Books: Solon the Thinker – Political Thought in Archaic Athens

by | Sep 25, 2006 | History, LAW

John Lewis's Solon the Thinker contains a careful reading of the poetic fragments of Solon – not as poetry, but as political thought.

Here are select passages from a new book, Solon the Thinker: Political Thought in Archaic Athens (London: Duckworth, 2006). It deals with the poetry of perhaps the earliest political thinker in history, Solon of Athens. Selected as Chief Official in Athens in 594 BC, he is often credited with laying the groundwork for the political constitution of Classical Athens, through a set of written laws that protected the freedom of the Athenians through a rational, even if primitive, legal process. This book considers, on a specialist’s, level, Solon’s poetry as the first extant political thought from ancient Greece.

From the Introduction:

“The purpose of this book is to examine the poetic fragments of Solon as early Greek political thought. The focus is on Solon’s preserved poetry, not on laws or institutional reforms attributed to him by later writers, and not on his place in a literary or historical tradition. What rises out of Solon’s verses is an all-embracing way of looking at his world–a way of understanding Athens and the men in it, of grasping the certainty of justice and the arbitrariness of fate, and of judging rulers both bad and good–that is rooted in a new world-view that was sweeping the Aegean world. His preserved verses, even though fragmentary, often cast in epic form, and motivated by an opaque rhetorical purpose, present an enlightened frame of reference, an energetic moral program, and a well-organized set of ideas. His words mark the birth of thought about the polis as a lawful, just community.”

From Chapter One: ‘I brought the people together’: Solon’s Polis as Kosmos

“Such ideas were part and parcel of new forms of thought that were sweeping the Aegean world. In Solon’s day, Greek thinkers had begun to search for a singular principle underlying life on earth. This does not mean that they had a cosmology, a systematic view of the earth and the heavens. But their ‘world-view’ had a meaning more fundamental than cosmology: a basic understanding of how the world operates, and of their place in it. Such a world-view establishes, among other things, whether man is to be a plaything of omnipotent deities, a pawn in a capricious world without consistency, an autonomous being able to control his own fate, or an unstable and ill-defined mixture of these ideas. Such a world-view may be well thought out and explicit, or it may be implicit, unexamined and unconceptualized, expressed as an emotional ‘gut feeling’ or as an absolute that defies challenge and explanation; it may be riddled with contradictions, but it is implied in any generalization about the nature and purpose of human life in the world.

“For a peasant the world may not extend beyond the closest village, and the cycles of life may be no wider than agricultural seasons, religious festivals and wars. But the world-view of an archaic Greek thinker was expanding, encompassing wider ideas about the nature of life and offering answers to its basic questions . . . The new understanding was growing out of earlier developments, in which the creative acts of individuals added up to a cultural revolution.”

From Chapter Five: ‘Moira brings good and evil’: Bios and the Failure of Dikç

“There is a searing paradox evident in Solon’s claims about the polis, wisdom and human life. On the one hand his verses proclaiming his ability to know the inevitable consequences of human actions in the polis are emboldened with the kind of unalloyed certainty once relegated to the gods alone. As lawgiver he takes over where Dike [Justice] dare not tread, seeing that which will be and claiming its inevitability in terms that are comprehensive and inescapable. Yet, the inability of any man to see the ultimate end of all things was a common tenet in early Greek thought, and Solon can claim no exception to this rule. Man’s noos [mind] is ephemeral, and it is difficult or impossible to know the end of life itself. Solon’s verses combine ‘Dike surely comes later’ with ‘the mind of the immortals is hidden from men’, claiming both the ability to know ‘what will be’, and that ‘what will be’ is hidden to us. Some readers have argued that a division, or split, exists in his thought, between his revolutionary view of political matters and his traditional view of fate (Moira], and that his poem 13, the Hymn to the Muses, expresses this split. But what is the mess here: is it in Solon’s ideas, or our understanding of him?”

From Chapter Seven: ‘I set them free’: Tyranny, Slavery and Freedom

“It is a serious oversight that Solon’s first use of these terms (eleutheros) as political freedom should get so little emphasis. This point cannot be overstressed: Solon’s is the first statement of political freedom in all of western thought. His special sense of freedom is its political nature. The word eleutheria exists in texts prior to Solon, but is not understood in distinction from political despotism. The four ‘day of freedom’ and ‘cup of freedom’ phrases in the Iliad exhaust Homer’s uses of eleuther- forms. The Trojans who cry for eleutheria want to drive off foreign armies, in order to return to despotic rule under their king. Freedom means living under King Priam’s rule, and slavery means being taken in personal bondage to work in a far off land. This is not political freedom; it is independence from foreign takeover. Eleuther- terms are otherwise used only rarely in poets before Solon . . .

“For Solon a free man is an Attic-speaking male whose personal autonomy inside the polis is protected from attacks by his fellows. Solon’s poem 36 is the first statement in western thought to base a political order on a distinct idea of justice under enforced written laws, promoted by persuasion rather than divine commandment, and legitimated by a claim to have set its inhabitants free.”


Solon the Thinker: Political Thought in Archaic Athens 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.

“John Lewis’s Solon the Thinker contains a careful reading of the poetic fragments of Solon – not as poetry, but as political thought. Lewis’s interpretation of these poems provides one with a greater understanding and appreciation of the political views of Solon – arguably the first (and only) Presocratic political philosopher – and his place in the history of ideas. Anyone interested in early Greek discussions of the polis, justice, tyranny, slavery, and freedom should find this book worthwhile reading.” — Robert Mayhew, Professor of Philosophy, Seton Hall University

“In contrast to scholars who treat Solon’s political reforms and his poetry in isolation from each other, John Lewis demonstrates that Solon’s poetry is in fact a fertile source of important political ideas such as order, wisdom, moderation, justice, and law. Solon conceptualized freedom as a political ideal in opposition to tyranny, and he viewed the polis as a haven for human beings against the ravages of unrelenting destiny. Solon the Thinker is a major contribution to our appreciation of Solon as a poet and to our understanding of his pivotal role in the development of ancient Greek political thought.” — Fred D. Miller, Jr., Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University

Order Solon the Thinker: Political Thought in Archaic Athens from

John David Lewis (website) is a Visiting Professor of Political Science, Duke University. He has been a Senior Research Scholar in History and Classics at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, and an Anthem Fellow.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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