Democracy is a structure, not of stones but of words.” Sitting on a worn step of the Pnyx, where in a parenthesis of history (from 507 to 322. C.) met the Popular Assembly to give life to the athenian democracy, I was reminded of that reflection, my friend, philosopher, and poet Julio Hubard. Difficult to access, empty of artistic attractions (temples, columns, steles), the Pnyx looks like now a lunar landscape. It is an immense semicircular area of limestone rock contained by a coarse buttress, a small stage, called the “Bema”, since where talking about the speakers in front of 6,000 citizens, and the remains of some stairs carved into the stone; nothing more. Accompanied by my niece Sophia and her daughters Alpha and Zoe (half mexican, half Greek), Andrea and I visited one morning in June and stayed several hours.
In the afternoon, in a bookstore, we bought Greece: Pictorial, Descriptive, and Historical, beautiful picture book of Christopher Wordsworth (master of Trinity College, a nephew of the great poet). Based on the chronicles of Pausanias (Greek geographer of the II century), and first published in 1839, re-creates lyrically the trance of the speaker in the open space to the east of the Acropolis. “A short distance below the speaker, the Agora, filled with statues, altars and temples (…) beyond the Areopagus, the most ancient and venerable tribunal of Greece (…) above, the Acropolis, presenting to his eyes the wings, the portico and the pediment of the lofty propylaea. And he lifted up even more the view, the colossus of bronze of Minerva (…) and the Parthenon”. To the sides of the Pnyx, the sage distinguishes the paths that lead to the oracles of Eleusis and the hill where Xerxes watched the battle. And on the back of the enclosure, the Piraeus and the sea, ships and fleets that arrived up to the edge of the world.
The romantic imagination of Wordsworth attributes the inspiration of the athenian orator to the scenario that surrounds him: these are the objects that surround it to get to your Bema. In the face of this presence speaks. Are the wings that push toward the glory. Are also, if we can say, the levers that lift to your audience, stir up their hearts in the same way as yours. There is No doubt, therefore, that in a land such as this the eloquence to flourish with a vigor unknown in other places.
Beautiful evocation, but perhaps the reverse is more true: a good part of that scenario (artistic, historical, mythological), and the works that were produced in that short time (tragedies, comedies, histories, philosophical treatises) was a product of the life’s rough, uncertain, courageous, egalitarian and, above all, deliberative who chose the athenians. They were the product of democracy.
In a review on the book The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles, and Ideology, the Danish historian Mogens Herman Hansen (supreme work, not translated, that we may know, in Spanish), July Hubard wrote not long ago in Letters Free: “The secret (of Athens) is the voice in the public space. A polités athenian has the obligation to speak out among their peers (…) and make it clearly: the ambiguities was considered a moral defect”. According to Hansen, the speakers razonaban from the Bema, some in favor, others against, and the Assembly (gathered not less than 40 times a year) deliberated and voted on by show of hands. Unlike Rome, not moved to obedience to a higher authority, the excitativa of the State, or the quest for fun; neither bread nor circus. The moving the high vocation to participate in the common life and decide the fate of the polis.
In the Pnyx took important decisions, many are beneficial, others disastrous: declarations of war, peace treaties, decrees the just and the unjust ostracism and death. Judging by his works, he nailed more times than it misses. According to Herodotus, the military success of Athens was the democracy. Beaten by the plagues, being harassed by the enemies, deturpada by the oligarchs, the democracy he used persuasion, he encouraged the criticism (even the most fierce, against herself), and resisted even to succumb by two main causes: the external force (the conquest) and the lie internal (demagoguery).
In the Museum of the Stoa, in the Agora, we saw a stele with the figure of a young man honoring an old man on his throne. The young democracy was (elevated to the rank of goddess of the year 404. C.) crowning the venerable Demos, the people. “If someone rises up against democracy and against the Demos seeking to establish tyranny (he recited the inscription below) who kill him will not be to blame.” The date of the stela (337/6) coincides with the sudden death of Philip II (the conqueror of the athenians, two years before, at Chaeronea) and the rise of his son, Alexander the Great, who culminated with the conquest of Greece. To die suddenly Alejandro, a torvo successor culminated in the destruction: “there is (writes Hansen) a single speech subsequent to the abolition of democracy, carried out by Antipater in 322. C”. Rather than live in bondage, Demosthenes, the orator supreme, the critic of Philip and Alexander, he took his own life. And the Pnyx remained silent since then.
Almost a century before, an enemy more subtle —demagoguery— had begun to creep into the body of democracy to undermine that peace, and to subvert it from within, by use crooked, deceitful, and interested from the word. At the end of the fifth century, Aristophanes, and Thucydides denounced by name. The same (copiously) Plato and Aristotle in the IV. These philosophers were not friends of democracy, but they realized that the demagogue was to democracy what the sofística to philosophy: an adulteration lethal of the truth, a cult of cynical success through the lie.
In the same bookstore I bought a print of Le Roi (the second half of the EIGHTEENTH century) with a view of the Pnyx at the time of the Turkish domination. Some men with a turban, chatting excitedly at the foot of the Areopagus; others ascend their stairs; and, in the ruins of the ancient Odeon, one prays facing Mecca. None suspected even remotely that means that scenario, the treasure that shields, made of words rather than stones. We can’t fall into that amnesia. Warned that democracies are deadly, we must honor the voices of that past and to defend the free word, reasoned, transparent, and truthful, in the face of tyranny and demagoguery.