Mission and Vision
In most ancient Greek cities, the agora was an open public space where citizens gathered to exchange both goods and ideas. The agora was the center of political, social, commercial, and religious life in the city-state. It represented the civic center and nucleus of the city and housed the institutions that constituted the common and shared life of Greek citizens. In Athens, home of the most developed agora, many of the ancient philosophers--Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Zeno--would gather to debate and teach their pupils along the porches and collonades. Several of the great ideas of our Western heritage--democracy, the dialectic, the Hippocratic oath, Pythagorean theorem, the empirical method--were likely debated, discussed, and developed in the agora.
Our use of the term draws on this idea of a space for public discourse, dialogue, and debate that leads towards civic virtue and the common good. Unfortunately, the structures of contemporary society limit and even prevent discourse of this nature. The sound-bite world of the news media and the rapid flows of information on the Internet are calibrated for immediacy, not sustained conversation and dialogue. The emergence of Google, Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere can lead to intellectual cocooning or narrowcasting that tailors much of the information we receive around our own interests. Our individualist tendency to turn inward can prevent us from engaging different perspectives.
The Agora Institute is dedicated to the notion that a flourishing society requires virtues of free and honest inquiry and open exchange of ideas. We hold that the resources of faith are not inimical to the understanding or attainment of flourishing, and we expansively engage in all domains of inquiry without reservation. As such, we are committed to a dialogical pluralism that seeks to engage both religious and secular voices from various traditions on the nature of the good life and the good society. This kind of genuine dialogue requires willingness to present one’s ideas, but also, and perhaps more importantly, it requires sincere listening and openness to the revision of one’s positions through conversation. Ultimately, the pursuit of truth is at stake, not merely the assertion of ideological positions.
We in the West (and increasingly others around the globe) are inheritors of a tradition with its origins in the discourse and argument of the Greek agora. In this sense, we are bearers of a living tradition of democracy and freedom that has evolved over the centuries. It is therefore our responsibility to be involved in continuous conversation and debate about the nature of that tradition, and its goods in our contemporary context. Our vision of the agora aspires to open up thick dialogue about the goods we share in common, with the goal of understanding and achieving human flourishing under the challenging conditions of late-modernity.
Why civic virtue and the common good?
In his penetrating study of democracy in nineteenth century America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the importance of what he called mores for success in the tenuous democratic experiment. These dispositions were habits of the heart that, under the right circumstances, constrained various passions detrimental to the common good. Tocqueville understood that neither Americans nor Frenchmen were born with the virtue necessary for a successful democracy. He believed that social institutions and associations in the American context, including religious traditions, family life and local politics, played an important role in developing these habits of the heart and led to the freedom and dynamism of American democracy. But Tocqueville warned of another social force – individualism – that had a strong presence in America, and could tear the fabric of communities towards isolation and self-interest. While individuality was an important element of democratic society, he feared a certain kind of individualism that ends in conformity, despotism and tyranny. He hoped that strong social institutions and civil associations would continue to promote virtue in American citizens to maintain commitment to the goods they held in common rather than only private interests. De Tocqueville’s legacy leaves us with an understanding of the important role of virtue and character in the fragile balance of democratic societies.
Our interest in civic virtue is not nostalgia for a bygone era, but rather a conviction that democratic freedom depends upon the virtuous habits and dispositions of citizens dedicated to a flourishing society. Democracy demands active and thoughtful participation of citizens willing to engage each other, and a robust vision of citizenship requires healthy institutions to foster such engagement. The meaningful social relationships built on trust that result from this kind of discourse are essential to sustaining a healthy society, economy, and democratic polity. Although we are not nostalgic, we do believe the citizen ideal and its sustaining institutions have succumbed to many of the entrapments of which de Tocqueville warned.
While some of the particulars are contested, a growing body of research identifies a shift of citizen involvement and membership in voluntary organizations such as political parties, service clubs, houses of worship, and civic groups. Furthermore, various measures of social trust – whether in major institutions like the government, or generalized trust of others – continue to show decline in recent decades. While we do not desire to be alarmists, such trends complicate a vision of democratic society based on some degree of cohesion, shared interest and republican virtue and they challenge us to think deeply about the nature of the good society in late-modernity. When the broad fabric of social institutions begins to fray, the fragility of the democratic experiment is heightened and strained. Such trends demand attention since in the Tocquevillian tradition, these institutions help to form civic virtue, pass on a cultural heritage and shared identity, and cultivate concern for the goods we hold in common. The solution, if there is one, is decidedly not to point fingers at the usual suspects and culprits – the media, immigration, the welfare state, the Right, the Left, capitalism, socialism, etc – but it is also not simply to ignore the problem.