It’s almost midnight, and Hilde sits in her room, reading. She tries to write using the “free association” techniques that Freud pioneered. She wonders if she’s repressing anything important. She also wonders what Alberto is planning to do to her father. She considers reading the final page of the book, but chooses not to—that would be cheating.
This is a funny section, because Gaarder seems to be talking directly to his readers without actually addressing them. Gaarder is telling his readers not to skip ahead to the end of the book, so as not to ruin the surprise!
Hilde falls asleep and wakes up the next morning. She remembers a dream she had, in which her father returned from Lebanon. In the dream, Hilde crosses paths with Sophie, who’s carrying Hilde’sgold crucifix. At the end of her dream, Hilde embraces her father.
The meaning of Hilde’s dream is by no means clear (that’s part of the point), but certainly Hilde and Sophie are still inextricably linked, as shown by their joint possession of the gold crucifix.
Hilde’s mother enters the room and wishes her good morning. She tells Hilde she’ll be home around 4 pm. When Hilde is alone again, she resumes reading Sophie’s World. In the book, Sophie has left the major’s cabin. She tries to “hold the major’s attention,” as Alberto instructed her. She jumps around, yodels, and climbs a tall tree, only to find that she can’t climb back down. Suddenly, a goose appears before Sophie. The goose introduces itself as Morten, and explains that it flew here from Lebanon. Morten claims to have carried a 14-year-old boy named Nils across the sky. Sophie asks Morten how he managed to carry someone so heavy. Morten claims that he slapped Nils, causing him to become “no bigger than a thumb.” Sophie ignores the goose, saying that she has a philosophicalgarden party to organize.
This passage is borderline unintelligible to anyone who didn’t grow up in Scandinavia, where The Adventures of Nils is a popular children’s book. Suffice it to say that Nils and Morten are beloved children’s book characters, as well-known in their country as the Cat in the Hat is in the United States.
Morten, undeterred, tells Sophie that an old woman was planning to write a book about Nils’s adventures. Morten claims that this is ironic, since he and Nils “were already in that book.” In this instant, Sophie feels someone slap her, and she becomes “no bigger than a thumb.” Now, she’s flying on a goose’s back, looking down at the trees and houses. Eventually, Morten lands, and Sophie realizes that she’s grown back to her full size. She thanks Morten for bringing her down from the tree, and Morten says, “A mere bagatelle.” Morten tells Sophie he would have liked to show her the rest of Europe—in other words,to give her the same education he gave Nils, years ago. With these words, Morten flies away.
Morten carries Sophie through the sky, much as Alberto and Albert could be said to carry Sophie through the complex terrain of Western philosophy. The similarities between Morten and Alberto / Albert are then underscored by Morten’s parting words to Sophie, “A mere bagatelle,” which we recognize as Alberto’s modest catchphrase for Sophie. Gaarder also throws in some more meta-fictional jokes here, as Morten and Nils realize that they too are in a book.
Sophie is back in her home. She and Mom prepare for Sophie’s garden party the next day. Mom asks Sophie if Alberto is planning to come to the party, and Sophie says he’ll be there. The next morning, Alberto calls Sophie and tells her that his “secret plan” is going well. He tells Sophie to meet him in Café Pierre, a café in the center of town.
We’re not sure what Alberto is planning, or even what he couldbe planning without Albert’s knowledge. It’s suggested that Alberto is evading Albert’s authority by operating out of Albert’s subconscious, but there’s no indication that Alberto is even anything but a part of Albert’s subconscious.
At the Café Pierre, Sophie waits for Alberto. She feels like a real adult—older than her years. The people in the café seem dull and trivial to her—aesthetes, to use Kierkegaard’s phrase. Suddenly, Alberto enters the room, wearing a black beret and a beautiful old coat. Alberto apologizes for being late and tells Sophie that they’re going to talk about modern philosophy.
At the beginning of this novel, Sophie was a shy young girl, more comfortable in her den than in public. Now, Sophie doesn’t think twice about surveying a crowd and criticizing it for being full of aesthetes (which seems like an arrogant thing to say about people she’s never met before, and shows that she’s not immune to the hubris that comes with knowledge).
