One day fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen comes home from school to find in her mailbox two notes, with one question on each: "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?" From that irresistible beginning, Sophie becomes obsessed with questions that take her far beyond what she knows of her Norwegian village. Through those letters, she enrolls in a kind of correspondence course, covering Socrates to Sartre, with a mysterious philosopher, while receiving letters addressed to another girl. Who is Hilde? And why does her mail keep turning up? To unravel this riddle, Sophie must use the philosophy she is learningbut the truth turns out to be far more complicated than she could have imagined.
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The Garden of Eden
. . . at some point something must
have come from nothing . . .
Sophie Amundsen was on her way home from school. She had walked the first part of the way with Joanna. They had been discussing robots. Joanna thought the human brain was like an advanced computer. Sophie was not certain she agreed. Surely a person was more than a piece of hardware?
When they got to the supermarket they went their separate ways. Sophie lived on the outskirts of a sprawling suburb and had almost twice as far to go to school as Joanna. There were no other houses beyond her garden, which made it seem as if her house lay at the end of the world. This was where the woods began.
She turned the corner into Clover Close. At the end of the road there was a sharp bend, known as Captain's Bend. People seldom went that way except on the weekend.
It was early May. In some of the gardens the fruit trees were encircled with dense clusters of daffodils. The birches were already in pale green leaf.
It was extraordinary how everything burst forth at this time of year! What made this great mass of green vegetation come welling up from the dead earth as soon as it got warm and the last traces of snow disappeared?
As Sophie opened her garden gate, she looked in the mailbox. There was usually a lot of junk mail and a few big envelopes for her mother, a pile to dump on the kitchen table before she went up to her room to start her homework.
From time to time there would be a few letters from the bank for her father, but then he was not a normal father. Sophie's father was the captain of a big oil tanker, and was away for most of the year. During the few weeks at a time when he was at home, he would shuffle around the house making it nice and cozy for Sophie and her mother. But when he was at sea he could seem very distant.
There was only one letter in the mailboxand it was for Sophie. The white envelope read: "Sophie Amundsen, 3 Clover Close." That was all; it did not say whom it was from. There was no stamp on it either.
As soon as Sophie had closed the gate behind her she opened the envelope. It contained only a slip of paper no bigger than the envelope. It read: Who are you?
Nothing else, only the three words, written by hand, and followed by a large question mark.
She looked at the envelope again. The letter was definitely for her. Who could have dropped it in the mailbox?
Sophie let herself quickly into the red house. As always, her cat, Sherekan, managed to slink out of the bushes, jump onto the front step, and slip in through the door before she closed it behind her.
Whenever Sophie's mother was in a bad mood, she would call the house they lived in a menagerie. A menagerie was a collection of animals. Sophie certainly had one and was quite happy with it. It had begun with the three goldfish, Goldtop, Red Ridinghood, and Black Jack. Next she got two budgerigars called Smitt and Smule, then Govinda the tortoise, and finally the marmalade cat Sherekan. They had all been given to her to make up for the fact that her mother never got home from work until late in the afternoon and her father was away so much, sailing all over the world.
Sophie slung her schoolbag on the floor and put a bowl of cat food out for Sherekan. Then she sat down on a kitchen stool with the mysterious letter in her hand.
Who are you?
She had no idea. She was Sophie Amundsen, of course, but who was that? She had not really figured that outyet.
What if she had been given a different name? Anne Knutsen, for instance. Would she then have been someone else?
She suddenly remembered that Dad had originally wanted her to be called Lillemor. Sophie tried to imagine herself shaking hands and introducing herself as Lillemor Amundsen, but it seemed all wrong. It was someone else who kept introducing herself.
She jumped up and went into the bathroom with the strange letter in her hand. She stood in front of the mirror and stared into her own eyes.
"I am Sophie Amundsen," she said.
The girl in the mirror did not react with as much as a twitch. Whatever Sophie did, she did exactly the same. Sophie tried to beat her reflection to it with a lightning movement but the other girl was just as fast.
"Who are you?" Sophie asked.
She received no response to this either, but felt a momentary confusion as to whether it was she or her reflection who had asked the question.
Sophie pressed her index finger to the nose in the mirror and said, "You are me."
As she got no answer to this, she turned the sentence around and said, "I am you."
