It’s probably fair to say that the most important and relevant philosophical question in Sophie’s World is “what is real?” but the question “what is freedom?” is nearly as important. As Sophie Amundsen becomes aware that her “world” is a literary creation in the mind of Albert Knag, she begins to wonder if she has any real freedom—any control over her own actions. And this question is by no means limited to Sophie and her peers. As Hilde Møller Knag reads Sophie’s story, she too begins to question her own freedom: are her actions truly her own, or are they somehow predetermined? Readers of Sophie’s World might well ask themselves the same thing. In order to address some of these issues, Sophie’s World studies and organizes the different concepts of freedom that Western philosophers have dealt with.
One kind of freedom that the novel addresses right away is the freedom to do what one likes. This is an intuitive definition, but Alberto Knox, Sophie’s mentor, takes pains to show right away why it’s not necessarily the best definition. As Plato and Socrates argued thousands of years ago, obeying one’s impulses—hunger, lust, etc.—is its own kind of slavery (think of being a “slave to fashion” or a “slave to appearances”). Sophie’s World also addresses other kinds of mental slavery. Sophie’s Mom, for example, is so devoted to performing her petty responsibilities that she’s lost touch with the “big picture”—she’s no longer interested in philosophical question at all. By the end of the book it’s clear that these two forms of slavery are one and the same: the birthday party that Sophie’s mother fussily organizes for Sophie devolves into a disgusting spectacle in which Sophie’s classmates give in to their instincts and act like animals. The novel suggests that the freedom of doing what one wants is overrated: first, because this freedom is its own kind of slavery (as in Plato); second, because this kind of freedom is just an illusion, one that would vanish if we had the mental capacity to understand all the causes and effects at work in our lives (see Spinoza). If we define freedom in this way then we, the readers, are no freer than Sophie or her peers.
It’s clear enough that Sophie—whether she’s a fictional character or not—is more free than her mother or her classmates. But if this is true, what kind of freedom does she embody? While the novel doesn’t exactly put forth a “correct” interpretation of free will, it does suggest that humans can find freedom from causation and freedom from their appetites by contemplating the world of ideas. Ideas are unchanging—or, even if they do change over time (as in Hegel), they must be rigorously scrutinized, anyway. By living a life based around this kind of close contemplation, people can escape the banality of their daily existences and attain a kind of self-control, as well as control over their actions—in short, freedom. We see this literally toward the end of the novel, when Sophie and Alberto free themselves from the chaos of Sophie’s birthday party by escaping the story itself.
There’s one final sense in which Sophie’s World challenges our usual understanding of free will. It’s certainly possible to believe that the universe is controlled by an all-powerful figure, whether that figure is God or an author. But the novel suggests that even if such a figure exists, there’s no “hierarchy” of freedom—i.e., the author figure is no more or less free than his creations. We see this clearly by the end of the novel, when Sophie and Hilde seem to have reversed positions: Sophie appears to be free of any authorial control, while Hilde is still very much under the thumb of an author-figure, even if that figure is her own father (or Gaarder himself). If this is possible—if fictional characters can be freer than their creators, and if there’s more freedom in imagination than in the real world—then the only real freedom comes from philosophy and the world of ideas. By learning about ethics, epistemology, and so on, Sophie and Hilde might gain free will after all.
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Free Will Quotes in Sophie’s World
“St. Augustine’s point was that no man deserves God’s redemption. And yet God has chosen some to be saved from damnation, so for him there was nothing secret about who will be saved and who damned. It is preordained. We are entirely at his mercy.”
“So in a way, he returned to the old belief in fate.”
“Perhaps. But St. Augustine did not renounce man’s responsibility for his own
life. He taught that we must live in awareness of being among the chosen. He did not deny that we have free will. But God has ‘foreseen’ how we will live.”
In this chapter, Sophie meets Alberto Knox in a church. There, Knox tells Sophie about the life of Saint Augustine, one of the most important Christian philosophers. In doing so, Knox brings up an important philosophical concept: the idea of free will.
