Return to the Agora: How Ancient Athenian Discourse-Culture Can SAVE Modern Civilization
Stephen M. Ross, M.A. contributed to this article.
Introduction: Musk, Twitter, and Ancient Athens
News of Elon Musk buying Twitter has caused much discussion about free speech principles in mainstream news, social media, and on other platforms around the world. This serves as a prime opportunity for us to discuss the origins of free speech as we know it (in a contemporary Western sense) and how, in many ways, it has already been lost for a very, VERY long time!...
Part I: The Condition of Modern Free Speech in Western Civilization
Today, it seems most Western nations have SOME FORM of speech-restriction legislation or regulation. Some Western nations even offer jail time for convicted offenders who make certain unapproved political, social, or moral claims. Even in the United States (US), where speech is legislatively freer (if not the freest) compared to other Western countries, there exists a seemingly ubiquitous sociological control over what can and cannot be said.
For instance, the advent of "Cancel Culture" demonstrates how a society or a community can ban certain persons from speaking certain things without requiring the law to enforce punitive action. For example, by launching "Hashtag Campaigns" to fire a celebrity or media personality, the "angry mob" can often cause the firing and unemployability of that person. Even recently, the Washington Post "doxxed" and released personal sensitive information of a previously-anonymous Twitter user who simply re-posted and shared video clips of liberal or Left-leaning TikTok users....
The purpose of this discussion here is not to explore the particularities of current social media platforms, the ethics of doxxing, or who is "right" in the current news cycle. But rather, we are going to do a deep dive into the origins of free speech as we know it, and how and why it is important to understand the basic principles surrounding its emergence. This is so that we can help enshrine original freedom of speech and further observe and practice it, no matter the platform we find ourselves on.
If we cannot resolve our broken understanding of basic free speech principles, then it will matter very little whether or not we find ourselves on a new social media platform or chatting with our neighbors in our very own backyard! The way in which we talk to people, and the way in which we allow them to talk to us, matters, regardless of the format in which we conduct our discourse....
Part II: The Anatomy of the Ancient Agora—How Well-Timed City-Planning Created the Legacy of Modern Democratism & Free Speech Culture
Modern free speech and democracy were not invented by a single man or created by executive order from any centralized government. No wise inventor patented the idea nor had a fabled hero gifted it to humanity. Rather, the emergence of free speech occurred almost accidently, over the incremental march of time, not by direct will by a monarch, but by almost randomized variables that may have even caught the populace at ground zero surprised.
What do I mean? By understanding free speech as we know it today--and as we wish to defend it for tomorrow--we actually must turn our attention to the history of a specific plaza in a very specific city where this specific phenomenon began. Like a meteor striking a Yucatan or the Son of God being born into the world, the spark of the free speech ethos occurred in a specific location on the planet, that, for better or for worse, like it or not, affected the rest of history....
So I understand, it all began in a field outside of Athens; at the very least, it was located adjacent to the major civic buildings of the capital of Ancient Greece. Around the 6th century B.C. (approximately 550 B.C., or so) something amazing happened in this field. The name of this spot was "the field," or in Greek, the "agora." So, the locals simply called this spot "The Field" ("Agora").
But, the spot was strategically situated next to and in the pathway of almost everything related to this ancient Greek society. From the temple to the administrative structures, from the harvesting fields to the local sea port, people in need of almost every facet of human existence entered and passed through this agora in Ancient Athens. As best as we can tell, before the first buildings were constructed, the Athenian Agora functioned as a multi-purpose communal locality....
Part III: How the Athenian Agora Transformed from an Empty Field to Twitter's Precursor
It is unlikely that the Ancient Athenians imagined their daily activity in, near, and through the city's empty field (the "agora") would eventuate into the global technological phenomenon that is Twitter and other digital worldview communication platforms. As best as we can tell, the first buildings to emerge in this relatively flat area were devoted to trade and commerce: various structures facilitating workshops, trade, and the selling and buying of commodities.
After a brief Persian invasion destroying these commercial buildings in the early 5th century B.C., the agora rebounded like an emerging jungle or forest after a purging wildfire. Thereafter, many other permanent structures were erected in the agora: buildings devoted to the city council, the courts of law, the mint for currency, fountains, places of worship, other sacred objects and spaces, as well as structures for other uses....
It may have not been intentionally planned from the beginning, but this public space eventually became a physical location for the sharing of ideas and public discourse. As thousands of locals and foreigners communicated with each other for multifarious purposes in this public square, Athenian Greeks began to use the term agora as a verb referring to either shopping or public speaking, depending on the suffix-usage.
In another article we'll discuss the role of Athens ending its monarchial government played in the free speech movement during this era. But for now, we shall accept it as a reasonable fact that the geographical orientation, strategic location, and multipurpose utilization of the Athenian Agora contributed to the free speech culture that Western Civilization presupposes to this day. The modern arguments surrounding the ownership structure of social media platforms and the role of that governments should or should not play in "combatting disinformation" emerge from the Agora....
Part IV: How to "Return to the Agora" in Civil Discourse
It has to be said. After all this time, after all these centuries, after all these wars over freedom and basic civil rights, we have to relearn how the Ancient Athenians did it. The fact that they could meet each other in a public square and hear the words of various political philosophers, those who were controversial and those who comported more with the status quo, consumers who wanted to discuss what they loved and what they hated about the current market, religious groups introducing new ideas and reintroducing old ones--the fact that these ancient men and women could pull this off without ending their society (in fact the exact opposite happened) should instruct modern citizens before we potentially collapse our own civilization!
Twitter, for example, has become the opposite of whatever the Ancient Agora was: complete strangers meeting to verbally harass each other, shame each other, frame each other, literally cause others to lose their jobs and prevent them from sustaining future employment, a place where the ad hominem, strawman, and myriads of other logical fallacies are invoked and employed shamelessly as a matter of cultural custom. Till now, people can't get to know each other properly on the platform and the last thing they want to do is try.
By inviting someone to "Return to the Agora" with you, what you are doing is asking them to (either literally or proverbially) sit down for a moment with a cup of coffee and attempt to get to know each other, what each other is saying, and where each other is coming from. Remember the Agora in all your arguments and disagreements with anyone you meet while on the street or online. Perhaps, in this way, we can sustain global security, preserve civil society, and enshrine individual sovereignty throughout the world...one generation at a time....
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