By Jostein Gaarder, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1994
A Novel about the History of Philosophy
Who are you? Where does the world come from? These are two questions Sophie, a fifteen year-old Norwegian girl, receives in her mailbox one day from an unknown stranger. Thus begins a mysterious adventure for Sophie, and an adventure for any person of any age who reads her story.
For Sophie becomes the student of a fifty year old philosopher, Alberto, who proceeds to teach her the history of philosophy. She gets a very creditable and understandable review of the ideas of major philosophers from the Pre-Socratic Greeks to Jean-Paul Sartre.
Mixed in with the philosophy lessons is a wonderful story complete with a mysterious cabin in the woods, a magic brass mirror, a marvelous messenger dog named Hermes, and even brief appearances by Little-Red-Riding-Hood and Winnie-the-Pooh. And it is something of a shock to find out who Sophie and Alberto really are – although it should have been completely obvious to anyone from the very first page of the book.
The philosophy is wonderful and wonderfully presented. Sophie learns about Medieval philosophy while being lectured by a monk in an ancient church, and she learns about Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in a French café. It all begins with a quotation from Goethe: “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.” Could the world have come from nothing? It all seemed so illogical until Democritus invented the most ingenious toy in the world. Next we see Socrates standing in front of a market stall packed with various goods. “What a wonderful number of things I have no use for.” We learn about Plato and his theories about the existence of an ideal world of which we see only the dim reflection. But many mathematicians and scientists think they can catch a glimpse of that ideal world.
Alberto then takes Sophie through Hellenism to the rise of Christianity and its interaction with Greek thought and on into the Middle Ages. We even learn about Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century Catholic Nun who was a preacher, physician, botanist, biologist, and composer. (You can even buy compact disks of her music.) He covers the Renaissance, Baroque, Enlightenment and Romantic periods. Other important figures presented are Descartes (“he wanted to clear all the rubble off the site”), Spinoza (“God is not a puppeteer”), Locke, Hume, Berkeley (“we exist only in the mind of God”), Bjerkely (How did that get in here?), Kant (“the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me”), Hegel, Kierkegaard (“it’s one thing to collect Barbie dolls, but worse to be one”), Marx, Darwin and Freud.
The book approaches its conclusion at a philosophical garden party, which Sophie throws to celebrate her birthday. But alas, it turns into a rather sordid affair where Alberto finally speaks the plain truth and then he and Sophie use the confusion to escape to their true identities. The book has other wonderful features, but to mention them would give away too much in advance.
So, if you have anything of the fifteen year old girl in you, or of an elderly philosopher, or love ideas, then read this book, and if you have anyone close to you, read it aloud and argue out the ideas – that’s the way it used to be done. After all Socrates engaged in dialogues not because he claimed to be a teacher but because he believed it takes two to philosophize. The principal alternative is to watch the Medusa-TV sets and run the risk of having your heart turned to stone.
Reviewed by David Park