Happy Twentieth! Some Essays and Updates

In recent months, academia.edu saw the publication of The Epicurean virtue of μεγαλοψυχία (megalopsychia, or magnanimity) by Sean McConnell, as well as Some Epicurean Aspects of Horace’s Upbringing in Satires 1.4, An Epicurean measure of Wealth in Horace and Horace, Ofellus and Philodemus of Gadara in Sermones 2.2, both by Sergio Yona.

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – VS 41

The paper on Ofellus–like one of Philodemus’ scrolls–discusses the calculus of pleasure versus pain in the context of property management, which is consistent with Vatican Saying 41’s doctrine that economic matters must be related to philosophy. It argues that we can draw a specifically Epicurean economic theory from the sources. Ofellus seems to have been a wise old Roman who lost his little farm and praise simple living. He may have studied under Philodemus.

A Brief Dialogue on Duty and Ontology, a Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure and an essay on Wenham’s diatribe against the standard interpretation of static pleasures were also published in Society of Epicurus.

Yannis Alexandris wrote Epicurean Natural Philosophy Under the Light of Modern Perception (abstract publihed on academia.edu).

Also, if you are a student of Spanish and would enjoy the intellectual challenge of studying Epicurean philosophy in the Spanish language, please know that there is a free, self-paced Epicurean Studies course in the online Escuela de las Indias, which I helped to put together. The course, together with our Sociedad de Amigos de Epicuro page in Spanish and our facebook group, can help Spanish speaking philosophers gain the pleasure of learning EP in association with other Epicureans.

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The Last Temptation

The Last Temptation is the single most detailed and entertaining essay I’ve read chronicling the Evangelical trumpanzee movement–the best part of this essay being that it’s written by an embarrassed Christian with a conscience, acknowledging one of the first observations I made after the Trump election.

The piece cites another one titled Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican, and is cited in turn by Slate.


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Some thoughts on the new digital currencies

Avenging the 2008 Crisis

Money is evolving beyond recognition. When Trump became president, many predicted that there would be a trade war between countries, but the world is much more complex than that. Yes, it’s likely that countries will write laws to defend their own interests to the detriment of the internationalizing market tendencies. But countries are not the only ones issuing currency now. There are many private currencies out there, as well as many other forces that do not obey the interests of states and of geography, and they’re exerting their muscles at the expense of the traditional financial establishment. There isn’t an all-out trade war between crypto-currencies and traditional banks, but … in a way, there is (for now). Crypto trading platforms are charging prohibitive fees to people using credit cards to trade, and vice versa–credit card companies are refusing to transact into bitcoins and other alt-coins, and the platforms that use them.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of Chase, for years has publicly expressed disdain for digital currencies. Bankers stand to lose the most, and are realizing that this is their day of reckoning after decades of managed chaos and extraction of wealth in the form of fees and interest from poor and middle-class people into the pockets of the 1% orchestrated by big banks.

Let’s not forget that bitcoin was born in 2009–months after the 2008 financial crisis, and is the brainchild of the anarcho-capitalist/libertarian ideology. Alt-money was conceived as an act of vindictiveness against the banks for the 2008 crisis, when everyday Americans lost about 40 % of their retirement money and many people were seething with anger against the bankers.

We are now entering the third and fourth generation of alt-coins, and some of them–like Ripple and Stellar Lumens–are becoming an almost free and near-instant alternative for international transfers of funds. Traditional banks handle these in three to five business days while charging an expensive wire transfer fee. Now, it can be done within seconds and for pennies. Disruption!

The Devil’s Cash-Stash

Not everything that tries to pass for digital money is crypto-currency, or decentralized.

Trivia: petro is the name that Haitian Voodoo gives to its family of evil spirits. Petro is evil by Voodoo standards … and oil has been called “the devil’s gold”. So why did Venezuela name its new crypto-currency–which is supposedly pegged to the price of its oil–the “petro”? … only to see it rejected by investors!?

