Great debates for 2,500 years in Athens

Great debates for 2,500 years in Athens
May 03, 2008 Special to the Star
Athens–There are some cities that transcend national boundaries.
New York, London, Shanghai, Cape Town, Mumbai, Istanbul, Tokyo and Mexico City, just to name a few, are culturally and economically so dynamic and powerful that in many ways they are essentially modern city-states.
Usually to make it to that rank, you need a population size that rivals that of many stand-alone countries. Mexico City has a population of close to 30 million, Mumbai is close to 20 million. But there is one city on the list that is a relative pipsqueak: Athens.
At best, the larger metropolitan area of Athens has around 3.7 million citizens, but the city staked its claim to the list 2,500 years ago and hasn’t let go since.
For millennia Athenians have debated, discussed and shouted at each other about some of humanity’s most touchy issues, such as politics, ethics, and philosophy (all words with Greek etymology, as is the word etymology itself).
Even at the height of its power as one of the first great European city-states, Athens had a population of about 60,000 adult males (they didn’t spend much time counting the slaves, women and children in those days), showing that it’s not quantity, it’s quality. And volume. Those chats could get pretty loud.
Walking around Athens today, you can see them still going at it, solving the problems of the world with waves of the arms and pokes in the chest, in sidewalk cafés, restaurants and park benches – spectators are often welcome to join in. Drama is also a Greek word. This is one of the few places in the world where discussions about politics are considered almost obligatory. And there are some efforts to tap that abundant wellspring of thought and let forth a new torrent of ideas on the world. Much the same way as the modern Olympics were revived in Athens in 1896 by a Frenchman, there are moves underway to create a permanent New School of Athens that would become “a 21st century version of Plato’s ancient Academy, focusing on the management of globalization and the democratization of world governance.”
At a recent conference in the swank Athenian suburb of Kifissia, experts convened to debate the future of the U.N., climate change, the E.U. and more.
Ancient Athenians might not have recognized the topics but would have been more than familiar with the way participants tumbled out of the building still in heated discussions that lasted long into the night and pulled in various bar staff and taxi drivers along the way. This democratic (yes, yet another Greek word) attitude toward knowledge permeates the city and has made little Athens into a world centre for art, dance, film, theatre, opera, fashion and music.
On my first visit to Athens, I arrived late at night, my tourist-shopping list filled with must-see buildings like the Parthenon. That first morning I was woken from my jet lag by a vociferous political rally outside my hotel room window.
Streets were cordoned off and there was no way I would be able to make it through to the Acropolis. I went down the front desk to glare at the unfortunate desk clerk.
He looked back at me, shrugged, and said, simply, “Athens.”
He was right. Athens doesn’t need the ancient buildings, or the layers of archeology. There must be something in the water, or something in the air, that has turned this place into a never-ending world-class home for discussion, often at the top of its lungs. It can be inconvenient, uncomfortable, even deadly (ask Socrates), but never boring.

Cleo Paskal is a Montreal-based freelance writer. [and a treasured Wednesday Nighter] She can be reached at

One Comment on "Great debates for 2,500 years in Athens"

  1. Herb Bercovitz May 4, 2008 at 11:03 am ·

    Fascinating. It brings back fond memories. Once we were in Athens during
    national elections (they vote in the city of their birth) when the
    population had shrunk to the point that one could actlually breath the air.
    We were told that the departure of our ship to the islands depended upon the
    outcome of the election. Herb

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