One important strain of modern philosophy, Alberto begins, is existentialism. Existentialism is the belief that man’s existential situation must be the starting point for any system of thought. Before Alberto unpacks this difficult concept, he gives some of the history of existentialism. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was an important philosopher, because he believed that the modern world was too subservient to Christian morality, which he termed a “slave morality.” Nietzsche wanted to reformulate morality to reflect the “real world” of man’s existence.
It’s a pity that Alberto doesn’t have more time to discuss Friedrich Nietzsche (who’s just as deserving of an entire chapter devoted to his philosophy as Kierkegaard or Hegel). But at this point, it becomes harder to group philosophy into manageable units, such as Romanticism, Enlightenment, etc. Even Existentialism, the dominant “theme” of this lesson, is a loosely understood philosophical school, encompassing a far more diverse array of philosophers than its predecessors.
One of the key Existentialists was Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). His life-long friend and companion was Simone de Beauvoir. Sophie is glad to hear that Alberto is finally talking about a female philosopher. Sartre started from the premise that “Existentialism is humanism.” By this, Sartre meant that Existentialism begins by assuming that “God is dead”—a phrase that comes from Nietzsche. In the absence of a God, humanity is forced to come to terms with its own existence.
One sign that philosophy seems to be making progress over time its embrace of female thinkers. Simone de Beauvoir made contributions to feminism, phenomenology, and more., and she’s by no means the only modern philosopher who did so. (One could mention Butler, Sedgwick, or Kristeva, too.)
Alberto tries to clarify what Sartre meant when he claimedthat “existence precedes essence.” Sartre believed that humans exist in a different sense than a rock or a tree exists—humans are self-conscious. This means that humans don’t have an “essence” in the same way that a tree or a rock has an essence—they don’t have essential properties or characteristics that determine everything they do. Because humans don’t have these built-in properties, they have to “create” themselves—they have to decide what kind of lives they want to lead, and what kind of nature they want to have.Before Sartre, philosophers tried to explain human nature. Sartre, by contrast, didn’t believe that human nature was real—it is man’s fate to do whatever he wants. Alberto makes an analogy: Sartre thinks that humanity is like a troupe of actors without a script or stage directions. Sophie thinks she understands what Alberto means.
Sartre’s philosophy contradicts much of what we’ve been discussing in this book so far. Unlike Enlightenment or even Romantic philosophers (let alone Plato and Aristotle), Sartre doesn’t believe that it’s productive to begin a discussion of humanity by talking about its essence—i.e., its biological construction, its perceptual capabilities, or any definition of “human nature.” Note that this doesn’tmean that Sartre doesn’t believe that it’s important to discuss these concepts—it’s just that they can’t be weighed more highly than the fundamental fact of mankind’s existence. Alberto’s example of how this works in practice (that humans are like actors with no script) reminds us that in this novel, especially, “all the world’s a stage.”
Alberto admits that Sartre’s view of life can be depressing. And yet Sartre wasn’t a nihilist—he refused to believe that things have no meaning at all. Instead, Sartre believed that life must have a meaning—it’s just that humans have to choose this meaning for themselves.
To Sartre, even nihilism is a form of universalism (i.e., “everything is meaningless”), and thus a contradiction of Existentialism. In a way, Sartre is even more committed to the concept of freedom than his predecessors—he wants each human being to find his or her own freedom. This idea also seems relevant to the novel. Sophie has accepted that she exists only in the pages of a book, so now she must go about finding freedom and meaning within the parameters of that reality.
Sartre was interested in questions of perception andconsciousness. He argued that we each perceive the world in a different way, according to our own thoughts and emotions. For example, a woman who is pregnant might think that she sees lots of pregnant women around her; an escaped criminal might imagine that he sees police officers all around him. Albertothen admits that he was late for his meeting with Sophie on purpose, because hewanted Sophie to look around the crowd in the café.
Alberto wants Sophie to become aware of her own changing thought processes. This is an important point to bear in mind, because it suggests that Sophie herself might be projecting onto the other members of the crowd, and assuming that she is more enlightened than the people around her.
