Most everyone knows that George Washington resigned from the US presidency after only two terms. Some might remember Cincinnatus, the Roman general who gave up power once he liberated his people and returned to his farm in peace. And you might not know that Alfred the Great ended a dominant campaign in England and sought peace with the Vikings after reclaiming Wessex. So what is it about great leaders that stay their hand when absolute power is just within reach? I believe there is a core virtue at work here. A virtue that makes powerful men great. And I hope you’ll see the virtue of these great men embodied in the story of Solon of Athens.
The story of Solon is the story of a great leader who led Athens to transition away from despotic leadership toward democracy. His story illustrates a virtue that’s largely neglected today: the virtue of moderation. Solon’s story comes from our classical studies course, Famous Men of Greece, a collection of stories gathered from the annals of history and myth; it’s perfect for any student or teacher of classical history from 5th -7th grade.
Solon first rose to power not as a great leader but as a poet. Around six hundred BC, Athens was embroiled in a military contest for a small island in the Mediterranean. Solon’s countrymen had been beaten off the island and retreated to Athens, ready to give up entirely. The people of Athens made a new law that said, if anyone should recommend that the people go back to war, they should be executed.
Solon, apparently, did not fear death. He only feared that the Athenians would humiliate themselves with cowardice. So he went to a crowded marketplace and shouted out a poem he had written for the people of Athens. In it, he urged his people to fight for their honor. By the end of the poem, the people were swept up in patriotic fervor. They repealed the law and asked Solon to lead them to victory, which he did.
Conditions in Athens after the war did not improve. Instead, a few Athenian noblemen ruthlessly took advantage of the poor by trapping them in steep debts. To pay for their debts, many Athenian citizens had to sell themselves into slavery. During this time, Solon was one of the leaders in Athens and seemed to be popular among the high-ranking citizens. Eventually, they even gave him sole power to make laws and preside over legal disputes. At this point in Solon’s career, it appeared like he was on a trajectory to amass great power and authority to rule, but few, if any, could have anticipated what Solon would do with this power.
Solon’s first act in office shocked the nobleman. He announced that the debts of poor Athenians were to be immediately forgiven. He also decreed that all citizens enslaved by debt should be freed. Solon declared that he was “shaking off the burden” of Athens. With one decisive act, Solon enraged the people who had put him in power and shifted the balance of future power in Athens.
Solon then worked to form a new constitution that prevented one class of individuals from ruling in Athens. Regardless of where a person was born, they could enter the governing class if they met certain criteria. At the time, Solon’s measures were an unprecedented and radical move toward democracy.
Solon also reformed the laws in Athens, repealing the dreaded laws of Draco (whose name came to be synonymous with extreme legal measures: “draconian laws“). Solon codified new laws that appropriately doled out punishment in degrees relative to the severity of a crime. These new laws would remain the foundation of Athenian law until its golden age several hundred years later.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Why haven’t I heard of Solon before? He sounds like one of the most influential Greek leaders to ever live!” Unfortunately, Solon’s reforms led to little earthly gain for himself. He infuriated the nobleman as he loosened their long-held grip on Athens, but the poor who he liberated and protected were also angry that he hadn’t gone far enough. Instead, Solon was content to respect a middle way, a balanced position.
So what could have caused a person like Solon, with all the power in the ancient world, to pursue the Good without any hope of gain or favor? There’s a curious legend about Solon’s later life that gives insight into his unique character and illustrates the virtue that he shared with great leaders like Washington and Alfred.
After suffering the recrimination of his own people, Solon decided to leave Athens and refused to return for ten years. While on his journey, he stopped at the island of Lydia and met a king named Croesus. This king, probably the first to ever mint his coins in pure gold, was massively wealthy. When Solon had an audience with the king, Croesus asked him, “Who is the happiest man you have ever known?” Croesus thought for sure that Solon would say, “You, your majesty, are the happiest man because you have the most wealth and you live the most extravagantly.”
Solon’s answer actually shocked the king. First, he said that the happiest man he’d ever known was an Athenian peasant who had a good wife and children and who died for his people on the battlefield. Croesus was perplexed. So he asked, “Who is the next happiest?”
Solon responded, “The next two were sons of a priestess. She offered sacrifices to the goddess Hera. One day the oxen that drove her cart with the sacrifice was lost. When her sons found out, they yoked themselves to the cart like animals and drug the cart all the way to the temple. Their mother, the priestess, was so pleased that she asked the goddess for “the greatest blessing they could have.” Immediately the two sons lay down to sleep in the temple and died.”
Croesus, of course, was mystified and asked, “But what about me? Do you think I’m happy because I’m rich and powerful?” Solon replied, “I call no man happy until he is dead.” The legend is that many years later, Croesus lost both his kingdom and his wealth, and it wasn’t until then that he understood Solon’s wisdom; a short time later, he was executed and had nothing left to lose.
What this strange story illustrates is the virtue that ancient philosophers called “moderation.” Moderation, in its ancient sense, is the broad concept that all things must have their proper place. No one thing can bring happiness or success in life—even if it is possessed to the highest conceivable degree. Instead, a life lived in balance is the goal. Solon’s story illustrates that material possessions, the love of citizens and friends, or the power of a kingdom cannot bring sure happiness because they cannot secure a noble death, the only possession one can never lose. The happiest people Solon had ever known were those who possessed something that could not be lost. They had died either protecting one of the best and most beautiful things on earth—a loving family—or prizing the honor of the gods above even their own lives. In so doing, they secured noble deaths and good names that could never be taken away. A truly happy man is thankful for what he has, refuses to be enslaved by the desire for more, and, in death, pays homage to those few things of truly abiding value.
Like Cincinnatus, King Alfred, and George Washington after him, Solon understood what today might be called humility, or contentment, or perspective; he embodied moderation. It’s the same virtue St. Paul speaks of in his letter to the Philippians, which, as he explains, can only be fully understood by those who possess that which is supremely valuable—even Christ himself. Solon of Athens, living as he did before Christ’s coming, still knew this virtue in part; his life demonstrates that the accumulation of power will never satisfy and that the best thing to do when you get too much power is to give it away.