Skip to comments.The Real Ten Commandments: Solon vs. Moses
Posted on 08/22/2003 10:59:42 PM PDT by Destro
The Real Ten Commandments
By Richard Carrier
I keep hearing this chant, variously phrased: "The Ten Commandments are the foundation of Western morality and the American Constitution and government." In saying this, people are essentially crediting Moses with the invention of ethics, democracy and civil rights, a claim that is of course absurd. But its absurdity is eclipsed by its injustice, for there is another lawmaker who is far more important to us, whose ideas and actions lie far more at the foundation of American government, and whose own Ten Commandments were distributed at large and influencing the greatest civilizations of the West--Greece and Rome--for well over half a millennia before the laws of Moses were anything near a universal social influence. In fact, by the time the Ten Commandments of Moses had any real chance of being the foundation of anything in Western society, democracy and civil rights had all but died out, never to rise again until the ideals of our true hero, the real man to whom we owe all reverence, were rediscovered and implemented in what we now call "modern democratic principles."
The man I am talking about is Solon the Athenian. Solon was born, we believe, around 638 B.C.E., and lived until approximately 558, but the date in his life of greatest importance to us is the year he was elected to create a constitution for Athens, 594 B.C.E. How important is this man? Let's examine what we owe to him, in comparison with the legendary author (or at last, in legend, the transmitter) of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments. Solon is the founder of Western democracy and the first man in history to articulate ideas of equal rights for all citizens, and though he did not go nearly as far in the latter as we have come today, Moses can claim no connection to either. Solon was the first man in Western history to publicly record a civil constitution in writing. No one in Hebrew history did anything of the kind, least of all Moses. Solon advocated not only the right but even the duty of every citizen to bear arms in the defense of the state--to him we owe the 2nd Amendment. Nothing about that is to be found in the Ten Commandments of Moses. Solon set up laws defending the principles and importance of private property, state encouragement of economic trades and crafts, and a strong middle class--the ideals which lie at the heart of American prosperity, yet which cannot be credited at all to Moses.
Solon is the first man in history to eliminate birth as a basis for government office, and to create democratic assemblies open to all male citizens, such that no law could be passed without the majority vote of all. The notion of letting women into full political rights would not arise in any culture until that of modern Europe, but democracy never gets a single word in the Bible. Solon invented the right of appeal and trial by jury, whereby an assembly of citizens chosen at random, without regard for office or wealth or birth, gave all legal verdicts. Moses can claim nothing as fundamental as these developments, which are absolutely essential to modern society. The concept of taking a government official to court for malfeasance we owe to Solon. We read nothing of the kind about Moses. The idea of allowing foreigners who have mastered a useful trade to immigrate and become citizens is also an original invention of Solon--indeed, the modern concept of citizenship itself is largely indebted to him. There is nothing like this in the Bible. And like our own George Washington, Solon declined the offer to become ruler in his country, giving it a Constitution instead--unlike Moses who gave laws yet continued to reign. And Solon's selfless creation of the Athenian constitution set the course which led to the rise of the first universal democracy in the United States, and it was to Solon's Athens, not the Bible, that our Founding Fathers looked for guidance in constructing a new State. Moses can claim no responsibility for this. If we had Solon and no Moses, we would very likely still be where we are today. But if we had Moses and no Solon, democracy might never have existed at all.
So much for being the impetus behind our Constitution. The Ten Commandments of Moses have no connection with that, while the Constitution of Solon has everything to do with it. But what about ethics? Let us examine the Ten Commandments offered by each of these men and compare their worth and significance to Western society. Of course, neither man's list was unique to him--Moses was merely borrowing ideas that had already been chiseled in stone centuries before by Hammurabi, King of Babylon (and unlike the supposed tablets of Moses, the Stone of Hammurabi still exists and is on display in the Louvre). Likewise, Solon's Ten Ethical Dicta were a reflection and refinement of wisdom that was already ancient in his day. And in both cases the association of these men with their moral precepts is as likely legend as fact, but the existence and reverence for their sayings in their respective cultures was still real--and we can ask three questions: Which list of Ten Commandments lies more at the heart of modern Western moral ideals? Which contains concepts that are more responsible for our current social success and humanity? And which is more profound and more fitting for a free society?
