The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
10.4 (Fall 2010)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
translated by John R. Harris
It is tempting to divine some historical connection between the legendary Solon and the legendary Solomon–two of antiquity’s most renowned wise men. (Diogenes Laertius assures us that Solon figured among the elite Seven Wise Men of the Hellenic world.) Herodotus reports that the great sage, having codified Athenian law at the urgent behest of his countrymen, immediately departed upon a very long journey, knowing that his fellow citizens would try to force changes out of him once he put their feet to the fire. Much embellishment of the real Solon’s life and deeds is certainly possible, for his heyday lay in the very early years of the sixth century B.C. The Iliad and the Odyssey would have been written down scarcely a century earlier.
This particular poem, however (which gives no indication of being fragmentary–a hint that it was held in great esteem and carefully preserved), hardly demonstrates brilliant lucidity. The translator faces a major challenge in trying to build several logical bridges where Solon has laid only stepping stones. A major part of the trouble may well be that his view of destiny proposes a radical shift–and a very ingenious one–from the standard Homeric picture. Solon seems to desire that men be responsible for their deeds; and, of course, the surest way to sell people upon responsibility is to show them that they reap what they sow. The break with the more traditional view that some men are simply cursed with a painful life and others blessed with a care-free existence, all through no merit of their own, is indeed morally unacceptable. Yet Solon is also aware, to his credit, that bad things truly–and even frequently–happen to good people. He thus launches the theory (starting in l. 14) that Zeus can be very patient in paying back good or bad behavior–so patient that a recompense or an outstanding debt may ride for generations, until the memory of men has quite forgotten the original transaction. This is still not a very satisfying explanation to us of the suffering and inequity in human affairs, to be sure; but it makes a little more sense if we recall how important to an ancient Greek (an only slightly post-Homeric Greek, at that) was his posterity, which held in its hands the only immortality he could understand. The same could be said of the Hebrew world at this time, where similar ideas were circulating.
The worst confusion sets in when Solon begins to enumerate the various endeavors of human beings (l. 37 ff.). He has just developed a long, complex simile arguing that Zeus’s will sorts out all merit among men the way a northern blast sweeps the sky clear of clouds… and then things get anything but clear as the simile’s promise is virtually contradicted. (Perhaps we are to read that clearing north wind as a promise. precisely–i.e., the way human events appear from a divine perspective, where eons are a mere instant.) The laborers whom Solon pictures are certainly not doing anything vicious or despicable: even the sailor, often condemned in pastoral poetry for ruining the simple life with his new technology, is here just another hard-working wretch exposed to fate far more than he realizes. Solon reminds us in his enumeration of trades and crafts, be it noted, that priests and prophets cannot avert a coming catastrophe by making sacrifice or telling us to lie low. Could this be another subtle slap at tradition? The observation certainly contains hidden irony, as does the ensuing one which derides the medical man’s pitiful attempts to save life yet adds that a simple squeeze on the right joint can make pain vanish. (Compare this to the kind of conversation one hears today sometimes about the superiority of a good chiropractor to the “smarty” who has studied and interned for years.)
As the poem nears its end, the confusion seems to intensify rather than settle. The gifts of the gods are blind–Fate does as she pleases. Where is the patient but infallible justice of Zeus now? Honest, hard-working people may meet disaster at any moment, while their unscrupulous neighbors seem to sweep all before them. The rich get richer–sometimes much richer. As this whirlwind of a poetic sermon draws its funnel-cloud back into heaven, however, Solon implies that he has been showing us how things appear to our weak mortal eyes. In fact, the wicked man’s time will come; not only that, but as ambitious men heap success upon success (since nature has imposed no limit on ambition), they are actually constructing the instrument of their eventual punishment.
It is an elegant vision; and, while we may still brood that the wicked man’s great-grandson is not the one who deserves to be crushed under destiny’s final blow, even the most innocent mortals in the poem seem fairly to draw a little guilt upon themselves by going about their petty affairs with so little awareness of their vulnerability.
I beg that the reader’s own patience will be Zeus-like with my attempt to reproduce the meter of the elegiac couplet. Some passages, naturally, flow more smoothly than others.
Glorious children of Zeus, Lord of All, and of memory’s goddess.
Muses, freshwater of truth, mountainous fount, hear my prayer.
Happiness grant me, from all-blessed gods given: grant before mortals–
All of them–always to have good reputation and fame.
