Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (FSG Classics) is a history of philosophy written in the format of a mystery novel by Jostein Gaarder. It had been recommended to me many years ago.
The novel concerns a little girl, Sophia, who gets a correspondence course in philosophy from a mysterious character … further details into the plot would require spilling the beans, which I won’t do, except to point out that this is also a coming-of-age story which revolves around the 15th birthday of the main character.
The book is a great introductory work for adults and even for children of all ages. It explains the main questions of philosophy in a manner that is easy to understand even for a young audience. In addition to weaving a witty and entertaining narrative, the author utilizes surprising didactic methods, like comparing philosophical concepts to games that children play. Democritus’ atomism, for instance, is compared to the construction game Lego. At the end of the novel, there is an index where important terms are cross-referenced (which is rare for a work of fiction) and even a study guide for students of philosophy wanting to gain the most from the book.
Gaarder does a fine job at presenting even complicated moral and philosophical matters through the mouthpiece of his philosophy instructor. For instance, we find this quote:
… We cannot use reason as a yardstick for how we ought to act … You know that the Nazis murdered millions of Jews. Would you say that there was something wrong with the Nazis’ reason, or with their emotional life?
… Many of them were exceedingly clear-headed. It is not unusual to find ice-cold calculation behind the most callous decisions. Many of the Nazis were convicted after the war, but they were not convicted for being ‘unreasonable’. They were convicted for being gruesome murderers.
– Jostein Gaarder, in the book Sophie’s World
There are also instances where important insights into certain philosophers are shared, perhaps as a warning ….
“According to Aristotle, Plato was trapped in a mythical world picture in which the human imagination was confused with the real world.”
Another musing I encountered as I read the book from the lens of my own tradition is how the idea of reminiscing as a therapeutic practice, which the Epicurean Masters instructed their pupils to do, was incorporated and expanded upon in the days of Hegel.
Hegel taught that human thought goes through an evolutionary cycle via a process of thesis–antithesis-synthesis that he called dialectic, and that history was about this human process. He was concerned with the idea of the collective unconscious and the collective psyche, an idea which gained visibility thanks to Freud. The author brought up the notion of how national identities form through the recreation of national and ethnic myths and narratives, which brought about this idea of collective reminiscing and its therapeutic possibilities.
Any transpersonal experience is likely to have therapeutic properties, since humans are social creatures that exhibit a natural need to belong, a strong territorial instinct, and a need to interact with others, to transform isolation into organic, natural community. But do nations, tribes, ethnic groups also collectively have a need to gather themselves in this manner periodically?
It seems that Epicurus would have recognized this need, and the therapeutic usefulness of this, for the collective. Epicurus may have been an individualist, but he was also an advocate of intimate circles of friends and even created a monthly gathering on the 20th of every month to bring his friends together to remember him and Metrodorus.
My only criticism of the book is an instance where the author seems to indicate that radical skepticism is a healthy attribute of a good philosopher, even suggesting that we should accept the possibility of the existence of trolls, faeries, etc.
“There it is! We’ve found it!
“I do believe you’re right, but don’t shout so loud.”
“Why? There’s no one to hear us.”
“My dear Sophie–after a whole course in philosophy, I’m very disappointed to find you still jumping to conclusions.”
“Yes, but …”
“Surely you don’t believe this place is entirely devoid of trolls, pixies, wood nymphs, and good fairies?”
A young reader reading this might consider this type of laughable radical skepticism a legitimate view, and abandon all reliance on the senses as a measuring stick for reality, forever becoming disconnected from nature. This is a potential temptation, particularly for young souls in the age of Harry Potter.
Overall, Sophie’s World is a great novel, easy to follow, and a very enjoyable literary adventure. However, it’s long and has huge didactic value. Expect to take your time.