The Ten Commandments of Moses (Deuteronomy 5:6-21, Exodus 20:3-16) run as follows--and I am even going out of my way to leave out the bounteous and blatantly-religious language that actually surrounds them in the original text, as well as the tacit approval of slavery present in the fourth commandment, none of which is even remotely suitable for political endorsement by a free republic:
1. Have no other gods before me [the God of the Hebrews].
2. Make no images of anything in heaven, earth or the sea, and do not worship or labor for them.
3. Do not vainly use the name of your God [the God of the Hebrews].
4. Do no work on the seventh day of the week.
5. Honor your parents.
6. Do not kill.
7. Do not commit adultery.
8. Do not steal.
9. Do not give false testimony against another.
10. Do not desire another's wife or anything that belongs to another.
Now, we can see at once that our society is entirely opposed to the first four, and indeed the last of these ten. As a capitalist society, we scoff at the idea of closing our shops on a choice market day. And our very goal in life is to desire--desiring is what drives us toward success and prosperity. The phrase "seeking the American Dream," which lies at the heart of our social world, has at its heart the very idea of coveting the success of our peers, goading us to match it with our own industry, and we owe all our monumental national success to this. Finally, our ideals of religious liberty and free speech, essential to any truly civil society, compel us to abhor the first three commandments. Thus, already half of Moses' doctrines cannot be the foundation of our modern society--to the contrary, they are anathema to modern ideals.
Of the rest, it can be assured that shunning adultery has never contributed to the rise of civil rights and democratic principles (despite much trying, there is no Adultery Amendment). It is naturally regarded as immoral--but then it always has been, by all societies, before and since the time of Moses, for the simple reason that it, like lying, theft, and murder, does harm to others, and thus these commandments are as redundant as they are unprofound. They can be more usefully summed up with just three words: do no harm. These words comprise the first commandment of another Greek moralist whose contribution to society lies at the very heart of modern reality: the founder of scientific medicine, Hippocrates. (who was anti-abortion too)
Finally, we are left with only one commandment, to honor our parents. This of course has been a foundational principle of every society ever since such things as "societies" existed. Yet the greatest advances in civil rights and civic moral consciousness in human history occurred precisely as the result not of obeying, but of disobeying this very commandment: the social revolutions of the sixties, naturally abhorred by conservatives and yet spearheaded by rebellious teenagers and young adults, nevertheless secured the moral rights of women and minorities--something unprecedented in human history--and by opposing the Vietnam war, our children displayed for the first time a massive popular movement in defense of the very pacifism which Christians boast of having introduced into the world, yet are usually the last to actually stand up for. It can even be said that our entire moral ethos is one of thinking for ourselves, of rebellion and moral autonomy, of daring to stand up against even our elders when our conscience compels it. Thus, it would seem that even this commandment does not lie at the heart of our modern society--it is largely an anachronism, lacking the essential nuances that a more profound ethic promotes.
Let us now turn to the Ten Commandments of Solon (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 1.60), which run as follows:
1. Trust good character more than promises.
2. Do not speak falsely.
3. Do good things.
4. Do not be hasty in making friends, but do not abandon them once made.
5. Learn to obey before you command.
6. When giving advice, do not recommend what is most pleasing, but what is most useful.
7. Make reason your supreme commander.
8. Do not associate with people who do bad things.
9. Honor the gods.
10. Have regard for your parents.
Unlike the Commandments of Moses, none of these is outdated or antithetical to modern moral or political thought. Every one could be taken up by anyone today, of any creed--except perhaps only one. And indeed, there is something much more profound in these commandments. They are far more useful as precepts for living one's life. Can society, can government, prevail and prosper if we fail to uphold the First Commandment of Moses? By our own written declaration of religious liberty for all, we have staked our entire national destiny on the belief that we not only can get by without it, but we ought to abolish it entirely. Yet what if we were to fail to uphold Solon's first commandment? The danger to society would be clear--indeed, doesn't this commandment speak to the heart of what makes or breaks a democratic society? Isn't it absolutely fundamental that we not trust the promises of politicians and flatterers, but elect our leaders and choose our friends instead by taking the trouble to evaluate the goodness of their character? This, then, can truly be said to be an ideal that is fundamental to modern moral and political thought.
Now, two of the commandments of Solon are almost identical to those advocated by Moses: do not speak falsely, and have regard for your parents. Of course, Solon does not restrict his first injunction to false accusations or testimony against others, as Moses does. Solon's commandment is more profound and thus more fundamental, and is properly qualified by the other commandments in just the way we believe is appropriate--for Solon's rules allow one to lie if doing so is a good deed (no such prescription to do good appears in the Ten Commandments of Moses). And whereas Moses calls us to honor our parents (in the Hebrew, from kabed, "to honor, to glorify"), Solon's choice of words is more appropriate--he only asks us to treat our parents in a respectful way (in the Greek, from aideomai, "to show a sense of regard for, to have compassion upon"), which we can do even if we disobey or oppose them, and even if we disapprove of their character and thus have no grounds to honor them.
