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Where is the Icelandic Solon?

Where is the Icelandic Solon?

Published May 8, 2009

Sólon Íslandus, whose real name was Sölvi Helgason, was an Icelandic
19th Century drifter and painter who was arrested for vagrancy and sent
to Copenhagen in chains. He is immortalized in a novel by Davíð
Stefánsson, as well as with the downtown bar that bears his (assumed)
name.

The original Solon, however, was a 6th Century BCE Greek statesman and poet. His poetry, as well as his statesmanship, did his people more good than that of recent Icelandic leaders. In his time, people still believed that success only came to those who deserved it. Thus, only individuals and states that were honest and just could achieve material success. This somewhat naive idea found its clearest expression in the writings of Hesiod. We find this simple belief echoed here in Iceland during the boom years. A group of men enjoyed previously unheard of riches and so it seemed to many people that these men must have some remarkable qualities, that they were somehow better at being people than the rest of us.

Solon questioned this belief, as it did not seem to fit the facts. Success is neither fair nor honest. A good worker may have disaster befall him or her, whereas a bad worker may win out by the will of God. Of course, what to him seemed the will of the gods is something that today we would simply call luck.

It can be said that one of the greatest revelations in any civilization is when it realises that the world is not fair. For the Greeks, it came with Solon. For the Hebrews, it came with Job. In the Torah, it is always assumed that God, whether he is destroying Sodom or drowning the whole world, is just in his actions. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished. It is only with Job that we see a man divinely punished for his good deeds, while
“The tabernacles of robbers prosper, and they that provoke God are secure; into whose hand God bringeth abundantly.”

To which God belatedly answers: “Look on every one that is proud and bring him low, and tread down the wicked in their place.” With these words, God essentially abdicates from his role as dispenser of justice. It’s all up to us.

The question posed in the book of Job is essentially: why do good things happen to bad people? Solon divided circumstances into two parts. There are outer events, which we cannot control, and inner events, which we can. In the case of the latter, we only have ourselves to blame. It would follow from this that the outer events of society can be influenced by the inner events of those who hold power. Their flaws become the flaws of society. It is not all up to the gods.

In his poems, Solon makes it plain that the success that men acquire by outrageous methods does not last: “It is the citizens themselves who choose to destroy the greatness of their country by their stupidity, and their motive is financial gain.” It is not only in modern Iceland that stupidity and greed have gone together. It is a story as old as that of human society, and the results are invariably the same.

Solon continues: “Wealth comes to many bad men, and poverty to many good men; but we shall not exchange our self-respect for their wealth, because self respect is the same always but wealth changes hands.”

Solon’s reforms seemed initially disappointing to many, and society was still torn in strife between different classes. Nevertheless, he managed to end the reduction of the poor to slavery and turned Athens into the leading state of the Greek world in both commerce and the arts. In Iceland, we had the opposite results. It was the desire to become a leading state in commerce that has reduced the population, deeply in debt, to near-slavery.

The whole history of the Icelandic boom and subsequent banking crisis reads like a Greek tragedy, a morality play about the consequences of letting greed and stupidity run rampant. Last October, Icelanders lost both their self-respect and their wealth. In January, we went some way toward retrieving our self-respect. Hopefully, the new government will restore, if not our wealth, at least our mental health. The rest will surely follow.



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Listicle: A Survival Guide For The Darkest Months

Listicle: A Survival Guide For The Darkest Months

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In Reykjavík and beyond, there are some activities that are available only in the winter season. January can be made into a lively month, with a few ideas and a bit of willpower—never before has the frozen city pond looked as inviting, or a glögg by the open fireplace seemed so tempting. The hardest part is often deciding to do something and getting going, so push yourself to get out of the house and you’ll rarely regret it. Instead of dozing the morning away, you can flick on a SAD lamp, down some lýsi, pull on some colourful clothes, and

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SAD Times: The Effects Of Winter—And How To Fight Back

SAD Times: The Effects Of Winter—And How To Fight Back

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When I meet working psychologist and PhD student Erla Björnsdóttir, it’s already dark outside. Reykjavík’s streets are becoming treacherous as compacted snow freezes into sheets of slippery ice, and the streetlights have been lit for a couple of hours already, throughout the late afternoon. People clutch their hot drinks in the coffeehouse, and a barman lights candles on the tables. The atmosphere is tangibly hushed as the winter season hangs over the city. Around 101’s many downtown bars and cafes, sleep issues become a common topic of conversation at this time of year. Whilst some locals carry on as normal,

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A Tale Of Ice And Fire (But Mostly Wind… And Not Much Sun)

A Tale Of Ice And Fire (But Mostly Wind… And Not Much Sun)

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Icelanders are obsessed with the weather. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever been here: the weather is no joke. If you don‘t keep a close eye on forecasts and weather-related news, you might miss out on the few good days of summer, end up stuck somewhere in a snowstorm or—on rare occasions—drive right into the latest eruption’s ash cloud. In that spirit, we present some peaks and ebbs of 2014, as it pertained to our friendly in-house meteorological expert. Now, it would be a bit extreme to say that this was a good year for Iceland

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WHERE WERE WE? WHERE ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE HEADED?

WHERE WERE WE? WHERE ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE HEADED?

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To mark the beginning of a new year, we posed two questions to dozens of Icelanders, old and new. Representatives of every single political party, ministers, mayors and machinists alike (as per usual, the governing parties mostly ignored our queries). We asked them to tell us—in their own unique ways, from their own unique perspectives—what summed up the year 2014, and what they expected of the coming one. We asked them to answer the following: “Where are we now, at the end of 2014. Looking back, how did that journey begin, and where did it leave us?” “Furthermore: Where are

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Eight Inside Tips to Surviving the Icelandic Winter

Eight Inside Tips to Surviving the Icelandic Winter

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DARK ICELAND can be a total fucker to deal with, all Northern Lights and magical elves aside. So guess what: our man Ragnar put together a bit of a “listicle” to help y’all cope. Now, go forth and cope! Try the secret menu at Bangkok Ask for the “Thai Style” menu at Thai restaurant Bangkok in Kópavogur. Asian take-out in Iceland can be a pretty dismal affair, but it’s not entirely the fault of the restaurants—as Icelanders can’t seem to see past their love of soggy deep-fried shrimp with sweet-and-sour sauce. But if you know the magic word, they’ll serve

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Year In News: 2014

Year In News: 2014

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The year 2014 was chock-full of controversies, blunders, humour, and, of course, cat stories. So brew yourself a cuppa and make yourself comfortable—we have a lot to go through. JANUARY The year came out of the gate running, with television personality-cum-sports announcer Björn Bragi Arnarson remarking that Iceland’s dominant performance in a handball game against Austria was “like the German Nazis in 1938. We’re slaughtering the Austrians!” All the while, Icelandic brewery Steðji put slaughtered whales to good use, crafting the novel Þorri “Whale Beer,” which contains trace amounts of whalebone meal. And, in an attempt to harness the 40%

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