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After reading, “The Garden Party” and “Counterpoint” and “The Big Bang” chapters, please create a discussion post addressing the following:

When did you figure out that Sophie was actually a fictional character within another work of fiction? When did you realize she was actually a character within a book written by Hilde’s father? Were you surprised by this? Did you anticipate that the author (Jostein Gaarder) was going to do this?


Respond to the questions above in your initial discussion post in 4 paragraph (minimum) with at least five sentences in each paragraph (10 Points)

Sophie’s World
Jostien Gaarder
More praise for the international bestseller that has become “Europe’s oddball
literary sensation of the decade”
(New York Newsday)
“A page-turner.” —Entertainment Weekly
“First, think of a beginner’s guide to philosophy, written by a schoolteacher …
Next, imagine a fantasy novel— something like a modern-day version of Through the
Looking Glass. Meld these disparate genres, and what do you get? Well, what you get
is an improbable international bestseller … a runaway hit… [a] tour deforce.”
“Compelling.” —Los Angeles Times
“Its depth of learning, its intelligence and its totally original conception give it
enormous magnetic appeal … To be fully human, and to feel our continuity with 3,000
years of philosophical inquiry, we need to put ourselves in Sophie’s world.” —Boston
Sunday Globe
“Involving and often humorous.” —USA Today
“In the adroit hands of Jostein Gaarder, the whole sweep of three millennia of
Western philosophy is rendered as lively as a gossip column … Literary sorcery of the
first rank.” —Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“A comprehensive history of Western philosophy as recounted to a 14-year-old
Norwegian schoolgirl… The book will serve as a first-rate introduction to anyone who
never took an introductory philosophy course, and as a pleasant refresher for those
who have and have forgotten most of it… [Sophie’s mother] is a marvelous comic
foil.” —Newsweek
“Terrifically entertaining and imaginative … I’ll read Sophie’s World again.” —
Daily Mail
“What is admirable in the novel is the utter unpretentious-ness of the
philosophical lessons, the plain and workmanlike prose which manages to deliver
Western philosophy in accounts that are crystal clear. It is heartening to know that a
book subtitled
“’A Novel About the History of Philosophy’ was not only a bestseller in France,
but for a while Europe’s hottest novel.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“A rare bird indeed, a short history of Western philosophical thought from
Socrates to Sartre, coyly embedded in the wrapping of a suspense novel.” —New
York Newsday
“A simply wonderful, irresistible book … a cross between Bertrand Russell’s
History of Western Philosophy and Alice in Wonderland.” —The Daily Telegraph
“An exciting trek into, the realm of thought, from the ancient philosophers’
school of Athens to the Konigsberg of Kant… and a brilliant success.” -Der Spiegel
“Intelligently written… an enchanting way to learn philosophy.” —Baton
Rouge Magazine
“Just as remarkable for its playful premise as it is for its accessibility … The
essential charm of Sophie’s World lies in the innocent curiosity of the young
character, and the clever narrative structure Gaarder designed to pique it.”
—Columbus Dispatch
“An extraordinary writer.” —Madeleine L’Engle
Sophie’s World
A Novel About the History of Philosophy
Translated by Paulette Miller
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book
is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and
neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped
A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., edition published 1994 Berkley edition / March
1996 All rights reserved.
Originally published in Norwegian under the title Sofies verden, copyright ©
1991 by H. Aschehoug & Co. (W. Nygaard), Oslo.
Translation copyright © 1994 by Paulette Moller.
This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by mimeograph or any
other means, without permission. For information address: Farrar, Straus, and
Giroux, Inc., 19 Union Square West, New York, New York 10003.
The Putnam Berkley World Wide Web site address is http://www.berkley.com
ISBN: 0-425-15225-1
Berkley Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group, 200 Madison
Avenue, New York, New York 10016.
BERKLEY and the “B” design are trademarks belonging to Berkley Publishing
This book would not have been possible without the support and encouragement
of Siri Dan-nevig. Thanks are also due to Maiken Ims for reading the manuscript and
making useful comments, and to Trond Berg Eriksen for his trenchant observations
and knowledgeable support through the years.
He who cannot draw on three thousand years
Is living from hand to mouth
… 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 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
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 mailbox—and it was for Sophie. The white
envelope read: “Sophie Amundsen, 3 Clover Close.” That was all; it did not say who
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 out—yet.
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
As she got no answer to this, she turned the sentence around and said, “I am
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
dark 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
“Kitty, kitty, kitty!”
Sophie chased the cat out onto the doorstep and closed the front door behind
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 redcurrant 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 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 yet—Sophie
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.
Oh, drat!
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 Moller Knag, c/o Sophie Amundsen, 3 Clover Close …” The rest of the
address was correct. The card read:
Dear Hilde, 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 Moller,
and quite a few called Knag. But there was nobody in the entire directory called
Moller 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 Moller 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.
The Top Hat
… the only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…
Sophie was sure she would hear from the anonymous letter writer again. She
decided not to tell anyone about the letters for the time being.
At school she had trouble concentrating on what the teachers said. They seemed
to talk only about unimportant things. Why couldn’t they talk about what a human
being is—or about what the world is and how it came into being?
For the first time she began to feel that at school as well as everywhere else
people were only concerned with trivialities. There were major problems that needed
to be solved.
Did anybody have answers to these questions? Sophie felt that thinking about
them was more important than memorizing irregular verbs.
When the bell rang after the last class, she left the school so fast that Joanna had
to run to catch up with her.
After a while Joanna said, “Do you want to play cards this evening?”
Sophie shrugged her shoulders.
“I’m not that interested in card games any more.”
Joanna looked surprised.
“You’re not? Let’s play badminton then.”
Sophie stared down at the pavement—then up at her friend.
“I don’t think I’m that interested in badminton either.”
“You’re kidding!”
Sophie noticed the touch of bitterness in Joanna’s tone.
“Do you mind telling me what’s suddenly so important?”
Sophie just shook her head. “It’s … it’s a secret.”
“Yuck! You’re probably in love!”
The two girls walked on for a while without saying anything. When they got to
the soccer field Joanna said, “I’m going across the field.”
Across the field! It was the quickest way for Joanna, but she only went that way
when she had to hurry home in time for visitors or a dental appointment.
Sophie regretted having been mean to her. But what else could she have said?
That she had suddenly become so engrossed in who she was and where the world
came from that she had no time to play badminton? Would Joanna have understood?
Why was it so difficult to be absorbed in the most vital and, in a way, the most
natural of all questions?
She felt her heart beating faster as she opened the mailbox. At first she found
only a letter from the bank and some big brown envelopes for her mother. Darn!
Sophie had been looking forward to getting another letter from the unknown sender.
As she closed the gate behind her she noticed her own name on one of the big
envelopes. Turning it over, she saw written on the back: “Course in Philosophy.
Handle with care.”
Sophie ran up the gravel path and flung her schoolbag onto the step. Stuffing
the other letters under the doormat, she ran around into the back garden and sought
refuge in the den. This was the only place to open the big letter.
Sherekan came jumping after her but Sophie had to put up with that. She knew
the cat would not give her away.
Inside the envelope there were three typewritten pages held together with a
paper clip. Sophie began to read.
Dear Sophie,
Lots of people have hobbies. Some people collect old coins or foreign
stamps, some do needlework, others spend most of their spare time on a
particular sport.
A lot of people enjoy reading. But reading tastes differ widely. Some
people only read newspapers or comics, some like reading novels, while
others prefer books on astronomy, wildlife, or technological discoveries.
If I happen to be interested in horses or precious stones, I cannot expect
everyone else to share my enthusiasm. If I watch all the sports programs on
TV with great pleasure, I must put up with the fact that other people find
sports boring.
Is there nothing that interests us all? Is there nothing that concerns
everyone—no matter who they are or where they live in the world? Yes, dear
Sophie, there are questions that certainly should interest everyone. They are
precisely the questions this course is about.
What is the most important thing in life? If we ask someone living on the
edge of starvation, the answer is food. If we ask someone dying of cold, the
answer is warmth. If we put the same question to someone who feels lonely
and isolated, the answer will probably be the company of other people.