In contrast with Moses, Solon wastes no words with legalisms--he sums up everything in three words: do good things. This is an essential moral principle, lacking from the commands of Moses, which allows one to qualify all the others. And instead of simply commanding us to follow rules, Solon's commandments involve significant social and political advice: temper our readiness to rebel and to do our own thing (which Solon does not prohibit) by learning first how to follow others; take care when making friends, and stick by them; always give good advice--don't just say what people want to hear; shun bad people. It can be said without doubt that this advice is exactly what we need in order to be successful and secure--as individuals, as communities, and even as a nation. The ideals represented by these commandments really do rest at the foundation of modern American morality and society, and would be far more useful for school children whose greatest dangers are peer influence, rashness and naivete.
There is but one that might give a secularist pause: Solon's commandment to honor the gods (in the Greek, timaô, "to honor, to revere, to pay due regard"). Yet when we compare it to the similar First Three Commandments of Moses, we see how much more Solon's single religious commandment can be made to suit our society and our civic ideals: it does not have to restrict religious freedom, for it does not demand that we believe in anyone's god or follow anyone's religious rules. It remains in the appropriate plural. Solon asks us to give the plethora of gods the regard that they are due, and we can say that some gods are not due much--such as the racist gods and gods of hellfire. In the end, it is good to be respectful of the gods of others, which we can do even if we are criticizing them, even if we disbelieve in them. This would remain true to our most prized American ethic of religious liberty and civility. Though it might better be rendered now, "Respect the religions of others," there is something fitting in admitting that there are many gods, the many that people invent and hope for.
It is clear then, that if anyone's commandments ought to be posted on school and courthouse walls, it should be Solon's. He has more right as the founder of our civic ideals, and as a more profound and almost modern moral thinker. His commandments are more befitting our civil society, more representative of what we really believe and what we cherish in our laws and economy. And indeed, in the end, they are essentially secular. Is it an accident that when Solon's ideals reigned, there grew democracies and civil rights, and ideals we now consider fundamental to modern Western society, yet when the ideals of Moses replaced them, we had a thousand years of oppression, darkness, and tyranny? Is it coincidence that when the ideals of Moses were replaced with those of Solon, when men decided to fight and die not for the Ten Commandments but for the resurrection of Athenian civil society, we ended up with the great Democratic Revolutions and the social and legal structures that we now take for granted as the height and glory of human achievement and moral goodness? I think we owe our thanks to Solon. Moses did nothing for us--his laws were neither original nor significant in comparison. When people cry for the hanging of the Ten Commandments of Moses on school and court walls, I am astonished. Solon's Ten Commandments have far more right to hang in those places than those of Moses. The Athenian's Commandments are far more noble and profound, and far more appropriate to a free society. Who would have guessed this of a pagan? Maybe everyone of sense.
I think it is false to say we have to choose between Solon and Moses. Modern Western civilization is (to greatly simplify things) mostly a mixture of Hebrew, Greek, and Roman ideas. All three cultures introduced something vital -- also something that the modern hedonists, subjectivists, and collectivists hate.
The Law of Moses introduced conscience. Concience is an inner-directed, thus individualist thing. When one goes against the dictates of conscience, one feels guilt. Most other cultures enforce morality through an other-directed sense of shame (one has broken a taboo, one has discraced one's family) rather than guilt. Both a guilt-based and a shame-based morality can be subjective, of course. I think a guilt-based morality is more sophisticated, and it is a foundation of individualism. It is not for nothing that the guilt-inducing Jewish mother is famous!
The Greeks brought us philosophy and the scientific method. They also introduced a crude idea of democarcy and a sense that no person should be above the law. One problem with the Greeks was that their concept of law was vague, and Athens was periodically subject to demagogues and tyrants.
The Romans introduced the rule of law and the first modern government.
I think some people are being too harsh on the author from infidels.org. He at least recognizes some of the pillars of our civilization. He at least respects Athens. The ideal of the left today is not ancient Athens -- no, the left's ideal is totalitarian, war-like Sparta. The left is all about opposition to guilt-inducing (thus conscience-forming) religion. The radical left hates Greek logic and reason. They hate the rule of law, although some admire the bureaucratic system of government the Romans invented (the far-far-left -- the anarcho-enviro-communists reject even this).
