Sophie goes downstairs and finds a white envelope waiting in the mailbox. She’s getting the hang of the pattern of her letters: every afternoon, she gets a big envelope, and later in the day she receives a smaller envelope, giving her a “sneak peek” of what’s coming tomorrow.Today, Sophie finds that her letter consists of a strange question: “Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world?” Sophie thinks about this for a while. Lego is fun because while Legos themselves are simple—just little pieces of interchangeable plastic—they can be used to build anyshape.
It’s not always possible to see where the letters are leading Sophie next, thus creating a little suspense in a story that otherwise could be very dry. From our perspective, the letters’ unanswered questions build a sense of excitement that approximates the sense of wonder that, we’ve already been told, is crucial to philosophy.
The next day, Sophie finds a letter waiting for her. The letter is titled, “THE ATOM THEORY.” It begins by discussing Democritus, the Greek natural philosopher who proposed the theory of atoms. Democritus proposed that an atom is a unit of space that’s too small to be divided in half. He agreed with Parmenides that the building blocks of nature couldn’t change. But he also claimed that each atom was different—some atoms were smooth; others were rough, etc. This explained the external differences between people. Furthermore, atoms would eventually detach themselves and “float on” to form something new—not unlike Legos.
Democritus’s ideas are both incredibly modern and thoroughly anachronistic—he coined the term “Atom” but didn’t really describe the atoms that we think of today (for that matter, we’ve only known to a certainty that atoms exist for about 115 years!).We also realize why the letter asked Sophie about Legos—like Legos, atoms are the “building blocks” of the universe.
The letter continues to describe Democritus’ ideas. Democritus claimed that there was no such thing as a soul or a force of the kind that Empedocles hypothesized—the only real things were, in short, things; i.e., material objects. Interestingly, much of Democritus’s theory has turned out to be true: the world is made of atoms of different kinds (hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, etc.), and over time atoms mix in new combinations to form new things.
Democritus may not have been much of a scientist, but his theory of atoms is certainly relevant to the modern world. Furthermore, his idea that the only real “things” are physical objects seems very modern as well—for many, belief in the soul or the spirit has been drowned out by the study of neurology and medicine.
Sophie finds some of Democritus ideas silly, but she’s interested to learn that he distrusted the idea of a spirit force. Sophie isn’t sure if she believes in the idea of spirit or not. She peers out the window, trying to search for the person who’s been placing letters in her mailbox. But she sees no one.
Sophie isn’t willing to commit to any one of the thinkers she reads about. In part, this is because Sophie is a stand-in for the reader: it’s up to us to decide what parts of philosophy we believe in, and therefore Sophie needs to keep an open mind on our behalf.