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Solon, Father Of Buts
Issue #31 of The Two But Rule
Big News: Book…is…done!
The manuscript for The Two But Rule is complete and going into its long process of sanding, polishing, production, audio recording, marketing and distribution on Monday. Hitting the shelves in January.
I want to thank our amazing editorial and design team. I am tempted to name names, but didn’t get the all-clear to do so before this issue went live, so stay tuned for that.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. :)
Buts In Conflict
The Two But Rule clearly has uses in finding solutions to political and social conflict, and I thought it was high-time that we tackled such a case. But…
I looked at the war in Ukraine, the conflict over the US Election of 2020, Brexit, the Arab Spring, The Troubles in Ireland, the Partition of India and Pakistan, World War II, World War I, even the French Revolution. But every topic I considered was likely to focus stakeholders on the deficiencies of my research rather than considering how they might apply Momentum Thinking to current conflicts. BUT, it struck me that there might be a case from so long ago that all the combatants are long dead and their direct connection to anyone’s current interests long forgotten.
Dr. March To The Rescue
But I’m not a Ph.D. in ancient history. BUT it happens that my best college friend from UC Berkeley, Dr. Duane March, has a Ph.D. in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology. It’s a degree, I should add, that typically involves at least six years of postgraduate study and proficiency in two ancient languages to acquire.
So I looked him up and gave him a tough assignment: Find a story about a conflict that was, or could have been, resolved in a superior way by stakeholders using Momentum Thinking to figure out their differences. I added the extra challenge that the story needed to be clearly relatable to conflicts we’re grappling with today. He didn’t disappoint. The story he told comes from Athens, the widely-held 'birthplace of democracy.’
A Long Time Ago…
Around 600 BCE, Athens was in the middle of a crisis. Faith in legal and political institutions was at an all time low. Society was divided into self-interested groups with little trust--and a lot of animosity--between them. Armed conflict was a real possibility. Sound familiar?
There were four main stakeholders involved at the time. There were the Eupatrids. They were the old, traditional families of Attica, the region surrounding Athens. In 600 BCE, they were the only ones who could occupy state offices or serve as judges. They were, by all accounts, clannish and tended to favor their own in disputes with other members of society. They held a lot of land, and maintained a patron-client relationship with their lower-status neighbors, often trading services for protection. Effectively this meant that Athens in 600 BCE was run as something between an aristocracy and a mafia state.
The Thetes were poor farmers who subsisted off the land and their labor. They had to borrow seed from wealthier farmers, using their land and bodies as collateral. They were frequently subject to bad harvests that could leave them in debt. If they couldn’t pay off the debts, they would be sold into slavery. They had no political power.
Hoplites made up much of the military class. They were typically farmers who did well enough to afford weapons and armor. Even though they formed the bulk of the Athenian infantry, they had almost no political power, and bad luck with their harvests could land them in the same cycle of debt and slavery as the Thetes.
Then there was the merchant class, who engaged in commerce that flourished all over the Mediterranean. They were wealthy enough to buy weapons and armor, like the Hoplites, and some could afford horses and serve in the Athenian cavalry. In spite of their growing economic and military significance, they couldn’t hold office and had little influence over state policies, even the ones that directly impacted mercantile production and trade.
In 632 BCE, an Athenian aristocrat named Cylon appealed to the Hoplites to back him as an absolute monarch, a tyrannos (tyrant). He seized the Acropolis and nearly succeeded in gaining control over Athens, but in the end he failed to gather enough support and was forced to flee.
But now, the Eupatrids could see how a tyrant could rise if things got bad enough for the Hoplites. And they saw it happen in other surrounding cities, including Corinth, Sicyon, Samos, Naxos, Megara and Miletus.
By 595 BCE, everyone knew something had to change. Yeah, that’s thirty-seven years after the Cylon uprising, but hey, they didn’t have iPhones, and things moved at a different pace. The Eupatrids didn’t want to see another tyrant rise, but they wanted to retain their political influence, social privileges and wealth. The merchant class wanted the same privileges as the Eupatrids, particularly to counter their monopoly in legal disputes, but the Eupatrids obviously didn’t want to share power. Both Hoplites and Thetes wanted debt relief, freedom from the threat of slavery, and an equal playing field in legal disputes. But, obviously this was seen by the other stakeholders as a zero-sum game that could only be solved by losing relative power and privilege.
