The Athenian statesman and lawgiver Solon is said to have enacted an unusual law in 594 B.C. The essence of the law was that, in times of civil conflict or crisis, every citizen had to take one side or another. Neutrality was not an option; one could not “sit on the sidelines” and wait things out. Anyone doing so would run the risk of being declared an outlaw (atimos), and might have his property confiscated.
We know that such a law, or something like it, existed, for it is mentioned by Aristotle (Athenian Constitution VIII.5) and by Plutarch (Solon XX). The latter has this to say about the law:
Among Solon’s other laws there is one very peculiar and unexpected one, which decrees the disenfranchisement of any citizen who, in the event of revolution, does not take one side or the other. Solon’s intention was evidently that men should not remain indifferent or apathetic to the public interest or safeguard their private affairs while congratulating themselves upon having nothing to do with the disorders and misfortunes of their country; he wished instead to encourage them to attach themselves at once to the better cause, share its dangers, and give it their support, not to sit back in safety waiting to see which side would win. [Trans. by I. Scott-Kilvert]
A moment’s reflection is sufficient to show how wise this law was. For a society to function properly, every citizen must feel that he or she has a stake in the outcome. Every person must see themselves as part of a whole, and must feel that they have a stake in the outcome of disputes that may arise. Solon’s law may appear, at first glance, to increase the likelihood of conflict; but further thought suggests that the law would probably reduce it. When all are involved, all are engaged and committed; everyone understands what is at stake. Solutions, proposals, and compromises are speedily raised and tested; what works is implemented, and what does not work is discarded. Is this not better than having isolated, powerful factions battle each other for dominance, while a fearful and alienated citizenry watches from the sidelines in silence? When everyone knows that things will affect them personally, they suddenly become interested in resolving problems. Somewhat along these lines, I recall this interesting aside from Herodotus (VII.152):
But this much I do know: that if everyone in the world were to make public his own personal problems, with the aim of swapping them for those of his fellow-men, just a single glance at the miseries of his neighbors would see him gladly take back with him the ones that he had brought.
No one wants to share another’s miseries; but when such miseries are held in common, a greater chance of finding solutions arises. A man will sooner seek to end his own misery, than he will tap into his altruism to save his fellows. Sufferings shared are breeding grounds for comprehensive solutions. But in order for such a law to work, citizens must care: they must be animated by a desire to participate, to work for the common good, and to seek to solve problems. The fact that we do not find such a class of citizens any more in the West is a testament to the success of the plutocracy in marginalizing the public, and in seizing control of the state for itself; men now count themselves brilliant for sitting on the sidelines and enriching themselves at the expense of their fellows. They care about nothing beyond what material goods they can amass for themselves, while laughing at the corruption and decay that surrounds them. Such behavior cannot be counted good: it represents, in fact, the lowest and most callous form of avarice.
Progress is virtue is not steady. It does not have an easily charted trajectory. Often we cannot tell if we are making progress, or if we are just treading water. But in such efforts, as in so much else, consistent application is paramount; we must continue to forge our way ahead, confident that gains in moral development are agglutinative, and permanent. In this respect, Plutarch tells us:
Just as mariners sailing with full sail over the gaping ocean measure the course they have made by the time they have taken and the force of the wind, and compute their progress accordingly, so anyone can compute his progress in philosophy by his continuous and unceasing course, by his not making many halts on the road, and then again advancing by leaps and bounds, but by his quiet and even and steady march forward guided by reason. For the words of the poet, “If to a little you keep adding a little, and do so frequently, it will soon be a lot [Hesiod 361],” are not only true of the increase of money, but are universally applicable, and especially to increase in virtue, since reason invokes to her aid the enormous force of habit…The mathematicians tell us that planets, after completing their course, become stationary; but in philosophy there is no such intermission or stationary position from the cessation of progress, for its nature is ever to be moving and, as it were, to be weighed in the scales, sometimes being overweighted by the good preponderating, sometimes by the bad. [On Moral Virtue 11; trans. by A.R. Shilleto]
What he means by this is that one is either progressing, or falling back; there is no stasis when it comes to progress in the development of character. There are no periods of static, no periods of quietude. There are no “days off” when it comes to building masculine virtue; one must always hold oneself accountable, and responsible, to exert efforts in furtherance of progress. Every man must take action, both for himself and for his fellows; and every man must choose a side. At some point in every man’s life, a choice is made: either one is on the side of virtue and moral development, or one chooses the side of apathy, and all comes with this choice. Either way, we all must live with the consequences of our decisions.
He who thinks he can remain on the sidelines, whistle songs to himself, and profit at the expense of his fellows, will one day find out Fortune has come calling for him, too. They eyes of Fortune see all, and nothing escapes her vision. Herodotus (VII.190) tells the story of a Magnesian man named Ameinocles, who gained immense profit from scavenging the wealth washed up in the wreckage of a storm. He earned a nice living for himself by picking over shipwrecks that washed up on the beach, not thinking much about the human misery and death that had come from these disasters. He did not care. All that mattered to him was his wallet:
Over the course of time, he picked up any number of gold and silver drinking vessels as they were washed up on to the shore, discovered Persian treasure-chests, and came by more riches than I can possibly relate. Nevertheless, for all that he became immensely wealthy by his beachcombing, in other respects his luck failed him. He too, you see, suffered his share of grief: the result of an appalling accident, in which he killed his own son.
We may not wish to take a side, and we may prefer to ignore the moral implications of our actions. But Fortune will still find us, wherever we are hiding.
Read more in the definitive collection of essays, Digest: