Friday, May 20, 2016

Mix-Up: Economic, Political, and Cultural Life in Ancient Greece

Konstantinos Maleas, Detail, Landscape of Northern Greece, 1914

























SOME eighty-five generations or 2600 years ago, the poet-aristocrat Solon was asked by the citizens of Athens to propose social reforms in order to save the city-state from possible civil war.1  Tensions were high between the rich minority, the middle class, and the poor majority.2

A reform that Solon is perhaps most noted for ended one kind of fusion between political and economic life:  he made it illegal for an Athenian to be enslaved for failure to pay off a debt.3 The debtor's basic human rights, a fundamentally political matter, could no longer become mixed up with saleable economic values.

Before Solon, political power had informally been reserved mainly to the rich. Solon's reforms did not end that mix-up of the economic with the political; his new constitution merely moderated it by means of gradations.4 Under Solon's constitution, for example, if one's landholdings were extensive enough to render at least 500 bushels of produce annually, one was eligible to serve in any political office, including that of state treasurer.  Those whose acreage was sufficient only to produce 300-499 bushels could not serve as state treasurer but were eligible for all other positions including archon (leader) and high-level magistrate. Men whose land produced 200-299 bushels were eligible only for lower level offices.  Those finally who had no land or whose land produced fewer than 200 bushels were eligible only to attend an assembly that met regularly.  Women, resident aliens, and slaves were excluded from participation in the political system.

William Logsdail, Greek theater, Taormina, Sicily, c.1900















Thus Athenians fused economic with political life. That is shown not only by Solon's allocations of political power according to income levels, but by the Athenian use of non-Athenian slaves: slavery treats fundamental human political rights as economic commodities.

Today such fusions of political and economic life would of course be recognized as unjust.  Yet in some ways we are not that far beyond the Solonic model.  The last U.S. state to end property requirements for voting did not dispense with them until 1856.5  In Prussia and many other parts of Europe, one's economic position dramatically affected the quantitative power of one's vote until 1918.6  And of course the influence of big business and wealthy individuals on the political process today remains large.

How did Solon's reforms affect society's third main domain, the realm of cultural life (which includes what we today refer to as education, science, religion, art, news media, language, and ethnic styles and traditions)?  Solon exempted only Athenians from slavery.  To be an Athenian was essentially a cultural category, one defined by membership and birth into the Athenian ethnic community. It was believed that being part of that culture entitled the Athenian to the political rights in Solon's constitution.  In that respect Athenians fused cultural life with the political rights-state.  Another name for that particular species of mingling between culture and the state is nationalism.  In several parts of the world today, nationalism is resurgent. 

Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1848-1933. Detail, Port of Piraeus, Greece


















Nationalism is an often misguided but sometimes understandable reaction against violent and non-violent attempts by various large global forces to establish a dominant monoculture of one or another type over the whole earth.  But nationalism, which means nationality or ethnicity fused with state power, tends toward international conflict and holds back the full development of the individual.  The individual spark in each person radiates universal potential that transcends every national provincialism.  So if not by means of nationalism, how then are pressures toward global monoculture to be resisted? Multiculturalism, despite its strengths, has not always been sufficiently vigilant toward monocultural movements pushing one or another kind of totalitarianism.

It would seem prudent, in any case, to do everything possible to make culture, education, and the free life of the mind and spirit more independent of economic and political power and administration.  Every form of statist nationalism, and for that matter any form of religion that rejects the distinction between what belongs "to God" and what belongs "to Caesar," between what belongs to religion and what to the state, seems bound to lead to unfortunate outcomes.  

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  • donate to the Avalon Initiative, here;
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  • watch the minute-and-a-half-long video explanation below.  It should be added that tax credit scholarship laws can be set up in such a way that corporations and individuals get their tax bills reduced by the amount those same corporations and individuals donate to non-profit scholarship organizations, which organizations then can enable poor and middle class families to have freedom of choice among independent schools for children K-12.
  • call your senator and representative, and if s/he is not available, ask for the staffer who handles educational issues. Say that you would like to see a generous scholarship tax credit policy become law in your state, so that poor and middle class families can have real educational freedom to choose among independent schools.  


1 Thomas R. Martin, Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times (New Haven: Yale UP, 2000), 84.
2 Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), 167.
3 Ibid., 166.
4 Martin, Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, 85; Pomeroy et al., Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History, 167.
5 Stanley L. Engerman and Kenneth L. Sokoloff, "The Evolution of Suffrage Institutions in the New World" (2005), 16, accessed May 19, 2016.
6 Robert J. Goldstein, Political Repression in 19th Century Europe (New York: Routledge, 1983), 11, accessed May 19, 2016,

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