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)
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.