The Material Unconscious: Against Utilitarianism

There is nothing in the mind that has not first been in the senses and nothing in the senses that has not already been in nature. This is the bold argument at the heart of Lucretius’ radical naturalism. The consequences of this simple idea are profound and have several ethical implications.

The argument of this chapter is that one of the main consequences of Lucretius’ naturalism is a materialist theory of the unconscious. This chapter unpacks this interesting theory through a close reading of lines 4.823–1057. The aim of the reading will be to show that when Lucretius flips ‘upside-down reasoning’ right-side up, it results in a completely transformed relationship between mind and nature. This is what I am calling the ‘material unconscious’.

More specifically, I would like to show the reader that this entails a unique theory of knowledge not exclusive to humans and a convincing rejection of utilitarian ethics. The main consequence of the material unconscious for ethics is that it redefines ethics as composed of practical and unconscious habits of motion – not conscious maxims, rational laws, virtues, or pleasure-seeking utilities.

Against Utilitarianism

If there is matter before there is mind (or body), historically speaking, then matter cannot be something useful to the mind. Rather, it means that the mind is already something material, natural, and thus ordered and reproduced in certain ways that shape the structure of utility, pleasure, and pain in ways that precede the mind’s desires (4.832–5).

cetera de genere hoc inter quae cumque pretantur, omnia perversa praepostera sunt ratione

nil ideo quoniam natumst in corpore ut uti possemus, sed quod natumst id procreat usum.

Other things of this sort that people expound
are all backwards, the product of upside-down reasoning,
since nothing arises in the body so that we might make use of it, but that which arises in the body creates its own use.

The mind does not demand that the body act in useful ways, but rather the body already provides the immanent conditions of useful action in the first place. We could say the same of nature. Things do not emerge in nature to be useful to us, but rather nature creates its own uses – of which human uses are only a tiny subset. Nature uses itself through humans.

One of the reasons for our current ecological crisis is precisely the use of upside-down reasoning. Humans have treated their own bodies and nature as means to the ends of their minds – when the situation is precisely the inverse. If only we had taken Lucretius and pre-Western oral traditions seriously on this crucial point much earlier in the Western tradition, perhaps things might have turned out differently.

Seeing did not exist before light. Words did not exist before tongues. The body did not evolve for the sake of using its limbs, but rather the limbs and body are the material unconscious through which we exist in the first place (4.835–42). For example, food and water were not created to be useful for us. We only exist because there is food and water. Because food and water are structured the way they are, we, humans and animals, could come into existence in the first place.

It is completely inverted to place our desire for pleasure as a uniquely human or even ethical priority. Pleasure exists before humans. Humans only exist because there is pleasure in nature. We desire food and drink not despite entropy but precisely because of entropy. The very idea of food and drink is by definition dependent on entropic exhaustion, decay, and death, which precede us. We live not despite death but because there is already death. Only because other beings died can we live and desire food. Lucretius gives numerous examples that follow out the logic of this basic material priority (4.855–65).

One of the most ethically important products of this upside-down reasoning is the fear of death. However, far from being the end, death is actually the prior and immanent condition of being. We feel that death is a lack or an end only relative to a tiny portion of the universe. But our life is the result of death. Our desires exist only because of entropy and decay. What a strange thing to fear ourselves and our own moving mate- riality. Desire, by definition, cannot lack anything because the material conditions of our desire are already defined by an excessive movement of nature actively consuming itself.

When we think that things (our arms, for example) are ‘useful’ or ‘pleasurable’ for us, this is absolutely ridiculous, Lucretius says (4.855– 65). Our arms are already the biological conditions of our body from which ‘we’ are not distinct. To say something is pleasurable or useful is already to pretend that ‘we’ is some inner mental voice separate from the body, such that even our own arms are ‘useful to us’. Who is this ‘us’ that is not the arms? Who is this us that is not already nature?

This is a selection from Chapter 8 of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion on the material unconscious.

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