Friday, February 26, 2016

Pop culture, Aurelius, and Socrates - What do these have in common?

From Marcus Aurelius's Meditations Book VIII, 11 we have:
This thing, what is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what its causal nature (or form)? And what is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist?
This entered the, somewhat, popular vernacular as
Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?
through Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Lecter's rendition is more obviously expansive than George Long's original translation but is not obviously a wrong translation.

Long's translation point us to the substance, material and cause. Lecter's rendition points us up one level of abstraction to "What is it in itself?"

I have no idea which translation comes closest to Aurelius's original intent but it is interesting to me on two counts. There is only a slight difference in wording but it points in substantially different directions. Secondly, I wonder if it makes much difference? Lecter is more forceful in driving to the abstract but Aurelius's does not preclude reaching the abstract. In that regard, Long's version is more expansive. A person can answer in the more concrete way or the more abstract way.

Indeed, in the movie, this is how it plays out. Lecter wants to get Starling to the more abstract level of answer but her first inclination is towards the more concrete.
Hannibal Lecter: I've read the case files. Have you? Everything you need to find him is right there in those pages.
Clarice Starling: Then tell me how.

Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice: simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius, "Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?" What does he do, this man you seek?

Clarice Starling: He kills women.

Hannibal Lecter: No, that is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does, what needs does he serve by killing?

Clarice Starling: Anger, social acceptance, and, uh, sexual frustration …

Hannibal Lecter: No, he covets. That's his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer, now.

Clarice Starling: No. We just …

Hannibal Lecter: No. We begin by coveting what we see every day.
I enjoyed Silence of the Lambs but purely as raw entertainment. I did not recognize at the time just how classical it was. We have Lecter quoting a Roman philosopher and questioning Starling in a Socratic fashion.

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