But when these basic needs have been satisfied—will there still be
something that everybody needs? Philosophers think so. They believe that
man cannot live by bread alone. Of course everyone needs food. And
everyone needs love and care. But there is something else—apart from that—
which everyone needs, and that is to figure out who we are and why we are
Being interested in why we are here is not a “casual” interest like
collecting stamps. People who ask such questions are taking part in a debate
that has gone on as long as man has lived on this planet. How the universe,
the earth, and life came into being is a bigger and more important question
than who won the most gold medals in the last Olympics.
The best way of approaching philosophy is to ask a few philosophical
How was the world created? Is there any will or meaning behind what
happens? Is there a life after death? How can we answer these questions?
And most important, how ought we to live? People have been asking these
questions throughout the ages. We know of no culture which has not
concerned itself with what man is and where the world came from.
Basically there are not many philosophical questions to ask. We have
already asked some of the most important ones. But history presents us with
many different answers to each question. So it is easier to ask philosophical
questions than to answer them.
Today as well each individual has to discover his own answer to these
same questions. You cannot find out whether there is a God or whether there
is life after death by looking in an encyclopedia. Nor does the encyclopedia
tell us how we ought to live. However, reading what other people have
believed can help us formulate our own view of life.
Philosophers’ search for the truth resembles a detective story. Some
think Andersen was the murderer, others think it was Nielsen or Jensen. The
police are sometimes able to solve a real crime. But it is equally possible that
they never get to the bottom of it, although there is a solution somewhere. So
even if it is difficult to answer a question, there may be one—and only one—
right answer. Either there is a kind of existence after death—or there is not.
A lot of age-old enigmas have now been explained by science. What the
dark side of the moon looks like was once shrouded in mystery. It was not the
kind of thing that could be solved by discussion, it was left to the imagination
of the individual. But today we know exactly what the dark side of the moon
looks like, and no one can “believe” any longer in the Man in the Moon, or that
the moon is made of green cheese.
A Greek philosopher who lived more than two thousand years ago
believed that philosophy had its origin in man’s sense of wonder. Man thought
it was so astonishing to be alive that philosophical questions arose of their
own accord.
It is like watching a magic trick. We cannot understand how it is done.
So we ask: how can the magician change a couple of white silk scarves into a
live rabbit?
A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a
magician suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat which has just been shown to
them empty.
In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us. What we
would like to know is just how he did it. But when it comes to the world it’s
somewhat different. We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and
deception because here we are in it, we are part of it. Actually, we are the
white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference between us and
the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic
trick. Unlike us. We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would
like to know how it all works.
P.S. As far as the white rabbit is concerned, it might be better to
compare it with the whole universe. 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
Are you still there, Sophie? To be continued . . .
Sophie was completely exhausted. Still there? She could not even remember if
she had taken the time to breathe while she read.
Who had brought this letter? It couldn’t be the same person who had sent the
birthday card to Hilde Moller Knag because that card had both a stamp and a postmark. The brown envelope had been delivered by hand to the mailbox exactly like the
two white ones.
Sophie looked at her watch. It was a quarter to three. Her mother would not be
home from work for over two hours.
Sophie crawled out into the garden again and ran to the mailbox. Perhaps there
was another letter.
She found one more brown envelope with her name on it. This time she looked
all around but there was nobody in sight. Sophie ran to the edge of the woods and
looked down the path.
No one was there. Suddenly she thought she heard a twig snap deep in the
woods. But she was not completely sure, and anyway it would be pointless to chase
after someone who was determined to get away.
Sophie let herself into the house. She ran upstairs to her room and took out a big
cookie tin full of pretty stones. She emptied the stones onto the floor and put both
large envelopes into the tin. Then she hurried out into the garden again, holding the
tin securely with both hands. Before she went she put some food out for Sherekan.
“Kitty, kitty, kitty!”
Once back in the den she opened the second brown envelope and drew out the
new typewritten pages. She began to read.
Hello again! As you see, this short course in philosophy will come in
handy-sized portions. Here are a few more introductory remarks:
Did I say that the only thing we require to be good philosophers is the
faculty of wonder? If I did not, I say it now: THE ONLY THING WE REQUIRE
Babies have this faculty. That is not surprising. After a few short months
in the womb they slip out into a brand-new reality. But as they grow up the
faculty of wonder seems to diminish. Why is this? Do you know?
If a newborn baby could talk, it would probably say something about
what an extraordinary world it had come into. We see how it looks around and
reaches out in curiosity to everything it sees.
As words are gradually acquired, the child looks up and says “Bow-wow”
every time it sees a dog. It jumps up and down in its stroller, waving its arms:
“Bow-wow! Bow-wow!” We who are older and wiser may feel somewhat
exhausted by the child’s enthusiasm. “All right, all right, it’s a bow-wow,” we
say, unimpressed. “Please sit still.” We are not enthralled. We have seen a
dog before.
This rapturous performance may repeat itself hundreds of times before
the child learns to pass a dog without going crazy. Or an elephant, or a
hippopotamus. But long before the child learns to talk properly—and Ion
before it learns to think philosophically—the world we have become a habit.
A pity, if you ask me.
My concern is that you do not grow up to be one of those people who
take the world for granted, Sophie dear. So just to make sure, we are going to
do a couple of experiments in thought before we begin on the course itself.
Imagine that one day you are out for a walk in the woods. Suddenly you
see a small spaceship on the path in front of you. A tiny Martian climbs out of
the spaceship and stands on the ground looking up at you . . .
What would you think? Never mind, it’s not important. But have you ever
given any thought to the fact that you are a Martian yourself?
It is obviously unlikely that you will ever stumble upon a creature from
another planet. We do not even know that there is life on other planets. But
you might stumble upon yourself one day. You might suddenly stop short and
see yourself in a completely new light. On just such a walk in the woods.
I am an extraordinary being, you think. I am a mysterious creature.
You feel as if you are waking from an enchanted slumber. Who am I?
you ask. You know that you are stumbling around on a planet in the universe.
But what is the universe?
If you discover yourself in this manner you will have discovered
something as mysterious as the Martian we just mentioned. You will not only
have seen a being from outer space. You will feel deep down that you are
yourself an extraordinary being.
Do you follow me, Sophie? Let’s do another experiment in thought:
One morning, Mom, Dad, and little Thomas, aged two or three, are
having breakfast in the kitchen. After a while Mom gets up and goes over to
the kitchen sink, and Dad—yes, Dad—flies up and floats around under the
ceiling while Thomas sits watching. What do you think Thomas says?
Perhaps he points up at his father and says: “Daddy’s flying!” Thomas will
certainly be astonished, but then he very often is. Dad does so many strange
things that this business of a little flight over the breakfast table makes no
difference to him. Every day Dad shaves with a funny machine, sometimes he
climbs onto the roof and turns the TV aerial—or else he sticks his head under
the hood of the car and comes up black in the face.
Now it’s Mom’s turn. She hears what Thomas says and turns around
abruptly. How do you think she reacts to the sight of Dad floating nonchalantly
over the kitchen table?
She drops the jam jar on the floor and screams with fright. She may
even need medical attention once Dad has returned respectably to his chair.
(He should have learned better table manners by now!) Why do you think
Thomas and his mother react so differently?
It all has to do with habit. (Note this!) Mom has learned that people
cannot fly. Thomas has not. He still isn’t certain what you can and cannot do
in this world.
But what about the world itself, Sophie? Do you think it can do what it
does? The world is also floating in space.
Sadly it is not only the force of gravity we get used to as we grow up.
The world itself becomes a habit in no time at all. It seems as if in the process
of growing up we lose the ability to wonder about the world. And in doing so,
we lose something central—something philosophers try to restore. For
somewhere inside ourselves, something tells us that life is a huge mystery.
This is something we once experienced, long before we learned to think the
To be more precise: Although philosophical questions concern us all, we
do not all become philosophers. For various reasons most people get so
caught up in everyday affairs that their astonishment at the world gets pushed
into the background. (They crawl deep into the rabbit’s fur, snuggle down
comfortably, and stay there for the rest of their lives.)
To children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives
rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world
as a matter of course.
This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A
philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world
continues to seem a bit unreasonable—bewildering, even enigmatic.
Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common.
You might say that throughout his life a philosopher remains as thin-skinned
as a child.
So now you must choose, Sophie. Are you a child who has not yet
become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to
become so?
If you just shake your head, not recognizing yourself as either a child or
a philosopher, then you have gotten so used to the world that it no longer
astonishes you. Watch out! You are on thin ice. And this is why you are
receiving this course in philosophy, just in case. I will not allow you, of all
people, to join the ranks of the apathetic and the indifferent. I want you to
have an inquiring mind.
