. 

Thales and Solon were colleagues. Solon applied Thales’ principles of scientific understanding to the polis. Rejecting tyranny, autocratic rule, mysticism and theocracy, Solon became the first political scientist and put government on a rational basis. 

In the roughly two hundred years or more from Homer and Hesiod to Solon’s ascendancy, a weak monarchy gave way to a controlling powerful aristocracy, which in turn was challenged by a swelling and dissatisfied disenfranchised lower class. Class conflict worsened as society became more complicated, and it was compounded by the growth of a middle class of merchants, traders, and businessmen. Burdensome, autocratic, serving the wealthy, exploiting the underclasses, justice was an ongoing contentious theme. The result was a series of coups by tyrants and cycles of retaliatory violence. 

Revolution begat revolution. In 621 BCE, in an attempt to pacify the middle and underclasses and prevent another revolution, the aristocracy brought to power Draco, who sought to mitigate revolutionary tension by codification of the justice system. Until then, Athens had had a system of unwritten, customary law weighted in favor of the aristocracy and open to abuse. Draco’s solution was to put the law in print for all to see. What they saw was the brutality, cruelty, and injustice of their customary law. It was said to be written in blood, not ink. Draco’s codification served only to worsen class conflict.

Athens was boiling. Wealth was monopolized by elite families who were gorging themselves while they cannibalized the poor. The unfortunates were hungry, starving, smoldering, and reduced to slavery. Revolution loomed. Fearing another violent upheaval, the aristocracy turned to Solon as an arbitrator who had the trust of all sides, including the underclasses. 

His ancestors were kings, but his father (Execestides), a generous and empathic man, lost their wealth giving to the poor. By necessity, Solon became a merchant, entrepreneur, and trader, thrusting him first hand and personally into the pressure cooker of growing economic and social problems of his beloved Athens. He travelled to all corners of the known world. A keen observer and social critic, he came to abhor cruelty, injustice and slavery in all its forms. He expressed himself with his poetry initially for his own pleasure but then for the public.

Solon was the epitome of “the Greek mind.” (H. D. Kitto) He led the first Enlightenment of our western civilization.  A devoted husband, friend, and citizen, father to his children and to democratic justice, he was the first political scientist and remains an ideal of the democratic leader. He spoke softly, but his character thundered. Solon is a towering beacon from antiquity throwing light on the creation of democratic justice.

The proletariat was on the march. The conservative aristocracy and the wealthy elite heard the bare feet stomping. They were scared. They were quaking in their sandals. Class warfare and revolution was about to explode.  In desperation the ruling parties turned to Solon, a poet- warrior-trader whose military victories had gained him popularity. He led the Athenians to victory in the long war over the island state of Salamis, strategically important, but also an important source of grain for the starving lower classes. 

   He was an ideal mediator. He had ties to the aristocracy, the middle and lower classes. To reach the people of Athens he stepped into the Agora and onto the stage of history. His words came from his heart. The Agora was more than a marketplace. It was the political soul of Athens. His poetry was a song of passion breathing life into his, and Athenian, ideals. It could be compared to a combination of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, JFK’s inaugural and MLK’s “I have a dream”. 

As Solon said, “–their pride goeth before a fall; for they know not how to hold them from excess nor to direct in peace the jollity of their present feasting … but grow rich through the suasion of unrighteous deeds … and steal right and left with no respect for possessions sacred or profane, nor have heed of the awful foundations of Justice, who is so well aware in her silence of what is and what hath been, and soon or late cometh alway to avenge.”

  He told the people of Athens their beloved city suffered from a disease, Greed, like a plague infected society and leads to: ” vile slavery, civil strife and war that drains the blood of youth—wears down by faction, while the wicked stir them to confrontations, evil ensnares the whole people—the evil finds everyone—the public– evil comes home to everyone.”  

Poet, warrior, but also astute politician, his genius lay in his wide and deep sociological perspective coupled with a character of empathy, humane values, and steely resolve to create a government reflecting those values. He was the true father of democracy and democratic justice. America’s Founding Fathers read Plutarch’s portrait of Solon as they framed our Constitution. They read Cicero’s writings, Plato and Aristotle, whose views of law and government were shaped by Solon. Robert Kennedy quoted Aeschylus (later Solon’s spokesperson) in his Eulogy to Martin Luther King, ‘In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’” And John Adams in his “Defense of the Constitution of the United States” refers to Solon whose influence can be seen every day in our courtrooms.

