Another week passes before Sophie hears from Alberto again. On May 25, she hears a tapping at her window—there’s a postcard stuck to the window. Sophie opens her window to retrieve the card. It’s been dated June 15, and is addressed to Hilde. Hilde’s father tells Hilde that they have a lot to talk about. He also mentions that he can hardly believe that Lebanon is the seat of so much conflict between religions, since the three monotheistic religions all stem from the same prophet, Abraham.
By this point in the book, it’s clear that Hilde’s father is somehow “listening” to Sophie’s interactions with Alberto—he may not be present when Sophie reads Alberto’s letters, but he knows what they’re talking about (here, for example, he times his comments about monotheism in Lebanon to correspond to Sophie’s lessons about Christianity). This intensifies our sense of Hilde’s father as a god-figure.
The phone rings, and Sophie answers it. Alberto Knox is on the phone—he greets Sophie by name. He tells Sophie that they must meet in person so that they can “attract Hilde’s attention.” Sophie agrees to meet Alberto at a nearby church the next morning. Sophie goes to sleep at Joanna’s house so that she can sneak to the church without worrying her Mom. She explains to Joanna that she’ll be waking up early to go out, but doesn’t say where.
For the time being, Sophie is still a young woman. Even though she’s slowly learning that her world is a fantastical place, she has to abide by the rules her mother sets—for example, that she can’t be out of the house past a certain hour of the night. As the book goes on, we’ll see Sophie paying less heed to her mother’s dictums.
The next morning, Sophie goes to the churchyard, where she finds a figure dressed in monk’s clothes. The figure, Sophie realizes, is Alberto Knox. Alberto begins telling Sophie about the history of the Middle Ages. During this time, Christianity largely replaced Greek philosophy as the source of knowledge and enlightenment in the Western world. The Middle Ages lasted almost 1,000 years. During this time, the first universities were founded, modern nation-states were formed, and a whole cultural tradition of chivalry and quests was born. The Middle Ages have a reputation for being gloomy and dark, but in fact, they were a time of great intellectual development in Europe—a time when Christianity worked out many of its internal contradictions and became the dominant cultural force on the continent.
In Sophie’s first real interaction with Alberto, she learns about the Middle Ages—and almost nothing about Alberto himself, who remains as mysterious as ever. The Middle Ages were a particularly important period of Western history, because, as Alberto stresses, this is the time when Europe works out some of the contradictions between Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian values.
During the Middle Ages, Alberto goes on, much of Plato and Aristotle was forgotten, though some of it survived. Important thinkers of the period, such as Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.), tried to unite Greek philosophy with Christian teachings. Augustine argued that the world of ideas hypothesized by Plato was really the world of God. He also agreed with Plato that humans have souls that live forever, though he thought that the soul would either go to Heaven or Hell. In a way, Augustine returned to the old belief in fate: he said that God was all-powerful, and could send people to Heaven or Hell at will. But he also accepted that God created man with free will—the ability to make unique, unpredictable choices, independent of God’s control.
One of the key figures who reconciled Aristotle and Plato with Christ was Saint Augustine. As Sophie recognizes, Augustine returns philosophy to a belief in Fate. And yet this isn’t the whole picture: Augustine also makes room for individual agency. He shows that human beings have the freedom to make their own decisions, even though there’s an all-powerful God who controls everything in the universe. One might well ask, then, if Sophie is free to control her own actions, or if she, too, is controlled by Hilde’s all-powerful father.
One of Augustine’s key ideas was the City of God(also the title of one of his most famous books). Augustine believed that in order to enact God’s plan on Earth, humans should establish institutions to enforce Christianity. In this way, Augustine paved the way for the Catholic church and the Vatican—the self-styled voice of God on earth.
Augustine is a political philosopher as well as a theologian. Although Sophie’s World often seems more interested in philosophers’ ideas about reality and subjectivity than in their political beliefs (usually, Alberto only discusses political philosophy toward the ends of his lessons), it’s also important to bear in mind these philosophers’ models of proper ad improper authority.
