This week we looked at the esteemed Athenian statesman Solon.
The ancient world regarded Solon as a great sage, but as we saw, his head was not in the clouds. He took a society ready to fly apart at the seams and left it with an established social context in which democracy could take root. I wanted to highlight a few key lessons.
First, the background:
Before Solon there was Draco, a member of the Athenian aristocracy. His name itself came to symbolize harsh governmental policy, i.e. a ‘Draconian’ law. His policies helped cement the divide between rich and poor and threatened to make it wider. This dynamic is not unusual. When one group in society separates itself from others because of wealth or status, they tend to fear the rest of society, and thus, isolate themselves all the more. This increased distance only requires more force to ensure the divide. One can think of the ante-bellum South, for example, and various laws enacted that made it a crime to educate slaves. Society built like this can’t last for long.
He recognized a few key things:
- Society needs the rich. One can argue that the rich abused their power but they are still Athenian. Secondly, their resources can benefit Athens. If we heal the fear between the two groups we can create opportunity for the wealthy to feel a bit more free with their resources.
- The divide between rich and poor must be healed if we are to survive. This will require sacrifice from the rich
- This led to what may have been Solon’s invention, and may not have been — an early version of a graduated income tax.
No one likes to pay taxes. One of the reasons for this is that no one really knows where their money goes. It gets dropped into a vast ocean, never to be heard from again. Solon did things differently. He did not ask for a direct sum from the wealthy, but offered them an opportunity. The wealthy could fund specific projects. They could just pay directly for a religious festival, a bridge, or a naval warship. Of course, they could also get full credit for their funding, i.e., ‘This festival to Athena sponsored by Diodotus.’ So, paying taxes became a way to earn ‘kleos.’ The wealthy could contribute in how much they gave. Enhancing the well being of Athens was directly connected with enhancing their own status in the community. Solon therefore made paying ones taxes a way for the wealthy to maintain and even enhance their “kleos.”
We should not view this as “taxes,” in any sense of the modern world. First of all, they were not precisely calculated to income, only loosely. Secondly, they came with no direct legal obligation. Solon erected a social framework where aristocratic status came with a kind of obligation, perhaps an early form of noblesse oblige. We see this idea reflected in various ways up until quite recently in the western world, the idea that you demonstrated your status by public service.
Could this apply today? We are much too big to do what Solon did on any appreciable scale. Yet I wonder, with the ‘Occupy’ movement and other kinds of resentment against the wealthy building, if we couldn’t borrow his ideas. What if we did this for the very rich, and put their faces on front pages with captions like, “Warren Buffet posing with fighter jet paid for with his taxes,” or something like this. Would this help?
But, we should note that if we had a competition of fame/honor in paying taxes to the government, that would imply a certain relationship and attitude towards our government. As we discussed, what we think of Solon in parts depends on what one thinks about the purpose of law and government. Many of us think from a Roman context where law has an essentially “negative” character; i.e., the law tells you what not to do. Greek concepts of law had different goals in mind. The Greeks saw law as a tool to help shape the souls of individuals and communities. Greek law did not alwys say, “You must do this,” (with Sparta as an exception), but it did seek to produce certain definite outcomes.
Solon did not create democracy in Athens, but he established a context for it to exist. Democracy cannot exist everywhere. If the majority have an “us v. them” attitude then they will use their power to get revenge or exploit the “them,” whether they be rich or poor, black or white, etc. In this environment, society will become cancerous and destroy itself. Democracy can only really work when the power of the majority does not just represent merely the majority, but in some sense all the people. In our own age of bitter partisanship and resistance to compromise, we would do well to take Solon’s wisdom to heart.