Who are you?
Where does the world come from?
Wisest is she who knows she does not know...
Let’s face it, life is a mystery. It is a mystery how we came to be here, it is a mystery where exactly we are going and it’s a mystery why, whenever you put your whites in the washing machine, they always come out florescent pink. Life poses many tricky questions, and few have clear-cut answers. Perhaps they have no answers at all.
This can be frustrating in a world where we’re used to KNOWING. We’re obsessed with general knowledge, trivia, silly game shows where knowing the capital of Spain wins you a million quid. Many of us stick to what we understand, like what we’re having for tea and how much we detest Simon Cowell.
We can’t accept the limits of puny human wisdom. We hate the fact that, in a universe so huge and full of possibilities, we’ve barely uncovered a thing. What we term as ‘intelligent’; the best minds mankind has ever known, are in exactly the same place as all we half wits – slightly higher than apes, and a good deal higher than rat fleas, but infinitesimal in the bigger picture.
Truth could never be confined to human brains. Sure, they’re sophisticated (relatively speaking) but could the way a few neurones fire encompass all the time and space there has ever been? And if they’re not up to that, how can we expect to understand what’s beyond the time and space? It’s exasperating to say the least.
But, even if we can’t know for sure, there’s no harm in exploring, and philosophy does just that. We like explanations. If we suddenly woke up in, say, Slovenia, we’d be clamouring to know what was going on. And yet few of us think of asking why we’re on this planet, seemingly dropped down here out the blue.
As Jostein Gaarder puts it, ‘Why was it so difficult to be absorbed in the most vital and, in a way, the most natural of all questions?’ Sophie’s World attempts to alter our complacency. It likens us to ‘microscopic insects existing deep inside a 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.’ (Sounds surreal, I know, but makes a good point.)
A textbook in disguise!
The book is a philosophy course dressed as a novel. Some people find this infuriating – if they want philosophy, they’ll read a good meaty textbook and leave the fairy stories to the kids. Others find the approach really accessible. The plotline makes philosophy exciting and stimulating and makes a lot more sense to them than the abstract concepts it’s woven around.
Personally, I fall into the latter camp. Whilst the story itself is nothing special, the plot has a number of fascinating twists that force your brain into philosophical mode. Philosophy requires you to think in a certain way. And because most of us have ‘lost the faculty of wonder’, this can prove difficult. It is one thing to question, as Berkeley did, whether “our world consists of real things – or are we encircled by the mind?”. It is another thing to understand what this could truly mean. Sophie’s World provides the perfect illustration.
Sophie’s Identity Crisis
In this book, characters are auxiliary to concepts. I therefore will not dwell too much on who people are or what exactly goes on – that’s not really the point. But, since this is meant to be a book review rather than an off-tangent thought stream, I’ll give you an outline. Sketchy I’m afraid it must be.
Sophie, aged almost fifteen, is a perfectly ordinary – and quite boring – teenager. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, she begins to receive letters from a mysterious correspondent who gives her a crash-course in philosophy. The course starts with those good old Greeks and finishes in our own time, spiralling into areas such as psychoanalysis and science along the way.
Things get weirder when more letters appear, addressed to an unknown girl named Hilde. Hilde and her father interfere more and more in Sophie’s life, sometimes in extremely peculiar ways. Take the note placed lovingly inside a banana. And the way Hilde’s possessions appear in Sophie’s dreams. And name me one person who would not be freaked out by birthday greetings from Winnie the Pooh.
Sophie gets drawn into some pretty heavy stuff. In trying to unravel the mystery of Hilde, Sophie is led into the mystery of Sophie. She makes some startling discoveries about her own identity, which make you wonder whether perhaps the same applies to us.
But I won’t say much else about the book as a book. It might well put you off. The character development is poor, dialogue flat and unconvincing, and the book uses about as many literary techniques as Teenybopper Monthly magazine. With anything else, this would be enough to relegate it straight back to my bookcase (preferably in an inconspicuous position between the ‘Bumper Book of Bedtime Stories’ and ‘Trainspotting for Beginners’). I like my literature, and this ain’t it.
Sophie’s World can infiltrate your own...
Gaarder, however, is exempt from the usual rules. For a start, I’m inclined to be lenient since the novel is a translation, and who knows, it may be Shakespeare in its original Norwegian. More importantly, it stirs up something in your mind and can change your whole outlook on life.
I’m an amateur as far as philosophy is concerned. I’ve never studied it, it’s not part of the curriculum, and before I read this book, I wouldn’t have known Spinoza from spinach. Still, I’ve always been interested in life’s Big Questions, and the book presents many different answers from many different times. It’s not biased towards any particular philosophy – it encourages you to formulate your own. And surely that’s what philosophy’s all about? Not relying on what you’ve been taught, or what you saw on TV, or any other pre-held conceptions; but on looking within to discover what makes sense to you?
Please read. Urgently. Anyone with a degree/diploma/lifetime’s experience in philosophy may want to pass. Everyone else, dust this book down now!
Thanks for reading,