The whole course is free of charge, so you get no money back if you do
not complete it. If you choose to break off the course you are free to do so. In
that case you must leave a message for me in the mailbox. A live frog would
be eminently suitable. Something green, at least, otherwise the mailman
might get scared.
To summarize briefly: A white rabbit is pulled out of a top hat. Because it
is an extremely large rabbit, the trick takes many billions of years. All mortals
are born at the very tip of the rabbit’s fine hairs, where they are in a position to
wonder at the impossibility of the trick. But as they grow older they work
themselves ever deeper into the fur. And there they stay. They become so
comfortable they never risk crawling back up the fragile hairs again. Only
philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of
language and existence. Some of them fall off, but others cling on desperately
and yell at the people nestling deep in the snug softness, stuffing themselves
with delicious food and drink.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” they yell, “we are floating in space!” But none of
the people down there care.
“What a bunch of troublemakers!” they say. And they keep on chatting:
Would you pass the butter, please? How much have our stocks risen today?
What is the price of tomatoes? Have you heard that Princess Di is expecting
When Sophie’s mother got home later that afternoon, Sophie was practically in
shock. The tin containing the letters from the mysterious philosopher was safely hidden in the den. Sophie had tried to start her homework but could only sit thinking
about what she had read.
She had never thought so hard before! She was no longer a child—but she
wasn’t really grown up either. Sophie realized that she had already begun to crawl
down into the cozy rabbit’s fur, the very same rabbit that had been pulled from the top
hat of the universe. But the philosopher had stopped her. He—or was it a she?—had
grabbed her by the back of the neck and pulled her up again to the tip of the fur where
she had played as a child. And there, on the outermost tips of the fine hairs, she was
once again seeing the world as if for the very first time.
The philosopher had rescued her. No doubt about it. The unknown letter writer
had saved her from the triviality of everyday existence.
When Mom got home at five o’clock, Sophie dragged her into the living room
and pushed her into an armchair.
“Mom—don’t you think it’s astonishing to be alive?” she began.
Her mother was so surprised that she didn’t answer at first. Sophie was usually
doing her homework when she got home.
“I suppose I do—sometimes,” she said.
“Sometimes? Yes, but—don’t you think it’s astonishing that the world exists at
“Now look, Sophie. Stop talking like that.”
“Why? Perhaps you think the world is quite normal?”
“Well, isn’t it? More or less, anyway.”
Sophie saw that the philosopher was right. Grownups took the world for
granted. They had let themselves be lulled into the enchanted sleep of their humdrum
existence once and for all.
“You’ve just grown so used to the world that nothing surprises you any more.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you getting so used to everything. Totally dim, in other
“I will not be spoken to like that, Sophie!”
“All right, I’ll put it another way. You’ve made yourself comfortable deep down
in the fur of a white rabbit that is being pulled out of the universe’s top hat right now.
And in a minute you’ll put the potatoes on. Then you’ll read the paper and after half
an hour’s nap you’ll watch the news on TV!”
An anxious expression came over her mother’s face. She did indeed go into the
kitchen and put the potatoes on. After a while she came back into the living room, and
this time it was she who pushed Sophie into an armchair.
“There’s something I must talk to you about,” she began. Sophie could tell by
her voice that it was something serious.
“You haven’t gotten yourself mixed up with drugs, have you, dear?”
Sophie was just about to laugh, but she understood why the question was being
brought up now.
“Are you nuts?” she said. “That only makes you duller’.”
No more was said that evening about either drugs or white rabbits.
The Myths
… a precarious balance between the forces of good and evil …
There was no letter for Sophie the next morning. All through the interminable
day at school she was bored stiff. She took care to be extra nice to Joanna during the
breaks. On the way home they talked about going camping as soon as the woods were
dry enough.
After what seemed an eternity she was once again at the mailbox. First she
opened a letter postmarked in Mexico. It was from her father. He wrote about how
much he was longing for home and how for the first time he had managed to beat the
Chief Officer at chess. Apart from that he had almost finished the pile of books he had
brought aboard with him after his winter leave.
And then, there it was—a brown envelope with her name on it! Leaving her
schoolbag and the rest of the mail in the house, Sophie ran to the den. She pulled out
the new typewritten pages and began to read:
Hello there, Sophie! We have a lot to do, so we’ll get started without
By philosophy we mean the completely new way of thinking that evolved
in Greece about six hundred years before the birth of Christ. Until that time
people had found answers to all their questions in various religions. These
religious explanations were handed down from generation to generation in the
form of myths. A myth is a story about the gods which sets out to explain why
life is as it is.
Over the millennia a wild profusion of mythological explanations of
philosophical questions spread across the world. The Greek philosophers
attempted to prove that these explanations were not to be trusted.
In order to understand how the early philosophers thought, we have to
understand what it was like to have a mythological picture of the world. We
can take some Nordic myths as examples. (There is no need to carry coals to
You have probably heard of Thor and his hammer. Before Christianity
came to Norway, people believed that Thor rode across the sky in a chariot
drawn by two goats. When he swung his hammer it made thunder and
lightning. The word “thunder” in Norwegian—“Thor-d0n”—means Thor’s roar.
In Swedish, the word for thunder is “aska,” originally “as-aka,” which means
“god’s journey” over the heavens.
When there is thunder and lightning there is also rain, which was vital to
the Viking farmers. So Thor was worshipped as the god of fertility.
The mythological explanation for rain was therefore that Thor was
swinging his hammer. And when it rained the corn germinated and thrived in
the fields.
How the plants of the field could grow and yield crops was not
understood. But it was clearly somehow connected with the rain. And since
everybody believed that the rain had something to do with Thor, he was one
of the most important of the Norse gods.
There was another reason why Thor was important, a reason related to
the entire world order.
The Vikings believed that the inhabited world was an island under
constant threat from outside dangers. They called this part of the world
Midgard, which means the kingdom in the middle. Within Midgard lay Asgard,
the domain of the gods.
Outside Midgard was the kingdom of Utgard, the domain of the
treacherous giants, who resorted to all kinds of cunning tricks to try and
destroy the world. Evil monsters like these are often referred to as the “forces
of chaos.” Not only in Norse mythology but in almost all other cultures, people
found that there was a precarious balance between the forces of good and
One of the ways in which the giants could destroy Midgard was by
abducting Freyja, the goddess of fertility. If they could do this, nothing would
grow in the fields and the women would no longer have children. So it was
vital to hold these giants in check.
Thor was a central figure in this battle with the giants. His hammer could
do more than make rain; it was a key weapon in the struggle against the
dangerous forces of chaos. It gave him almost unlimited power. For example,
he could hurl it at the giants and slay them. And he never had to worry about
losing it because it always came back to him, just like a boomerang.
This was the mythological explanation for how the balance of nature was
maintained and why there was a constant struggle between good and evil.
And this was precisely the kind of explanation that the philosophers rejected.
But it was not a question of explanations alone.
Mortals could not just sit idly by and wait for the gods to intervene while
catastrophes such as drought or plague loomed. They had to act for
themselves in the struggle against evil. This they did by performing various
religious ceremonies, or rites.
The most significant religious ceremony in Norse times was the offering.
Making an offering to a god had the effect of increasing that god’s power. For
example, mortals had to make offerings to the gods to give them the strength
to conquer the forces of chaos. They could do this by sacrificing an animal to
the god. The offering to Thor was usually a goat. Offerings to Odin sometimes
took the form of human sacrifices.
The myth that is best known in the Nordic countries comes from the
Eddie poem “The Lay of Thrym.” It tells how Thor, rising from sleep, finds that
his hammer is gone. This makes him so angry that his hands tremble and his
beard shakes. Accompanied by his henchman Loki he goes to Freyja to ask if
Loki may borrow her wings so that he can fly to Jotunheim, the land of the
giants, and find out if they are the ones who have stolen Thor’s hammer.
At Jotunheim Loki meets Thrym, the king of the giants, who sure enough
begins to boast that he has hidden the hammer seven leagues under the
earth. And he adds that the gods will not get the hammer back until Thrym is
given Freyja as his bride.
Can you picture it, Sophie? Suddenly the good gods find themselves in
the midst of a full-blown hostage incident. The giants have seized the gods’
most vital defensive weapon. This is an utterly unacceptable situation. As long
as the giants have Thor’s hammer, they have total control over the world of
gods and mortals. In exchange for the hammer they are demanding Freyja.