The problem with petro is that, no matter how innovative or tech-savvy you dress Venezuela’s oil wealth, people know that oil tends to give power to tyrannical regimes. It’s what keeps Saudi Arabia stable in spite of the awful theocracy that the citizens of the country have to suffer. It’s what keeps the US from imposing sanctions on the Saudi government in spite of too many human rights violations and terror attacks to count. Let’s not forget that Raif Badawi is still in jail for blogging. The power that comes from oil is what makes #FreeRaif a thing, unfortunately.

Building a Content Economy

This is the most exciting aspect of the crypto economy for me, as a content creator who has for years struggled to earn a decent income from freelance writing. Patreon was somewhat disruptive, but now blockchain technology is birthing companies that are likely to create a significant paradigm shift in industries other than banking.

I am looking forward to the potential success of both Narrative and Gilgamesh–which will test Amazon’s monopoly on self-publishing and help the little guy profit from his content by removing the middle guy and and reducing the publishing industry to a minimum. Both companies are raising money through ICO’s (“initial coin offerings”) and will incorporate built-in incentives in their native coins for people who are wholesome contributors to their content economy on their future online platforms.

It’s possible that–as happened with the dot com bubble–many of these new companies won’t be around in, say, five or six years. But if Ripple, Stellar, and Gilgamesh are still around, or if we have at least a dozen new companies inspired in their models, they will have definitely made the world a much better place.

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The Nation of Islam, or How Fake News Snowball

Today is a very special holiday for the Nation of Islam. They call it Savior’s Day. It commemorates the birth of its founder, Master Wallace Fard Muhammad, whom they believe to be an incarnation of Allah and the last prophet, reason for which they are rejected as infidels by “normal” Muslims. This “second Muhammad” told Blacks in Detroit in the early 20th Century that they were the descendants of the Tribe of Shabazz, and that he had been sent to redeem them. In the book Black Crescent, Michael A. Gomez explains that the Tribe of Shabazz

… was the only survivor of thirteen tribes that lived on earth 66 trillion years ago. After a rogue scientist blew up the planet, splitting off the moon, the other tribes perished. The Tribe of Shabazz relocated to the rich Nile valley of Egypt and the present seat of the Holy City, Mecca, Arabia.

Nation of Islam is an African-American crackpot, racist, homophobic, and anti-Jewish cult that has been labeled a hate group by The Southern Poverty Law Center and other cult- and violence- watchdog organizations.

NoI apologists caution that Nation of Islam gets many young black men off the streets, freeing them from the influence of drugs and violence, but what NoI does is tap into the anger of marginalized black men to recruit private security for its cult leaders. The most prominent member of Nation of Islam historically has been Malcolm X, who was killed by thugs from the cult after converting to traditional Islam and threatening to disclose the predatory sexual acts that their “honorable” leader was engaged in.

But what I’d like to illuminate today in celebration of Savior’s Day is the big lie that is at the heart of NoI: the cult insinuates that many or most of the ancestors of African Americans were Muslim prior to their enslavement, and that a return to Islam is a return to a revered ancestral African spirituality. But Islam did not emerge in Africa: it emerged in Asia, in the Arabian peninsula.

Like all religions, NoI cherry-picks bits and pieces of its canon to appease its base and sell its cool-aid. They make a big deal of the fact that Muhammad freed his slave Zaid, and that the first muezzin who made the call to prayers–Bilal al-Habashi–was black. But it’s also true that Muhammad took new slaves as war-booty and that in the Quran he makes it permissible for a man to have sex with his female slaves. In other words, slavery is not only legal, but the ownership of the body of another implies sexual rights in Islam.

The other exhibit in the evaluation of NoI’s claims is the fact that slavery persists in predominantly Muslim countries in Africa, still in the 21st Century. It is estimated that today, about 20% of the population of Mauritania is enslaved: this country is at the heart of what once was the celebrated Songhai empire, a sultanate that existed around Timbuktu in the Middle Ages and that many Black Muslims are eager to trace their ancestry to. The likelihood is that many of the ancestors of the African Americans who converted to NoI were enslaved BY Muslims, and sold into slavery BY Muslims from the Songhai empire and its successor cultures, and that their “return” to Islam merely represents the triumph of the initial Arab and Black slave-masters rather than the more recent European ones.

