Peter Jones

An appeal to the masses

Solon’s law would go down well with traditional voters and Labour supporters alike

Text settings

As the Tories struggle to find a policy which might appeal to their traditional supporters and not simply ape those of Jeremy Corbyn, how about a reprise of Solon’s law against idleness?

In 594 bc Solon was made arkhôn in Athens to deal with a number of problems, including debt. Solon ruled, for example, that if fathers did not find a trade for their sons, their sons would not have to support them in old age; and to boost trade and jobs, encouraged foreigners to settle in Athens with their families, and facilitated Athenian commerce abroad. He also passed a law (we are told) against idleness: every year every family had to account for how they made their living, and face penalties if they could not. This law, we are told by the essayist Plutarch, was driven by the fact that farming was traditionally the ‘honourable’ occupation, but the poverty of Athens’ soil ‘could not sustain the unoccupied and unemployed’. So Solon’s proposal ‘brought dignity to craft-skills’. The result of all this, Solon presumably hoped, would be that no man had any excuse for not finding work. As Pericles later said in his Funeral Speech (430 bc), ‘there is no disgrace in the admission of poverty, but rather in the failure to take active measures to escape it’.

This would certainly go down well in Tory circles but could serve Corbyn’s policies too. For as the Athenians recognised, such a law was in fact a two-edged sword. It caught out high-minded intellectuals who spent their time just thinking and writing. What did they live off? It caught out the rich, implying that their wealth was the result of ill-gotten gains. It caught out spendthrifts, wasting their patrimony for their own pleasure rather than in service to the state. In other words, if one was not working, there must be something fishy going on.

This is all of a piece with the ancient Greek view that self-sufficiency was the mark of the truly free man, and wealth justified only if well-gotten and used to serve the state. One can think of worse philosophies.