How A Good Government Goes Bad: Solon and Sallust

Today is the second day of the virtual conference  “Teaching Leaders and Leadership Through Classics” . (You can participate by registering). In teaching courses, or in merely having conversations, it is important that we explain our basic assumptions about what a government is for.  But history–and the classics especially–is useful because it helps us see where governments go wrong.

Solon, fr. 4.32-39

“Good government makes everything well ordered and fit,
And at the same time it throws shackles on the unjust.
It levels out the rough, stops insolence, and weakens arrogance.
It causes the growing blossoms of blindness to wither.
It straightens crooked judgments and it levels out over-reaching deeds.
It stops the acts of civil conflict and
It stops the anger of grievous strife and because of it
Everything among men is wisely and appropriately done.”

Εὐνομίη δ’ εὔκοσμα καὶ ἄρτια πάντ’ ἀποφαίνει,
καὶ θαμὰ τοῖς ἀδίκοις ἀμφιτίθησι πέδας·
τραχέα λειαίνει, παύει κόρον, ὕβριν ἀμαυροῖ,
αὑαίνει δ’ ἄτης ἄνθεα φυόμενα,
εὐθύνει δὲ δίκας σκολιάς, ὑπερήφανά τ’ ἔργα
πραΰνει· παύει δ’ ἔργα διχοστασίης,
παύει δ’ ἀργαλέης ἔριδος χόλον, ἔστι δ’ ὑπ’ αὐτῆς
πάντα κατ’ ἀνθρώπους ἄρτια καὶ πινυτά.

Image result for ancient greek government buildings

Sallust, Bellum Catilinae X:

“At first the desire of power, then the desire of money increased; these were effectively the material of all evils, because avarice overturned faith, probity, and all other noble arts; in their place, it taught men to be arrogant and cruel, to neglect the gods, and to consider all things for sale. Ambition compelled many men to become liars; to hold one thing hidden in the heart, and the opposite thing at the tip of one’s tongue; to judge friends and enemies not in objective terms, but by reference to personal gain; and finally, to make a good appearance rather than to have a good mind. As these vices first began to increase, they were occasionally punished; but afterward, once the contagion had spread like a plague, the state as a whole was altered, and the government, once the noblest and most just, was made cruel and intolerable.”

Igitur primo imperi, deinde pecuniae cupido crevit: ea quasi materies omnium malorum fuere. Namque avaritia fidem, probitatem ceterasque artis bonas subvortit; pro his superbiam, crudelitatem, deos neglegere, omnia venalia habere edocuit. 5 Ambitio multos mortalis falsos fieri subegit, aliud clausum in pectore, aliud in lingua promptum habere, amicitias inimicitiasque non ex re, sed ex commodo aestumare magisque voltum quam ingenium bonum habere. Haec primo paulatim crescere, interdum vindicari; post, ubi contagio quasi pestilentia invasit, civitas inmutata, imperium ex iustissumo atque optumo crudele intolerandumque factum.

A bonus passage from Livy

Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 1.17

“Yet, despite all of their varying desires, they wanted universally to be ruled by a king, because they had not yet tasted the sweet fruit of liberty. Fear then seized the senators that the state would lack government, the army would lack a general, and that some external force would threaten them, since so many of the neighboring peoples had been provoked to anger.”

In variis voluntatibus regnari tamen omnes volebant, libertatis dulcedine nondum experta. Timor deinde patres incessit ne civitatem sine imperio, exercitum sine duce, multarum circa civitatium inritatis animis, vis aliqua externa adoriretur.

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