Later in the day, Sophie finds a small letter waiting for her, next to the stack of letters she’s received from the philosopher already. In the letter, the philosopher apologizes for being unable to see Sophie in person. He tells Sophie that from now on, he’ll be unable to even deliver his letters in person. He also tells Sophie that if she finds a silk scarf, she should take care of it—it’s someone’s “personal property.” The letter is signed, “Alberto Knox.” The letter also includes the usual questions for Sophie to ponder, among them—“Is there such a thing as natural modesty?” Finally, Alberto tells Sophie that if she wants to send him anything, she should place her letter in a pink envelope, with a cookie or sugar cube on top.
Sophie doesn’t succeed in meeting her mystery man yet, but she learns his name at least. Little by little, Sophie is making progress with her mystery man—mirroring the progress she’s making in her philosophical education. Notably, this week’s lessons focus less on pseudo-scientific questions (“is the world made of water?”, for example)and more on matters of ethics and morality. As Gaarder continues to show, philosophy is a very broad subject, and not just for ivory tower academics.
Sophie thinks about her letter. She’s glad to know the name of the man who’s been educating her, though she’s also disappointed not to have coffee with him. She isn’t sure if modesty (i.e., shyness about one’s body or one’s self) can be natural—perhaps it’s learned over time.
As usual, Sophie has some open-minded responses to her questions, but her responses encourage debate rather tothan trying to end it (it’s also worth noting that she’s basically being taught in the Socratic method—named after the famous philosopher Socrates).
The next day, a Labrador arrives outside Sophie’s house, carrying an envelope in its mouth. This, Sophie realizes, is Alberto’s messenger. Sophie opens the envelope, entitled “THE PHILOSOPHY OF ATHENS,” and reads.
The history of Athens is crucial in modern philosophy. Many of the fields of philosophy that we take for granted today, like ethics and epistemology, began in Athens.
The letter begins by introducing Sophie to Hermes, the Labrador. Then, the letter dives into a history of Athens—the center of ancient Greek culture. For many years, the most influential thinkers in Athens were the Sophists, wandering teachers and philosophers who made their living by tutoring young citizens of the city. Sophists like Protagoras focused on the question of man’s place in society, rather than the nature of the material universe (like Thales and the natural philosophers). Sophists were also skeptics—i.e., they questioned everything, including mythology and even most philosopher. Sophists were widely criticized for using their skepticism to suggest that there was no such thing as right and wrong.
Hermes was the messenger god of the Greeks—appropriate for the mail-delivering dog. The Sophists can be said to have focused philosophy less on questions of science and more on matters of politics and day-to-day conduct. By modern standards, this is more or less the direction philosophy has taken ever since: questions about the structure of the universe increasinglynow fall under the umbrella of science, not philosophy. (If “Sophist” sounds similar to “Sophie,” that’s because “sofia” means knowledge or wisdom in Greek—further evidence that Sophie herself is a kind of allegorical character, a stand-in for the reader as philosophy student.)
One of the most influential philosophers in Athens was Socrates (470-399 B.C.), whose ideas were recorded by his student, Plato. Socrates argued that people already knew philosophical truths—they just had to “remember” this knowledge. Socrates’ job, then, was to ask the right questions of his students and peers, forcing them to get in touch with their innate wisdom. In 399, Socrates was brought before the government and accused of corrupting youth with his wild ideas. The government didn’t like that Socrates questioned traditional sources of information, like mythology. Socrates was found guilty of corrupting youth. Rather than agreeing to leave Athens, Socrates killed himself by drinking a poison called hemlock.
Socrates is an interesting figure because of his modesty—unlike most intelligent people, he refused to admit how intelligent he was. Paradoxically, Socrates’ very modesty (his refusal to credit himself with any real power or mental ingenuity) made him more, not less, dangerous to the government of Athens. Simply by asking the right questions, Socrates could challenge all sorts of conventional narratives, such as the stories of the Greek gods. (And his teaching method also echoes Alberto’s own.)
The letter explains more about Socrates. Unlike the sophists, Socrates didn’t claim any great knowledge of the world—on the contrary, he claimed he knew nothing. As a result, he wouldn’t accept money for his teachings. A philosopher, the letter claims, is someone who knows that he knows nothing, and is troubled by it. Socrates acknowledged that he knew nothing about the world. But he tried to use questioning to determine some things about the world.
This is an important passage because it reiterates the proper philosophical mindset. The idea of being certain about the world, Alberto suggests, is toxic to philosophy: the only wise person is one who acknowledges that he or she knows next to nothing about the world.
Socrates tried to argue that it was impossible to be happy while acting against one’s better judgment. People have an innate sense of right and wrong, and they can’t live in peace knowing they’ve done wrong.
Socrates’ legacy was to introduce the study of the Good into philosophy—he argued that philosophy should try to teach people how to live, not just how to study the universe. This is one of the basic assumptions of Sophie’s own education under Alberto.
Sophie finishes the letter. She mentions Socrates to her Mom, and her Mom is impressed. Sophie casually explains the difference between sophists and philosophers—sophists are like schoolteachers, forcing superfluous information down students’ throats, even though they don’t really know anything. Mom asks Sophie who her boyfriend is, suggesting that he sounds “disturbed.”
This is an important letter because it addresses the different ways of studying philosophy. There’s a danger that philosophers can become too self-satisfied and arrogant with their knowledge (like Sophie herself was after her first “lesson”). It’s further suggested that being continually wowed by the world is more important than having specific information about the world—this, in essence, is the difference between Sophie and her Mom.