As Knox puts it, Augustine believed that humans' lives were predestined according to the wisdom of God. And yet Augustine didn't believe in fate, plain and simple—he believed that humans had the freedom to make their own choices. While Augustine beliefs may seem contradictory, Augustine fashioned a sophisticated model of human freedom that didn't infringe on God's omnipotence. The idea of free will becomes increasingly important to the novel as we realize that Sophie and Alberto are not, strictly speaking, free. In general, then, the problems with Augustine's philosophy—the problem of how free will can coexist with a divine, all-knowing entity—foreshadow the second half of the novel.
“Or think of a lion in Africa. Do you think it makes up its mind to be a beast of prey? Is that why it attacks a limping antelope? Could it instead have made up its mind to be a vegetarian?”
“No, a lion obeys its nature.”
“You mean, the laws of nature. So do you, Sophie, because you are also part of nature. You could of course protest, with the support of Descartes, that a lion is an animal and not a free human being with free mental faculties. But think of a newborn baby that screams and yells. If it doesn’t get milk it sucks its thumb. Does that baby have a free will?”
“I guess not.”
In this passage, Alberto Knox clarifies some of the ideas of Spinoza, one of the most important—and difficult—of all Western philosophers. Spinoza argued that free will was an illusion. Humans were no freer than lions or other animals—just like lions, they have an inborn nature that leads them to crave certain things (food, love, art, etc.). Humans only believe that they’re free because they can’t stand the idea that they’re slaves to their own nature.
In addition to being a good explanation of a complicated philosopher, the passage is also an illustration of Knox’s philosophical method.Knox doesn’t tell Sophie how to understand Spinoza; instead, he uses a series of short, pointed questions to keep Sophie engaged in the discussion. Like Socrates, he pushes Sophie to broaden her mind and consider ideas she would have otherwise dismissed.
“Before we sense anything, then, the mind is as bare and empty as a blackboard before the teacher arrives in the classroom. Locke also compared the mind to an unfurnished room. But then we begin to sense things. We see the world around us, we smell, taste, feel, and hear. And nobody does this more intensely than infants. In this way what Locke called simple ideas of sense arise. But the mind does not just passively receive information from outside it. Some activity happens in the mind as well. The single sense ideas are worked on by thinking, reasoning, believing, and doubting, thus giving rise to what he calls reflection. So he distinguished between ‘sensation’ and ‘reflection.’ The mind is not merely a passive receiver. It classifies and processes all sensations as they come streaming in. And this is just where one must be on guard.”
In this passage, Knox explains the philosophy of John Locke to Sophie. Locke believed that the mind is born a “blank slate”—just an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. And yet Locke also believed that the mind was born with the capacity to perform certain actions, such as thinking and reflecting. Humans are unique from animals, he argued, in that they can reflect on what they observe, and learn from their experiences.
Knox’s explanation of Locke has clear ramifications for his lessons with Sophie. Just as Locke argued, Sophie is using her experiences and observations to learn. One could even say that she’s classifying and processing her lessons with Knox, converting them from experience to wisdom.
“So now let’s sum up. According to Kant, there are two elements that contribute to man’s knowledge of the world. One is the external conditions that we cannot know of before we have perceived them through the senses. We can call this the material of knowledge. The other is the internal conditions in man himself—such as the perception of events as happening in time and space and as processes conforming to an unbreakable law of causality. We can call this the form of knowledge.”
“The fairy tale was the absolute literary ideal of the Romantics—in the same way that the absolute art form of the Baroque period was the theater. It gave the poet full scope to explore his own creativity.”
“He could play God to a fictional universe.”
“That society would be a just society. It would have arisen among equals.”
“Men and women!”
“That goes without saying. None of them knew whether they would wake up as men or women. Since the odds are fifty-fifty, society would be just as attractive for women as for men.”
