The defining theme of Sophie’s World is, pretty clearly, philosophy. As the book moves along, Sophie Amundsen, a teenaged girl, learns important lessons in the history of Western philosophy from her teacher, Alberto Knox. Alberto, an intelligent man, guides Sophie through the ancient Greeks, the medieval thinkers, and Enlightenment and Romantic idealists. All this should make us wonder which philosophical ideas Alberto and Sophie believe to be true. More broadly, we might want to ask if Western philosophers make progress over time; i.e., if a 19th century thinker like Hegel is more “correct” than an ancient philosopher like Aristotle. Finally, the philosophical themes of Sophie’s World make us ask: what is wisdom? (The word “philosophy” literally means “the love of wisdom,” after all.)
It would take too long to summarize every philosophical system that Alberto reviews with Sophie—in fact, doing so would be beside the point. By the end of the book, Sophie certainly hasn’t committed to any one system of ideas. There are things about Plato, Hegel, Kant, and Nietzsche that she admires, and a few moral issues that she’s particularly interested in (feminism, for example) but she’s not prepared to throw in her lot as a Kantian or a Nietzschean. Even after learning about 3,000 years of Western thought, Sophie continues to wonder what to believe.
The concept of “wonder”—both in the sense of questioning what is true, and in the sense of being continually astounded by the world—is crucial to understanding Sophie’s World. One reason the novel doesn’t end with Sophie arriving at an answer to her questions is that any such answer would be a little unsatisfactory, since it would make the universe seem “fixed,” predictable, and dry. Alberto teaches Sophie about philosophy not to give her answers but to train her to ask questions—to think of herself as an outsider, trying to make sense of what’s right in front of her nose. As Alberto says toward the beginning of the novel, the philosopher is like a child watching a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat. Most adults are so used to seeing “tricks” of this kind that they don’t bat an eye—by the same token, most adults aren’t astounded by the fact that they’re alive, that the universe exists, etc. A good philosopher will never lose her sense of wonder at the universe’s mysteries. One could even say that the goal of philosophy as Alberto understands it is to escape banality and boredom. (Throughout the novel, Sophie’s intellectual excitement is contrasted with her Mom’s dullness.)
In this way, Sophie’s World arrives at the strange conclusion that although it’s important to ask philosophical questions, it’s not particularly important to choose definite answers to these questions. For this reason, Socrates may be the paradigmatic philosopher for Sophie and Alberto: a wise man who accepted that he understood nothing, and never lost his fascination with existence. For Socrates—and perhaps for Sophie and Alberto—philosophy must be an ongoing process of reading, discussing, and contemplating. (This explains why it’s necessary for Sophie to learn about the history of Western philosophy, and why she often goes back to reread her lessons.) Philosophy is about preserving one’s sense of wonder—this, it’s suggested, is the only real wisdom.
Philosophy, Wisdom, and Wonder ThemeTracker
Philosophy, Wisdom, and Wonder Quotes in Sophie’s World
“Who are you?” Sophie asked.
She received no response to this either, but felt a momentary confusion as to whether it was she or her reflection who had asked the question.
Sophie pressed her index finger to the nose in the mirror and said, “You are me.”
As she got no answer to this, she turned the sentence around and said, “I am you.”
A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat which has just been shown to them empty.
In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us. What we would like to know is just how he did it. But when it comes to the world it’s somewhat different. We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because here we are in it, we are part of it. Actually, we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference between us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick. Unlike us. We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.
All the earliest philosophers shared the belief that there had to be a certain basic substance at the root of all change. How they arrived at this idea is hard to say. We only know that the notion gradually evolved that there must be a basic substance that was the hidden cause of all changes in nature. There had to be “something” that all things came from and returned to. For us, the most interesting part is actually not what solutions these earliest philosophers arrived at, but which questions they asked and what type of answer they were looking for. We are more interested in how they thought than in exactly what they thought.
A philosopher is therefore someone who recognizes that there is a lot he does not understand, and is troubled by it. In that sense, he is still wiser than all those who brag about their knowledge of things they know nothing about.
“Wisest is she who knows she does not know,” I said previously. Socrates himself said, “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” Remember this statement, because it is an admission that is rare, even among philosophers. Moreover, it can be so dangerous to say it in public that it can cost you your life. The most subversive people are those who ask questions. Giving answers is not nearly as threatening. Any one question can be more explosive than a thousand answers.
“We don’t learn anything there. The difference between schoolteachers and philosophers is that school-teachers think they know a lot of stuff that they try to force down our throats. Philosophers try to figure things out together with the pupils.”