I think there is more to the attack on the Ten Commandments than mere secularism. The Law of Moses is an easy target because it is based in religion and the establishment clause can be abused to ban from public discourse all religiously-inspired ideas that the left opposes. If you look around at our education system and popular culture, you can see that the left is also waging war against Greek rationalsim and the Roman ideal of the rule of law rather than the rule by men.
I think some of the supporters of the Ten Commandments being posted in the Alabama courthouse go too far, also. I have heard some of them say that the First Amendment only means that the Federal government cannot establish a state church, but that any state can establish an official church. This places us in the same mess that the Founding Fathers were trying to avoid.
Most of the Colonies had an official church, and people who were not members of the official church were persecuted and had to flee to another state. People thought that William Penn was an atheist because he envisioned a colony that did not have a state-sponsored church. The Founders built on Penn's idea of no state-sponsored religion. Why would there be an Establishment Clause if the Founders wanted each state to have its own official religion?
We are being given false alternatives if the only choice is between an amoral, Spartan-like totalitarianism the far left wants and a New England-style theocracy that some religious conservatives want. I support the placing of the Ten Commandments in the courthouse because the left is against it, it is part of our civilization, and because the left wants to censor all conscience-inducing ideas. However, the theocrats' idea that no religion is valid unless it is state-sanctioned is frightening, and in a way, idolatrous and irreligious. It is ironic that some atheists and some (I said some) religious conservatives have this in common -- they have made the state their god.
True. Imho, that's why God sent Jesus. To clarify things. Because we are an obstinate people. < /sermon>
I didn't notice the source, and I wasn't aware of their mission. I thought it was interesting history, even though I felt the author stretched a bit to reach his conclusions.
I keep hearing this chant, variously phrased: "The Ten Commandments are the foundation of Western morality and the American Constitution and government." In saying this, people are essentially crediting Moses with the invention of ethics, democracy and civil rights, a claim that is of course absurd.
While certainly embracing ethical concepts, neither Western morality nor the American Constitutional system are founded on "democracy and civil rights." As Madison explained in Federalist Paper #10, preventing Democracy was one of the motivations for the Federal Union. The Founders gave us a Constitutional Republic, not a Democracy--the rule of Law, not a counting of noses.
"Civil rights," on the other hand, are rights created by the Civil Authority, i.e. legislated "rights." American liberty was premised, from the first, on a Creational--not a secular, not a civil authority--basis. What are today labelled "civil rights," are a Socialistic departure from the basic premises of the traditional American free society. Claiming antiquity for the package that Lyndon Johnson rammed through a docile Congress in 1964 & 1965, is absurd.
The Ten Commandments are more directed towards the foundations of law and an ongoing Social order. In this they reflect the same concept of a Divine Foundation, as that set forth in our Declaration of Independence. The rules of Solon appear to relate more--where there is a divergence--to the problems of immediate civility. There is no conflict between the rules quoted from Solon, merely a somewhat different immediate focus; so I am not attacking the latter, merely the preconceptions of the essayist, which are 180 degrees divergent from the historic truth.
William Flax Return Of The Gods Web Site
You'd think an inerrant God would have got it right the first time.
On the other hand, there are no doubt many liberal Jews who will gladly sign on to BCE and CE designations.
Were I depart from atheists is that they see all religion as unnatural. I don't. In point of fact a religious belief system it is a naturally occurring phenomenon amongst all peoples since the dawn of time. Therefore I consider religion to be a positive part of our human psyche, God or no.
I also consider the Christian religion (outside of the theocratic reasons) to be the most perfectly formed religion for the achievement of freedom and a just society. It is no accident that the Greco-Roman world merged with Christianity.
I too have found the Left's assault on or Greek and Roman roots to be a big threat. More so than the issue of the removal of the 10 commandments from the Alabama Court House.
You would think, except there's that free will thingy.
It does not purport to be the Foundation of our Liberty. It acknowledges, as a self-evident truth, that our Liberty comes from the nature of Creation--from the Creator. That is the initial premise, before the long recital of quite specific grievances.
As for applying the grievances (see Declaration Of Independence) to the present excesses of our Federal Government, I do so all the time. The fact is that it is not just in this ongoing attack on religious symbols, that has so many stirred up, that the contrived erosion of our institutions is taking place. The traditional restraints on the arbitrary exercise of undelegated power, have also been under unrelenting attack for most of a Century--and generally from those having the same Fabian mindset or approach, as those who have supported the attack on religious symbols.
It will only make my point the more, to go back to you acceptance of the idea of a civil basis for determining rights. The so-called "Civil Rights" acts, which were premised on that idea--among others--specifically outlawed private preferences based upon religious beliefs in hiring and housing.
