[This is an extract from the chapter 'Solon in the Court of Croesus', from The Sacred History of Being, published November 2, 2015]
Solon asked of Croesus,
do you inquire of me concerning human affairs – of me, who know that the divinity is always jealous, and delights in confusion. For in lapse of time men are constrained to see many things they would not willingly see, and to suffer many things….
This is something of a reproach to the king, since later Solon says that man is ‘altogether the sport of fortune’: man cannot look to happiness on earth for this reason. Solon calculates the days of a man’s life in which he is the sport of fortune, and does so as follows:
… I put the term of man’s life at seventy years: these seventy years then give twenty-five thousand two hundred days, without including the intercalary month; and if we add that month to every other year, in order that the seasons arriving at the proper time may agree, the intercalary months will be thirty-five more in the seventy years, and the days of these months will be one thousand and fifty. Yet in all this number of twenty-six thousand two hundred and fifty days, that compose these seventy years, one day produces nothing exactly the same as another.
This is in fact a piece of idolatrous lore, intelligible to the initiated, but otherwise a piece of pointless pedantry at this point in the conversation between Solon and Croesus, and also hideously wrong in its details. [i]
It is rather a shorthand way of conjuring religious ideas and images by means of numbers. Solon has suggested to the king that he look to eternity, to the telos, and then, using numbers, the image of a man’s life is compared with what later came to be known as ‘the Great Year’ in the writings of Plato. At Timaeus 39d it is said:
...so people are all but ignorant of the fact that time really is the wanderings of these celestial bodies, bewilderingly numerous as they are and astonishingly variegated. It is none the less possible, however, to discern that the perfect number of time brings to completion the perfect year at that moment when the relative speeds of all eight periods have been completed together and, measured by the circle of the Same that moves uniformly, have achieved their consummation. [ii]
In other words the Great Year is the period after which all the celestial bodies have returned to the same positions in the heavens. The circle of the Same which is the measure, is the equatorial plane, which moves uniformly along the ecliptic over thousands of years. It is assumed that the precession of the equinoxes was unknown in Plato's time, and that the Great Year was simply a notion of an eternal return. [iii] Nevertheless, Plato does here specify measurement of time by the uniform movement of the circle of the Same (the circle of the Different being the plane of the ecliptic).
The equinoxes move 1/360th of the way around the equator in a period of approximately 70 years, so the Great Year is around 25,200 years long. [iv] The year is notionally 360 days long in ancient Greece and elsewhere – the basic unit is supplemented by intercalated months to maintain the place of the seasons in the calendar. But the basic unit was chosen as 360 days in order that the year might participate in the chain of images which is implicit in the numbers given in this instance by Solon to Croesus.
The intercalary months are of thirty days, and there are thirty five of these, since (we are told) they are added every other year in order that ‘the seasons arriving at the proper time may agree’. This of course is absurd. Every alternate year would have had 390 days, and the average year would have 375 days – ten days too many. At that rate the seasons would be out of kilter with the calendar by a whole month every three years, a whole season in twelve years, and a whole year in forty-eight. So either there is something wrong with this passage, or the import of the passage is not as innocuous as it seems. The key is the phrase: ‘arriving at the proper time may agree’. It is the images of completions implicit in Solon’s statement which is the principal significance of this passage.
[End of extract]
[i] Solon made some practical changes to the calendar of the Athenians, therefore this passage cannot represent Solon’s actual understanding of the calendar – it would produce chaos.
[ii] Plato, Timaeus 39d, Cooper, John M. (ed.), "Plato: Complete Works" 1997, p. 1243.
[iii] Hipparchus has the credit for discovering the precession, some two hundred years after Plato.
[iv] The actual figure, first established by Newton, is close to one degree per 72 years. That is an angular distance of around two diameters of the moon.