On Monday, Sophie notices a small postcard lying on the sidewalk outside her house. The postcard, stamped from Lebanon, is addressed to Hilde Møller Knag, via Sophie Amundsen. It’s dated June 15—Sophie’s own birthday. The postcard greets Hilde and congratulates her on her 15th birthday. It also mentions that Hilde lost her wallet. Sophie can’t understand who’s sending Hilde these postcards, or why anyone would send their daughter postcards via another girl.
The mystery builds, as Sophie can’t make sense of the letters she’s receiving from Lebanon. The fact that she receives a letter from Lebanon at all suggests that the scope of this novel is getting wider and wider—we’re no longer confined to Sophie’s den; rather, we’re on a more global stage. It’s also telling that the letter is dated June 15th—a date that hasn’t yet arrived.
Sophie realizes that she’s late to meet Joanna at the supermarket. When she arrives, Joanna is annoyed, and accuses Sophie of meeting her boyfriend. Then Joanna and Sophie go to school, where they take a quiz on religious knowledge. On her quiz, Sophie writes about Socrates and his resemblance to Jesus. She also writes about the plurality of religious beliefs in the world. To conclude, she writes that philosophy is more valuable than grammar.After class, Sophie’s teacher praises her for her intelligent answers to the quiz, but also suggests that Sophie isn’t really doing her homework at all.
As Sophie proceeds with her education, the banality of her friends’ lives (and her own old life) becomes increasingly apparent. Joanna isn’t a bad person, but she seems relentlessly normal—interested mostly in boys. Sophie, by contrast, is interested in ideas, showing that she’s taken Alberto’s lessons to heart. There’s more than a little arrogance apparent in Sophie’s behavior, however—she knows she’s smarter (or “wiser”) than her peers.
When Sophie gets home, she finds another letter waiting for her: “HELLENISM.” Albertowrites that he will describe philosophy between the death of Aristotle to the beginning of the Middle Ages, i.e., the Hellenistic period. Aristotle’s pupil, Alexander the Great, built a huge empire for Greece. This empire spread Greek learning across the world, well into Asia. Aristotle and Plato became very well-known.
Although Aristotle believed in the importance of balance and education, his most famous student, Alexander, launched a bloody program of empire-building that lasted until Alexander’s death. One could say that Alexander’s behavior was an insult to Aristotle’s philosophy; one could also say that his empire-building popularized Aristotle for generations, ensuring that Aristotle’s lessons influenced impressionable youths all over Europe and Asia.
During the Hellenistic period, no philosopher emerged to rival Plato or Aristotle. However, there were important philosophical schools during this time, such as the Cynics. The Cynics claimed that happiness depends on transcending the random, unpredictable world. A truly happy man wouldn’t worry about his health or even physical pain—his mental serenity would save him. Cynics lived simple, impoverished lives.
From the vantage point of the 20th century, it seems fair to say that no philosopher during the Hellenistic period could rival Plato or Aristotle—but perhaps the same will one day be said of the modern era. The word “cynical” comes from the Cynics.
Another similar group of philosophers at the time were the Stoics. The Stoics believed in the principle of universal law; i.e., they thought that the same rules of existence governed all human beings, whether they were slaves or kings. One of the Stoics most important contributions was the idea of monism—the idea that there is no real difference between spirit and matter at all.The Stoics were worldlier than the Cynics, but they celebrated the mind’s power over pain and suffering in much the same way.
The Stoics were unique in the way they celebrated the power of the mind over the body. They also popularized monism, an idea that remained important to philosophical thought for many centuries. Alberto doesn’t spend a great deal of time reviewing the details of Stoicism; his emphasis is on the Stoics’ lasting contributions to philosophy.(The word “stoic” also comes from the Stoics.)
Another important group of Hellenistic philosophers were the Epicureans. These philosophers believed that the only true morality was the avoidance of pain, just as the source of happiness was pleasure. Pleasure, however, didn’t have to mean sensual pleasure—the contemplation of ideas could be pleasurable, too. The Epicureans also embraced the virtues of friendship. Over time, however, the Epicureans became more and more sensual in their pleasures—even today, “epicurean” means someone who’s a little too concerned with living for pleasure.
The Epicureans are interesting for the way they reinterpret Socrates, who believed that humans have a natural capacity for doing and achieving good. For the Epicureans, pleasure and goodness are one and the same. And yet, in Alberto’s view, Epicureanism goes too far in celebrating pleasure for its own sake. This teaches Sophie a valuable lesson—balance physical pleasure with the pleasure of the intellect.
Another philosophical school was Neo-Platonism. The philosopher Plotinus proposed that man is a dual creature: half body, half soul. Like Plato, Plotinus believed in the importance of contemplating the world of ideas. And yet Plotinus went further than Plato in celebrating the mystical, non-scientific side of the intellect. The mystical side of life, Plotinus believed, could be divided into two opposite poles of light and darkness, or God and anti-God.
Many of the philosophers of the Hellenistic era distinguish between the physicality of the human body and the boundlessness of the human mind. There’s a strong mystical, even magical, element to this idea, showing that philosophy, for all its emphasis on causation and logic, doesn’t entirely abandon the tone of religion and mythology.
Plotinus brings Alberto to an important topic—mysticism. Many thinkers over the centuries have studied mysticism and incorporated it into their writings. One associates mysticism with the idea of “losing oneself”—losing consciousness of one’s body and even one’s mind. The mystic, in many different religious and philosophical traditions, must pursue enlightenment through study or “purification.” In many religions, for example, such as Judaism or Islam, the mystic contemplates his personal relationship with a literal, all-powerful God. In Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, the mystic’s contemplation tends to center around a more abstract, universal version of God, a “cosmic spirit.” One of the overarching ideas of mysticism across all traditions is that individuality is an illusion—we are all united together, and we may be united with God.
Alberto takes great care to establish that philosophy, for all the attention it pays to reason and scientific explanation, doesn’t take the “magic” out of life. On the contrary, philosophers throughout history have been quick to admit that there are certain aspects of the universe that reason is powerless to understand. For example, in Buddhism, there’s a state of nothingness which only a select few (such as the Buddha himself) are privileged to experience. This is an important point to keep in mind as we move into the history of the Age of Enlightenment.
The letter ends, and Sophie tries to understand the feeling of mysticism. She closes her eyes, and feels that the entire universe is really just a version of herself—just a big “I.” This is a glorious feeling. Sophie opens her eyes and sees the beautiful colors of the world. She senses that there is a divine soul within her.
Sophie, for her part, seems eager to embrace the sense of mysticism that Alberto has just explained to her. As we already knew, she’s not sure if she believes in the soul or not, and yet in this scene, she feels a strong sense that the soul, or spirit, is a real thing. Sophie’s ability to accept the truth of concepts (such as the soul) for which there is no literal or material proof parallels her ability to find “truth” in works of fiction like the Norse legends.