Alberto goes on to describe the writings of Simone de Beauvoir, an Existentialist who tried to merge Sartre’s ideas with feminism. De Beauvoir argued that the supposed differences between men and women are illusions—there is no “women’s nature,” just as there is no human nature. Sophie is attracted to this idea.
De Beauvoir’s ideas were widely criticized at the time because they seemed to contradict biological facts. But this wasn’t quite de Beauvoir’s point: she wasn’t saying that there are no biological differences between men and women, but that there is no innately feminine way of perceivingthe world, contrary to what’s often assumed (for example, “woman’s intuition”).
Alberto describes the influence of Existentialism on literature. Writers like Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett wrote plays and novels that evoked “the absurd,” i.e., that which is meaningless or irrational. The purpose of these literary works was to show that life, as we experience it, has no inherent meaning—we have to create this meaning for ourselves. Often in a work of absurdist theater, a character finds himself trapped in a bizarre, dreamlike situation, and yet doesn’t react with surprise or confusion.
Like Darwin and Freud, Sartre’s philosophical ideas weren’t only influential in the world of philosophy; they also had a profound influence on Western art and literature. Gaarder presents Camus as primarily a fiction writer, but he was also a philosopher who was arguably as influential as Sartre, and developed the philosophy of Absurdism.
Alberto buys a Coke for Sophie and a coffee for himself. When he’s purchased both items, he tells Sophie, “That brings us to the end of the road.” There are many other strains of philosophy in the world today, such as Neo-Thomism (philosophy which parallels the ideas of Thomas Aquinas) and logical empiricism (philosophy in the tradition of Hume).Marxism is still alive and well in the world. Finally, scientists and philosophers continue to debate what matter itself really is.
Alberto is too wise to claim that Sophie is now “educated” in all of Western philosophy. The purpose of this book hasn’t been to give a total summary of Western thinking; rather, it’s aimed to convey some of the narrative sweep of philosophy’s history: for example, to show how Enlightenment influenced Romanticism, or how Romanticism influenced the rise of Existentialism.
Although philosophers continue to argue over many of the same questions that puzzled Socrates and Plato thousands of years ago, there are also some new problems that philosophers try to solve. Philosophy now studies animal rights, environmental decay, etc.Albertosuggests that the world might have arrived at the “end of history”—a period in which there are no wars or violent conflicts. Of course, it’s also possible that civilization is on the cusp of a new age.
Throughout the book, Alberto has been trying to refute the idea that philosophy is a useless endeavor. Here, he shows the ways that philosophy, far from being useless, is intimately engaged with the problems of the real, contemporary world.
Alberto and Sophie walk down the street. As they walk by a store, Sophie sees something on TV—footage of a UN soldier waving a sign, “Back soon, Hilde!” Alberto mutters, “Charlatan.”Alberto and Sophie keep walking, and eventually come to a bookstore. In the back, they find the “New Age” section, full of tarot cards, UFO photographs, etc. Alberto tells Sophie that this place is the “temple of our age.” Alberto claims that the belief in the supernatural, as seen in a place like the New Age bookstore, is mostly nonsense—the kind of “figment of the imagination” that Hume would have dismissed. Sophie tells Alberto that he’s being unusually harsh. Alberto admits that not all psychics and mystics are frauds—they certainly believe that they can predict the future. He promises to keep an open mind on all questions of mysticism, acknowledging that all exciting new ideas appear to be magic, at least at first. Before they leave the bookstore, Sophie notices a book called Sophie’s World.
It’s impressive that Alberto has concealed his distaste for mysticism and occultism for so long—it’s as if he’s been withholding his own opinions so that he can be a truly impartial teacher (this would suggest that his duties as a teacher are now concluded). Alberto and Sophie could be said to represent the two sides of Western philosophy: the former rigid, scientific, and eminently rational; the latter sensitive, intuitive, and mystical. Sophie seems more willing than Alberto to believe in the existence of spirituality and mysticism. Once again Gaarder plays with reality by placing the book “Sophie’s World” as a physical object even within the world of Sophie’s World.