“We who live here are microscopic insects existing deep down in the rabbit’s fur. But philosophers are always trying to climb up the fine hairs of the fur in order to stare right into the magician’s eyes.”
Those sentences make the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time I read them. How aptly and magically it sums up the spirit of the book!
My first and only five-star so far in 2020 and we’re in September already. It’s such an ambitious book. I tip my hat to the author wholeheartedly. A very brief summary: this book introduces the history of philosophy. So it’s non-fiction. But the history of philosophy is presented as a course to a teenage girl, Sophie, from a mysterious teacher. So it’s fiction at the same time. The reader learns about philosophy alongside Sophie. But Sophie’s world is going bonkers like a car without a brake crashing downhill. Her world is not what she thinks it is. The whole book is designed as a giant thought experiment with layers and layers of meaning. I was not a spectator. I was swept along. If you read carefully and think diligently, it has the potential to change life.
A Little Bit of Personal History with This Book
My first encounter with this book goes back to a couple of decades ago. I had a Chinese translated copy of Sophie’s World with an ugly green cover. I can’t remember how old I was. I remember being bewildered by it – critical thinking was not my strength. The language level and style is geared towards young people so accessibility should not have been an obstacle. But me as a teenager didn’t care enough or think as the author intended me to. Twenty years later my intelligence and patience have finally caught up…
But I do remember one thing very distinctively from it. It was this book that first triggered my curiosity and reflection on the existence of God. I don’t think I finished the book back then – I had no recollection of any of the later chapters. But this left a deep impression in my mind:
“She could accept that God had created space, but what about God himself? Had he created himself out of nothing? Again there was something deep down inside her that protested. Even though God could create all kinds of things, he could hardly create himself before he had a ‘self’ to create with. So there was only one possibility left: God had always existed. But she had already rejected that possibility! Everything that existed had to have a beginning.”
Christianity and the Bible in My Vacuum
I was surprised how much insight the book gives on Christianity and the Bible.
I don’t particularly think of Christianity in terms of philosophy. But of course it is in a way. Philosophy tries to answer the big worldview questions like ‘where does the world come from’, ‘who are you’, ‘what’s the meaning of life’. And the Bible certainly has answers for those questions so in this sense Christian belief offers a philosophy of life.
I have always thought of Christianity in isolation, historically and geographically. The Bible covers a few thousands years of history about God’s people. When I read a certain verse, chapter or book in the Bible, I always need to keep this bird’s eye view of the historical narrative in mind. Think of zooming in and out of on the Google Maps on the UK: there’s the street level of Newcastle, when you need to walk from Northumberland Street to Central Station. Then there’s the regional level of the North, when you drive from Newcastle to the Lake District (heavy traffic on the A69!). Then there’s the level you can see the whole country in one screen, when you want to find Winnie the Pooh and New Forest. But I stopped at this level, forgetting that there’s still Europe and the world beyond. The knowledge of Christianity, ever-growing in size and jewel-like, was floating in a vacuum in my head.
Sophie’s World did an introduction of the ‘world beyond’ for me. The Bible was written humanly speaking at certain points of time and space in history largely around Mediterranean. Even when the Bible narratives don’t explicitly mention the world beyond, it doesn’t mean the world didn’t exist or what happened outside the narrative doesn’t matter.
When I read a certain Bible passage, I know I need to understand its message for the first listeners there and then before I can understand the message correctly for us here and now. Sophie’s World made me realise that my ability to understand the message for the first listeners was limited by my knowledge of ‘there and then’. Much of the message in the Bible was a response to the world outside the Jewish community. Without knowing what was happening ‘there and then’ outside Jewish community, I’m missing out on some of the message itself. The most obvious example is Paul’s speech in Athens. Knowing what “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” as well as “men of Athens” believed, I came to realise Paul’s choices of content in his speech took into account of hundreds of years of Greek philosophy which was deeply rooted in his listeners mind and it was extraordinary.
One more example. Gospel of John 1.1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” With a little digging you’d come across that ‘Word’ was translated from the Greek word ‘logos’. Why would John choose to use this ‘logos’ here? There was this guy called Heraclitus who lived about 500 years before Christ. You might have heard of this saying: ‘a person cannot step twice into the same river’. That was his idea. He came to the conclusion that, there was a ‘universal law’ that guided everything and was the source of everything, which he called God or ‘logos’. Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that he came so close to the Truth just by observing the nature and by using his brain, as a perfect evidence for Romans 1. Let’s just focus on ‘logos’ and John for now. Heraclitus was from Ephesus in Asia Minor. And tradition has it that Ephesus was where John wrote his Gospel. What a coincidence! Or was it a coincidence? Was John trying to remind his readers of Heraclitus’ ‘universal law’? I’ve no idea how much or little connection I can safely make. But at least Sophie’s World reminded me that there’s so much more to learn. Don’t you ever get bored about the Bible and this world!
Plato believed that “all natural phenomena are merely shadows of the eternal forms or ideas”. It readily reminded me “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away… For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face… (1 Corinthians 13)”. And I was really surprised to read the familiar sermon illustration ‘Myth of the Cave’ was told by Plato to demonstrate something different.
The Thought Experiment that Starts with Sophie and Ends with You
You might think all this talk about philosophers up and down the ages could be quite boring. Perhaps, but the genius is how the author blended different philosophical ideas into the fictional narrative about Sophie and the world she inhabits. As a reader, I not only learn about abstract theories, I see those ideas in action in Sophie’s world.
The most excellent example was half way through the book, when Sophie learnt about Berkeley’s theory that the whole world existed only in the mind of God, the creator and author of the world. Then came the crushing realisation that Sophie existed only in the mind of her author: she was only a character in a book, written by Hilde’s father for Hilde’s birthday. But as you read about Hilde’s response to Sophie’s confusion and distress in the next chapter, Gaarder (the author) gives you the realisation: ‘Hilde is just a character in this book in my hand. Hilde and her father only exist in Gaarder’s book.’ And in the very next moment, you’re left thinking, am I just a character in another giant book? And who is the author of this book that I exist in? It’s like a Russian doll. Or it’s like looking down a microscope at a miniature world with fascination and then suddenly you look up and think, gosh I wonder if someone is looking down at me at this very moment!
There is a lot more to say about this book but I think I’ve spoiled it enough – I’m sorry. Lastly just very quickly, the very clever book cover. It was just nice illustration work on the front when I first saw it, until I turned the book over only to spot the ‘something’ on the back cover that made me realise the cover illustration was a perfect interpretation of what the book is all about. Genius!