Thursday, March 22, 2012

Private Debt 2012 (12): The Greek Problem

Paul Thomas Welty & Miriam Greenblatt, The Human Expression: World Regions and Cultures. fourth edition. Glencoe Division, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, 936 Easewind Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081-3374
Solon, who assumed power in 594 B.C., instituted both economic and political reforms. He canceled all land debts, freed those already enslaved because of debt, and placed a limit on the amount of land any one person could own. He also opened the Assembly, one of the two governing bodies of Athens, to all citizens rather than just landowners. Solon's reforms became a permanent part of Athenian government.
From Solon to Socrates: Greek History and Civilization during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., by Victor Ehrenberg. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1968.
The period between Solon and Socrates includes the sixth and fifth centuries [B.C.], that is to say, the culmination and the end of the archaic age, and the finest flowering of the classical age.

In general, the lower classes were in a sorry plight; what their situation exactly was depends on some facts which cannot be regarded as clearly established. One thing we do know is that down to Solon, money economy hardly began to exert any influence at Athens. It was a question of land and its produce.

Solon seems to have given a law to prevent the unlimited accumulation of land...

We may still ask what caused the state of affairs in which a great many people had fallen into dependence... When a peasant tried to get help from a wealthy neighbour, it was quite common, as Solon expressly states, for the rich to make the most unfair use of their opportunities. Solon reproached them for 'avarice and arrogance', thus condemning on moral grounds what, he knows, was at the same time a grave social danger.

Solon was elected archon for the year 594-593 and was given full power. The foremost thing he did was to free the debtors and their land. He did this by cancelling all debts, and this was called seisachtheia, the 'shaking off of burdens'. It certainly was a radical measure, but the loss for the creditors did not touch the substance of their wealth. At the same time he forbade for the future all loans on the security of the person so that never again could a man, or his wife and family, be enslaved for debt. It is possible that he cancelled thereby a law of Dracon's....
Solon, from Encarta 96:
Solon (638?-559? BC), Athenian statesman and legislator, considered the founder of Athenian democracy. Born of a noble family, as a young man he engaged in foreign trade, gaining valuable experience. During his lifetime, a crisis occurred in social and economic conditions in Greece. An agricultural depression had taken hold, and many free Athenian small farmers who could not pay their debts were sold into slavery. In 594 BC Solon was elected archon, or chief magistrate, to reform the oppressive conditions.
Solon immediately forbade borrowing on the security of the person of the debtor and canceled all current mortgages and debts.
Some things cannot be said often enough. Excessive private debt is the problem.

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