There’s something about philosophy that tugs at a deep part in ourselves. I don’t know what it is, or how it works, but it’s there. Maybe it’s just the fact that when we read or discuss philosophical topics our brain is forced to wake up from its lethargy and work towards finding answers.
In February, we read Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder, in our book club. I had read this book many years ago in Spanish, when I was still studying, so when someone recommended it I felt curious to read it again, see how I felt about it.
This is not your usual novel, it’s not a simple fictional story in which stuff happens and you are brought through the storyline seamlessly and in an easy manner. In Sophie’s World, there is a book inside a book. Actually, there is a book inside a book inside a book.
We start by reading about Sophie, a Norwegian girl in the weeks (days?) before her 15th birthday. She receives a strange message in her mailbox that asks her a few philosophical questions, the sort of who you are, where you come from and all that. As it turns out, she’s being contacted by Alberto Knox, a philosopher, who starts teaching her philosophy by means of long letters. It is, essentially, a philosophy book in instalments.
Reading the story of Sophie is interesting, and learning philosophy is very interesting as well, of course. However, when we have them both together, then the theoretical part breaks the action with long chunks of facts and history, and that bit made me slow down my reading slightly. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t fiction with philosophy theory in it, but the opposite. Sophie’s World is a theory book, a reference book, with small bits of fiction in it.
We start at the beginning, and we learn about the first philosophers. We learn about the classics, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Seneca. Alberto tells Sophie that every philosopher has a project, that is, a main question he sets out to answer, so we get some insight into why some philosophers focus on certain topics instead of others. I guess if they tried to answer all the questions out there, they would never get anything done.
One of my biggest problems with this book is that the theoretical part is essentially a monologue in which Alberto goes on and on about the history and theory of philosophy, and we don’t see Sophie anywhere. She only makes short comments, usually a bit sarcastic (or attempting to be witty). Whenever she asks a question, is a way too intelligent one. Throughout the book I kept thinking that if I were in her situation, I wouldn’t be asking those questions at all, because they would have not crossed my mind for a second. My questions would have sounded dumb, I think. Many times, Sophie got what Alberto was trying to explain very quickly, and I found myself re-reading the same paragraph a few times, trying to figure out what was said, how she could understand so fast (other than by being fictional), and whether I was dumber than average.
Later on in the story, we find out that Sophie and Alberto are mere characters in a book written by the Major as a present to his daughter Hilde, who happens to turn 15 years old on the same day as Sophie.
Strange things start happening, showing us the Major has absolute power over his characters and their lives, and here’s when we find the second book. So, the first book is the actual Sophie’s World, which tells us the story of Hilde and her dad. Her dad, the Major, is writing a book about Sophie and Alberto Knox, that’s our second book (incidentally, Sophie and Alberto find a copy of Sophie’s World in a bookstore, but I’m not sure which one it is… Is it the same as the copy I’m holding in my hands, the story about Hilde? Or is it just Sophie’s story? Both books start the same way, so I really don’t know).
The third book is the philosophy course Alberto is writing for Sophie (which the Major is writing for Hilde, in reality). A proof of this is the fact that Sophie puts all the chapters in a binder, to keep them all organised.
Once we get through the whole Russian doll situation (go ahead, re-read the paragraphs above a couple of times, because if you haven’t read Sophie’s World, my guess is none of the above made sense!), we can focus on the actual content.
I have to say that I found the earlier philosophers easier to read than the more modern ones. That is, until we reached the likes of Darwin.
I’ve always found Darwin’s theories of evolution very intriguing. Not intriguing in themselves, because well, adaptability and survival of the fittest, etc. sound pretty easy to understand. However, in this book they talk about humans and how there is only one human race, as opposed to the various types of one bird in the Galapagos Islands, for example. This is because of the incredible ability of humans to adapt to any environment. Isn’t it amazing that we are able to live both in the coldest and hottest of environments? By the use of tools, and our brains, we are able to survive the most adverse situations, and thrive (like a plague).
The book also mentions something that I think about quite often, again in relation to Darwin’s theory, and that’s the adaptability of virus and bacteria, which also affects mankind’s adaptability.
