In the afternoon, Mom comes home from work and tells Sophie that another letter has arrived. Mom assumes that Sophie’s gotten a love letter from someone at school. Sophie doesn’t bother to correct her mother—she doesn’t know how to explain that she’s receiving letters from a philosopher.
It’s important to remember that Sophie keeps her education a secret from her mother. In large part, this is because Mom hasn’t shown any interest in philosophy so far—but she would also probably worry.
In her room, Sophie opens the envelope. Inside, she finds a small card with three questions on it: “Is there a basic substance that everything else is made of?”; “Can water turn into wine?”; “How can earth and water produce a live frog?” Sophie spends the next day of school thinking about these questions. She finds them odd at first, but gradually begins to think that it’s plausible that a frog could be made of earth and water in the right combination.
One can imagine that an older, less creative person would dismiss these questions—of course it’s impossible for a frog to be made from earth and water. Sophie, on the other hand, finds plausible elements in these ideas, even if she doesn’t exactly believe them. This is an important perspective from which to study the history of philosophy—even if we don’t literally believe a philosopher’s ideas, we can recognize some truth there.
When Sophie gets home from school, she finds a large envelope waiting for her. Inside, she finds a letter titled, “THE PHILOSOPHERS’ PROJECT.” The letter promises to go over—very quickly—the major changes in philosophy, from the ancient Greeks up to the present day.
Whoever is writing these letters has a conscious plan for Sophie’s education. He’s obviously put a lot of thought into teaching Sophie the history of Western philosophy, and this, in turn, becomes a lesson for us, the readers.
The letter begins by talking about the natural philosophers, often considered the earliest philosophers. Natural philosophers—many of them ancient Greeks—studied the natural world and its processes. The Greeks wondered how trees could grow from acorns, how fish could grow from tiny eggs, etc. One of the Greeks’ most basic assumptions about the world was that there had to be an essential substance from which all living things were made. Although many of the Greeks’ ideas about life seem ridiculous by modern standards, they’re still important to study—i.e., it’s important to think about the kinds of questions the Greeks asked about the world.
This passage is important because is establishes one of the guiding principles of Sophie’s education: respect the broad points of philosophical history without embracing their literal truth too enthusiastically. For example, Sophie might disagree with the idea that a fish can grow from nothing but water, but she can also respect the frame of mind that might produce this idea. Sophie has already demonstrated her ability to think in these terms, suggesting that she’ll be a good philosophy student.
One of the natural philosophers’ greatest achievements was liberating philosophy from religion. The ancient Greeks studied unique natural processes instead of crediting gods with causing every phenomenon. One important philosopher of this kind was Thales. Thales claimed that all things are made from water, either in solid, liquid, or gaseous form. Another philosopher was Anaximander, who believed that the world is made from a “boundless” substance that doesn't have any ordinary name. Finally, the philosopher Anaximenes, who modified Thales’ theory of water by claiming that water is itself made from condensed air. In short, the three philosophers believed that all things—even though they appear different—are really made of simpler substances.
This is a good example of the point that Sophie’s letter has been trying to make. We might find it absurd to think that the world is made out of water—and we might find it absurd that anyone ever believed that this could be the case. But there’s something plausible about the claim, considering that water can be solid, liquid, or gas—even if Thales didn’t have all the information, he was on the right track. One basic trend that we should identify here is that early philosophers believed the world to be made of the same “stuff” in different forms, suggesting that physical differences are illusions.
Another important problem that the ancient Greek natural philosophers studied was that of change. One important philosopher of this kind was Parmenides. Parmenides claimed that there is no such thing as change. Nature seems to be changing, but Parmenides claimed that this was only an illusion—because he’d used reason to prove that change was impossible, he refused to trust his senses. This confidence in thinking over experience is called rationalism. Another important philosopher was Heraclitus, who claimed that everything is in constant flux: even things that seem not to be changing at all are just changing very slowly. Heraclitus believed that there must be a being that controls the flux—something that makes sense of all the chaos. He called this being God or logos.
Parmenides is one of the key philosophers because he distinguishes between sensory impressions and rational ideas. Heraclitus, on the other hand, claims that the world is full of change, even if the change is coming very slowly. Heraclitus shows how easily the belief in God can enter a philosophical system—many of the philosophers of the ancient world, in spite of their stated desire to liberate thinking from religious frames of reference, believed in an all-powerful being—and indeed found that such a being was necessary to explain the universe.
Parmenides and Heraclitus disagreed in the most basic ways, the letter continues. One thought that change was impossible; the other thought change to be inevitable. It was Empedocles who tried to resolve the disagreement by proposing that nature was made of four different elements: earth, air, fire, and water. These four elements never change, but combinations of the elements are constantly changing—in this way, both Parmenides and Heraclitus were half-right. Empedocles believed that the four elements were constantly being mixed by the forces of love and hate.
One of the liveliest debates of the ancient world concerned the distinction between change and constancy. Philosophers like Parmenides made a basic distinction between what the world “appeared” to be, and what it truly was. In other words, they claimed that experiencing the world in the ordinary way wasn’t good enough for philosophy—one had to rely on wisdom, education, and philosophical training to “truly” understand things. This is practically the philosopher’s motto.
Another philosopher, Anaxagoras, believed that the world is made of tiny parts that are constantly intermingling. One consequence of this is that everything “contains” everything else—for example, even a dry, dusty rock contains a small amount of water. Anaxagoras is important not only because of his thinking, but because he moved to Athens at the age of 40, establishing Athens as an important city for philosophy.
This is a history of the ideas of Western philosophy, but this doesn’t mean that it’s an abstract, nebulous story. On the contrary, Sophie’s letters take pains to situate all of the history of philosophy in a real-world environment—thus, we learn that many of the great philosophical achievements of the ancient world were only made possible by the existence of a stable, economically prosperous city like Athens.
The letter ends. Sophie is confused, and has to read through the letter a few times before she’s fully understood everything. Parmenides interests her, because his logic seems sound: it’s logically impossible for something to transform into something completely different, even if such a phenomenon seems to be happening all the time. Parmenides trusted his mind, even though his senses told him exactly the opposite. Sophie doesn’t believe, as Empedoclesdid, that the world is made of four elements, but she respects Empedocles and his peers for trying to answer basic questions about the universe.
It’s important that we’re told that Sophie has to reread the letter a few times (there’s no way to convey rereading in a book, but the author wants us to know that it’s okay to read his novel slowly and carefully, backtracking as need be). It’s interesting to see Sophie trying to make sense of so many different thinkers’ ideas so improbably quickly—but of course, the whole novel depends on this kind of fast-forward thinking.