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Nuccio Ordine and the reading of the classics

Ordine, who recently passed away, stresses the importance of acquiring education and knowledge as an end in itself and not just as a means of material enrichment.

FEATURES AUTOR 363/Jose_Moreno_Berrocal 13 DE JUNIO DE 2023 09:59 h

Nuccio Ordine died on 10 June 2023, only months before receiving the 2023 Princess of Asturias Prize of Communication and Humanities.

The jury had stated that Ordine's works "reflect on the marginal situation of the humanities in today's world and vindicate them as necessary disciplines in the civic education of human beings and in the creation of critical thinking that is key to the development and welfare of society".

Interestingly, a few weeks ago I had checked out from my town's library one of Ordine's works, Men are not Islands, which bears the subtitle Classics help us to live.

This book, in Ordine's own words, follows in "the wake" of his previous one from 2017, entitled Classics for Life with this subtitle: An Ideal Little Library. Nuccio Ordine became known with The Utility of the Useless, which appeared in 2013.

The three books are a kind of trilogy in which the common thread lies in the importance of getting education and knowledge as an end in itself and not just as a way to get rich materially.

The title Men are not Islands, by this Italian author born in Diamante in 1958, refers to a famous poetic composition by John Donne which contains this line: "Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee".

This phrase is not well-known for being by the English metaphysical poet Donne but for being the title of a 1940 novel by Ernest Hemingway, from which a famous film was made in 1943 starring Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper.

Hemingway's novel depicts his first-hand impressions of the Spanish Civil War. Both the novel and the film deal with the theme of love and death, but above all with the thread that binds all human beings together.

The context of this sentence, which provides the title for Ordine's book, has that clear reference. Donne says: "No man is an island, entire of itself,  ... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee".

Ordine understood that we find "the denial of the man-island, in a hymn to brotherhood, in a praise of humanity conceived as the inextricable interweaving of a multitude of lives".

This call by Ordine using John Donne is only the first of many quotes from authors of the past who, in one way or another, teach us what Ordine described as "living for others".

This professor of Italian Literature at the University of Calabria, who taught at Yale, the Sorbonne and Berlin, used a number of selected texts to show human solidarity in literature.

Selected fragments from well-known authors such as Aristotle, Seneca and Dante, among many others, and others not so well-known such as Plutarch and Lucian of Samosata.

I like that he chose writers from many different places. There are Italians, of course, but also Spaniards like Bartolomé de las Casas, Portuguese like Luís Vaz de Camoes, French like Madame de Lafayette and Albert Camus and Americans like Emily Dickinson and Juan Rulfo.

I like the fact that the selected excerpts are first presented in the original languages, then translated and commented at length by Urdine.

The idea of the professor is that these texts, like a tasting, will encourage us to read the works of these authors in order to help us to live. Nuccio Ordine's selection of authors reminds me of that of another avid reader, C.S. Lewis.

The famous author of The Chronicles of Narnia and Letters of the Devil to his Nephew, among many other works, also advised to read classic authors.

In fact, Lewis recommended to read, after a current book, an old one, a classic. That way, Lewis said, we can fight, in a way, against this tendency to be blind to the errors of our own time.

This is also Ordine's idea. Among the aberrations of our times, Ordine tells us, would be the slow erosion of human brotherhood: something that Paul Simon's magnificent song I am a rock reflects so well:

I am shielded in my armor

Hiding in my room safe within my womb

I touch no one and no one touches me

I am a rock I am an island

And a rock feels no pain

And an island never cries

Not only do we feel lonely and helpless, but we don't want to help those who are also lonely and helpless, which is even worse. We don't want to be bothered.

Against such inhumanity Ordine presented his magnificent challenge. It is significant that he turned to authors such as the great Francis Bacon to underpin his exhortation to human brotherhood.

The great English philosopher, whose mother was a fervent Puritan, reminds us that helping other human beings is, in reality, goodness:

"This being, of all the truths and dignities of the spirit, the greatest and the characteristic of deity; and without it, man is a busy, worthless, miserable being, no better than any kind of worm. Goodness responds to the theological virtue of love, and does not admit excess, but error".

Let us see how the first great manifestation of human sin consists in not caring for our neighbour: "Am I my brother's keeper?", replies Cain to God when he asks him about Abel, whom Cain had just murdered (Genesis 4:9).

Christianity, on the contrary, restores in the human being that longing to be kind to all, not only to those of my tribe, or to those of my way of thinking or acting, but to every human being, including my enemies.

Christians are called by Jesus to be "children of your Father in heaven, who causes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" ( Matthew 5:45).

On the other hand, I love Ordine's appeal to read the classics, particularly those of Greece and Rome. I still remember the enormous intellectual and emotional impact on me when I read Plato's Banquet.

But in this appeal to the classics, we cannot forget the great classic: the Bible. This is how the Geneva Reformer John Calvin puts it:

“Read Demosthenes or Cicero, read Plato, Aristotle, or any other of that class: you will, I admit, feel wonderfully allured, pleased, moved, enchanted; but turn from them to the reading of the Sacred Volume, and whether you will or not, it will so affect you, so pierce your heart, so work its way into your very marrow, that, in comparison of the impression so produced, that of orators and philosophers will almost disappear; making it manifest that in the Sacred Volume there is a truth divine, a something which makes it immeasurably superior to all the gifts and graces attainable by man”.

As if that were not enough, we Spanish-speaking Christians have the great privilege of reading the Bible in a classical language, that of the Spanish Golden Age by the hand of our Casiodoro de Reina and Cipriano de Valera.

Ordine quotes another great Italian poet Francesco Petrarca who said:

"I have read all that is said in Virgil, Horace, Boethius and Cicero, and not only once but a thousand times, and not in passing but on reflection, and recreating myself with all possible mental attention. That is to say, I have been fed in the morning with what I should have digested in the evening and have consumed when young all that I should have absorbed in later life".

I wonder if we Christians can say that we read the Bible as Petrarch read the classics of Rome, with such eagerness, dedication and interest. As the Psalmist says: "O how I love your law! I meditate on it all the day long" (Psalm 119:97).

I wonder if we read the Scriptures today as we should, not just as great literature, which it is, but as the book that has the power to save and change us.

Let us remember Paul's admonition to Timothy: "But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

If we are Christians we are called to read the Bible regularly and faithfully to hear the voice of our heavenly Father who by His Spirit calls us daily to receive His Son as our Lord and Saviour so that we may be conformed more and more to His image (Romans 8:29).

Only the Word of God can transform us. That's why this classic will never be out of fashion.

José Moreno Berrocal, Chair of the Theology Group of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance, author, and pastor of an evangelical church in Alcázar de San Juan (Spain).




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