King, Queen, Knave—Mind, Brain, and Body

"Where so'er I turn my view
All is strange, yet nothing new;
Endless labour all along,
Endless labour to be wrong."

—Samuel Johnson

Epicurus had an answer for everything. The universe consisted of nothing except atoms and void; the qualities of matter and of our sensory experience—hardness, color, heaviness, etc.—were determined completely by the size, shape, and motion of the atoms. The qualities of human life were largely a question of pleasure and pain. Right living consisted in maximizing the one and minimizing the other. The best way to do this, he thought, was to withdraw from the active life and to contemplate life's mysteries, as Epicurus did in his garden. A materialist philosophy was necessary for peace of mind, because it eliminated all the supernatural terrors of Hell. What common people called soul or mind, since it consisted of atoms, could not survive the dissolution of the body. After death, there was nothing, therefore nothing to be afraid of The philosophic man could face the universe with equanimity if he kept in mind the central doctrine of materialism: that every phenomenon had an explanation, a materialist explanation. Any given account might not be the right one, but, he insisted, there was a right one waiting to be discovered.

The fly in the Epicurean ointment was the problem of the will. How could...

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