[Viewpoint] An agora is by nature democratic

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[Viewpoint] An agora is by nature democratic

An agora is an open meeting place. The English word “place,” the French word “place,” the German word “platz” and the Italian word “piazza” all derive from the ancient Greek word “plateia.”

It all boils down to this: An agora cannot be contained or opened up by anyone, because by definition it is naturally open.

It is hence ironic to say that an agora was shut down or opened up. If something can be closed or opened, it’s not an agora to begin with.

The history of agoras began in ancient Greece. During that era, each polis had an agora at its center and a marketplace nearby.

People gathered at the agora and the market to talk about a wide range of topics from their everyday lives to politics and philosophy.

The result was the philosophy and democracy of Greece. Socrates and Pericles of Athens were contemporaries.

While agoras sprang up naturally in ancient Greece, they were planned in detail when laying out a city in Roman times. It was called the forum, a term which is now often used to describe the formation of opinions on TV and in newspapers.

In a Roman city, the forum was adjoined by a basilica, which was used as a marketplace and later as a church during the medieval era.

Until it underwent major reconstruction during the Renaissance period, St. Peter’s in the Vatican City had such a basilica for 1,000 years.

When a single ideology dominates a society, an agora disappears. The reason is simple. There is no freedom of discussion in an era when a powerful force dominates a society. There is no topic to discuss at the forum.

In medieval Europe, dominated by Christianity, the culture of agoras nearly disappeared. But when the dominant power diminished, the agora began to reappear.

As soon as churches collapsed and the medieval period ended, agoras played an important role in history. The agora was the end of an old period and the beginning of a new one.

In 1649, King Charles I was executed at Whitehall in Westminster. Some 150 years later, King Louis XVI was executed at the Place de la Concorde during the French revolution. Public executions of kings are not necessarily called progress, but it is undeniable that such places as a plaza, a square and an open space became the stages of revolutions.

Both the kings of England and France were publicly executed in the open spaces in return for their rejections of democracy, a symbol of an agora.

In comparison, the culture of an agora is unheard of in Asia’s history, because democracy was not born here naturally.

A Western city often was created separately from a nation, so an agora was created at its center and the culture of the agora bloomed.

The city was built around the agora, and when a city grew, other agoras were created, starting connections between agoras.

Through such a process, dozens of plazas were located in Paris, and the radial roads were created with plazas at the center.

In Asia, a city used to be a part of a country. Under the governance and control of a strong central government, a city did not have the power or room to create its own opinion.

Furthermore, if a city’s opinion was different from that of the central government it was considered a serious problem for a nation.

Therefore, an open plaza was only built in an Asian city only after the middle of the 20th century.

An agora and the culture of agoras are the foundation of democracy because such a place becomes a venue to collect public opinion. A democratic country has no reason to resist an agora. The opinions that stem and then mature in an agora form a great opportunity for policy making.

Of course, a serious danger may emerge when elevated emotions and the physical force of a crowd gathered at a plaza determine the nature of an agora’s culture. Still, any attempt to intentionally misuse the power of an agora has failed.

The ability to accept and embrace the basic instincts of public opinions expressed in an open plaza is, therefore, a cornerstone for a wise government.

*The writer has authored books on humanities and social issues. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Nam Kyung-tae
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