Louis Farrakhan, the current leader of NoI, over the years took great care to celebrate and sanctify Gaddafi, of all tyrants. He felt that he was “good” for Africa, that he was doing many good things for Black people, and claimed that the Jewish bankers wanted him killed because he wanted to return to the gold standard in the national currency of Libya. But a recent documentary by Al-Jazeera titled Orphans of the Sahara reveals that Gaddafi was a racist who denied Libyan citizenship to thousands of Black men from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel region that he had lured into his country and hired to fight the good jihad on his behalf and keep his country terrorized. After the death of the dictator, these men have had to return to their home countries penniless. Many of them will likely join terrorist groups, or migrate to France or some other country after being denied citizenship by oil-rich Libya, even after their military service.

Then there’s the reference to “blue-eyed devils” among the cult leaders, who use Quran verses to promote and enshrine anti-white hatred.

On the day when the trumpet shall be blown, and We will gather the guilty, blue-eyed, on that day. – Quran 20:102

The term actually has roots in an obscure verse of their scripture, and shows how easy it is to cherry-pick one verse to take an already-vindictive religion in the direction of racist hatred. The use of this one verse to reproach people of European ancestry is no different from Mormon and Christian theological sleights-of-hand like Cain’s mark and Ham’s curse, which have been used to justify slavery and racism against Blacks.

The religions of common folk are lies, but some cults have lies that are bigger, more deplorable, and more ironic than others, and there is a long-standing tradition of religion and racism joining forces to curse the world with misery and violence. With cults like Nation of Islam, the best way to celebrate their Savior’s Day is by exposing it for what it is: a fraud sculpted by racist opportunists, just like the Identity Christians, the Mormons, and many others.

Having said all this, it’s true that the brutality, the racism, the abuse, the erasing of all identity that took place during and after slavery, is a hugely traumatic experience for any community, and that Nation of Islam sought to retrieve or create something of a soul for African Americans, to help them regain dignity and self-respect in the face of a difficult history. African Americans for Humanism serves a similar purpose for those who have seen through the lies and dangers of traditional religion. On their webpage, you’ll find a blog, links to local groups, a large collection of the many stories they have to tell, and other content.

Learn More:

Black African Slaves Castrated by Muslims

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Two Things I Love About Black Panther

I watched the movie Black Panther last night. Relished every moment of the movie. I won’t give away details. I’ll only discuss two things I loved about Wakandan culture.


The superhero was created (by white men) prior to the advent of the Black Panther party, which was an African American political movement that sought to overthrow the US government, to provide basic services to poor communities, and organize people against police brutality. The party gave many people a sense of pride and self-respect, before being dismantled by the CIA. The movie Black Panther is definitely about politics, but it deals more with what to do with power once gained. This is seen in the intricacies of the plot, but also–when you think of it–in the concept of Wakanda itself. What is the best possible kind of society that Black people would be able to build if the shackles of historical and colonial oppression were to disappear, and resources were plenty? Or, put another way, WHAT ultimately were the Black Panthers fighting for? What would it look like to create a prosperous, proud, and advanced African society? Like all good mythology, the movie plunges Black people forward, towards imagining future possibilities.

Afro-punk depicts and celebrates, in art, a complete reinvention of African identity. Stereotypes can be harmful, but mostly they’re just boring. Black Panther offers visuals that are inspiring, but also shatters ideas about Black and African identity that are often tied to colonialism, victimhood, poverty, and backwardness. The imagery and narrative of a scientifically advanced utopia in the heart of Africa, a nest of the best and brightest African scientists and geniuses–together with the embrace of Pan-African authenticity, culture, music, fashion, and tradition–is a potent combination, a manifesto of how art and self-creation go hand-in-hand, of how identity can be reimagined. And so it seems to me that Black Panther uses art the way it’s meant to be used.


The cat Goddess Bast is the patroness and totem of Wakanda, the fictional country where the story takes place. She’s also my favorite Egyptian Goddess, and a great example of a deity with strong Epicurean attributes: she governs, among other things, pleasure, the home, and territoriality / safety. She embodies autarchy, and enjoys such opulent associations as perfumes, oils and ointments, which were used for hygiene, health, and consecration.

