Solon’s Rule on Political Factions

One of the more interesting (and apparently paradoxical) rules of the famous Greek lawgiver Solon (c. 638-558 B.C.) states that in times of political unrest if the city of Athens should divide into armed factions there can be no room for neutrality. Individuals must take sides. Those who fail to ally themselves with either party and “hold aloof from the common calamity of the state” should be deprived of their property and sent into exile.

Most of us would think it an extreme method of enforcing civic duty. So did the amateur Roman philosopher Aulus Gellius.  However, investigating the matter and consulting other authorities, he reached the conclusion that the law was designed “not to increase, but to terminate, dissension.”

For if all good men, who have been unequal to checking the dissension at the outset, do not abandon the aroused and frenzied people, but divide and ally themselves with one or the other faction, then the result will be, that when they have become members of the two opposing parties, and, being men of more than ordinary influence, have begun to guide and direct those parties, harmony can best be restored and established through the efforts of such men, controlling and soothing as they will the members of their respective factions, and desiring to reconcile rather than destroy their opponents (II.12).

It is early exposition of what, in Anglo-American polity, is the two-party model of government which is often held up as a means of achieving enduring stability. And no doubt there is much to be said for such a system, even though there will be times when progressives and traditionalists alike will be annoyed by its apparent limitations and tendency to compromise.

Even if the status quo does not please everyone, this arrangement seems preferable to those multiparty systems (deplored by Solon) which give much greater weight to extremists while the more moderate elements are effectively neutralized. This is what happened in Russia and Germany in the last century. Of course no political arrangement is perfect, not even that of Solon.

One must also take into account the possibility that the entire polity may become so weighted toward one faction over time that the regime becomes permanently imbalanced, with the “moderating” elements consequently biased and imposing compromise only on one wing so that it is no longer able to effectively check the opposition. In that case extremism has crept in by degrees—it is merely slowed, not prevented.

Related post: Solon the Lawgiver: Lessons From History

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