« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »
PLUTARCH takes notice of a very remarkable law of Solon's,* " which declared every man infamous, who, in any sedition or civil dissension in the state, should continue neuter, and refuse to side with either party.” Aulus Gellius,t who gives a more circumstantial detail of this uncommon law, affirms the penalty to be “no less than confiscation of all the effects, and banishment of the delinquent.” Cicero mentions the same law to his friend Atticus, and even makes the punishment capital, though he resolves at the same time not to conform to it under his present circumstances, unless his friend should advise him to the contrary.
Which of these relators has given us the real penalty annexed to this law by Solon, is scarce worth our inquiry. But I cannot help observing, that strange as this law may appear at first sight, yet if we reflect upon the reasons of it, as they are assigned by Plutarch and A Gellius, it will not appear unworthy of that great legislator.
The opinion of Plutarch is; “ that Solon intended no citizen, as soon as ever he had provided for the security of his own private affairs, should be so unfeeling with respect to the publick welfare, as to
* Plut. in Vit. Solon. ärikov. A. Gellii Noct. Attic. lib. 2. c. 12.
| Epist. ad Attic. lib. 10. epist. 1.
affect a brutal insensibility,* and not to sympathize with the distress and calamities of his country: but that he should immediately join the honester and juster party; and rather risque his all in defence of the side he had espoused, than keep aloof from danger until he saw which party proved the stronger.”
The reason given by A. Gellius is more striking, and less liable to obiections than that of Plutarch. “ If (says that writer) all the good men in any state, when they find themselves too weak to stem the torrent of a furious divided populace, and unable to suppress a sedition at its first breaking out, should immediately divide, and throw themselves into the opposite sides, the event in such a case would be that each party, which they had differently espoused, would naturally begin to cool, and put themselves under their direction, as persons of the greatest weight and authority: thus it would be greatly in the power of such men so circumstanced, to reconcile all differences, and restore peace and union, while they mutually restrained and moderated the fury of their own party, and convinced the opposite side, that they sincerely wished and laboured for their safety, not for their destruction.”
What effect this law had in the Athenian state is no where mentioned. However, as it is plainly founded upon that relation which every member bears to the body politick, and that interest which every individual is supposed to have in the good of the whole community; it is still, though not in ex-'
* Μήσυναλγείν, μηδέ συννοσείν.
press terms, yet virtually received in every free country. For those who continue neuter in any civil dissension, under the denomination of moderate men, who keep aloof and wait quietly in order to follow the fortune of the prevailing side, are generally stigmatized with the approbious name of time servers, and consequently neither esteemed, nor trusted by
As our own country is blessed with the greatest share of liberty, so is it more subject to civil dissensions than any other nation in Europe. Every man is a politician, and warmly attached to his respective party; and this law of Solon's seems to take place as strongly in Britain, as ever it did in the most factious times at Athens. Freedom of thought, or the liberty of the mind, arises naturally from the very essence of our constitution; and the liberty of the press, that peculiar privilege of the British subject, gives every man a continual opportunity of laying his sentiments before the publick. Would our political writers pursue the salutary intention of Solon, as delivered to us by A. Gellius in his explication of that extraordinary law, they might contribute greatly to the establishment of that harmony and union, which can alone preserve and perpetuate the duration of our consti. tution. But the opposite views and interests of parties make the altercation endless; and the victory over an antagonist is generally the aim, whilst the investigation of truth only, ought ever to be the real end proposed in all controversial inquiries. The points which have lately exercised so many pens,
turn upon the present expediency, or absolute insig. nificancy, of a militia ; or, what principles conduce most to the power, the happiness, and the duration of a free people. The dispute has been carried on, not only with warmth, but even with virulence. The chicane of sophistry has been employed, whilst indecent personal reflections, and the unfair charge of disaffection, have been too often made use of to supply the defect of argument, and to prejudice the reader, where they despaired of consuting the writer. Historical facts have been either misrepresented, or ascribed to wrong principles; the history of ancient nations has been quoted in general terms, without marking the different periods distinguished by some memorable change in the manners or constitution of the same people, which will ever make a wide dif. ference in the application.
Anxious after truth, and unsatisfied with so many bold assertions destitute of all proof but the writer's word, which I daily met with, I determined coolly and impartially to examine the evidence arising from ancient history, which both sides so frequently appealed to: for bare speculative reasoning is no more conclusive in political inquiries than in physical. Facts and experience alone must decide: and political facts and experience must alone be learned from history. Determined therefore to judge for myself, I carefully read over the histories of the most celebrated republicks of antiquity in their original languages, unbiassed either by comments or translations; a part of history of all others the most instructive, and most interesting to an Englishman.