Consider the archetype that’s being evoked here as a moral model for Wakandan wanna-bes. Cats are symbols of individualism and independence. They remind me of Lucretius’ Fortress of the Wise passage–which puts the individual philosopher and his tranquil pleasure in relief against the ignorance and perturbations suffered by the multitudes, as if watching from a fortress above them.

Cats frequently gravitate towards high places, so that they can watch over their territory, surveying for danger, invasion, pests and rodents–which is why Egyptians revered them. The mutual benefit brought by cats was found in their removal of mice, which endangered the grains and other goods in the pantry that Egyptians relied on for food. Since they were surrounded by desert, there was a real possibility of being unable to import food quickly if their harvest was lost, and of succumbing to famine. By removing the only pests that competed with humans for food, cats saved the Egyptians’ lives, and their adoration was the Egyptians’ way of reciprocating the benefits they brought. The story of the domestication of cats is a story of the mutually beneficial co-evolution of the two species.

Art is deeply spiritual. It literally consists of instances of pressing out and pouring into the world the values, feelings and ideas we have within us: Self-ex-pression. And so the two things I love about Black Panther aren’t really that different from each other: to an atheist, religion can be seen as an art form, and art can take on some of the utility of religion.

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Review of Why Buddhism is True

The following is, in part, a book review of Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright. It’s also an Epicurean evaluation of its claims.

Many books have come out in recent years proposing secular Buddhism as a philosophical alternative for atheists and people dis-enchanted with traditional Western religions, and some of these books have some value. I generally didn’t sense that this book in particular added much that was new, but I did enjoy reading parts of it. The book is, to a great extent, an auto-biographical testament to the benefits of Vipassana meditation (aka mindfulness), sprinkled with discussions of nonzero sumness and natural selection–which is true to the author’s literary interests.

As in his previous books–Moral Animal, Evolution of God–this one mentions the frequent misfiring of urges and instincts that evolved through natural selection, and how sometimes what’s best for our genes isn’t necessarily good for our happiness.

Here are two issues I found with the author’s case for Buddhism being true: he infers from anomalies, and he does not look for a concrete self, preferring instead to search for a Platonic, imaginary, eternal Self. I also found two points of great insight and accordance with the nature of things: the author is a staunch defender of feelings as arbiters of thought, and of meditative practice as a means to clearer and cleaner perception.


Like Sam Harris, the author also admits he hasn’t experienced satori, nirvana, or even clear insight into no-self via mindfulness, and like Harris he uses the split-brain experiments on epileptic patients by neuroscientists as an example that proves the no-self point. He presents an anomaly as a normal case. In Philodemus’ scroll on methods of inference we find a discussion of special cases and exceptions and the extent to which we can draw conclusions from them.

The degree of certainty of an inference is often relative to the amount of variation observable. Ergo, in addition to instances where there are no known exceptions, there may also be instances where exceptions are few or limited to very specific conditions, which limits what can be inferred based on evidence.

In this case, although there are observations that seem to validate theories that posit sub-selves and modules within the brain cooperating to produce an experience that makes us feel like we have a self, these observations took place in epileptic and other patients who had undergone surgery to have the brain split. This does not negate the possible validity of the multi-module model of self that the author proposes, but it also does not prove it.


I’ve tackled some of the problems related to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta–which posits that there is no self–in my review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up. Is the self a thing? Is it a mental function or a process? Depending on how we define the self, we may or may not find a self. In Why Buddhism is True, in order to prove that there is no-self, Wright limits discussion of the self to “the conscious self”, not the body, not the whole self, which reminds me of Cosma Raimondi’s argument about taking into consideration the whole of the human being. When the author speaks of the self as a “rational charioteer”–presumably meaning “conscious”?–, we are expected to accept that emotions or feelings are perceived as unconscious insofar as they are irrational, and that therefore there is no self, only nature acting as a puppeteer.