But this is equally unacceptable. If the gods have to give up their goddess of
fertility—she who protects all life—the grass will disappear from the fields and
all gods and mortals will die. The situation is deadlocked.
Loki returns to Asgard, so the myth goes, and tells Freyja to put on her
wedding attire for she is (alas!) to wed the king of the giants. Freyja is furious,
and says people will think she is absolutely man-crazy if she agrees to marry
a giant.
Then the god Heimdall has an idea. He suggests that Thor dress up as a
bride. With his hair up and two stones under his tunic he will look like a
woman. Understandably, Thor is not wildly enthusiastic about the idea, but he
finally accepts that this is the only way he will ever get his hammer back.
So Thor allows himself to be attired in bridal costume, with Loki as his
To put it in present-day terms, Thor and Loki are the gods’ “anti-terrorist
squad.” Disguised as women, their mission is to breach the giants’ stronghold
and recapture Thor’s hammer.
When the gods arrive at Jotunheim, the giants begin to prepare the
wedding feast. But during the feast, the bride—Thor, that is—devours an
entire ox and eight salmon. He also drinks three barrels of beer. This
astonishes Thrym. The true identity of the “commandos” is very nearly
revealed. But Loki manages to avert the danger by explaining that Freyja has
been looking forward to coming to jotunheim so much that she has not eaten
for a week.
When Thrym lifts the bridal veil to kiss the bride, he is startled to find
himself looking into Thor’s burning eyes. Once again Loki saves the situation
by explaining that the bride has not slept for a week because she is so excited
about the wedding. At this, Thrym commands that the hammer be brought
forth and laid in the bride’s lap during the wedding ceremony.
Thor roars with laughter when he is given the hammer. First he kills
Thrym with it, and then he wipes out the giants and all their kin. And thus the
gruesome hostage affair has a happy ending. Thor—the Batman or James
Bond of the gods—has once again conquered the forces of evil.
So much for the myth itself, Sophie. But what is the real meaning behind
it? It wasn’t made up just for entertainment. The myth also tries to explain
something. Here is one possible interpretation:
When a drought occurred, people sought an explanation of why there
was no rain. Could it be that the giants had stolen Thor’s hammer?
Perhaps the myth was an attempt to explain the changing seasons of
the year: in the winter Nature dies because Thor’s hammer is in jotunheim.
But in the spring he succeeds in winning it back. So the myth tried to give
people an explanation for something they could not understand.
But a myth was not only an explanation. People also carried out religious
ceremonies related to the myths. We can imagine how people’s response to
drought or crop failure would be to enact a drama about the events in the
myth. Perhaps a man from the village would dress up as a bride—with stones
for breasts—in order to steal the hammer back from the giants. By doing this,
people were taking some action to make it rain so the crops would grow in
their fields.
There are a great many examples from other parts of the world of the
way people dramatized their myths of the seasons in order to speed up the
processes of nature.
So far we have only taken a brief glimpse at the world of Norse
mythology. But there were countless myths about Thor and Odin, Freyr and
Frey a, Hoder and Balder and many other gods. Mythologica notions of this
kind flourished all over the world until philosophers began to tamper with
A mythological world picture also existed in Greece when the first
philosophy was evolving. The stories of the Greek gods had been handed
down from generation to generation for centuries. In Greece the gods were
called Zeus and Apollo, Hera and Athene, Dionysos and Ascle-pios, Heracles
and Hephaestos, to mention only a few of them.
Around 700 B.C., much of the Greek mythology was written down by
Homer and Hesiod. This created a whole new situation. Now that the myths
existed in written form, it was possible to discuss them.
The earliest Greek philosophers criticized Homer’s mythology because
the gods resembled mortals too much and were just as egoistic and
treacherous. For the first time it was said that the myths were nothing but
human notions.
One exponent of this view was the philosopher Xe-nophanes, who lived
from about 570 B.C. Men have created the gods in their own image, he said.
They believe the gods were born and have bodies and clothes and language
just as we have. Ethiopians believe that the gods are black and flat-nosed,
Thracians imagine them to be blue-eyed and fair-haired. If oxen, horses, and
lions could draw, they would depict gods that looked like oxen, horses, and
During that period the Greeks founded many city-states, both in Greece
itself and in the Greek colonies in Southern Italy and Asia Minor, where all
manual work was done by slaves, leaving the citizens free to devote all their
time to politics and culture.
In these city environments people began to think in a completely new
way. Purely on his own behalf, any citizen could question the way society
ought to be organized. Individuals could thus also ask philosophical questions
without recourse to ancient myths.
We call this the development from a mythological mode of thought to
one based on experience and reason. The aim of the early Greek
philosophers was to find natural, rather than supernatural, explanations for
natural processes.
Sophie left the den and wandered about in the large garden. She tried to forget
what she had learned at school, especially in science classes.
If she had grown up in this garden without knowing anything at all about nature,
how would she feel about the spring?
Would she try to invent some kind of explanation for why it suddenly started to
rain one day? Would she work out some fantasy to explain where the snow went and
why the sun rose in the morning?
Yes, she definitely would. She began to make up a story:
Winter held the land in its icy grip because the evil Muriat had imprisoned the
beautiful Princess Sikita in a cold prison. But one morning the brave Prince Bravato
came and rescued her. Sikita was so happy that she began to dance over the meadows,
singing a song she had composed inside the dank prison. The earth and the trees were
so moved that all the snow turned into tears. But then the sun came out and dried all
the tears away. The birds imitated Sikita’s song, and when the beautiful princess let
down her golden tresses, a few locks of her hair fell onto the earth and turned into the
lilies of the field …
Sophie liked her beautiful story. If she had not known any other explanation for
the changing seasons, she felt sure she would have come to believe her own story in
the end.
She understood that people had always felt a need to explain the processes of
nature. Perhaps they could not live without such explanations. And that they made up
all those myths in the time before there was anything called science.
The Natural Philosophers
… nothing can come from nothing …
When her mother got home from work that afternoon Sophie was sitting in the
glider, pondering the possible connection between the philosophy course and Hilde
Moller Knag, who would not be getting a birthday card from her father.
Her mother called from the other end of the garden, “Sophie! There’s a letter for
She caught her breath. She had already emptied the mailbox, so the letter had to
be from the philosopher. What on earth would she say to her mother?
“There’s no stamp on it. It’s probably a love letter!”
Sophie took the letter.
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
She had to find an excuse.
“Have you ever heard of anyone opening a love letter with her mother looking
over her shoulder?”
Let her mother think it was a love letter. Although it was embarrassing enough,
it would be even worse if her mother found out that she was doing a correspondence
course with a complete stranger, a philosopher who was playing hide-and-seek with
It was one of the little white envelopes. When Sophie got upstairs to her room,
she found three new questions:
Is there a basic substance that everything else is made of?
Can water turn into wine?
How can earth and water produce a live frog!
Sophie found the questions pretty stupid, but nevertheless they kept buzzing
around in her head all evening. She was still thinking about them at school the next
day, examining them one by one.
Could there be a “basic substance” that everything was made of? If there was
some such substance, how could it suddenly turn into a flower or an elephant?
The same objection applied to the question of whether water could turn into
wine. Sophie knew the parable of how Jesus turned water into wine, but she had never
taken it literally. And if Jesus really had turned water into wine, it was because it was
a miracle, something that could not be done normally. Sophie knew there was a lot of
water, not only in wine but in all other growing things. But even if a cucumber was 95
percent water, there must be something else in it as well, because a cucumber was a
cucumber, not water.
And then there was the question about the frog. Her philosophy teacher had this
really weird thing about frogs.
Sophie could possibly accept that a frog consisted of earth and water, in which
case the earth must consist of more than one kind of substance. If the earth consisted
of a lot of different substances, it was obviously possible that earth and water together
could produce a frog. That is, if the earth and the water went via frog spawn and
tadpoles. Because a frog could not just grow out of a cabbage patch, however much
you watered it.
When she got home from school that day there was a fat envelope waiting for
her in the mailbox. Sophie hid in the den just as she had done the other days.
Here we are again! We’ll go directly to today’s lesson without detours
around white rabbits and the like.
I’ll outline very broadly the way people have thought about philosophy,
from the ancient Greeks right up to our own day. But we’ll take things in their
correct order.
