“Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space”
There are not many books that can change your life. Sophie’s World is a book that has changed millions. It’s the red pill of literature, a moment when you are faced with a choice: will you live a life of wonder?
I often get emails from readers asking for the best place to start reading about philosophy. Sophie’s World — a novel — is the book I recommend the most because it so eloquently captures the wonder of philosophy, the giddiness you feel when you realise you are floating in space.
It’s the most significant work of popular philosophy in our time. To the shame of professional philosophers, it was written by a high school teacher with a passion for the subject. Jostein Gaarder’s book was translated into English in 1994 and became a bestseller. After several translations, it has sold over 40 million copies.
Without expounding too much on the plot, the teenage hero of the story, Sophie Amundsen, is sent mysterious letters from a philosopher. The first letters tell us exactly why philosophy is so important.
In these letters, our existence is compared to the magic trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Ta-da! Our incredulity at this trick makes us wonder and that wonder has given rise to some of the most beautiful literature in world history.
“Man thought it was so astonishing to be alive that philosophical questions arose of their own accord.”
The rabbit is the universe. And Gaarder compares us to tiny insects in the rabbit’s fur. Some of us, he writes, burrow down into the warmth of the fur, while the philosophers among us climb to the tops of the hairs “to stare right into the magician’s eyes.”
What makes philosophers special? Child-like wonder. As we get older we come to understand the predictability of the world around us. But what we deem to be normality, the infant child regards with wonder and astonishment. The philosopher reawakens this wonder within themselves, to see everything like a child.
And, yes, “everything” includes ourselves. The philosopher asks Sophie to imagine meeting a martian, how strange it would be. Then he asks her “have you ever given any thought to the fact that you are a Martian yourself?” “I am an extraordinary being, you think. I am a mysterious creature.”
Freedom from within
Philosophy has an undeserved bad reputation. It’s seen as a pointless activity, a waste of time and money. Jokes are told about the job prospects of philosophy graduates.
The cliche is of the bearded philosopher (for some reason the cliche philosopher is always male) stroking his chin and pondering existence in a wholly negative way. Philosophers are hair-splitters, obsessive obscurants and obstructive to actually getting things done. Ultimately, philosophical thinking is useless.
Of course, academic philosophy is full of jargon and hair-splitting, but what academic disciplines aren’t? Long technical words like “transcendental idealism” or “phenomenological” are just short cuts to compress meaning so philosophers can communicate with each other more efficiently.
Philosophy does get some praise from self-help and popular psychology authors. Stoicism — a doctrine I admire and have written extensively about — is in fashion in the self-help world. But these writers tend to cherry-pick the elements of philosophy seen as “helpful” in the modern world. The equanimity that comes with the Stoic philosophy of fate, for example, is seen as a cure for stress.
But these authors miss the point. They strip piecemeal quotations and maxims out of philosophy as if they are pills to pop to ease our spiritual ailments.
This is a sad state of affairs, philosophy is damned by this selective faint praise — “this body of work is mostly useless, but there are a few things here that will help you come to terms with the fact that you hate the life you feel trapped in.”
The corpse of a great philosopher’s work is dismembered, mangled up and served as a medicine… chicken soup for the soul… or worse, a snake oil remedy that might make you even more sick.
The truth is this…. get ready for it…
Philosophy itself is the cure.
I mean this in two ways: the first is that philosophical wonder is in itself an activity that will make you better adjusted to this life. The other is that philosophy can change the world for the better.
Seneca wrote that philosophy
“…moulds and builds the personality, orders one’s life, regulates one’s conduct, shows one what one should do and what one should leave undone, sits at the helm and keeps one on the correct course as one is tossed about in perilous seas. Without it no one can lead a life free of fear or worry. Every hour of the day countless situations arise that call for advice, and for that advice we have to look to philosophy.”
Note that Seneca is talking about philosophy in general, not Stoicism in particular.
Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, not necessarily knowledge. Knowledge is merely instrumental, we apply knowledge to get by. Philosophy is thought about thought, it allows us to enhance our pleasures and diminish our pains of our own accord. Philosophical thinking is the supreme species of mindfulness.
A person who surrenders and subjects himself to philosophy, Seneca wrote, “doesn’t have his application deferred from day to day; he’s emancipated on the spot, the very service of philosophy being freedom.” Seneca is right: philosophy is freedom from within.
In the first part of Sophie’s World we are introduced to the earliest Greek philosophers. Before philosophy, the world was explained by myth. Every culture has its foundational myths. Thor, the thunder god, created rain and rain made the land fertile. The earliest of the Greek philosophers were the first known people to question the validity of these myths.
Myths are still all around us. In our modern world we may even believe in myths more than ever. I don’t necessarily mean Thor the thunder god making rain. I mean the way we cobble together easy, lazy explanations and assumptions about our world give enough momentum for us to plod through life with a degree of happiness that keeps us alive.
These “myths” are ideas that have been handed down to us. They each have a greater or lesser degree of truth to them but are wholly secondhand ideas. We half-heartedly believe them, going through the motions they entail. They come from philosophy, religion and science but have lost the lustre they had when they were forged for the first time.
The ultimate point that Sophie’s World makes is that we should think for ourselves.
“My concern is that you do not grow up to be one of those people who take the world for granted, Sophie dear.”
Sophie is asked to see the world anew in order to find new ideas. The first philosophers, Sophie is told, wanted to understand what was happening around them without having to turn to the ancient myths.
Thales of Miletus looked beyond the Homeric myths in around 500 B.C.E. to declare that “all things are full of gods”, eluding to the regenerative power of nature itself. Perhaps he used reason to describe what could only be seen thousands of years later — the immortal genes that structure life from within.
In our every day lives we too can look beyond our own myths.
We take it for granted, for example, that the “nuclear family” — two adults and two or three kids in a picket-fenced house with a couple of cars in a garage — is the “natural” aspiration for anybody. But a philosopher would point out that the nuclear family is a very modern phenomenon, a by-product of urbanisation and industrialisation.
It may not be the best way to raise kids or have a happy love life. The divorce rate and the amount of traumatised kids in therapy may bear out the truth of that doubt. Sure, it’s one way of living that could make you happy, the philosopher will say, but it’s not necessarily the best way of living.
Philosophy is foundational to our modern world. Many of the most prominent historical figures of the last century had been steeped in philosophical education… for better or worse. The United States’ constitution rests on philosophical ideas of freedom and happiness forged in the Enlightenment.
Cracks are appearing in our current scientific explanations of the universe. The human race is facing existential threats, if not from global warming then from genetic engineering, weapons of mass destruction or “super-bug” diseases. But we also have globalisation, democracy, advanced medicine and the means to end pollution, hunger and poverty.
As we face these challenges and opportunities we will need to rethink ideas that we’ve taken for granted for thousands of years. What is good and evil? How do we define freedom or happiness? What even is it to be human? These questions are still begging. It is those with child-like wonder who can come up with the best answers. We need philosophers now more than ever.
Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new.