Another error in attempting to prove the doctrine of anatta goes back all the way to Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, and appears to be tied to the original Vedic and Hindu context. In the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures, we find a defense of the idea of atman (the soul, in Sanskrit) as “the eternal aspect” of our self. This atman is sometimes described, interestingly, as an atomic particle. If Buddha could prove that there was nothing eternal in the sentient being, he could refute the doctrine of atman with a doctrine of anatta (no-self, in Pali). But what if the self, like all else, was real, just temporary? Why does the temporary conglomeration of certain conditions imply non-existence or non-reality? This does not follow, and so the arguments for the doctrine of anatta were, from the onset, flawed, because there is no atman to speak of in the first place. Selfhood does not need to be eternal in order to exist and be experienced as real by sentient beings. If the doctrine of anatta is reinterpreted to say that the self does not exist as_we_imagine_it_to_exist, then there is much more merit to the doctrine.

Now, in nature we see that even seemingly stable things like stones and mountains undergo geological processes over the aeons. We see that the trees can not exist without seeds sprouting, without solar light, without water, soil, and other elements, and that all things inter-exist. We see that, like all animals, we have millions of micro-organisms in our bellies without which we would not be able to properly digest our food: nothing exists in a vacuum. We are constantly exchanging particles with the rest of nature via breathing, acting, and eating. This recycling of particles between all things is poetically detailed early in the first book of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, inferring from phenomena like how the sea is replenished by rains, rivers, and other sources of water, and concluding that–since “nothing comes from nothing”–all things must deteriorate into the primal “germs” (that is, particles) that will make up new things:

Whence may the water-springs, beneath the sea,
Or inland rivers, far and wide away,
Keep the unfathomable ocean full?

And out of what does Ether feed the stars?
For lapsed years and infinite age must else
Have eat all shapes of mortal stock away:
But be it the Long Ago contained those germs,
By which this sum of things recruited lives,
Those same infallibly can never die,
Nor nothing to nothing evermore return.

If all other things in nature exist as processes, ever-changing, why must a member of the homo sapiens species exist as a Platonic essence, an eternal soul, an abstraction, an idea? Why can’t the self also be a process, just like the body and embedded within it, ever-changing from birth to death? Why can’t there be a concrete self, rather than an abstract self? What if, rather than a noun (self), we started referring to a process of ever becoming, which would more aptly describe what we are referring to–and yet doesn’t deny its reality as a felt experience of the sentient being?

The reason why Buddhists have not found a self is because they are not LOOKING for a CONCRETE self. They are looking for an abstraction, a Platonic “essence”, a Hindu atman. I believe that, with the help of Epicurean and Lucretian descriptions, and drawing strictly from the study of nature, it is possible for contemporary materialists to posit a theory of self that is corporeal, scientific, satisfying, and dynamic, to counter the Buddhist, nihilist, and other theories out there.

For the sake of clarity, Epicurean philosophy finds itself in the realist camp of this discussion–our position is pragmatic: we argue that the reality of the self matters. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the Buddhists are on the anti-realist side of the debate.

To my knowledge, at least one scientific theory of concrete self has been advanced, and it has some of the features of the Buddhist doctrine of the aggregates (here described as “five dimensions”). It posits that the self is multitudinous and multi-disciplinary. Şerife Tekin presented her theory in an Aeon essay titled Self-Evident:

According to this model, the self is a dynamic, complex, relational and multi-aspectual mechanism of capacities, processes, states and traits that support a degree of agency. The multitudinous self has five distinct but functionally complementary dimensions: ecological, intersubjective, conceptual, private, and temporally extended. These dimensions work together to connect the individual to her body, her social world, her psychological world, and her environment.

Notice that Tekin mentions the feature of agency. Agency, or the ability to act over matter, is one of the attributes that proves the existence of a self Epicurean writings: a void can only be acted upon and has no agency. In other words, agency implies corporeal existence. In the Letter to Herotodus, Epicurus argues that the soul is made up of atoms, that it exists fully embedded into the body and provides it with sentience. As proof that it is corporeal, Epicurus cites how–unlike empty space–it can act and be acted upon.

