By Dr. Owen Anderson

Previously we considered the foundation in the Declaration of Independence.  We saw that there are truths we hold to that form the basis for the rest of our life together.  In that document, this includes the idea that we are created by God.  This time we will compare this starting point with the Athenian Constitution that is sometimes held up as an example of the rule of law and the increase of liberty.  What was the foundation upon which this law was built?  At what chief end was it aimed?

We can find parallels with what we are going through today.  The Athenians were divided into tribes and classes.  The problem for them was how to have unity.  Unity was needed as they faced external threats, such as the Persian Wars, as well as internal threats as they divided up over competing interests.  Their law provided them with the initial appearance of unity, but what was the basis for the law?  Simply saying that the law is needed for unity does not provide the content of that law.  Their lack of unity and their strife, both internal and external, was itself a call to stop and think about basic matters.

Instead, like today, much attention was given to economic concerns:  strife between humans as they argue about the need to toil in making a living, and strife between groups as interests coalesce and compete.  Philosophers might have a reputation for diminishing this-worldly concerns in favor of Platonic forms.  But this-worldly concerns have a reputation for superficiality.  Finding meaning requires understanding the purpose of strife and its role in life.  If we had the foundation in place we would be able to do just that.  Overcoming natural evils like toil and strife is not itself the highest good

The Athenian Constitution describes the history and development of the government of Athens.  This history shows internal tensions between classes.  These competing interests vied for power and used various means, including debt, to secure power.  Land, as the means of livelihood, was in the hands of a few.  When Solon became the head of affairs he liberated all the people by ending these debts.  The laws were understood as a means for preserving peace between competing interests so as to preserve a common life together.  We can see this same plan used in our own Constitution and spoken of in the Federalist Papers: competing interests can be balanced so that no one faction seizes power to hold a tyranny over smaller groups.  There is a check and balance system between the majority and minority viewpoints.  

In Athens, Solon provided a law that went beyond the earlier Draconian laws. 

“Next Solon drew up a constitution and enacted new laws; and the ordinances of Draco ceased to be used, with the exception of those relating to murder. The laws were inscribed on the wooden stands, and set up in the King’s Porch, and all swore to obey them; and the nine Archons made oath upon the stone, declaring that they would dedicate a golden statue if they should transgress any of them. This is the origin of the oath to that effect which they take to the present day. Solon ratified his laws for a hundred years.” 

Notice the public presence of the law and the public oath to the law.  The law was available to all and the rulers were under the law.  There was an increased democratization of the law and a reform of weights and measures. Solon divided the population according to property into four classes to provide a kind of check and balance system.

“These seem to be the democratic features of his laws; but in addition, before the period of his legislation, he carried through his abolition of debts, and after it his increase in the standards of weights and measures, and of the currency.” (1)

So far, this hasn’t provided a foundation for the law or life together.  The law is mitigating conflict between competing groups.  But it has not pointed us to the highest good or explained the foundation for life together.  We find Solon appealing to the mother goddess in what is a hint at his understanding of the foundation:

“O mighty mother of the Olympian gods, 

Dark Earth, thou best canst witness, from whose breast 

I swept the pillars broadcast planted there, 

And made thee free, who hadst been slave of yore” (1) 

This mother goddess provides the origin account out of which comes the law and the people.  But there isn’t a close connection between her and the laws.  Why the mother goddess?  Is the poem simply a pious mention of a deity as Solon gets on with the affairs of this life?  We can see the same thing done today.  By contrast, a foundation must provide the basic beliefs about what is real that are then the explanation of what is good.  The highest good is based on the nature of a thing.  The law directs us to, and protects, the highest good.  In order to know the law we must know what is good.  In order to know what is good, we must know the nature of things.  If the mother goddess is a fiction then the law based on that account of reality is not a law aimed at the highest good.

Also worth noting is that the people pressed Solon on the application of the law to the point that he left:

“When he had completed his organization of the constitution in the manner that has been described, he found himself beset by people coming to him and harassing him concerning his laws, criticizing here and questioning there, till, as he wished neither to alter what he had decided on nor yet to be an object of ill will to every one by remaining in Athens, he set off on a journey to Egypt, with the combined objects of trade and travel, giving out that he should not return for ten years. He considered that there was no call for him to expound the laws personally, but that everyone should obey them just as they were written.”

The applications seemed to especially have to do with economic conflicts.  Solon did not provide a lasting solution to these problems.  

The mass of the people had expected him to make a complete redistribution of all property, and the upper class hoped he would restore everything to its former position, or, at any rate, make but a small change. Solon, however, had resisted both classes. He might have made himself a despot by attaching himself to whichever party he chose, but he preferred, though at the cost of incurring the enmity of both, to be the savior of his country and the ideal lawgiver. 

As we get toward the end of the Athenian Constitution we get this statement:

“The people, therefore, had good reason to place confidence in Cleisthenes . . .his first step was to distribute the whole population into ten tribes in place of the existing four, with the object of intermixing the members of the different tribes, and so securing that more persons might have a share in the franchise. . . he allowed every one to retain his family and clan and religious rites according to ancestral custom.” (1)

They had good reason to trust him because of how he organized the tribes to decrease strife.  But there was still no foundation and no reason to think that more reorganizing would be needed again in the future.  The drift was toward the democratization of the constitution: 

By these reforms the constitution became much more democratic than that of Solon. The laws of Solon had been obliterated by disuse during the period of the tyranny, while Cleisthenes substituted new ones with the object of securing the goodwill of the masses. (1)

The goodwill of the masses was secured by providing stability and economic security.  Why did the masses think these would provide meaning?  At best these open up opportunities in life to pursue what is good.  But the reality is that the masses would not seek the good.  It was in times of strife when their ordinary life was interrupted because they were asking for answers.  Satisfied with answers that would return them to their status quo, they continued on until the next interruption.  

The Athenian Constitution does not provide a lasting foundation.  It doesn’t even provide an example of how to build one.  Instead, it is an example of how humans do not pursue the highest good, their chief end, and instead expect the State to secure for them an easy life to avoid toil and strife.  Yet these forms of natural evil persist as calls to stop and think.  We will continue this pursuit of the foundation in my next article.


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