-bbc.co.uk, 6 June 2012 In the early 6th Century BC, the people of Athens were burdened with debt, social division and inequality, with poor farmers prepared to sell themselves into slavery just to feed their families.
Revolution was imminent, but the aristocrat Solon emerged as a just mediator between the interests of rich and poor. He abolished debt bondage, limited land ownership, and divided the citizen body into classes with different levels of wealth and corresponding financial obligations.
His measures, although attacked on all sides, were adopted and paved the way for the eventual creation of democracy.
Solon’s success demonstrates that great statesmen must have the courage to implement unpopular compromises for the sake of justice and stability.
Should we do the same as last time? Heraclitus the thinker, “You can’t step into the same river twice” is one of the statements of Heraclitus, in the early 5th Century BC—his point being that the ceaseless flow of the water makes for a different river each time you step into it.
A sharp pupil pointed out “in that case you can’t step into the same river once,” since if everything is constantly in flux, so is the identity of the individual stepping into the water.
While charge is constant, different things change at different rates. In an environment of ceaseless flux, it is important to identify stable markers and to hold fast to them.
Seizing the opportunity: Cleisthenes and democracy
The ancient Greeks were strongly aware of the power of opportunity—in Greek, kairos. Seizing the moment—in oratory, athletics, or battle—was admired and viewed as an indication of skill.
In many cases, such temporary innovation, born of the moment, will be more enduring, especially if successive innovators build on its principles.
When the tyrants of Athens were deposed at the end of the 6th Century, the leading citizen Cleisthenes needed to think up a constitution that would cut across existing structures of power and allegiance.
He devised with amazing rapidity a system of elective government in which all the citizens (the Greek word “demos” means “the people”) had a single vote—the world’s first democracy.