Solon's feigned madness

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Solon’s feigned insanity highlights the interplay between madness as a disease and madness as a blessing. After the Athenians had lost hope of conquering Salamis, they issued a law charging anyone publicly raising this subject with death punishment. Solon feigned madness, wrote an elegy inciting the Athenians to renew their claims on Salamis, rushed to the agora, and when a crowd gathered, leapt up on the herald's stone and sang his elegy. Regardless of its historicity, the story portrays Solon, a lawgiver and poet, as designing a scheme which comprised a whole series of transgressions, legal and social. This episode presents a subtle interplay of symbols characteristic of three realms, madness, poetry and prophecy. Solon's steps in building up an image of a madman included musical performance, which was immediately associated with divine inspiration: the wise lawgiver and poet was quite aware of the supremacy of poetry over mere public speech. Furthermore, Solon urged the citizens to take action: his counsel was his prophecy. Solon pretended to be mad not only to escape punishment. The image of Solon leaping up on the herald's stone and singing his passionate exhortation is reminiscent of the abnormal behaviour of Greek seers, such as the Sibyl, and of Old Testament prophets. 'Mad words' could be perceived as divinely inspired, and therefore bearing more authority than sober words of a mere mortal.
The stratagem is based on Solon's understanding that behaviour prohibited to ordinary mortals is allowed to those honoured with a visitation from the gods. This intricate combination of mad behaviour and divine inspiration underscores the complex nature of mania: it was frightening and potentially numinous, a madman was not like other men, and the two extremes, being cast below other humans, or elevated above them, could overlap.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Shamir, the Letters, the Writings, and the Tablets (Mishnah Avot 5:6)
EditorsMayer I. Gruber, Jonathan Yogev, Daniel Sivan, Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Eliyahu Assis
Number of pages7
ISBN (Print)9789659253449
StatePublished - 2023


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