Sophie Amundsen was often dissatisfied with her appearance. She was frequently told that she had beautiful almond-shaped eyes, but that was probably just something people said because her nose was too small and her mouth was a bit too big. And her ears were much too close to her eyes. Worst of all was her straight hair, which it was impossible to do anything with. Sometimes her father would stroke her hair and call her "the girl with the flaxen hair," after a piece of music by Claude Debussy. It was all right for him, he was not condemned to living with this straight hair. Neither mousse nor styling gel had the slightest effect on Sophie's hair. Sometimes she thought she was so ugly that she wondered if she was malformed at birth. Her mother always went on about her difficult labor. But was that really what determined how you looked?
Wasn't it odd that she didn't know who she was? And wasn't it unreasonable that she hadn't been allowed to have any say in what she would look like? Her looks had just been dumped on her. She could choose her own friends, but she certainly hadn't chosen herself. She had not even chosen to be a human being.
What was a human being?
Sophie looked up at the girl in the mirror again.
"I think I'll go upstairs and do my biology homework," she said, almost apologetically. Once she was out in the hall, she thought, No, I'd rather go out in the garden.
"Kitty, kitty, kitty!"
Sophie chased the cat out onto the doorstep and closed the front door behind her.
As she stood outside on the gravel path with the mysterious letter in her hand, the strangest feeling came over her. She felt like a doll that had suddenly been brought to life by the wave of a magic wand.
Wasn't it extraordinary to be in the world right now, wandering around in a wonderful adventure!
Sherekan sprang lightly across the gravel and slid into a dense clump of red-currant bushes. A live cat, vibrant with energy from its white whiskers to the twitching tail at the end of its sleek body. It was here in the garden too, but hardly aware of it in the same way as Sophie.
As Sophie started to think about being alive, she began to realize that she would not be alive forever. I am in the world now, she thought, but one day I shall be gone.
Was there a life after death? This was another question the cat was blissfully unaware of.
It was not long since Sophie's grandmother had died. For more than six months Sophie had missed her every single day. How unfair that life had to end!
Sophie stood on the gravel path, thinking. She tried to think extra hard about being alive so as to forget that she would not be alive forever. But it was impossible. As soon as she concentrated on being alive now, the thought of dying also came into her mind. The same thing happened the other way around: only by conjuring up an intense feeling of one day being dead could she appreciate how terribly good it was to be alive. It was like two sides of a coin that she kept turning over and over. And the bigger and clearer one side of the coin became, the bigger and clearer the other side became too.
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 remembered Granny saying something like that the day the doctor told her she was ill. "I never realized how rich life was until now," she had said.
How tragic that most people had to get ill before they understood what a gift it was to be alive. Or else they had to find a mysterious letter in the mailbox!
Perhaps she should go and see if any more letters had arrived. Sophie hurried to the gate and looked inside the green mailbox. She was startled to find that it contained another white envelope, exactly like the first. But the mailbox had definitely been empty when she took the first envelope! This envelope had her name on it as well. She tore it open and fished out a note the same size as the first one.
Where does the world come from? it said.
I don't know, Sophie thought. Surely nobody really knows. And yetSophie thought it was a fair question. For the first time in her life she felt it wasn't right to live in the world without at least inquiring where it came from.
The mysterious letters had made Sophie's head spin. She decided to go and sit in the den.
The den was Sophie's top-secret hiding place. It was where she went when she was terribly angry, terribly miserable, or terribly happy. Today she was simply confused.
The red house was surrounded by a large garden with lots of flowerbeds, fruit bushes, fruit trees of different kinds, a spacious lawn with a glider and a little gazebo that Granddad had built for Granny when she lost their first child a few weeks after it was born. The child's name was Marie. On her gravestone were the words: "Little Marie to us came, greeted us, and left again."
Down in a corner of the garden behind all the raspberry bushes was a dense thicket where neither flowers nor berries would grow. Actually, it was an old hedge that had once marked the boundary to the woods, but because nobody had trimmed it for the last twenty years it had grown into a tangled and impenetrable mass. Granny used to say the hedge made it harder for the foxes to take the chickens during the war, when the chickens had free range of the garden.
To everyone but Sophie, the old hedge was just as useless as the rabbit hutches at the other end of the garden. But that was only because they hadn't discovered Sophie's secret.
Sophie had known about the little hole in the hedge for as long as she could remember. When she crawled through it she came into a large cavity between the bushes. It was like a little house. She knew nobody would find her there.
Clutching the two envelopes in her hand, Sophie ran through the garden, crouched down on all fours, and wormed her way through the hedge. The den was almost high enough for her to stand upright, but today she sat down on a clump of gnarled roots. From there she could look out through tiny peepholes between the twigs and leaves. Although none of the holes was bigger than a small coin, she had a good view of the whole garden. When she was little she used to think it was fun to watch her mother and father searching for her among the trees.
