Thursday, May 2, 2013

Arête and the tenets of Solon

Ethics are at the very core of Hellenismos, and they support the heart of human life: arête, the act of living up to one's full potential. When one lives the way of arête, they live their life ethically, consciously, and in happiness. That is the true potential of arête: a life of happiness.

Living up to arête is not easy: it challenges up to be our best mentally, physically, and spiritually. It means taking control of our life, to become an active participant in it. To place blame only on yourself when things go wrong, and to keep trying to reach your goals, no matter what setbacks you suffer. Arête should become a way of life, and in that way of life, an ethical framework is essential. Ethics give you the tools to create internal order and consistent action. Both are necessary for happiness. Ethics will remove doubt, fears and regrets from your life, as you know exactly what you should and should not do to become the best you can be. 

The ancient Hellenes had many guidelines for this ethical framework. As such, Hellenismos is known for its highly developed ethical system, derived from ancient scripture like the Delphic Maxims I keep going on about as well as scholarly works like the Homeric Hymns, the Tenets of Solon, the Ethics of Aristotle (1,2), the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, the Philosophy of Epicurus, the Stoics, Works and Days by Hesiod and many, many others.

Today, I want to look into Solon and his tenets. Solon (Σόλων) was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet, who lived from 638 BC to 558 BC. He spend most of his adult life trying to legislate against political, economic, and moral decline in archaic Athens. His ideologies are often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy.

As a statesman, Solon put principles before expediency. In a time when Athens was struggling under the burden of civil war, his reforms strove to bridge the gap between the rich an the poor. He cancelled all debts, and purchased the freedom of all slaves, allowing everyone to start with a clean slate. This caused a massive financial crisis, for which new reforms were necessary, including new trade ties, and an halt in the export of all foodstuffs but olive oil, of which there was plenty. Solon did not stop there, however. Once he was given full legislative powers, he abolished political distinctions of birth in politics. Instead, he created four new groups:
  • Thetes, the lowest group, who paid no taxes, provided no equipment city state or its army, and who were not eligible to hold an office of any kind.
  • Zeugitae, the second lowest group, who paid tax at the lowest rate, provided body armor to the Athenian army, and who were eligible to hold office.
  • Hippeus, the second highest group, who paid higher taxes at the middle rate, provided their own war horse when they served in the army, and they were eligible for higher offices.
  • Pentacosiomedimni, the top class of citizens, who paid the highest amount of taxes, and were eligible for all top positions of government in Athens. Archons were chosen from this class.
Further political reforms brought stability to the political landscape, and eventually to the economic climate as well. From Diogénes Laértios (Διογένης Λαέρτιος), a Hellenic biographer, in his 'Lives of Eminent Philosophers':
 
"He was the first person also who assembled the nine archons together to deliver their opinions, as Apollodorus tells us in the second book of his Treatise on Lawgivers. And once, when there was a sedition in the city, he took part neither with the citizens, nor with the inhabitants of the plain, nor with the men of the sea-coast."
 
He gave the following advice, as is recorded by Apollodorus in his Treatise on the Sects of Philosophers (as written down by Laértios):
(1) Consider your honour, as a gentleman, of more weight than an oath.
(2) Never speak falsely.
(3) Pay attention to matters of importance.
(4) Be not hasty in making friends; and do not cast off those whom you have made.
(5) Rule, after you have first learnt to submit to rule.
(6) Advise not what is most agreeable, but what is best.
(7) Make reason your guide.
(8) Do not associate with the wicked.
(9) Honour the gods;
(10) respect your parents. 

Pausanias, in his 'Description of Greece', lists Solon as one of the seven sages whose aphorisms adorned Apollo's temple in Delphi (XXIV), and so it is not odd that many of Solon's tenets have a Delphinian counterpart in the maxims. These are common themes, reflected in most of the ethical teachings listed above. Common themes are honor, honesty, intelligent decision making, and family. Coincidentally--or perhaps not so much--these are also at the base of arête.

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