In the letter, Alberto tells Sophie that he left Hilde’s father’s postcards in the cabin, assuming that Sophie would return there soon. Alberto tells Sophie not to worry about Hilde receiving the cards—Hilde will receive them. With this introduction, he dives into the history of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world.
Alberto seems strangely familiar with the interactions between Hilde and her father—that is, he doesn’t question them or wonder about them. He’s either the one responsible for all the strange goings-on, or else knows more about them than Sophie does.
The Indo-European civilization dates back 4,000 years. Little is known about it, except that it was stationed between present-day Europe and Asia. It was contemporaneous with Greek civilization, and still exerts a powerful influence on Indian culture via Hinduism. Indo-Europeans believed in many gods, some of which have counterparts in Viking and Greek myths. Indo-European culture stressed the importance of enlightenment, and the immortality of the soul, much like in Greek philosophy.
Some have criticized Sophie’s World on the grounds that it’s a history of only Western philosophy (not “philosophy,” as it frequently claims). In this chapter, however, the novel takes efforts to show how our very definition of the West is, in a way, non-Western; i.e., the Western cultural tradition was shaped by the religions and thinkers of Asia and the Middle East.
Another early culture was that of the Semites. The Semites had a strong influence on the monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The Semites believed in one god, who would come to judge all mankind in the future—a time called Judgment Day. Interestingly, the Semitic culture emphasized a great distance between God and man, maintained with worship and public sermons—in Eastern religions, by contrast, the emphasis was placed on meditation and self-enlightenment.
Gaarder is attentive to the differences between different religious traditions. In particular, he places an emphasis on the different hierarchies of man and god—in some religions, for example, man is seen as God’s eternal inferior; in others, he’s meant to interact with God through meditation, or even to unite wholly with God. These are particularly important questions for Sophie, who seems to be coming to terms with her own relationship with a god-figure—Hilde’s mysterious father.
Alberto gives a brief history of Judaism’s influence on Christianity. In the Jewish tradition, the Jewish people were promised control of the city of Israel. But after the death of King David, the Jews lost control of Israel, and were scattered around the world, enslaved by other civilizations, and forced to wander in search of a new home. In Judaism, there was a strong belief that the Jews’ time would come again—a new savior would come to restore the Jews’ place in Israel.
The history of the Jews and the Christians is just as relevant to the Western cultural tradition as the history of the Greeks and the Romans—it’s not for nothing that the Western world is still sometimes referred to as “Christendom.”
Around the time of the birth of Christ, there were many self-styled saviors of the Jewish people. Jesus Christ distinguished himself from these other potential saviors by saying that he was not a military or a political figure. Christ was a Jew, but he preached many modifications to Jewish thought. He celebrated forgiveness and love, compassion for the weak, etc. This was a startling shift in the tone and tenor of Judaism. Christ didn’t stress the importance of a return to Israel—in fact, he didn’t stress any specific political action. Instead, he celebrated a change in morals. Much like Socrates, Jesus was despised for his teachings, and eventually executed for refusing to renounce them.
The chapter is careful to study Jesus Christ as a historical figure as well as a philosophical and a religious figure.In the broadest terms, Christ stands out from the other Jewish thinkers of the era in the way that he placed an emphasis on the “here and now” of life and spirituality, rather than talking about the return of the Jews to Israel. Sophie is encouraged to treat Jesus as a philosophical figure—a very important one, but not exactly unique in the history of the Western world (contrary to what the Christian tradition claims).
One of Jesus Christ’s most important followers was Paul. It was Paul who claimed that Christ had been resurrected from the dead after his crucifixion.Paul used this claim to prove that Christ was the savior of all mankind. Unlike Plato or the Indo-Europeans, Paul didn’t believe in the transmigration of souls—on the contrary, he believed that Christ’s soul ended up in Heaven, with God. Paul was extremely important in popularizing Christ’s ideas. He traveled across the known world, telling strangers about Christ’s sacrifice, repeating Christ’s claims about the importance of forgiveness and mercy. Toward the end of his life, Paul even appeared in Athens—a clear symbol of the influence of Christianity upon the Greco-Roman tradition.
In many ways, Paul was more important in the rise of Christianity than Jesus Christ himself. Paul popularized many of the concepts that we think of as quintessentially Christian: most of all, the belief in the divinity of Christ himself. The cross-over between Paul and Athens shows that, following the death of Christ, Christianity became even more influential in Western history than Greco-Roman philosophy. Plato and Aristotle continued to influence thought, but—as we’ll see—their influence was limited to the extent that Christian thinkers could reconcile their philosophy with Paul’s.
Alberto continues to describe Paul’s influence on the Western world. Paul disagreed with the Greeks that God reveals himself through intellect—he believed that Christ’s example proves that sometimes, God appears before man in the flesh. Paul was a clever speaker. He stressed that Christianity accepted people of all kinds and honored them equally. For this reason, Christianity became highly popular in the Western world—women and the poor were particularly passionate converts to Paul’s religion. Paul was also careful to bill Christianity as its own religion, not as a mere Jewish sect.
Although Christianity sometimes gets a bad rap for subjugating women and treating women as second-class human beings, Alberto stresses that Christianity was, in many ways, friendlier and more inviting for women than were other religious and philosophical schools of the time. Christianity offered women the same salvation as men, at least.
Alberto ends his letter with a few observations. The early Christian era, he points out, was full of contradictions—a strange mixing of the Judeo-Christian with the Greco-Roman. It’s important for Sophie to understand her heritage as a Westerner. With these words, the letter ends. Sophie is impressed by Alberto’s postscript—although she will die one day, she can sense that she shares a common culture and history with people who lived thousands of years ago.
This chapter is important because it establishes that Sophie’s World is about the formation of an entire cultural tradition: the Western tradition. It may seem odd that we lump together all of Christianity, Judaism, Platonism, and Aristotelians under the term “Western”—but the novel will show the ways that these four contradictory ideologies influenced each other.