Archivio | giugno, 2012

Classical donuts: that’s it!

9 Giu

Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening! Every day, on social networks, we codify our identity through the description of what we are doing (I’m eating a donut), what we love (I like donuts) and what we are able to do (My skills include eating donuts). In real life, I am not a social media expert nor a pastry-cook but a classical philologist: in short, I study ancient texts in order to reconstruct Greco-roman civilization and I’m sure that the Greeks would have liked to add a line to this table: “Why am I eating a donut?” For the ancient Greeks, to know means to know through causes. By posing the question why, they were able to deeply restructure our world. From here on, I’d like to invite you to share with me an exceptional snack; I shall offer you my classical donuts. Four donuts to represent the four activities at the heart of classical studies: reading, editing, translating, and interpreting. Four activities through which I hope to let you discover four spiritual attitudes indispensable for exploring the question of why in the modern world.

 1) Reading and honesty

Schopenhauer said about the classics: “Take any one of them into your hand, be it only for half an hour, and you will feel yourself refreshed, relieved, purified, ennobled, strengthened”. You can imagine my disappointment when, most of the time, after several hours of work on the same text, I feel like…this! Where did I go wrong? In fact, reading the classics initially make us tired, bores us and overloads us. Reading classics teaches us the importance of intellectual honesty. The admission that the classics are not made to be understood at first sight is indispensable for having the satisfaction which pervades us when, after having overcome many obstacles, we finally manage to feel the text. More generally, when, in real life, we find ourselves confronted with something difficult, we should not feel downcast or give ourselves over to false intellectualism. Instead, understanding our limits and in what way the inaccessible is different from us represents the first step toward the conquest of knowledge.

 2) Edition and democratization

Imagine I had accidentally spilled a cup of good Italian coffee on the notes that I prepared for this conference. Now imagine being in another epoch without printers or PDF files and that some people, finding this text, decide to copy it with the purpose of diffusing it. We could have many copies of my text all characterized by a gap corresponding to the coffee stain. Thanks to this gap, a philologist could easily identify this text as a second-hand text, which is then, in principle, less trustworthy. This example teaches us a lot of things about the situation of information nowadays, organized in big macro groups. If one piece of information is omitted by the primary source, we would probably find the same omission in the dependent copies. In order to bring about the democratization of information we don’t need to multiply the sources infinitely. We need instead, as in the field of editing, to engage in the choice of pertinent criteria for selecting and reusing these pieces of information.

 3) Translation and abstraction

The practice of translation has taught me the distinction between the method and the objective of an enquiry. In my field of study, rigorous linguistic analysis is an indispensable tool but it doesn’t coincide with the final goal, with the deep motivation that animates the translator: by this, I mean the reconstruction of the global sense of the text. The balance between method and objective occupies a central place in the current debate on education.

Was education to make students better men and citizens, or to prepare them for the real world? (As if the two goals were different!) V.D.Hanson, J.Heath, Who killed Homer? 1998

The package of essential knowledge transmitted to us by education is a way to access, through an effort of abstraction, a higher goal: constructing our own morality and elaborating our vision of the world. The distinction between method and objective requires us always to make an effort of abstraction, which allows us to place that what we want to do instead of what we can already do at the top of our pyramid of priorities.

 4) Interpretation and responsibility

The sense of a text is reconstructed by contextualizing the text’s micro units: every word can potentially influence the overall interpretation. We are like the words of a text, we are bearers of sense. We should stop considering change as an exterior element, imposed on us by society or the latest technological innovation. We should instead internalize the changes and understand that, in spite of ourselves, we constitute fundamental elements for the construction of collective meaning.

 Our snack is now over. Reading, editing, translating and interpreting. Why have I told you all this? I hope to inspire a silent global change. Leaving here, take up the challenge of revolutionizing your personal knowledge. Develop variety, make your objectives clear, verify your sources but above all undertake as a priority the responsibility to feed daily your curiosity, read, structure your vision of the world around your convictions and share it, think hard, think harder, keep searching for the way out of the cave and do so with determination and steadfastness: HOC OPUS, HIC LABOR EST; this is the task, this is the challenge (Virgil, Aeneid, VI.129).

Thank you!

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