Sarah Bakewell:

Humans are made of atoms too, including our souls. If gods exist at all, they are uninterested in us. We are free, liberated by the unpredictability of the swerve, as are all living things. We are all connected, and when we die, our atoms go off to join other atoms elsewhere. Death is only dispersal; there is no need to fear any afterlife, or mutter spells and prayers to absent deities. We do better to live by the simple Epicurean law: Seek pleasure, avoid pain. This does not mean indulging ourselves gluttonously, but cultivating tranquillity while avoiding the two greatest human delusions: fear of what we cannot avoid, and desire for what we cannot have. One extraordinary section describes the frenzies of lovers, who exhaust themselves futilely trying to possess one another. The beloved always slips away. Instead, we should step off the wheel and contemplate the universe as it is — which brings a deep sense of wonder, rather than mere resignation or gloom. “What human beings can and should do,” as Greenblatt summarizes it, “is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.”

All good as far as it goes. But urging us to “step off the wheel” is a way of perpetuating the distinction that “I” and “the world” are separate things, which is the very illusion that causes us so much grief. ‘Course, this doesn’t mean that if you just robotically assert that “all is one” you’ll somehow achieve inner peace at last. It just means that you finally see the utter futility of thinking that you can ever conquer your fears by rationalizing about them, or that you can embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world without accepting all the grotesqueries and suffering that are part and parcel of them. If you truly care about anything at all, you will suffer in some way or another for it. Let no wizened philosopher or holy man, however reputable or venerated, tell you differently.