Also to be honeyed drink to my friends; to my foes, bitter poison: 5
Held in esteem, if a friend; held, if opponent, in dread.
Comforts, of course, I should like–yet to gain them by dealing unfairly,
Not to my taste; every time, justice prevails in the end.
Wealth of the sort that the gods give a man rises firmly about him,
Sound as a block underfoot, stable and straight to the top. 10
Wealth, though, acquired by deceit or rude bullying violates nature,
Rends the design; taken prize, kidnapped by slippery acts,
Dragged as a captive it comes. Very soon retribution must follow.
First just a little appears, flickering, dim as a spark;
Then the devouring heat crinkles all, bringing final destruction: 15
Holding good faith up to sneers never has profited man.
High on his throne, Father Zeus ponders everything’s finish; abruptly,
Just as a northern-born wind, whistling, disperses the clouds
Having disheveled the wide-laned, white-waved sea top-to-bottom–
Then raises land over shores fruitfully planted by men, 20
Lays open virtuous works on its way to immortal Olympus,
Leaves singing skies once again domed over all that the gaze
Sees from the east to the west, where the sun’s fertile vigor enriches
Earth’s humid plains; not a cloud anywhere lingers aloft…
Thus in surprise settles Zeus his accounts–not a mortal man’s vengeance, 25
Launched back at jibes as he bleeds fresh from the prick of offense.
No one escapes God’s attention forever, of all those whose spirit
Slithers in furtive designs; nothing shall hide from his light.
Yet he metes justice to this one at once, to another much later.
Those who themselves slip beneath destiny’s reckoning blade 30
Pay without knowing it, trapped in their innocent sons or descendants–
Sometimes a century late–down to the last penny owed.
Pitiful mortals, we judge not the reach of a good or bad ripple.
Everyone figures himself earning deservèd respect…
Then comes calamity. Ruin rains down. Yet the eve of disaster 35
Finds us benightedly drunk, stirring fond hopes in our wine.
One mortal, burdened for years under illness’s grinding oppression,
Dreams how he might–happy day!–straighten up hearty and hale.
This fellow, cowardly born, nurtures visions of being a hero:
That fellow, ugly to see, fancies a handsome rebirth. 40
Still someone else, out of luck, whom the labors of poverty saddle,
Thinks that a stockpile of loot buries the worry of life.
Everyone longingly chases his rainbow. Behold the brave sailor
Daring the waves with a haul sure to sell quickly in port–
Should he, that is, steer a course through the wind-driven, fin-riven waters, 45
Trusting his soul to a road never intended for feet.
There, see a farmer: according to season, he harvests his acres,
Prunes in his orchards, or bends toiling above a ploughshare.
Down in the forge, an apprentice of artful Athena works silver,
Taught by Hephaestus, as well, how to beat ingots to swords. 50
Out in the grove, there’s a man favored by the Olympian Muses
Molding his words till they fit meters that pleasure the ear.
High in the temple, Apollo the long-shooting lord of foreknowledge
Speaks to his prophet of woes coming this way from afar,
Guided by will of the gods. Yet what good to foresee? Fate is never 55
Softened by slaying a calf–skirted by reading the birds.
Likewise, the servants of Paean, the Healer, distill special potions
Meant to avert mortal pain–nor do these triumphs endure.
Often a minor complaint blossoms into a fatal disorder:
Nobody nips such a bud playing with savory teas. 60
Yet may another, afflicted by anguish both keen and destructive,
Find his old health if wise hands cleverly press the right joint.
Fate, as you see, deals to mortals what good or bad tickles her whimsy:
Blind are such gifts from the gods–merit you see not from earth.
Risk overlooks every labor you do, nor can anyone promise 65
Prosperous summers to chores prospering smartly in spring,
Since none of us, having striven his best, ever goes to bed sensing
What an assault on his work dawn coolly waits to unleash.
Meanwhile, our back-stabbing neighbor continues in heavenly favor,
Given first place for the nonce, fouling his way to the front. 70
Equally odd, that the wealthy among us may double their money:
God has created no bound limiting how much a man
Prospers–nor how much he hankers: “Enough” is a motto unheard-of.
Thus do the gods give us cares piled by our choice to the skies.
Easily Zeus may pluck one single plank from the heap any moment, 75
Crushing in overdue debts wretches inclined to forget.
John R. Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.