Sophie’s Mom asks Sophie about her upcoming 15th birthday party. Sophie seems indifferent to the prospect of turning 15 (her birthday is June 15th). Later that afternoon, Sophie sees Hermes near the den, carrying a new envelope. Inside the envelope, there’s an extra letter in addition to the usual one: in this extra letter, Alberto forgives Sophie for entering his cabin.
There’s a ticking clock in this novel—as Sophie’s birthday gets closer and closer, we get the strong sense that something is about to happen. We don't know exactly what this big event will be, but we also come to think that it’ll bring Sophie closer to a form of enlightenment.
Sophie begins to read Alberto’s main letter, “PHILOSOPHER AND SCIENTIST.” Aristotle, the letter begins, was a pupil of Plato. Aristotle was a good student, but he disagreed with Plato about the idea of forms, arguing that Plato was neglecting the concrete realities of the world in favor of the moreabstract world of ideas. Aristotle argued that the idea of a “perfect horse” is just an illusion, based on the horse’s hundreds of qualities. Aristotle also denied that mankind is born with innate ideas. It’s only by exercising our brains—by observing and studying—that we gain ideas about life.
The debate between Aristotle and Plato echoes in philosophy today—it’s been said that all human beings are either Platonists and Aristotelians. Aristotle, with his emphasis on the real, concrete world, is often praised for being the first true scientist. And yet so many of Aristotle’s ideas, as we see in this chapter, are outdated. As is often the case in ancient philosophy, Aristotle’s questions are more interesting to us than his answers.
One of Aristotle’s most important ideas was about the relationship between the chicken and the egg. In an egg is locked the potentialto become a chicken in the future. All living things have an inborn nature—for example, it’s the nature of chickens to cluck and lay eggs. But this inborn nature can only be achieved over time, and sometimes with conscious effort.
Aristotle is especially relevant to Sophie, we can see, because he was one of the first theorists of education. He believed that all things carried within them an ability to become something more—much as Sophie seems to carry the potential to become enlightened.
Aristotle also perfected a theory of causes. There are many different ways that we can talk about causes. One way is to talk about the “material cause.” The material cause of rain is the moisture in clouds that forms the rain itself. There’s also the “efficient cause” of rain—the fact that the moisture cools to form raindrops. We could also talk about the “formal cause” of rain—for example, the fact that it is the nature of water to fall to earth. Finally, there is the “final cause”—the fact that the purpose of rain is to nourish plants and animals. Only by putting together these four explanations for rain can we arrive at a total understanding of “why” rain exists. The letter acknowledges that science doesn’t really operate according to this logic anymore. Instead of saying that the “purpose” of rain is to nourish plants, scientists say that plants have evolved to gain nourishment from rain—i.e., there’s no “master plan” that says that water has an inherent purpose of any kind.
Aristotle’s discussion of the causes is interesting but not entirely relevant to modern life: we don’t really believe that rain is “intended” to irrigate the plants—in fact, we don’t really believe that there’s a correct answer to the question of “why” rain exists at all. In this sense, Aristotle has lost a lot of his credibility as a scientist. And yet as far as philosophers are concerned, he’s still important because of his interest in classifying and categorizing worldly phenomena. The history of philosophy wouldn’t be complete without Aristotle: his categories of causation anticipate the way that philosophers like Hegel and Hume would break down the steps in human perception.
Aristotle used his rigorous study of causes to develop his own form of logic. The letter gives an example of Aristotelian logic: if we agree that all living creatures are mortal, and that Hermes is a living creature, then we can conclude that Hermes is mortal. Aristotle used his studies of the “nature” of things to perform more complex logical operations.
Aristotle’s logic is intuitive and immediately clear to Sophie. This reflects Aristotle’s close attention to classes and categories: even if he didn’t believe in the forms, he maintained that all specific objects belonged to some broader group (in this sense, Aristotle isn’t so different from Plato).
The letter discusses how Aristotle classified human beings—i.e., how he distinguished them from animals. While all animals have the ability to move, humans have the additional power of being able to think. Aristotle also believed that there was a God. This God was responsible for “putting the world in motion”—causing the first events in the universe, which in turn caused further events, and so on.
Aristotle’s proof of the existence of God—that there must be a force that sets the world in motion—is influential in Western philosophy for many reasons. The theory was later used to give logical credibility to Christianity, and it also began the philosophical discussion of causation, a theme that later interested Kant and Hume.
Aristotle believed that there was a correct way to live life. One could live a life of material pleasures, a life of responsible citizenship, or a life of intellectual pleasures. Aristotle concluded that only a combination of all three kinds of pleasure would be truly fulfilling. In general, Aristotle believed in the idea of balance and compromise.
Aristotle had a complex program of ethics, and Alberto only has a small amount of time to go over it with Sophie. The overarching idea, here and with Aristotle’s political thinking, is the concept of balance, or the “golden mean”—the best course of action, it would seem, usually aims for a combination of many different kinds of pleasure.
Aristotle also classified different kinds of societies, much like Plato. There are monarchies, ruled by a king, oligarchies, ruled by a small handful of people, and democracies, ruled by the masses. Each form of government has the potential to be successful or to fail.
Aristotle is interesting because he doesn’t accept that there’s any single kind of government that’s “best”—each kind has the potential to fail or succeed. In this way, Aristotle helps to challenge the conventional wisdom that kings “deserve” to lead, showing how philosophy can be a way to resist government and authority.
Aristotle’s views of women were less progressive than Plato’s—he considered women imperfect copies of men. Women, as far as he was concerned, were just “soil” to help men reproduce. Unfortunately, Aristotle’s ideas about women were so well-known that they echoed down through the Middle Ages. With this, the letter ends.
For all his contributions to philosophy, Aristotle’s theories of women seem particularly antiquated by modern standards. And yet this doesn’t mean that we should throw out all of Aristotle’s teachings—rather, we should deal with his thought in a nuanced, selective way.
Sophie’s reading of the letter influences her greatly. She decides to be neat and orderly in her thinking. She goes to feed her pet fish, telling them, “You belong to the animal kingdom.” She sneaks into her Mom’s room, where she finds her mother sleeping. She whispers to her mother, “You have the rare capacity of thought.” Mom wakes up, irritably, and tells Sophie to leave the room.
Sophie is clearly influenced by her discussions of Aristotle, showing that she’s willing to take his sexism with a grain of salt. It’s telling that Sophie whispers to her Mom as her Mom sleeps, instead of the other way around—this suggests that Sophie is becoming more adult and mature, while her mother is still rather childish.
Back in her room, Sophie begins putting together Alberto’s letters to form a single book on philosophy. She looks forward to her next letter, and ignores the fact that she has homework to do for school.
Sophie’s behavior shows where she puts her priorities—she has no patience for schoolwork, but rather finds more value and importance in her philosophical education. (It also helps that this philosophical education is accompanied by mysterious and fantastical circumstances.)