Lucretius’ account of the emergence of consciousness in Book 3 of the De Rerum Naturae (DRN 3.136-9, 258-81, 323-32) has long resisted interpretation by scholars using the usual tools of analytical philosophy. In this paper, I argue that a literary analysis, sensitive to the figural aspects of language and borrowing from the poststructuralist toolbox (i.e. Derrida 1974, Butler 1993; cf. Kennedy 2002), solves some central philosophical problems in these passages. I argue, in particular, that the metaphorical language of domestic patriarchy used to describe the two aspects of the soul, animus and anima, makes possible a surprising reversal in the very philosophical and social historical hierarchies that the philosopher has established.
Following the traditional hierarchy of genders in ancient society, Lucretius represents the human soul as a binary construct with masculine and feminine aspects: the active and cognitive part is the masculine animus, and the passive and nutritive part is the feminine anima (DRN 3.136-9, 329-32; Annas 1991, 93f.). Explaining the process by which this gendered construct comes into being, Lucretius suggests that, in the “household” (domus) in which the male soul is “master” (3.138: dominari), life and consciousness arise when the feminine component, made up of some of the usual elements associated with earth, air, fire, and water, is supplemented by what ancient philosophy recognized as a “fifth element,” introduced by Lucretius only here. Lucretius enigmatically identifies this additional element as the “feminine soul of the feminine soul” (anima animae), going so far as to say, as he did of the masculine aspect of the soul before, that the super-feminine soul of the soul is likewise “the master of the house” of the human body (DRN 3.258-81, dominari at 281, cf. 397). This reversal of the established dominance of the masculine aspect of the soul, to say nothing of the sudden, unprecedented empowerment of the feminine in the household of the body, has been explained away by philosophical commentary as looseness of expression (Brown 1997, 10f.) and more or less ignored by literary commentary (e.g., Ernout and Robin 1926: 27f., Bailey 1947: 1012, 1061, 1113, Kenney 1971: 99-108).
While scholars are at a loss to explain Lucretius’ aporetic recourse to a super-feminine element in an otherwise rational system (Annas 1991: 94, cf. Everson 1999), I argue that Lucretius’ discussion makes sense in a generally poststructuralist, specifically deconstructionist and feminist, analysis attentive to the figural aspects of language and the structurally binary and hierarchical system of gender in Roman life. Using Derrida’s famous notion of the supplement as that which “takes-(the)-place [tient-lieu]” (1974: 141-164, 268-316), I argue that Lucretius’ attempt to define the masculine by subordinating the feminine requires an additional, otherwise irrational “supplement”: in the logical relations of Lucretius’ system, based as they are on the domestic relations of Roman life, this supplement takes the form of the super-feminine “soul of the soul” by means of which the animate takes-place in and takes-the-place of both the inanimate and the masculine (cf. Butler 1993: xvi-xviii, 12f., 139f.). On the one hand, then, by means of literary metaphor and philosophical argument, Lucretius coordinates the dual binaries masculine-feminine and mind-body in a literary and philosophical system. On the other hand, the very binaries that make that system possible also challenge it. In philosophical terms, far from vitiating Lucretius’ system, such complex reversals are consistent with the anti-teleological principles of Epicureanism (Campbell 2003: 307f.). In literary and social historical terms, such reversals indicate the difficulty of maintaining any system predicated on rigid binaries and subordination (cf. Fowler 2002).
In this way, a medium-specific concept of poetic language reframes a philosophical problem with attention to those aspects of the text dismissed by strictly philosophical analyses as literary ornamentation at the service of argumentation, much as Lucretius’ arguments, in contrast to his “ornaments,” tried to subordinate the body to mind and female to male.
Epicurean Philosophy in Roman Poetry