There is the further point to be considered, what the incorporeal can be, if, I mean, according to current usage the term is applied to what can be conceived as self-existent. But it is impossible to conceive anything that is incorporeal as self-existent except empty space. And empty space cannot itself either act or be acted upon, but simply allows body to move through it. Hence those who call soul incorporeal speak foolishly. For if it were so, it could neither act nor be acted upon. But, as it is, both these properties, you see, plainly belong to soul.

What else does Epicurean tradition have to say regarding the concrete soul? In the Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus argues:

Next, keeping in view our perceptions and feelings (for so shall we have the surest grounds for belief), we must recognize generally that the soul is a corporeal thing, composed of fine particles, dispersed all over the frame … Still, it would not have had sensation, had it not been somehow confined within the rest of the frame.

Epicurus believed that the “soul” particles were finer or more subtle than other particles in the body. Contemporary science, instead, gives us the neurological system which, like the Epicurean soul, is entirely embedded into the body. It runs through the nervous system and is concentrated in two main organs: the brain, and the stomach–which contains enough neurons to be about the size of the brain of a small dog or cat. The Letter to Herodotus says that it is the soul that gives the body sentience.

But the rest of the frame, though it provides this indispensable conditions for the soul, itself also has a share, derived from the soul, of the said quality; and yet does not possess all the qualities of soul. Hence on the departure of the soul it loses sentience. For it had not this power in itself; but something else, congenital with the body, supplied it to body: which other thing, through the potentiality actualized in it by means of motion, at once acquired for itself a quality of sentience, and, in virtue of the neighborhood and interconnection between them, imparted it (as I said) to the body also.

Hence, so long as the soul is in the body, it never loses sentience through the removal of some other part. The containing sheaths may be dislocated in whole or in part, and portions of the soul may thereby be lost; yet in spite of this the soul, if it manage to survive, will have sentience. But the rest of the frame, whether the whole of it survives or only a part, no longer has sensation, when once those atoms have departed, which, however few in number, are required to constitute the nature of soul.

That the soul is corporeal and mortal, and leaves the body at the moment of death, is also argued by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura. There are other materialist theories of self that do not contradict, but in fact may add support to, the theories here presented. In a previous essay, I echoed a materialist conception of identity based on habitual behavior, which not only recognizes the concrete and changing self, but allows for the possibility of cultivation or sculpting of an ethically better self, that is, moral development–a subject that is very in tune with natural philosophy:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” –Will Durant

To the extent that habitual behavior is unconscious or subconscious, it can be said to be a crystallized–even if capable of change or evolution–part of the self. This is a different way of thinking about identity, and yet it does not contradict Tekin’s model.


In Why Buddhism is True, feelings are explained as **the** value-setting faculty. The author is really a champion of the primacy of feelings over reason in human behavior, arguing that the cognitive and effective / emotional functions are very intertwined. This is the premise behind Epicurean cognitive therapy: that reason and feeling can coach each other.

Feelings are, among other things, your brain’s way of labeling the importance of thoughts, and importance (in natural selection’s somewhat crude sense of the term) determines which thoughts enter consciousness. – Why Buddhism is True (p. 119)

Feelings tell us what to think about, and after all the thinking is done, they tell us what to do. – Why Buddhism is True (p. 124)


According to the author, the belief that things and people carry idealist identities or Platonic essences impedes clear, direct perception (enargeia), and so do the stories we tell constantly about things. It is true that–as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell would argue–we are storytelling animals. We draw pleasure from stories, but they also distort perception.

Mindfulness practice, on the other hand, facilitates the development of cleaner perception. Being mindful of our feelings can also provide us with clearer insight into their nature and, if they’re unwarranted or unwanted, helps to deflate them.

When asking whether feelings can be “true” or “false”, the author gave the impression of idly playing with words. Feelings are felt and experienced as real. Are they useful? Do they tell us something about our nature, about our natural needs? That is another question.

Overall, agree or disagree with the secular Buddhist teaching, the book was a stimulating read and people with an interest in non-religious, philosophical Buddhism may enjoy this book.

Further Reading:

Are you sleepwalking now? What we know about mind-wandering

Review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up

Shall We Banish the Self?

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Happy Val!

We recently stumbled upon the essay Epicureanism and Friends with Benefits. It seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day. Pleasant reading!

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