Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

AS the time approaches when the IRA and Ulster Unionists must work together in government in Northern Ireland, the weakness of voting as a means of taking decisions about violence becomes ever more apparent. What does a vote count for, when people with guns have no interest in paying attention to it? The Athenian political reformer Solon (d. c. 560 Bc) had a brilliant proposal for such situations.

Solon was invited to reform the Athenian political system in 594 BC because stasis, violent revolution, was in the air. Among many other laws aimed at producing a compromise between the demands of the rich and the poor, he put on the statute book what the second-century AD essayist Plutarch calls 'a very odd and unexpected law'. This was that any citizen would lose his vote who, in the event of violent revolution, did not declare for one side or the other. Fourth-century BC Aristotle knows a slightly different, sharper version: `who should refuse to place his arms at the disposal of either side' (but he does not comment further).

Plutarch goes on to consider what Solon could possibly have meant by this `Law of Violent Revolution'. He speculates as follows: `Solon, it seems, wished that people should not be indifferent or apathetic to the public interest by looking to their own personal security, while congratulating themselves on remaining aloof from the trials and tribulations of their country. …

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