Since some philosophers lived in a different age—and perhaps in a
completely different culture from ours—it is a good idea to try and see what
each philosopher’s project is. By this I mean that we must try to grasp
precisely what it is that each particular philosopher is especially concerned
with finding out. One philosopher might want to know how plants and animals
came into being. Another might want to know whether there is a God or
whether man has an immortal soul.
Once we have determined what a particular philosopher’s project is, it is
easier to follow his line of thought, since no one philosopher concerns himself
with the whole of philosophy.
I said his line of thought—referring to the philosopher, because this is
also a story of men. Women of the past were subjugated both as females and
as thinking beings, which is sad because a great deal of very important experience was lost as a result. It was not until this century that women really
made their mark on the history of philosophy.
I do not intend to give you any homework—no difficult math questions,
or anything like that, and conjugating English verbs is outside my sphere of
interest. However, from time to time I’ll give you a short assignment.
If you accept these conditions, we’ll begin.
The earliest Greek philosophers are sometimes called natural
philosophers because they were mainly concerned with the natural world and
its processes.
We have already asked ourselves where everything comes from.
Nowadays a lot of people imagine that at some time something must have
come from nothing. This idea was not so widespread among the Greeks. For
one reason or another, they assumed that “something” had always existed.
How everything could come from nothing was therefore not the allimportant question. On the other hand the Greeks marveled at how live fish
could come from water, and huge trees and brilliantly colored flowers could
come from the dead earth. Not to mention how a baby could come from its
mother’s womb!
The philosophers observed with their own eyes that nature was in a
constant state of transformation. But how could such transformations occur?
How could something change from being substance to being a living
thing, for example?
All the earliest philosophers shared the belief that there had to be a
certain basic substance at the root of all change. How they arrived at this idea
is hard to say. We only know that the notion gradually evolved that there must
be a basic substance that was the hidden cause of all changes in nature.
There had to be “something” that all things came from and returned to.
For us, the most interesting part is actually not what solutions these
earliest philosophers arrived at, but which questions they asked and what type
of answer they were looking for. We are more interested in how they thought
than in exactly what they thought.
We know that they posed questions relating to the transformations they
could observe in the physical world. They were looking for the underlying laws
of nature. They wanted to understand what was happening around them
without having to turn to the ancient myths. And most important, they wanted
to understand the actual processes by studying nature itself. This was quite
different from explaining thunder and lightning or winter and spring by telling
stories about the gods.
So philosophy gradually liberated itself from religion. We could say that
the natural philosophers took the first step in the direction of scientific
reasoning, thereby becoming the precursors of what was to become science.
Only fragments have survived of what the natural philosophers said and
wrote. What little we know is found in the writings of Aristotle, who lived two
centuries later. He refers only to the conclusions the philosophers reached.
So we do not always know by what paths they reached these conclusions. But
what we do know enables us to establish that the earliest Greek philosophers’
project concerned the question of a basic constituent substance and the
changes in nature.
The first philosopher we know of is Thales, who came from Miletus, a
Greek colony in Asia Minor. He traveled in many countries, including Egypt,
where he is said to have calculated the height of a pyramid by measuring its
shadow at the precise moment when the length of his own shadow was equal
to his height. He is also said to have accurately predicted a solar eclipse in
the year 585 B.C.
Thales thought that the source of all things was water. We do not know
exactly what he meant by that, he may have believed that all life originated
from water—and that all life returns to water again when it dissolves.
During his travels in Egypt he must have observed how the crops began
to grow as soon as the floods of the Nile receded from the land areas in the
Nile Delta. Perhaps he also noticed that frogs and worms appeared wherever
it had just been raining.
It is likely that Thales thought about the way water turns to ice or
vapor—and then turns back into water again.
Thales is also supposed to have said that “all things are full of gods.”
What he meant by that we can only surmise. Perhaps, seeing how the black
earth was the source of everything from flowers and crops to insects and
cockroaches, he imagined that the earth was filled with tiny invisible “lifegerms.” One thing is certain—he was not talking about Homer’s gods.
The next philosopher we hear of is Anaximander, who also lived in
Miletus at about the same time as Thales. He thought that our world was only
one of a myriad of worlds that evolve and dissolve in something he called the
boundless. It is not so easy to explain what he meant by the boundless, but it
seems clear that he was not thinking of a known substance in the way that
Thales had envisaged. Perhaps he meant that the substance which is the
source of all things had to be something other than the things created.
Because all created things are limited, that which comes before and after
them must be “boundless.” It is clear that this basic stuff could not be anything
as ordinary as water.
A third philosopher from Miletus was Anaximenes (c. 570—526 B.C.).
He thought that the source of all things must be “air” or “vapor.” Anaximenes
was of course familiar with Tholes’ theory of water. But where does water
come from? Anaximenes thought that water was condensed air. We observe
that when it rains, water is pressed from the air. When water is pressed even
more, it becomes earth, he thought. He may have seen how earth and sand
were pressed out of melting ice. He also thought that fire was rarefied air.
According to Anaximenes, air was therefore the origin of earth, water, and fire.
It is not a far cry from water to the fruit of the earth. Perhaps
Anaximenes thought that earth, air, and fire were all necessary to the creation
of life, but that the source of all things was air or vapor. So, like Thales, he
thought that there must be an underlying substance that is the source of all
natural change.
Nothing Can Come from Nothing
These three Milesian philosophers all believed in the existence of a
single basic substance as the source of all things. But how could one
substance suddenly change into something else? We can call this the
problem of change.
From about 500 B.C., there was a group of philosophers in the Greek
colony of Elea in Southern Italy. These “Eleatics” were interested in this
The most important of these philosophers was Parmenides (c. 540-480
B.C.). Parmenides thought that everything that exists had always existed. This
idea was not alien to the Greeks. They took it more or less for granted that
everything that existed in the world was everlasting. Nothing can come out of
nothing, thought Parmenides. And nothing that exists can become nothing.
But Parmenides took the idea further. He thought that there was no such
thing as actual change. Nothing could become anything other than it was.
Parmenides realized, of course, that nature is in a constant state of flux.
He perceived with his senses that things changed. But he could not equate
this with what his reason told him. When forced to choose between relying either on his senses or his reason, he chose reason.
You know the expression “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But Parmenides
didn’t even believe things when he saw them. He believed that our senses
give us an incorrect picture of the world, a picture that does not tally with our
reason. As a philosopher, he saw it as his task to expose all forms of
perceptual illusion.
This unshakable faith in human reason is called rationalism. A rationalist
is someone who believes that human reason is the primary source of our
knowledge of the world.
All Things Flow
A contemporary of Parmenides was Heraditus (c. 540-480 B.C.), who
was from Ephesus in Asia Minor. He thought that constant change, or flow,
was in fact the mosf basic characteristic of nature. We could perhaps say that
Heraclitus had more faith in what he could perceive than Parmenides did.
“Everything flows,” said Heraclitus. Everything is in constant flux and
movement, nothing is abiding. Therefore we “cannot step twice into the same
river.” When I step into the river for the second time, neither I nor the river are
the same.
Heraclitus pointed out that the world is characterized by opposites. If we
were never ill, we would not know what it was to be well. If we never knew
hunger, we would take no pleasure in being full. If there were never any war,
we would not appreciate peace. And if there were no winter, we would never
see the spring.
Both good and bad have their inevitable place in the order of things,
Heraclitus believed. Without this constant interplay of opposites the world
would cease to exist.
“God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, hunger and
satiety,” he said. He used the term “God,” but he was clearly not referring to
the gods of the mythology. To Heraclitus, God—or the Deity—was something
that embraced the whole world. Indeed, God can be seen most clearly in the
constant transformations and contrasts of nature.
Instead of the term “God,” Heraclitus often used the Greek word logos,
meaning reason. Although we humans do not always think alike or have the
same degree of reason, Heraclitus believed that there must be a kind of
“universal reason” guiding everything that happens in nature.
This “universal reason” or “universal law” is something common to us all,
and something that everybody is guided by. And yet most people live by their
individual reason, thought Heraclitus. In general, he despised his fellow beings. “The opinions of most people,” he said, “are like the playthings of
So in the midst of all nature’s constant flux and oppo-sites, Heraclitus
saw an Entity or one-ness. This “something,” which was the source of
everything, he called God or logos.
Four Basic Elements
In one way, Parmenides and Heraclitus were the direct opposite of each
other. Parmenides’ reason made it clear that nothing could change.