William Flax Return Of The Gods Web Site
I also consider the Christian religion (outside of the theocratic reasons) to be the most perfectly formed religion for the achievement of freedom and a just society. It is no accident that the Greco-Roman world merged with Christianity.
Well said and worthy of a repeat.
I too have concluded the same thing, after a recent research into various philosophies. The search for religion is universal in man, it is tied to the 3 questions we want to ask: Where we came from (creation); who we are and who we should be (morality); and where are we going (purpose of life, life-after-death, etc). We are always seraching for meaning. The nihilists who deny meaning have confused a process of truth-finding (skepticism) for a result. they end up holding a philosophy that is impossible to hold in 'real life'.
There is some error in Western civilizations' realms of faith and reason, in the duality of it. Yet our synthesis of Greek-derived reason-based philosophy and Christian faith-based religion into a world view that gave us the framework (logic) to learn and the motivation (moral imperative) to do so. Without *either* faith or reason we would not be modern society; without the mind-set to consider both subject to human understanding and advance, we would not have advanced.
You need look no further than the Buddhist-run societies to see the stark constrast; Buddhist moral vision is compelling (suffering exists, so overcome it by overcoming desire) yet impaired by the inward-looking-ness of it all. I see Buddhism as the only other religion close to Christianity in its completeness of moral vision. (Confucius was more practical than idealist; Islam is flawed.) But it takes you out of the world, whereas the example of Christ is one of going *into* the world. Can modern man deny all desire? Yet a culture that encourages this is a culture that creates incredible passivity and lack of change. Which is why Tibet is not New York city.
Now this does leave aside the question 'is it true?' and yet consider the lesson of doubting Thomas, and the Greek philosophic tradition, carried on by scholastics and western philosophers: They tested faith with reason, reason and natural experience with faith, and tested and considered both in their own realms. The beginning of science is to understand that a statement can be falsifiable by the evidence, and that what we "know" is less than we assume ("All I know is I know nothing" -Socrates). Moreso than any other religion, the simple question "Is this true?" is asked in ours - with meaning. Christian theology, unlike the theologies of other religions is *also* imbued with that questioning eye; it's led to schisms and dogma, but also to *advance*. And perhaps, even to those who split off completely into agnostic and atheistic doubt.
One of the book I read on my own recent philosophic excursions was a book on the New Age "wisdom" by Tony Schwartz, a secularized Jewish reporter who went looking for meaning in his life. Lot's of interesting stuff there are Esalen, new psychotherapies, bio-feedback, theories of mind, sports trainers pushing excellence (let your mind go, learne to relax) and whacky new age spiritualism (higher modes of consciousness thanks to LSD, meditation, that take us beyond the rational - so there is subrational, rational and above-the-rational), but in the end he came to conclude the answer is the search. And I came to ask while reading "Why didnt you just ask a Rabbi or a Minister these same questions?" the answers to his questions have been given in the Torah and in the Epistles, and in meditations of St Francis, Augustine, Aquinas, etc.
It is a testament to the eternal search. Yet also a testament to Chesterton's point that: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing -- they believe in anything." -- GK Chesterton. That's my one-sentence summary of the entire grab-bag of New Age spritualism. Despite trying to 'beyond' mere Christianity, the New Agers end up reverting to primitive mysticism of a type that even devout Christians would find weirdly superstitious.
The only real advance of the modern era, when you look at it, is science and the natural knoweldge of the world we have gained. No moral vision has yet to surpass what Jesus taught on the Sermon on the Mount. It is complete; yet universal ("Do unto others as you would have other do unto you" is the best formulation of a similar ethic carried in practically all major religions). It doesnt mean we should accept faith of 100AD christian blindly, but we should be humble about assuming we can 'invent' something better.
I too have found the Left's assault on or Greek and Roman roots to be a big threat. More so than the issue of the removal of the 10 commandments from the Alabama Court House. I go back to Chesterton on this. They destroy the old moral fabric because they want to install their own, not because they are hard-nosed skeptics: Worshipping animals (Peter Singer), woman-Gods (Wicca feminism), hedonism (take your pick), and other superstitions.
An appropriate response might be, not likely must be, a secular-based Conservative traditionalist moral foundation. Curiously, the best example of that would be found in (egads) the Deist Founding fathers, like Jefferson, etc., and the legacy they gave us. Which returns us to the idea that the best way to stop the depradations of the Left on common sense would be to defend the traditions of both faith and reason - and civic duty and freedom - that the founding fathers gave to our country.
So we need to ask: WWJD? What Would Jefferson Do?