Sophie had always thought the garden was a world of its own. Each time she heard about the Garden of Eden in the Bible it reminded her of sitting here in the den, surveying her own little paradise.
Where does the world come from?
She hadn't the faintest idea. Sophie knew that the world was only a small planet in space. But where did space come from?
It was possible that space had always existed, in which case she would not also need to figure out where it came from. But could anything have always existed? Something deep down inside her protested at the idea. Surely everything that exists must have had a beginning? So space must sometime have been created out of something else.
But if space had come from something else, then that something else must also have come from something. Sophie felt she was only deferring the problem. At some point, something must have come from nothing. But was that possible? Wasn't that just as impossible as the idea that the world had always existed?
They had learned at school that God created the world. Sophie tried to console herself with the thought that this was probably the best solution to the whole problem. But then she started to think again. 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.
She opened the two envelopes again.
Who are you?
Where does the world come from?
What annoying questions! And anyway where did the letters come from? That was just as mysterious, almost.
Who had jolted Sophie out of her everyday existence and suddenly brought her face to face with the great riddles of the universe?
For the third time Sophie went to the mailbox. The mailman had just delivered the day's mail. Sophie fished out a bulky pile of junk mail, periodicals, and a couple of letters for her mother. There was also a postcard of a tropical beach. She turned the card over. It had a Norwegian stamp on it and was postmarked "UN Battalion." Could it be from Dad? But wasn't he in a completely different place? It wasn't his handwriting either.
Sophie felt her pulse quicken a little as she saw who the postcard was addressed to: "Hilde Møller Knag, c/o Sophie Amundsen, 3 Clover Close . . ." The rest of the address was correct. The card read:
Happy 15th birthday! As I'm sure you'll understand, I want to give you a present that will help you grow. Forgive me for sending the card c/o Sophie. It was the easiest way.
Love from Dad.
Sophie raced back to the house and into the kitchen. Her mind was in a turmoil. Who was this "Hilde," whose fifteenth birthday was just a month before her own?
Sophie got out the telephone book. There were a lot of people called Møller, and quite a few called Knag. But there was nobody in the entire directory called Møller Knag.
She examined the mysterious card again. It certainly seemed genuine enough; it had a stamp and a postmark.
Why would a father send a birthday card to Sophie's address when it was quite obviously intended to go somewhere else? What kind of father would cheat his own daughter of a birthday card by purposely sending it astray? How could it be "the easiest way"? And above all, how was she supposed to trace this Hilde person?
So now Sophie had another problem to worry about. She tried to get her thoughts in order:
This afternoon, in the space of two short hours, she had been presented with three problems. The first problem was who had put the two white envelopes in her mailbox. The second was the difficult questions these letters contained. The third problem was who Hilde Møller Knag could be, and why Sophie had been sent her birthday card. She was sure that the three problems were interconnected in some way. They had to be, because until today she had lived a perfectly ordinary life.
Excerpted from Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder. Translation copyright © 1994 by Paulette Møller. Originally published in Norwegian under the title Sofies verden, copyright © 1991 by H. Aschehoug & Co. (W. Nygaard), Oslo. Originally published in English in 1994 in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This paperback edition published in March 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
ContentsThe Garden of Eden ... at some point something must have come from nothing ...,
The Top Hat ... the only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder ...,
The Myths ... a precarious balance between the forces of good and evil ...,
The Natural Philosophers ... nothing can come from nothing ...,
Democritus ... the most ingenious toy in the world ...,
Fate ... the "fortune-teller" is trying to foresee something that is really quite unforeseeable ...,
Socrates ... wisest is she who knows she does not know ...,
Athens ... several tall buildings had risen from the ruins ...,
Plato ... a longing to return to the realm of the soul ...,
The Major's Cabin ... the girl in the mirror winked with both eyes ...,
Aristotle ... a meticulous organizer who wanted to clarify our concepts ...,
Hellenism ... a spark from the fire ...,
The Postcards ... I'm imposing a severe censorship on myself ...,
Two Cultures ... the only way to avoid floating in a vacuum ...,
The Middle Ages ... going only part of the way is not the same as going the wrong way ...,
The Renaissance ... O divine lineage in mortal guise ...,
The Baroque ... such stuff as dreams are made on ...,
Descartes ... he wanted to clear all the rubble off the site ...,
Spinoza ... God is not a puppeteer ...,
Locke ... as bare and empty as a blackboard before the teacher arrives ...,
Hume ... commit it then to the flames ...,
Berkeley ... like a giddy planet round a burning sun ...,
Bjerkely ... an old magic mirror Great-grandmother had bought from a Gypsy woman ...,
The Enlightenment ... from the way needles are made to the way cannons are founded ...,
Kant ... the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me ...,
Romanticism ... the path of mystery leads inwards ...,
Hegel ... the reasonable is that which is viable ...,
Kierkegaard ... Europe is on the road to bankruptcy ...,
Marx ... a spectre is haunting Europe ...,
Darwin ... a ship sailing through life with a cargo of genes ...,
Freud ... the odious egoistic impulse that had emerged in her ...,
Our Own Time ... man is condemned to be free ...,
The Garden Party ... a white crow ...,
Counterpoint ... two or more melodies sounding together ...,
The Big Bang ... we too are stardust ...,
Reading Group Guide,
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. The first chapter's title, "The Garden of Eden," underscores the concept of beginnings and origins. How did you first respond to the initial two questions, "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?" Did your answers change by the time you reached the end of the novel?