“It sounds promising.”
“So tell me, was the Europe of Karl Marx a society like that?”
“But do you by any chance know of such a society today?”
“Hm ... that’s a good question.”
“Our actions are not always guided by reason. Man is not really such a rational creature as the eighteenth-century rationalists liked to think. Irrational impulses often determine what we think, what we dream, and what we do. Such irrational impulses can be an expression of basic drives or needs. The human sexual drive, for example, is just as basic as the baby’s instinct to suckle.”
In this section, Alberto marks a turning point in his lessons for Sophie. For many chapters now, the philosophers he’s chosen to discuss have been rational and logical—they’ve trusted that reason coulb be used to solve almost any problem. After this chapter, however, Alberto turns to modern thinkers like Freud and Nietzsche—figures who don’t have the Enlightenment era’s faith in logic. As Alberto explains, Freud believed that the human mind was controlled by irrational impulses more than rational thoughts—urges like sex, hunger, and violence are far more important than reason in determining what a human being does. This complicates things, and means that the realm of philosophy blends more with other studies like psychology and economics.
“They have vanished into thin air,” said Helene Amundsen, not without a touch of pride.
She drew herself up to her full height, walked toward the long table and began to clear up after the philosophical garden party.
“More coffee, anyone?”
In this section, Sophie and Alberto—now fully aware that they’re just characters in someone else’s book—find a way to escape from their text: they simply “vanish into thin air.” The paradox is this: Alberto and Sophie seem to have “chosen” to escape their text, but in fact, their author (Albert Knag) has just written them out of the text—in short, they’re just as obedient to Knag’s will as ever.
At the same time, the passage marks a turning point in the novel: after this point, Sophie and Alberto will continue their adventures, though it's not clear who, if anyone, is writing their story (besides the book's real author, Jostein Gaarder). In a sense, Sophie and Alberto have "escaped" Knag, but they're just as obedient as ever to Gaarder, the author of Sophie's World.
“You’ve become a grown woman, Hilde!”
“And you’ve become a real writer.”
Hilde wiped away her tears.
“Shall we say we’re quits?” she asked.
In this passage, Hilde reunites with her father, Albert—the man who's been writing her letters about philosophy, assembled into the book Sophie's World. Hilde and Albert compliment each other for their ingenuity. Hilde compliments Albert for writing Sophie's World; Albert praises Hilde for mastering philosophy and for engineering a series of pranks that disoriented him, proving that she'd truly understood his lessons in epistemology and ontology.
Albert and Hilde's exchange reinforces the point that Sophie's World is a coming-of-age story: over the course of the novel, Sophie learns to channel her frustration and anxiety into abstract thinking. In the process she becomes a more mature, confident thinker—or as her father puts it, philosophy helps her become a grown woman.
They jumped out of the car and ran down the garden.
They tried to loosen the rope that was made fast in a metal ring. But they could not even lift one end.
“It’s as good as nailed down,” said Alberto.
“We’ve got plenty of time.”
“A true philosopher must never give up. If we could just... get it loose …”
At the end of Sophie's World, Sophie and Alberto—fictional characters who've somehow attained a degree of independence from their creator—find themselves in a strange world. Everything around them, including people, is frozen. In spite of the hopelessness of their situation, Sophie and Alberto try to move a metal ring, which is attached to a boat near to where Hilde and Albert are sitting. Sophie is persistent in her attempts to the move the ring—in spite of the unlikelihood of moving the ring, she keeps trying, confident that philosophers never give up.
In all, the novel ends on a note of cautious optimism. Sophie seems to have no chance of moving the ring, but her intellectual training gives her hope and confidence. Gaarder suggests that philosophy, in addition to being an important area of study, can also be something like a religion for its students: it can provide people with hope and confidence in their own abilities. As the novel began, Sophie was a timid, shy young girl—now, with philosophy as her weapon, she's brave and determined.