Sophie wakes up early the next morning and immediately remembers the video she watched yesterday. The first question Plato asked her was about baking 50 identical cookies. Sophie decides that cookies can’t be truly identical—there are always small differences between them. And yet if a baker uses the same mold to make the cookies, the cookies will be close to identical.
Sophie is a good, intuitive thinker, and she gets to the heart of Alberto’s question right away. Alberto has introduced a somewhat new theme to philosophy—the concept of what is and isn’t perfect. This idea will become important as we study Plato and later the Christian thinkers.
Sophie wonders what Plato meant when he asked if horses could be identical. She wonders if the same goes for horses and cookies—i.e., if they’re made from a kind of “mold.” Then, she wonders if the soul is immortal—perhaps there is an immortal soul that operates independent of the body. Finally, she tries to understand what Plato meant about men and women being sensible, but can’t. Then she remembers something from Alberto’s letter—Socrates claimed that all people have the same innate sense of wisdom. In this way, Sophie guesses, Socrates would probably argue that men and women are equally sensible.
In the Greek philosophers, there’s a strong sense that wisdom doesn’t necessarily correspond to education and knowledge. Especially for Plato and Socrates, it’s implied that the ideal “wise human being” is one who accepts her own lack of knowledge. In this sense, Sophie is an ideal student of philosophy: she has an innate sense of curiosity and wonder that Alberto must try to feed.
Outside, Sophie hears a dog panting. She finds Hermes, bearing an envelope. Sophie takes the envelope, then tries to follow Hermes away from her house, but finds that she’s too slow to chase him.
For the time being, Sophie lacks the ability to track down Alberto to his home—she’ll have to continue with these secondhand lessons.
Sophie proceeds with the letter, titled, “PLATO’S ACADEMY.” Plato, the letter explains, published Socrates’ ideas after Socrates died. His writings are re-workings of Socrates’ dialogues with his students. Plato concentrated on what he deemed Socrates’ most important idea—the fixed nature of right, wrong, and reality.
Plato continued Socrates’ project of studying morality and reality—in this way, he set the tone for philosophy for the next 2,000 years. Plato further divorces the world of philosophy from the “natural philosophy” practiced by Parmenides and his peers.
Socrates—and Plato—believed that the material world is constantly changing. But the world of thoughts and ideas doesn’t change at all. For example, two horses may be very different. And yet they have certain things in common—an ideal “form” of horse that never changes, even as the horses themselves do. The eternal, for Plato, isn’t a substance at all, but an idea. The relationship between a material thing and its form, or idea, is similar to the relationship between a cookie and its mold. The particular cookie may be imperfect, and different from other cookies, but the mold itself is perfectly formed.
The concept of the Platonic forms is one of the most famous ideas in all of philosophy. Interestingly, Plato never produced any entire dialogue or treatise on the forms—our knowledge of this matter is based on excerpts from other dialogues, such as the Republic. The notion of perfection is a powerful one, with obvious religious overtones. And yet unlike the early religious societies, Plato believed that it was possible to get in touch with “perfection” through philosophical thought.
Plato was very interested in the world of ideas. Even if he didn’t think this world was literally real, he thought that it was worth studying. One extension of his interest in the world of ideas was his theory that the soul is immortal. Men have bodies, but they also have souls that are a part of the world of ideas. It’s because of this soul that people have an innate understanding of goodness, wisdom, and knowledge. Furthermore, by contemplating the world of ideas, people can get in touch with the immortal side of their being.
Plato argued for the importance of philosophy by showing how philosophical contemplation could bring human beings closer to the perfect world of the forms—the world of ideas. This concept has some potentially religious overtones, and indeed, later Christian thinkers would argue that Plato was anticipating the concept of “Heaven” when he talked about the world of ideas.
The letter describes a famous passage from Plato’s writings, the Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, people live underground, chained to heavy rocks. Because they’re chained in place, all they can see are the shadows thrown onto the walls of their cave by the firelight. If a prisoner were freed from the cave and walked up to the surface of the Earth, he would see real, physical objects—not just shadows. But if this same person were to return to the cave and try to tell his friends about the “real” world, his friends would ridicule him—they’d point to the shadows on the wall and say, “This is real.” The same is true for philosophers studying the world of ideas: their friends ridicule them for studying abstractions, even though these “abstractions” are actually (Plato believed) more real than the material world.
The Allegory of the Cave is a famous passage that has been quoted and referenced hundreds of thousands of times over the years. It also has some undeniable relevance to the plot of Sophie’s World. Sophie is something like the prisoner from the Allegory: she’s “Freed” from her mental prisons by Alberto Knox, and begins to contemplate the “true” world of philosophical investigation. But when Sophie returns to her old home and tries to pass on her education to others, such as her Mom, she’s shocked to find that her Mom dislikes and even ridicules Sophie’s philosophical education.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is found in his dialogue, the Republic. In this work, Plato describes an ideal system of government, in which each portion of society corresponds to a different part of the body. The rulers are the “head” of society; the warriors are the “chest”; and the workers and farmers are the “abdomen.” The point of all this is that each class of people must remain in that class—the son of a farmer must be a farmer, too.
Plato’s ideas are important to philosophy (and to the structure of this book) for another reason: they establish political philosophy as one of philosophy’s most important branches. The idea that there’s such thing as a perfectly organized society is an appealing one—but obviously we still haven’t figured it out thousands of years later.
One important thing to notice about Plato, the letter argues, is that his view of women was fairly progressive, at least for the time. Although he called women inferior beings, he argued that an ideal state should train women the same as men. He also used female characters to present important ideas. On this note, the letter ends.
Gaarder keeps his lessons from getting too abstract by grounding them in real world issues—like sexism. As we’ll see, even the most “rational” of male philosophers often held irrational views on women. Plato’s ideas, while not exactly feminist, did it least suggest that reason and ideals should be applied to the treatment of the sexes.
Sophie isn’t sure if she agrees with Plato about the world of ideas. Even so, it’s a beautiful thought that there’s such thing as a “perfect horse,” and that the soul lives forever.
Sophie continues to treat her philosophical education with a healthy skepticism. She doesn’t necessarily believe the idea of the forms, at least not literally, but (as with the Norse myths) she finds beauty and even wisdom in this idea.