2. When Sophie first starts receiving letters from the philosophy teacher, she finds that each one is slightly damp, having "two little holes in it." Thinking of Sophie's World as a mystery novel, what other "clues" did you encounter over the course of the book? Were you able to use them to solve any riddles?
3. As Sophie watched the video tape in secret, what was your understanding of how Alberto Knox was able to bring ancient Athens back to life? What distinctions are made in the novel between reality and the surreal? How do such distinctions play out in your own life?
4. How did you react to Aristotle's views on women? In your opinion, which of the thinkers in Gaarder's history provided admirable answers to questions about gender? What did you make of the fact that a vast majority of the authorities in the novel are men?
5. In the "Middle Ages" chapter, Alberto says, "We can say that Aquinas christianized Aristotle in the same way that St. Augustine christianized Plato." What was the result as these great medieval thinkers applied the teachings of Christ to ancient philosophy?
6. "You could say," Alberto tells Sophie, "that a process started in the Renaissance finally brought people to the moon. Or for that matter to Hiroshima or Chernobyl." What is this "process"? What is the relationship between philosophy, religion, economics, and science? How much of contemporary life is the result of Renaissance ideals?
7. "Bjerkely" marks the transition from Sophie's to Hilde's point of view. Both of the heroines in Sophie's World are going through phases of rapid physical, intellectual, and emotional development. How do their lives, personalities, and philosophies compare? What makes Berkeley/Bjerkely an appropriate backdrop for putting such dualities in the spotlight?
8. What parallel does Hilde's father build between the French Enlightenment and the United Nations? How does this parallel compare to the UN analogies in the "Kierkegaard" chapter? In what other ways does philosophy reverberate throughout current international politics?
9. Explain the "red-tinted glasses" experiment employed in the "Kant" chapter. What does Sophie discover about rationalists and empiricists along the way? How do these questions of perspective apply to issues in your own life?
10. In the "Romanticism" chapter, Alberto quotes a character from Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt as saying, "One cannot die in the middle of Act Five." What is your interpretation of this line? What do the poets and the other philosophers discussed in this chapter say about the nature of life and identity?
11. "In a sense," Alberto tells Sophie, "Freud demonstrated that there is an artist in everyone." Is this point of view valid? Compared to other notions proposed throughout the book, were Freud's the most radical or the most mundane?
12. Discuss the concept of theaters and role-playing as they unfold in the novel. Do you agree with Alberto's assertion that "the Baroque period gave birth to modern theater"? What were the playwrights involved in the "theater of the absurd" trying to say? How did their motivations compare to those of Shakespeare and his contemporaries?
13. In the "Big Bang" chapter, we find that stargazing is actually a form of time travel. How do these concepts of time shape the novel's closing scenes?
14. More than once in these pages, the child's perspective is mentioned as a paradigm for how philosophers should think or perceive. Though they are at an age when they are beginning to leave childhood behind, do Sophie and Hilde possess greater wisdom than their elders?
15. Sophie's World encompasses numerous time periods, cultures, discoveries, and belief systems. How many of the novel's terms and references were you already familiar with? Which aspects did you most want to research further?
16. Ultimately, what is a "philosophical project"? Does reading a novelor any bookconstitute a philosophical project? Does language limit or spur philosophical exercise? Can philosophy be learned?