They were at an impasse, BUT because of the threat of descending into tyranny, which virtually nobody wanted, they struck a grand bargain and agreed to abide by the decrees of a single person. In 594 BCE, they elected Solon as Archon, the leading executive of the State in charge of making new laws. He was a Eupatrid, which was necessary to become Archon, but because of this, he could have been seen as a political insider and rejected by the other stakeholders. BUT he garnered wide support and trust, because he came from a less powerful family and had distinguished himself as a just and fair leader.
Solon’s new laws forbade the enslavement of Athenian citizens as payment for debt, and he had the State buy the freedom of already-enslaved citizens. He abolished all current debt and relieved all property from current mortgages. He even wrote a poem about it: “The mortgage-stones that covered the land were removed by me; the land that was slave is free.” Presumably he was a better leader than poet. (Full disclosure: Dr. March points out that Solon was considered to be a great poet, but at least in translation … he’s no Maya Angelou.)
He created a citizen assembly that admitted even the poorest Athenians. The assembly could elect officials, hear debate on issues, and approve laws. He established a court in which all citizens qualified as jurors and divided the population into four classes based solely on wealth. (This might not seem like a terrific option to modern eyes, but it was a big deal then.) And while he was at it, he standardized weights and measures, which helped protect everyone from cheating. Not a bad start. But…
The Eupatrids still weren’t happy about wealthy merchants rising in status and gaining access to political offices. BUT, because they were all very wealthy, the Eupatrids still maintained a virtual monopoly on ultimate power. And this arrangement gave the merchants enough hope of turning their growing wealth into political power to prevent them from backing a tyrant.
The Hoplites still wanted to weaken the Eupatrids and become war leaders. But the other groups feared that could lead to a military coup. BUT, Hoplites could now serve in many offices, their lands were free of mortgages, and they now had a direct influence on the assembly. They also could protect their interests in the new citizen court.
The Thetes still wanted Eupatrid lands broken up and distributed to the people. But that was never going to happen so long as the aristocracy and other groups remained. That decision would have led to civil war. BUT, Solon wiped out their debts, freed poor farmers from mortgages, and gave everyone direct influence on state business through the assembly and the new citizen court.
Solon Is The Father Of Buts
Solon’s Law wasn’t the kind of lazy compromise we see, even to this day, in political gamesmanship. He literally changed the game. While many of the buts Solon handled are lost to history, he left more bad poetry that establishes him as one of the great but-heads of antiquity:
“Such power I gave the people as was right, I took nothing away and gave in addition. Those that possessed great wealth and high station, my counsel protected from disgrace. Before both sides I held my mighty shield, and allowed neither to infringe the rights of the other.”
In a masterful application of the Two But Rule, Solon recognized that his laws were not universally popular, and there was a risk of them being eroded or rescinded. BUT Athenians had sworn to uphold the laws unless he himself changed them. So after the new laws were approved, Solon got his but out of there and left Athens for a ten year trip around the known world, so that he couldn’t be induced to make changes. That maneuver was such a brilliant application of the Two But Rule that it might warrant naming Solon ‘Father of Buts.’ We can leave that decision for the soon-to-be established ButHead Assembly.
But … yeah, this wasn’t the end of the buts. Sadly, Athenian infighting didn’t end. Humans, once they go tribal, have very stubborn buts. In the coming years, they failed to elect a Chief Archon four times. The lack of an archon, by the way, was called ‘anarchy.’ Then, in 546 BCE, a Eupatrid named Peisistratus seized power in a military coup. He and his sons ruled as tyrants for the next thirty-six years.
BUT, while a tyrannical dictatorship, the very thing everyone was trying to avoid, wound up happening, a ‘funny thing happened on the way to the forum.’ (Old people and fans of Sondheim musicals will get this joke. If you are neither, look it up.) It turns out that Peisistratus was a big fan of Solon. (Some sources suggest they might have been lovers.) So in spite of establishing a military dictatorship, he largely upheld Solon’s laws. In time, his laws led to the formation of the democratic institutions Athens is credited with today.
Was conflict avoided? No. Was the march to Athenian democracy interrupted by infighting, anarchy and dictatorship? Yes. But, the steps Solon took to balance the many buts of Athenian society in his time led to a flourishing of democracy later.
To paraphrase both Ghandi and Martin Luther King Junior: There have been tyrants, and for a time they seem invincible, BUT the long arc of history bends toward freedom, equality and justice.
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