Heraclitus’ sense perceptions made it equally clear that nature was in a
constant state of change. Which of them was right? Should we let reason
dictate or should we rely on our senses?
Parmenides and Heraclitus both say two things:
Parmenides says:
a) that nothing can change, and
b) that our sensory perceptions must therefore be unreliable. Heraclitus,
on the other hand, says:
a) that everything changes (“all things flow”), and
b) that our sensory perceptions are reliable.
Philosophers could hardly disagree more than that! But who was right? It
fell to Empedocles (c. 490-430 B.C.) from Sicily to lead the way out of the
tangle they had gotten themselves into.
He thought they were both right in one of their assertions but wrong in
the other.
Empedocles found that the cause of their basic disagreement was that
both philosophers had assumed the presence of only one element. If this
were true, the gap between what reason dictates and what “we can see with
our own eyes” would be unbridgeable.
Water obviously cannot turn into a fish or a butterfly. In fact, water
cannot change. Pure water will continue to be pure water. So Parmenides
was right in holding that “nothing changes.”
But at the same time Empedocles agreed with Heraclitus that we must
trust the evidence of our senses. We must believe what we see, and what we
see is precisely that nature changes.
Empedocles concluded that it was the idea of a single basic substance
that had to be rejected. Neither water nor air alone can change into a
rosebush or a butterfly. The source of nature cannot possibly be one single
Empedocles believed that all in all, nature consisted of four elements, or
“roots” as he termed them. These four roots were earth, air, fire, and wafer.
All natural processes were due to the coming together and separating of
these four elements. For all things were a mixture of earth, air, fire, and water,
but in varying proportions. When a flower or an animal dies, he said, the four
elements separate again. We can register these changes with the naked eye.
But earth and air, fire and water remain everlasting, “untouched” by all the
compounds of which they are part. So it is not correct to say that “everything”
changes. Basically, nothing changes. What happens is that the four elements
are combined and separated—only to be combined again.
We can make a comparison to painting. If a painter only has one color—
red, for instance—he cannot paint green trees. But if he has yellow, red, blue,
and black, he can paint in hundreds of different colors because he can mix
them in varying proportions.
An example from the kitchen illustrates the same thing. If I only have
flour, I have to be a wizard to bake a cake. But if I have eggs, flour, milk, and
sugar, then I can make any number of different cakes.
It was not purely by chance that Empedocles chose earth, air, fire, and
water as nature’s “roots.” Other philosophers before him had tried to show
that the primordial substance had to be either water, air, or fire. Thales and
Anaximenes had pointed out that both water and air were essential elements
in the physical world. The Greeks believed that fire was also essential. They
observed, for example, the importance of the sun to all living things, and they
also knew that both animals and humans have body heat.
Empedocles might have watched a piece of wood burning. Something
disintegrates. We hear it crackle and splutter. That is “water.” Something goes
up in smoke. That is “air.” The “fire” we can see. Something also remains
when the fire is extinguished. That is the ashes—or “earth.”
After Empedocles’ clarification of nature’s transformations as the
combination and dissolution of the four “roots,” something still remained to be
explained. What makes these elements combine so that new life can occur?
And what makes the “mixture” of, say, a flower dissolve again?
Empedocles believed that there were two different forces at work in
nature. He called them love and strife. Love binds things together, and strife
separates them.
He distinguishes between “substance” and “force.” This is worth noting.
Even today, scientists distinguish between elements and natural forces.
Modern science holds that all natural processes can be explained as the interaction between different elements and various natural forces.
Empedocles also raised the question of what happens when we
perceive something. How can I “see” a flower, for example? What is it that
happens? Have you ever thought about it, Sophie?
Empedocles believed that the eyes consist of earth, air, fire, and water,
just like everything else in nature. So the “earth” in my eye perceives what is
of the earth in my surroundings, the “air” perceives what is of the air, the “fire”
perceives what is of fire, and the “water” what is of water. Had my eyes lacked
any of the four substances, I would not have seen all of nature.
Something of Everything in Everything
Anaxagoras (500-428 B.C.) was another philosopher who could not
agree that one particular basic substance—water, for instance—might be
transformed into everything we see in the natural world. Nor could he accept
that earth, air, fire, and water can be transformed into blood and bone.
Anaxagoras held that nature is built up of an infinite number of minute
particles invisible to the eye. Moreover, everything can be divided into even
smaller parts, but even in the minutest parts there are fragments of all other
things. If skin and bone are not a transformation of something else, there must
also be skin and bone, he thought, in the milk we drink and the food we eat.
A couple of present-day examples can perhaps illustrate Anaxagoras’
line of thinking. Modern laser technology can produce so-called holograms. If
one of these holograms depicts a car, for example, and the hologram is
fragmented, we will see a picture of the whole car even though we only have
the part of the hologram that showed the bumper. This is because the whole
subject is present in every tiny part.
In a sense, our bodies are built up in the same way. If I loosen a skin cell
from my finger, the nucleus will contain not only the characteristics of my skin:
the same cell will also reveal what kind of eyes I have, the color of my hair,
the number and type of my fingers, and so on. Every cell of the human body
carries a blueprint of the way all the other cells are constructed. So there is
“something of everything” in every single cell. The whole exists in each tiny
Anaxagoras called these minuscule particles which have something of
everything in them seeds.
Remember that Empedocles thought that it was “love” that joined the
elements together in whole bodies. Anaxagoras also imagined “order” as a
kind of force, creating animals and humans, flowers and trees. He called this
force mind or intelligence (nous).
Anaxagoras is also interesting because he was the first philosopher we
hear of in Athens. He was from Asia Minor but he moved to Athens at the age
of forty. He was later accused of atheism and was ultimately forced to leave
the city. Among other things, he said that the sun was not a god but a red-hot
stone, bigger than the entire Peloponnesian peninsula.
Anaxagoras was generally very interested in astronomy. He believed
that all heavenly bodies were made of the same substance as Earth. He
reached this conclusion after studying a meteorite. This gave him the idea that
there could be human life on other planets. He also pointed out that the Moon
has no light of its own—its light comes from Earth, he said. He thought up an
explanation for solar eclipses as well.
P.S. Thank you for your attention, Sophie. It is not unlikely that you will
need to read this chapter two or three times before you understand it all. But
understanding will always require some effort. You probably wouldn’t admire a
friend who was good at everything if it cost her no effort.
The best solution to the question of basic substance and the
transformations in nature must wait until tomorrow, when you will meet
Democritus. I’ll say no more!
Sophie sat in the den looking out into the garden through a little hole in the
dense thicket. She had to try and sort out her thoughts after all she had read.
It was as clear as daylight that plain water could never turn into anything other
than ice or steam. Water couldn’t even turn into a watermelon, because even watermelons consisted of more than just water. But she was only sure of that because
that’s what she had learned. Would she be absolutely certain, for example, that ice
was only water if that wasn’t what she had learned? At least, she would have to have
studied very closely how water froze to ice and melted again.
Sophie tried once again to use her own common sense, and not to think about
what she had learned from others.
Parmenides had refused to accept the idea of change in any form. And the more
she thought about it, the more she was convinced that, in a way, he had been right.
His intelligence could not accept that “something” could suddenly transform itself
into “something completely different.” It must have taken quite a bit of courage to
come right out and say it, because it meant denying all the natural changes that people
could see for themselves. Lots of people must have laughed at him.
And Empedocles must have been pretty smart too, when he proved that the
world had to consist of more than one single substance. That made all the transformations of nature possible without anything actually changing.
The old Greek philosopher had found that out just by reasoning. Of course he
had studied nature, but he didn’t have the equipment to do chemical analysis the way
scientists do nowadays.
Sophie was not sure whether she really believed that the source of everything
actually was earth, air, fire, and water. But after all, what did that matter? In principle,
Empedocles was right. The only way we can accept the transformations we can see
with our own eyes—without losing our reason—is to admit the existence of more than
one single basic substance.
Sophie found philosophy doubly exciting because she was able to follow all the
ideas by using her own common sense—without having to remember everything she
had learned at school. She decided that philosophy was not something you can learn;
but perhaps you can learn to think philosophically.