Thanks to modern medicine, many illnesses and diseases that would otherwise kill the weak are now controlled and eradicated. This means that people that would have been eliminated by natural selection are now able to pass on their genes. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s amazing and a great progress for mankind, but we’re playing god nowadays, I think. When I hear of doctors prescribing antibiotics for a simple cold (they’re just doing that to humour you), or the need we have to sanitise everything, I do wonder whether we’re not simply accelerating the demise of mankind. My guess is one day, a superbug will be both dangerous and spreadable, and mankind will be eliminated. By making ourselves stronger, we are essentially making ourselves weaker.
I read once online, in a meme or similar, that every time you kill a spider, the other spiders become more deadly and more resilient. It doesn’t work exactly like that, but it’s true that only those who keep hidden, or those who are deadlier are able to avoid humans and therefore, pass on their genes to the new generation, same as those first giraffes with longer necks survived by reaching the higher leaves when there wasn’t that much food near the ground any more.
In the book, there’s also a mini story that resonated with me. Alberto tells Sophie the story of the centipede and the tortoise, and it’s a story about jealousy, and how people who envy you will try to bring you down. The tortoise was jealous of the dancing skills of the centipede, and devised a plan to make the centipede never dance again, by killing the soul of the dance, the spirit of the art, and making the centipede think about it as a science.
Why did this resonate with me? Because haters gonna hate, but sometimes we receive compliments intended to hurt. Sometimes it isn’t just someone insulting us or bringing us down openly, but a backhanded compliment. Sometimes people lift us up, only to have us fall harder, and more often than not, when something is truly beautiful and/or inspirational, people will criticise it harder. The only reason being that it’s easier to tear things down than it is to build them up.
We all have insecurities, some more than others, and how we deal with them and with others is what defines us. When someone gets ahead of us, how we react is what makes us us, and what makes us better people. We can choose to admire, to be happy for others, to encourage, to teach; or we can choose to be mean, criticise, laugh at others, or even threaten.
Finally, one last section that also made me think. At some point, they explain the theories of Sartre. One of his key points revolves around the fact that man hasn’t created himself, that man has been put in a world where we don’t really understand what’s going on and we’re left to improvise.
Man is condemned to be free. Condemned because he has not created himself -and is nevertheless free. Because having once been hurled into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. by Sartre, taken from Sophie’s World
It seems that we live in a world where there is no meaning. For Sartre, every single action we make is important because of that lack of meaning to life. There is no must, no “nature” or higher reason for which we must do something, so we decide how to live and choose our own path. I guess this means that indeed, falling into the grey existence of an endless 9 to 5 job, with no aspirations and not working towards something else, something better, is really to fail our existence. Once we realise there is nothing to reach for, no meaning to life, and we realise that we live during a very short time (especially compared to the history of the world), we then feel despair and abandonment, because we realise we never chose this for ourselves, yet we are now responsible for absolutely everything we do.
Sophie’s World was a great book to revisit, many years after the first time I read it. It’s true that this time around I found it harder to read, and it took me longer, but it is also true that I gained much more from reading the book now, than when I read it in the past.
Understanding our history, and the history of philosophy is important to understand who we are now. I still don’t know exactly who I am, or what I am doing here, but at least I don’t live with my eyes closed, just a character in someone’s novel. I’ve felt anxiety at the ephemerality of life, and I’ve even suffered panic attacks in the past, when the thought of my own mortality has crossed my mind. For a long time, I wouldn’t be able to calm and move on. Luckily, I am now quite able to simply think of something else before the anxiety takes hold of me and I suddenly feel I can’t breathe.
For this reason, I think it’s important to live life to the fullest, whatever that means for each of us. If your aim in life is to have a family and take care of them, do so with all your heart and energy. If your dream is to become a rockstar, don’t let anyone stop you. Whatever your goals are, make them happen, or die trying. I would imagine there’s probably nothing worse than looking back in your last moments and realising you wasted your life, that you could have done more for yourself, that you never lived to your full potential. At least, you can change this now and start working towards the best version of yourself right now!
Sophie’s World was a book that made me think, and that brought some thoughts back to the surface, thoughts that I work hard to keep down. I think it’s important to remember them from time to time, because that also keeps you on your toes, so you don’t forget how precious life is.
Let me leave you with an assignment…
If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you regret not doing the most? What would you wish you had accomplished?
Have you read Sophie’s World? What did you think? What did it make you feel? Were you the same after you read it as you were before?
The next book we’re discussing in the book club is Fight Club. I hope you’ll join us!