Sunday, April 19, 2009

Silence of the Lambs analysis - part 22: Saint Thomas Aquinas


St. Thomas Aquinas - Detail from Valle Romita Polyptych by Gentile da Fabriano (circa 1400). [Image from the Wikipedia 'Thomas Aquinas' page, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

While Lecter is being held captive in Memphis, Tennessee, he makes a statement to Starling that contains a series of clues that are not only meant to (ostensibly) help the FBI apprehend Buffalo Bill, but also, to help the audience interpret the movie. Here is the statement:

"First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask: What is it, in itself, what is its nature...?"

"First principles" is a reference to something in the writings of the medieval philosopher and theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas. More specifically, the idea of first principle as a concept, is put forth in Aquinas's massive work, Summa Theologica.

Now for a little background: in philosophy, a first principle is a basic, foundational proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. Aristotle, author of the earliest surviving text on logic, formulated a principle (the Aristotelian tautology denoted A=A) that later achieved the historical distinction of being called the first principle as a proper name.[a]

Aquinas, who derived much of his thinking and many concepts from Aristotle, was interested in proving, among other things, the existence of God, and that nothing existed before him - that is, that God is the First Principle. He accomplishes this proof in Part I, Question 44 of the Summa Theologica. Then in Question 45, titled "The Mode of Emanation Of Things From The First Principle", Aquinas discusses the act of creation itself (with the word creation to be taken in the Christian sense). As previously observed, St. Augustine discusses creation of the world in part of his Confessions. It is Aquinas's Question 45 that is being referred to by Lecter's statement.

Another question in the Summa, Part 1, Question 3, is titled "Of The Simplicity Of God." Note that "simplicity" is another word appearing in Lecter's statement to Starling, as quoted above. The specific concept of simplicity and Aquinas's discussion of it are not to be dealt with at the moment; the main thing to realize for now, is that it seems the two clues Lecter gives here ("first principles" and "simplicity") are meant to point to Aquinas, and specifically to the Summa, to help interpret the movie.

a. Wikipedia, 'First principle'. Web, n.d. URL =

St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica on Logos Virtual Library


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