The Athenian Constitution: A review

by Aristotle

I know of few men when they had power, they used it for the benefit of mankind. I guess Abe Lincoln is known to most if not all of you as being one of the great American presidents. Robert Ingersoll, in his speeches, pays tribute to him in ways that yours truly cannot match. He says

Abraham Lincoln, in his judgement, the grandest man ever president of the US of A and upon whose monument these words could truthfully be written: Here lies the only man in the history of the world who, having been clothed with almost absolute power, never abused it except in the side of mercy.

I think Abraham Lincoln should come second for before him lived Solon in ancient Greece, who when he had almost absolute power, did not abuse it, but used it for the benefit of his fellow men. For, among other things, he enacted laws that freed men, who hitherto, on taking a loan gave for security their person, he saw to the cancellation of all debts, public and private, made weights corresponding to coinage and drafted the constitution.

Aristotle tells of a poem by Solon after enacting some of his laws. Thus

I gave to the mass of the people such rank as befitted  their need.

I took not away their honour,

and I granted naught to their greed:

While those who were rich in power, who in wealth were glorious and great,

I bethought me that naught should befall them unworthy their splendour and state:

So I stood with my shield outstretched, and both were safe in its sight,

And I would not that either should triumph, when the triumph was not with right.

In this book, Aristotle narrates about Athens at different times, times when the government was led by tyrants- Pisistratus and then his sons, times when the government was led by despots, the 30 and the 10, when it was a government of the people by the people and so on.

Bribery, theft, corruption and other evils against the state, once proved were punishable by death. They had jurors- several of them- sometimes up to 1500 for cases where a person is accused against the state. The magistrates take lots, so you cannot know in advance what court you will sit in or what cases you would handle.

They also established a welfare state where those who were disabled or old were entitled to some allowance per day to take care of their daily wants- and this was when the state was stable and not in the hands of despots.

Taxes were a serious matter and failing to honour your obligations would land one in jail with a fines double or even ten-fold the money owed to the commonwealth.

Wealth declaration for officers of the state was a matter of course and there were auditors who checked your accounts if there were cases of embezzlement or abuse of office, such was the strictness with which those who were elected to rule were treated.

There were Commissioners for games, roads, horses, for sacrifices, of public worship, of corn, of weights and measures, market commissioners each group with duties and responsibilities for the common good.

I must say here in conclusion that the Athenian people, when they had a government for the people by the people, had a really great government and to this end, they enacted laws that ensured that no one person ever became so powerful as to be a tyrant. I don’t know why we don’t learn from these great men.