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Love and the Structure of Emotion in Lucretius

Pamela Zinn

This paper analyses emotion in Lucretius particularly with respect to the exemplary case of amor and the so-called ‘diatribe on love’ which concludes De rerum natura IV. It shows the importance of underlying physiological structures and mechanisms for Lucretius’ account of emotion; this has generally been underestimated both in literary treatments of DRN and in scholarship on Epicurean philosophy of mind. 

The current understanding of the emotions in Epicureanism is primarily founded on analysis of their phenomenology and the ‘therapeutic approach’. In other words, scholarly focus has been on the influence of emotion - especially of anger, love, fear, anxiety, and grief - on one’s ability to achieve ataraxia. The work of Annas (1989, 1992), Asmis (2011), Betensky (1980), Brown (1987), Caston (2006), Konstan (e.g. 2006), and Nussbaum (1994), among others, is noteworthy in this respect and the figure of Philodemus has rightly loomed large. But this is by no means a complete picture. It does not adequately explain, for example, why or how the feelings of the body play a crucial role in at least some emotions. 

Building upon such scholarship, this paper attempts to answer Fowler’s call (1997) to rejoin the analysis of physiological mechanisms to the study of psychological phenomena - moving towards what Gill (e.g. 2009) has termed ‘psychophysical holism’ - and thus focuses on the DRN of Lucretius. The paper reconstructs Lucretius’ representation of the aetiology of the emotions from the ground up. It offers a new interpretation of the evidence for their fundamental nature and their relationship to one another. Then it reexamines the finale of book four, not as an illustration of Lucretian pessimism or (exclusively) as a response to Hellenistic or Neoteric love poetry, but as the most developed case study in the underlying physiological mechanisms of an emotion offered by the poem - or indeed by any extant Epicurean text. 

This approach reveals the necessary conditions underlying the experience of amor, as well as the causal structures relating emotion and certain other ‘cognitive’ processes to one another. Finally, it indicates why Lucretius chose to end DRN IV on this note and sheds further light on the proem to book one. In the process, this paper argues that the depiction of amor as ‘fiery’ transcends mere imagery and that Lucretius - unlike Epicurus and Philodemus - does not conceive of love as a disease or a form of madness. Rather, amor, like all emotions, involves a nexus of sensory processes, interpretations, and choices. Moreover, its crucial role in Lucretian survival of the fittest evinces that it is, in a sense, necessary, and not necessarily ‘empty’. The paper thus further challenges - at least with respect to Lucretius - the scholarly claim  (e.g. Konstan 2008, 2013b) that insofar as the Epicurean emotions are ‘rational’ they must be exclusive to humans.

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Problems in Ancient Ethical Philosophy

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