“Now we’re back to white rabbits again! You know something? I demand to know who your boyfriend really is. Otherwise I’ll begin to think he is a bit disturbed.”
Sophie turned her back on the dishes and pointed at her mother with the dish mop.
“It’s not him who’s disturbed. But he likes to disturb others—to shake them out of their rut.”
Finally, let us look at Aristotle’s views on women. His was unfortunately not as uplifting as Plato’s. Aristotle was more inclined to believe that women were incomplete in some way. A woman was an “unfinished man.” In reproduction, woman is passive and receptive whilst man is active and productive; for the child inherits only the male characteristics, claimed Aristotle. He believed that all the child’s characteristics lay complete in the male sperm. The woman was the soil, receiving and bringing forth the seed, whilst the man was the “sower.” Or, in Aristotelian language, the man provides the “form” and the woman contributes the “substance.”
After careful consideration Sophie felt she had come to the conclusion that healthy forests and a pure environment were more valuable than getting to work quickly. She gave several more examples. Finally she wrote: “Personally, I think Philosophy is a more important subject than English Grammar. It would therefore be a sensible priority of values to have philosophy on the timetable and cut down a bit on English lessons.”
She herself was just an ordinary person. But if she knew her historical roots, she would be a little less ordinary. She would not be living on this planet for more than a few years. But if the history of mankind was her own history, in a way she was thousands of years old.
“St. Augustine’s point was that no man deserves God’s redemption. And yet God has chosen some to be saved from damnation, so for him there was nothing secret about who will be saved and who damned. It is preordained. We are entirely at his mercy.”
“So in a way, he returned to the old belief in fate.”
“Perhaps. But St. Augustine did not renounce man’s responsibility for his own
life. He taught that we must live in awareness of being among the chosen. He did not deny that we have free will. But God has ‘foreseen’ how we will live.”
“It’s interesting to note that the eggs of mammals were not discovered until 1827. It was therefore perhaps not so surprising that people thought it was the man who was the creative and lifegiving force in reproduction. We can moreover note that, according to Aquinas, it is only as nature-being that woman is inferior to man. Woman’s soul is equal to man’s soul. In Heaven there is complete equality of the sexes because all physical gender differences cease to exist.”
“But Descartes tried to work forward from this zero point. He doubted everything, and that was the only thing he was certain of. But now something struck him: one thing had to be true, and that was that he doubted. When he doubted, he had to be thinking, and because he was thinking, it had to be certain that he was a thinking being. Or, as he himself expressed it: Cogito, ergo sum.”
“Or think of a lion in Africa. Do you think it makes up its mind to be a beast of prey? Is that why it attacks a limping antelope? Could it instead have made up its mind to be a vegetarian?”
“No, a lion obeys its nature.”
“You mean, the laws of nature. So do you, Sophie, because you are also part of nature. You could of course protest, with the support of Descartes, that a lion is an animal and not a free human being with free mental faculties. But think of a newborn baby that screams and yells. If it doesn’t get milk it sucks its thumb. Does that baby have a free will?”
“I guess not.”
“Before we sense anything, then, the mind is as bare and empty as a blackboard before the teacher arrives in the classroom. Locke also compared the mind to an unfurnished room. But then we begin to sense things. We see the world around us, we smell, taste, feel, and hear. And nobody does this more intensely than infants. In this way what Locke called simple ideas of sense arise. But the mind does not just passively receive information from outside it. Some activity happens in the mind as well. The single sense ideas are worked on by thinking, reasoning, believing, and doubting, thus giving rise to what he calls reflection. So he distinguished between ‘sensation’ and ‘reflection.’ The mind is not merely a passive receiver. It classifies and processes all sensations as they come streaming in. And this is just where one must be on guard.”
“So now let’s sum up. According to Kant, there are two elements that contribute to man’s knowledge of the world. One is the external conditions that we cannot know of before we have perceived them through the senses. We can call this the material of knowledge. The other is the internal conditions in man himself—such as the perception of events as happening in time and space and as processes conforming to an unbreakable law of causality. We can call this the form of knowledge.”
“Our actions are not always guided by reason. Man is not really such a rational creature as the eighteenth-century rationalists liked to think. Irrational impulses often determine what we think, what we dream, and what we do. Such irrational impulses can be an expression of basic drives or needs. The human sexual drive, for example, is just as basic as the baby’s instinct to suckle.”
They jumped out of the car and ran down the garden.
They tried to loosen the rope that was made fast in a metal ring. But they could not even lift one end.
“It’s as good as nailed down,” said Alberto.
“We’ve got plenty of time.”
“A true philosopher must never give up. If we could just... get it loose …”