Sophie says that she needs to get going soon, but Alberto begs to tell her about the other great Medieval philosopher, Saint Thomas Aquinas. After Augustine’s death, the Catholic church came to monopolize education in Europe—to be educated was to study the Bible. Most towns in Europe built churches, where the people of the town would go every Sunday to listen to a priest speak about Christianity. By the 12th century, however, a new force had appeared in Europe—Arab scholarship. Arabs in Italy and Spain reintroduced lost texts by Plato and Aristotle into the Western canon. This created a new interest in Augustine’s project of uniting Classical thinking with Christianity. The most important thinker of the time who embarked on such a project was Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas is important to Western philosophy for much the same reason that Augustine is important: he reconciled much of Greek thought with Christian teaching. Considering some of the comments that Alberto and Sophie have made about what does and doesn’t qualify as “Western” thought, we should note that a big chunk of Greek philosophy (the quintessential “Western” philosophy) has only survived to the present day because it was preserved in Arabian scholarship. In short, Western philosophy has always been heavily dependent on non-Western cultures.
Aquinas was instrumental in reconciling Aristotle and Plato with Christianity. Parts of life, Aquinas argued, can be understood with reason and reason alone—for this, we need Aristotle and Plato. But other parts of thehuman experience can only be grasped with faith—this is where Christianity comes in. In some ways, Aquinas argued, Aristotle actually paved the way for Christianity without knowing it. For example, his concept of a God—a “first cause”—works as a valid explanation for the existence of a Christian God, even if Aristotle didn’t intend it as such.
This is a good example of the kind of work that Augustine and Aquinas conducted during their lifetimes: i.e., an example of how these thinkers united Aristotle with the Bible. This involves saying that Aristotle was a wise man, but didn’t entirely understand what he was saying; he recognized that there was something that created the universe, but he didn’t recognize that this “thing” was the Christian god (and indeed couldn’t, because Christ hadn’t been born yet).
As Alberto falls silent, Sophie asks him about Hilde. Alberto replies, “We don’t know whether there is a ‘Hilde’ at all.” Sophie finds this strange, especially since Alberto wanted to meet her to discuss Hilde. Alberto suggests that Hilde’s father is planting clues of her presence—a wallet, a scarf, etc. Sophie agrees, but tells Alberto that she must get going.
Alberto states what we’d already suspected: Hilde’s father is acting like a kind of God, planting clues of Hilde’s presence throughout Sophie’s world. Once again Alberto shows that he knows more about what’s going on than he’s willing to say.
Before Sophie leaves, Alberto tells her something more about the relationship between Aristotle and Aquinas. Aquinas tried to broaden Aristotle’s classification of human beings as compared to animals. For Aquinas, angels must also be part of Aristotle’s taxonomy of life. Aquinas also adopted Aristotle’s view of women, i.e., that they were a lesser form of life. However, he argued that the inferiority of women to men was limited to the body—women’s souls, on the other hand, were equal to men’s.
Another important point about the Middle Ages—especially for Sophie—is the relationship between Christianity and women. Again, it’s important to recognize that Christianity was progressive in some ways, while still treating women as inferior to men—in spite of beliefs about women’s physicaland mental inferiority, they were granted the same reward as men in Heaven.
Sophie asks Alberto if there were any female philosophers in the Middle Ages. Alberto mentions one, Hildegard of Bingen. Sophie finds this name interesting, since it resembles Hilde’s name.Hildegard, Alberto explains, believed that the soul was divided into a male and a female side—in Greek, the female side is called wisdom, or “sofia.” Sophie is delighted to learn that her name means wisdom. Alberto explains that Hildegard dreamed that she had a conversation with Sophia—the embodiment of the female wisdom. Sophie suggests that perhaps she, Sophie, will reveal herself to Hilde, just as “Sophia” revealed herself to “Hildegard.” In response, Alberto tells Sophie that she should be getting back.
Hildegard of Bingen (whose name, we recognize, sounds an awful lot like “Hilde”) is an important figure for Sophie (whose name sounds an awful lot like “sofia”) because her example shows that it’s possible for a woman to be a philosopher (something that was by no means obvious from the earlier history of Western thought). Sophie seems to be subscribing to a kind of “prophecy” in this scene—without any proof, she believes that she’ll interact with Hilde at some point in the future.Once again, Sophie betrays her irrational, mystical side.
Before Sophie leaves, she asks Alberto if there was anyone named Alberto during the Middle Ages. Alberto replies that Aquinas had a teacher named Albert the Great. With these words, he bows to Sophie and walks away. As Sophie walks out of the church, she notices a picture of the Madonna, and finds a small drop of water under the Madonna’s eyes—perhaps a tear.
As Sophie learns more about the history of philosophy, she finds more and more counterparts between her life and the lives of philosophers of the past. This suggests again that there’s a god-figure who’s controlling and ordering her life—ensuring, for example, that her philosophical mentor has the same name as Aquinas’s teacher.