Updated: Jan 25, 2019
Sophie’s World: A novel about the history of philosophy, by Jostein Gaarder
“We too are stardust.”
Sweeping histories of philosophy are heady affairs, for they delve into the very history of humanity. Sophie’s World was recommended to me by a friend, and I have to admit I approached reading this with something akin to dread. It was my holidays, did I really want to get into philosophy with a champagne and chocolate hangover? And initially it did appear to be a little dry – a very obvious attempt to make a novel out of a lecture on western philosophy. But you must bear with me, as I did with this book, because it truly is a treasure.
“The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder.”
Sophie lived an ordinary life, until one month from her 15th birthday she began to receive mysterious messages, like Who are you? and Where does the world come from? These questions set her along a path of thinking that she had never been before.
“You can’t experience being alive without realizing that you have to die, she thought. But it’s just as impossible to realize you have to die without thinking how incredibly amazing it is to be alive.”
Sophie’s World accomplishes its goal as a history of philosophy that is interesting and accessible to young people. Adolescents with working minds will enjoy this book – it has depth, breadth and is delightfully quirky. As things descended into the bizarre, the pace really picked up and in was immensely enjoyable. There is a slow-developing mystery that builds tension to the point that this becomes a page-turner. There's something creepy, even sinister afoot. Why is a middle-aged man obsessed with a 14-year-old girl's philosophical education? Why doesn't her mom care more about this clearly very creepy state of events? And there is an irony that as Sophie, and the reader, receive an education in reasoned thinking, there is a plot surrounding them that is magical and surreal.
And then everything goes bonkers and awesomely meta, as a story within a story within a story is revealed, and the characters develop consciousness beyond their short pages, and the reader is left to ponder: Who exists? And isn't that the very point of philosophy?
I do have to say that the descent into the absurd was at times a little too creepy to bear - like when two young teenagers are unable to control their lust and get it on in the bushes, while the girl's father walks over to observe and make encouraging comments about the whole thing. Am I too much of a prude? This disturbed me.
I cannot read a philosophical history without automatically comparing it to the philosophical history I read very recently, Sapiens. In Sapiens, Harari states that humanism is "embarrassing." Since I consider myself a liberal humanist, I found this troubling and have been questioning my value system since then. So I was keen to see what Gaarder thought of humanism, and it turns out he's much more pro-human than Harari (who is not very pro-human at all). This is shown particularly on his showcasing of the UN, an organization that tends to support humanist views such as universal human rights, as the last voice of reason in the world. One of the characters in the book is a major in a UN peacekeeping outfit and attention is brought to the good work of the organization again and again. He also displays humanist philosophers in a kindly light.
Kant says: Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
Now, if you've been reading this blog for awhile, you will know that I am constantly dealing with existential angst, especially after reading philosophy books, which I do way more than I was aware. But according to some philosophers, there's hope, as existential angst might actually be good for us.
According to Kierkegaard, angst is almost positive. It is an expression of the fact that the individual is in an 'existential situation,' and can now elect to make the great leap to a higher stage.
If that doesn't make you feel any better, you can check out my guide to beating existential angst.
Now, if you are like me and are surprised at how much you love philosophy, you are not alone! How awesome is it that there is a sort-of popular TV show in the middle of its third season that is basically all about philosophy? I cannot imagine how that show was pitched: "So, it's a show about philosophy. It's a comedy. Ted Danson is involved." The show, of course, is The Good Place, and it consistently makes me laugh out loud because it is smart and also absurd, as it seems all good philosophical comedies must be. You need to watch this show.
Also, if you're looking for a more grown-up version of a history of western philosophy, can I suggest The Dream of Reason, by Anthony Gottlieb? It is an incredibly thorough and not at all dry overview of western philosophy, up to the Renaissance. (The Enlightenment and further is covered in the next book, The Dream of Enlightenment).
Now, as per my existential angst guide, it's time for me to read something soapy or thrilling, or both, to cleanse my palate before I dive into the next great book.