…the most ingenious toy in the world…
Sophie put all the typed pages from the unknown philosopher back into the
cookie tin and put the lid on it. She crawled out of the den and stood for a while
looking across the garden. She thought about what happened yesterday. Her mother
had teased her about the “love letter” again at breakfast this morning. She walked
quickly over to the mailbox to prevent the same thing from happening today. Getting
a love letter two days in a row would be doubly embarrassing.
There was another little white envelope! Sophie began to discern a pattern in the
deliveries: every afternoon she would find a big brown envelope. While she read the
contents, the philosopher would sneak up to the mailbox with another little white
So now Sophie would be able to find out who he was. If it was a he! She had a
good view of the mailbox from her room. If she stood at the window she would see
the mysterious philosopher. White envelopes don’t just appear out of thin air!
Sophie decided to keep a careful watch the following day. Tomorrow was
Friday and she would have the whole weekend ahead of her.
She went up to her room and opened the envelope. There was only one question
today, but it was even dumber than the previous three:
Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world?
For a start, Sophie was not at all sure she agreed that it was. It was years since
she had played with the little plastic blocks. Moreover she could not for the life of her
see what Lego could possibly have to do with philosophy.
But she was a dutiful student. Rummaging on the top shelf of her closet, she
found a bag full of Lego blocks of all shapes and sizes.
For the first time in ages she began to build with them. As she worked, some
ideas began to occur to her about the blocks.
They are easy to assemble, she thought. Even though they are all different, they
all fit together. They are also unbreakable. She couldn’t ever remember having seen a
broken Lego block. All her blocks looked as bright and new as the day they were
bought, many years ago. The best thing about them was that with Lego she could construct any kind of object. And then she could separate the blocks and construct
something new.
What more could one ask of a toy? Sophie decided that Lego really could be
called the most ingenious toy in the world. But what it had to do with philosophy was
beyond her.
She had nearly finished constructing a big doll’s house. Much as she hated to
admit it, she hadn’t had as much fun in ages.
Why did people quit playing when they grew up?
When her mother got home and saw what Sophie had been doing, she blurted
out, “What fun! I’m so glad you’re not too grown up to play!”
“I’m not playing!” Sophie retorted indignantly, “I’m doing a very complicated
philosophical experiment!”
Her mother signed deeply. She was probably thinking about the white rabbit
and the top hat.
When Sophie got home from school the following day, there were several more
pages for her in a big brown envelope. She took them upstairs to her room. She could
not wait to read them, but she had to keep her eye on the mailbox at the same time.
Here I am again, Sophie. Today you are going to hear about the last of
the great natural philosophers. His name is Democritus (c. 460-370 B.C.) and
he was from the little town of Abdera on the northern Aegean coast.
If you were able to answer the question about Lego blocks without
difficulty, you should have no problem understanding what this philosopher’s
project was.
Democritus agreed with his predecessors that transformations in nature
could not be due to the fact that anything actually “changed.” He therefore
assumed that everything was built up of tiny invisible blocks, each of which
was eternal and immutable. Democritus called these smallest units atoms.
The word “a-tom” means “un-cuttable.” For Democritus it was allimportant to establish that the constituent parts that everything else was
composed of could not be divided indefinitely into smaller parts. If this were
possible, they could not be used as blocks. If atoms could eternally be broken
down into ever smaller parts, nature would begin to dissolve like constantly
diluted soup.
Moreover, nature’s blocks had to be eternal—because nothing can come
from nothing. In this, he agreed with Parmenides and the Eleatics. Also, he
believed that all atoms were firm and solid. But they could not all be the same.
If all atoms were identical, there would still be no satisfactory explanation of
how they could combine to form everything from poppies and olive trees to
goatskin and human hair.
Democritus believed that nature consisted of an unlimited number and
variety of atoms. Some were round and smooth, others were irregular and
jagged. And precisely because they were so different they could join together
into all kinds of different bodies. But however infinite they might be in number
and shape, they were all eternal, immutable, and indivisible.
When a body—a tree or an animal, for instance—died and disintegrated,
the atoms dispersed and could be used again in new bodies. Atoms moved
around in space, but because they had “hooks” and “barbs,” they could join
together to form all the things we see around us.
So now you see what I meant about Lego blocks. They have more or
less the same properties as those which Democritus ascribed to atoms. And
that is what makes them so much fun to build with. They are first and foremost
indivisible. Then they have different shapes and sizes. They are solid and
impermeable. They also have “hooks” and “barbs” so that they can be
connected to form every conceivable figure. These connections can later be
broken again so that new figures can be constructed from the same blocks.
The fact that they can be used over and over is what has made Lego so
popular. Each single Lego block can be part of a truck one day and part of a
castle the day after. We could also say that lego blocks are “eternal.” Children
of today can play with the same blocks their parents played with when they
were little.
We can form things out of clay too, but clay cannot be used over and
over, because it can be broken up into smaller and smaller pieces. These tiny
pieces can never be joined together again to make something else.
Today we can establish that Democritus’ atom theory was more or less
correct. Nature really is built up of different “atoms” that join and separate
again. A hydrogen atom in a cell at the end of my nose was once part of an
elephant’s trunk. A carbon atom in my cardiac muscle was once in the tail of a
In our own time, however, scientists have discovered that atoms can be
broken into smaller “elemental particles.” We call these elemental particles
protons, neutrons, and electrons. These will possibly some day be broken into
even lesser particles. But physicists agree that somewhere along the line
there has to be a limit. There has to be a “minimal part” of which nature
Democritus did not have access to modern electronic apparatus. His
only proper equipment was his mind. But reason left him no real choice. Once
it is accepted that nothing can change, that nothing can come out of nothing,
and that nothing is ever lost, then nature must consist of infinitesimal blocks
that can join and separate again.
Democritus did not believe in any “force” or “soul” that could intervene in
natural processes. The only things that existed, he believed, were atoms and
the void. Since he believed in nothing but material things, we call him a
According to Democritus, there is no conscious “design” in the
movement of atoms. In nature, everything happens quite mechanically. This
does not mean that everything happens randomly, for everything obeys the
inevitable laws of necessity. Everything that happens has a natural cause, a
cause that is inherent in the thing itself. Democritus once said that he would
rather discover a new cause of nature than be the King of Persia.
The atom theory also explains our sense perception, thought
Democritus. When we sense something, it is due to the movement of atoms in
space. When I see the moon, it is because “moon atoms” penetrate my eye.
But what about the “soul,” then? Surely that could not consist of atoms,
of material things? Indeed it could. Democritus believed that the soul was
made up of special round, smooth “soul atoms.” When a human being died,
the soul atoms flew in all directions, and could then become part of a new soul
This meant that human beings had no immortal soul, another belief that
many people share today. They believe, like Democritus, that “soul” is
connected with brain, and that we cannot have any form of consciousness
once the brain disintegrates.
Democritus’s atom theory marked the end of Greek natural philosophy
for the time being. He agreed with ,Her-aclitus that everything in nature
“flowed,” since Torms come and go. But behind everything that flowed there
were some eternal and immutable things that did not flow. Democritus called
them atoms.
During her reading Sophie glanced out of the window several times to see
whether her mysterious correspondent had turned up at the mailbox. Now she just sat
staring down the road, thinking about what she had read. She felt that Democritus’s
ideas had been so simple and yet so ingenious. He had discovered the real solution to
the problem of “basic substance” and “transformation.” This problem had been so
complicated that philosophers had gone around puzzling over it for generations. And
in the end Democritus had solved it on his own by using his common sense.
Sophie could hardly help smiling. It had to be true that nature was built up of
small parts that never changed. At the same time Heraclitus was obviously right in
thinking that all forms in nature “flow.” Because everybody dies, animals die, even a
mountain range slowly disintegrates. The point was that the mountain range is made
up of tiny indivisible parts that never break up.
At the same time Democritus had raised some new questions. For example, he
had said that everything happened mechanically. He did not accept that there was any
spiritual force in life—unlike Empedocles and An-axagoras. Democritus also believed
that man had no immortal soul.
Could she be sure of that?
She didn’t know. But then she had only just begun the philosophy course.
… the “fortune-teller” is trying to foresee something that is really quite
unforeseeable …
Sophie had been keeping her eye on the mailbox while she read about
Democritus. But just in case, she decided nevertheless to take a stroll down to the
garden gate.
When she opened the front door she saw a small envelope on the front step.
And sure enough—it was addressed to Sophie Amundsen.