Solon stepped out of the doom-gloom history of glorification of patriotism and war by Homer, or the blind obedience to religious orthodoxy or past custom. He saw the enormous importance of opportunity and representative government as a motivating force that enables inspiration, creativity and a productivity that nourishes vital growth for individuals’and states. He also saw he had to remove the social and political shackles that had strangled growth. He had to give people the opportunity to realize their inner capacities. And he had to address through the bully pulpit, as well as through legislation and a legal code the self-destructive attitudes built up over centuries. He hit a responsive chord. The rulers appointed him Chief Archon, governor, with unprecedented powers. He, in effect, was given a blank check.

His first acts were to cancel all debt and free the slaves. He restructured government making it more representative, and divorced from birth-right. He developed a constitution and legal code reflecting an emphasis on the rule of law, equality before the law, and separation of church and state. Redistribution of power was no longer based on birth, but on a formula that encompassed all classes except the landless which, however, he enfranchised by making them open to jury duty while making his legal code ambiguous enough, cleverly it was said, to ensure most cases would go to a jury.

He introduced the right to appeal, rape was made a major offense, women’s rights were increased, the dowry was erased as it made women into chattel. Solon’s new constitution nourished the middle class, opened society, encouraged work, and offered opportunity for merit.  And he laid down a legal code that was based on an understanding of human nature and the prevention of crime. He set an example of humanism, class boundaries became increasingly permeable. Above all the rule of law, and power flows from the people as a community, the polis. Justice became the foundation of the state: “It is vital that men should lay down laws for themselves and live in obedience to them, otherwise they will be indistinguishable from wild animals of the utmost savagery.” (Victor Ehrenberg, Solon to Socrates. Methuen, 1968.)

Laws to punish and deter are necessary because of human weakness, and while criminal acts can appear evil, even evil can be understood and once identified, can be addressed so as to prevent further criminal acts. Prevention, not retribution, is primary A major theme throughout is prevention of disorder, and any means within the rule of law that serves that purpose should be considered. 

Criminal behavior is seen as complex, and attempts made to explain such behavior. Plato cites an interesting example from Solon of what sounds like a form of kleptomania: “individual who is incited by day and kept awake at night by an evil impulse which drives him to steal some holy object from temples.” Solon explains this behavior as driven by a deep sense of guilt. Crime as a result of guilt and compulsion is a recurrent theme in Solon’s writings and is likened to a disease.

Greek law recognized the difference between deliberate acts and acts committed without or with lesser control. Solon retained the distinction between voluntary and involuntary murder, a distinction known even under Draco, but amplified it and gave it meaning. He defined as “involuntary,” and therefore not criminal, those actions committed impulsively and without intent to do harm. Although of course they did not use the term, the ancient Greeks came to define criminal behavior by the same mental state we do’ mens rea. That means guilty mind, and refers to intent and knowledge of wrongdoing.

The basis of crime is thus defined in psychological terms, as destructive emotions overcoming restraints (“the mastery of the psyche by anger, fear, pleasure, pain, envy, and desires”).  In Solon’s code anger and fear were said to cause overt and violent crime, pleasures and desires to cause secrecy and fraud. 

Voluntary murder was thought to result from greed, jealousy, or the desire for pleasure (as well as from the fear felt by the guilty, who killed to cover up their crime).  Money, which “tyrannized the soul,” was the greatest corrupter; no one was thought to be immune to the “innate depravity” of a lust for the endless acquisition of wealth. This acquisitiveness was seen as promoted and magnified by the public flaunting of wealth, which is why Solon discouraged flamboyance in dress and other public displays. Murder within families, especially the murder of parents, was considered the most heinous, yet the rules of justice applied to all, and one of the law’s basic purposes, the prevention of cycles of vengeful killing, was maintained. 

In Solon’s legal code, the insane (along with young children) were considered incapable of voluntary crime: “A man who commits one of these crimes might be suffering from madness (insanity), or be as good as insane either because of disease, or the effects of advanced senility, or because he is still in the years of childhood” 

“If clear proof of any of these states is ever shown to the judges selected in each case, on the submission of either the criminal or his counsel, and in the opinion of the court the man was in that condition when he committed his crime, he must pay, without fail, simple recompense for any damage he may have inflicted on anyone, but details of the penalty should be waived: if murder, exile for a year.” 

There is no doubt Solon was a strong leader, in the best sense of the term. He led by projecting his character infused with values of empathy, humanism and reason expressed directly and through his constitution and legal code. His disdain for ostentatious show of wealth, slavery, injustice, devaluation of women, and cruelty was clear. Solon set an example, the most effective form of leadership. He was able to move Athenian culture from a macho ( a Greek word related to the words for “sword” and “battle” both generally associated with males ) and cruel acquisitive militarily aggressive state to high priority on rule of law and humanitarian values.

Walter Borden, M.D.

Distinguished Life Fellow, American Psychiatric Association

Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry And Neurology

Diplomate, American Board of Forensic Psychiatry