So he had tricked her! Today of all days, when she had kept such careful watch
on the mailbox, the mystery man had sneaked up to the house from a different angle
and just laid the letter on the step before making off into the woods again. Drat!
How did he know that Sophie was watching the mailbox today? Had he seen
her at the window? Anyway, she was glad to find the letter before her mother arrived.
Sophie went back to her room and opened the letter. The white envelope was a
bit wet around the edges, and had two little holes in it. Why was that? It had not
rained for several days.
The little note inside read:
Do you believe in Fate?
Is sickness the punishment of the gods?
What forces govern the course of history?
Did she believe in Fate? She was not at all sure. But she knew a lot of people
who did. There was a girl in her class who read horoscopes in magazines. But if they
believed in astrology, they probably believed in Fate as well, because astrologers
claimed that the position of the stars influenced people’s lives on Earth.
If you believed that a black cat crossing your path meant bad luck—well, then
you believed in Fate, didn’t you? As she thought about it, several more examples of
fatalism occurred to her. Why do so many people knock on wood, for example? And
why was Friday the thirteenth an unlucky day? Sophie had heard that lots of hotels
had no room number 13. It had to be because so many people were superstitious.
“Superstitious.” What a strange word. If you believed in Christianity or Islam, it
was called “faith.” But if you believed in astrology or Friday the thirteenth it was
superstition! Who had the right to call other people’s belief superstition?
Sophie was sure of one thing, though. Democritus had not believed in fate. He
was a materialist. He had only believed in atoms and empty space.
Sophie tried to think about the other questions on the note.
“Is sickness the punishment of the gods?” Surely nobody believed that
nowadays? But it occurred to her that many people thought it helped to pray for
recovery, so at any rate they must believe that God had some power over people’s
The last question was harder to answer. Sophie had never given much thought
to what governed the course of history. It had to be people, surely? If it was God or
Fate, people had no free will.
The idea of free will made Sophie think of something else. Why should she put
up with this mysterious philosopher playing cat and mouse with her? Why couldn’t
she write a letter to him. He (or she) would quite probably put another big envelope in
the mailbox during the night or sometime tomorrow morning. She would see to it that
there was a letter ready for this person.
Sophie began right away. It was difficult to write to someone she had never
seen. She didn’t even know if it was a man or a woman. Or if he or she was old or
young. For that matter, the mysterious philosopher could even be someone she
already knew. She wrote:
Most respected philosopher, Your generous correspondence course in
philosophy is greatly appreciated by us here. But it bothers us not to know who you
are. We therefore request you to use your full name. In return we would like to extend
our hospitality should you care to corne and have coffee with us, but preferably when
my mother is at home. She is at work from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day from
Monday to Friday. I am at school during these days, but I am always home by 2:15
p.m., except on Thursdays. I am also very good at making coffee.
Thanking you in advance, I remain
Your attentive student,
Sophie Amundsen (aged 14)
At the bottom of the page she wrote RSVP.
Sophie felt that the letter had turned out much too formal. But it was hard to
know which words to choose when writing to a person without a face. She put the
letter in a pink envelope and addressed it “To the philosopher.”
The problem was where to put it so her mother didn’t find it. She would have to
wait for her to get home before putting it in the mailbox. And she would also have to
remember to look in the mailbox early the next morning before the newspaper arrived.
If no new letter came for her this evening or during the night, she would have to take
the pink envelope in again.
Why did it all have to be so complicated?
That evening Sophie went up to her room early, even though it was Friday. Her
mother tried to tempt her with pizza and a thriller on TV, but Sophie said she was
tired and wanted to go to bed and read. While her mother sat watching TV, she
sneaked out to the mailbox with her letter.
Her mother was clearly worried. She had started speaking to Sophie in a
different tone since the business with the white rabbit and the top hat. Sophie hated to
be a worry to her mother, but she just had to go upstairs and keep an eye on the
When her mother came up at about eleven o’clock, Sophie was sitting at the
window staring down the road.
“You’re not still sitting there staring at the mailbox!” she said.
“I can look at whatever I like.”
“I really think you must be in love, Sophie. But if he is going to bring you
another letter, he certainly won’t come in the middle of the night.”
Yuck! Sophie loathed all that soppy talk about love. But she had to let her
mother go on believing it was true.
“Is he the one who told you about the rabbit and the top hat?” her mother asked.
Sophie nodded.
“He—he doesn’t do drugs, does he?”
Now Sophie felt really sorry for her mother. She couldn’t go on letting her
worry this way, although it was completely nutty of her to think that just because
someone had a slightly bizarre idea he must be on something. Grownups really were
idiotic sometimes.
She said, “Mom, I promise you once and for all I’ll never do any of that stuff…
and he doesn’t either. But he is very interested in philosophy.”
“Is he older than you?”
Sophie shook her head.
“The same age?”
Sophie nodded.
“Well, I’m sure he’s very sweet, darling. Now I think you should try and get
some sleep.”
But Sophie stayed sitting by the window for what seemed like hours. At last she
could hardly keep her eyes open. It was one o’clock.
She was just about to go to bed when she suddenly caught sight of a shadow
emerging from the woods.
Although it was almost dark outside, she could make out the shape of a human
figure. It was a man, and Sophie thought he looked quite old. He was certainly not her
age! He was wearing a beret of some kind.
She could have sworn he glanced up at the house, but Sophie’s light was not on.
The man went straight up to the mailbox and dropped a big envelope into it. As he let
go of it, he caught sight of Sophie’s letter. He reached down into the mailbox and
fished it up. The next minute he was walking swiftly back toward the woods. He hurried down the woodland path and was gone.
Sophie felt her heart pounding. Her first instinct was to run after him in her
pajamas but she didn’t dare run after a stranger in the middle of the night. But she did
have to go out and fetch the envelope.
After a minute or two she crept down the stairs, opened the front door quietly,
and ran to the mailbox. In a flash she was back in her room with the envelope in her
hand. She sat on her bed, holding her breath. After a few minutes had passed and all
was still quiet in the house, she opened the letter and began to read.
She knew this would not be an answer to her own letter. That could not arrive
until tomorrow.
Good morning once again, my dear Sophie. In case you should get any
ideas, let me make it quite clear that you must never attempt to check up on
me. One day we will meet, but I shall be the one to decide when and where.
And that’s final. You are not going to disobey me, are you?
But to return to the philosophers. We have seen how they tried to find
natural explanations for the transformations in Nature. Previously these things
had been explained through myths.
Old superstitions had to be cleared away in other areas as well. We see
them at work in matters of sickness and health as well as in political events. In
both these areas the Greeks were great believers in fatalism.
Fatalism is the belief that whatever happens is predestined. We find this
belief all over the world, not only throughout history but in our own day as
welt. Here in the Nordic countries we find a strong belief in “lagnadan,” or fate,
in the old Icelandic sagas of the Edda.
We also find the belief, both in Ancient Greece and in other parts of the
world, that people could learn their fate from some form of oracle. In other
words, that the fate of a person or a country could be foreseen in various
There are still a lot of people who believe that they can tell your fortune
in the cards, read your palm, or predict your future in the stars.
A special Norwegian version of this is telling your fortune in coffee cups.
When a coffee cup is empty there are usually some traces of coffee grounds
left. These might form a certain image or pattern—at least, if we give our
imagination free rein. If the grounds resemble a car, it might mean that the
person who drank from the cup is going for a long drive.
Thus the “fortune-teller” is trying to foresee something that is really quite
unforeseeable. This is characteristic of all forms of foreseeing. And precisely
because what they “see” is so vague, it is hard to repudiate fortune-tellers’
When we gaze up at the stars, we see a veritable chaos of twinkling
dots. Nevertheless, throughout the ages there have always been people who
believed that the stars could tell us something about our life on Earth. Even
today there are political leaders who seek the advice of astrologers before
they make any important decisions.
The Oracle at Delphi
The ancient Greeks believed that they could consult the famous oracle
at Delphi about their fate. Apollo, the god of the oracle, spoke through his
priestess Pythia, who sat on a stool over a fissure in the earth, from which
arose hypnotic vapors that put Pythia in a trance. This enabled her to be
Apollo’s mouthpiece. When people came to Delphi they had to present their
question to the priests of the oracle, who passed it on to Pythia. Her answer
would be so obscure or ambiguous that the priests would have to interpret it.
In that way, the ieople got the benefit of Apollo’s wisdom, believing that e
knew everything, even about the future.
There were many heads of state who d…
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