Posted by Mr. D. Sader @ 11:49 am
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“He who cannot draw on three thousand years Is living from hand to mouth.” GOETHE

… 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 hu- man 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 weekend.

It was early May. In some of the gardens the fruit trees were encircled with dense clusters of daffodils. The birches were already in pale green leaf.

It was extraordinary how everything burst forth at this time of year! What made this great mass of green vegetation come welling up from the dead earth as soon as it got warm and the last traces of snow disappeared?

As Sophie opened her garden gate, she looked in the mailbox. There was usually a lot of junk mail and a few big envelopes for her mother, a pile to dump on the kitchen table before she went up to her room to start her homework.

From time to time there would be a few letters from the bank for her father, but then he was not a normal father. Sophie’s father was the captain of a big oil tanker, and was away for most of the year. During the few weeks at a time when he was at home, he would shuffle around the house making it nice and cozy for Sophie and her mother. But when he was at sea he could seem very distant.

There was only one letter in the 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 me.”

As she got no answer to this, she turned the sentence around and said, “I am you.”

Sophie Amundsen was often dissatisfied with her appearance. She was frequently told that she had beautiful almond-shaped eyes, but that was probably just something people said because her nose was too small and her mouth was a bit too big. And her ears were much too close to her eyes. Worst of all was her straight hair, which it was impossible to do anything with. Sometimes her father would stroke her hair and call her “the girl with the flaxen hair,” after a piece of music by Claude Debussy. It was all right for him, he was not condemned to living with this straight 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 garden.

“Kitty, kitty, kitty!”

Sophie chased the cat out onto the doorstep and closed the front door behind her.

As she stood outside on the gravel path with the mysterious letter in her hand, the strangest feeling came over her. She felt like a doll that had suddenly been brought to life by the wave of a magic wand.

Wasn’t it extraordinary to be in the world right now, wandering around in a wonderful adventure!

Sherekan sprang lightly across the gravel and slid into a dense clump of red- currant bushes. A live cat, vibrant with energy from its white whiskers to the
twitching tail at the end of its sleek body. It was here in the garden too, but hardly aware of it in the same way as Sophie.

As Sophie started to think about being alive, she began to realize that she would not be alive forever. I am in the world now, she thought, but one day I shall be gone.

Was there a life after death? This was another question the cat was blissfully unaware of.

It was not long since Sophie’s grandmother had died. For more than six months Sophie had missed her every single day. How unfair that life had to end!

Sophie stood on the gravel path, thinking. She tried to think extra hard about being alive so as to forget that she would not be alive forever. But it was impossible. As soon as she concentrated on being alive now, the thought of dying also came into her mind. The same thing happened the other way around: only by conjuring up an intense feeling of one day being dead could she appreciate how terribly good it was to be alive. It was like two sides of a coin that she kept turning over and over. And the bigger and clearer one side of the coin became, the bigger and clearer the other side became too.

You can’t experience being alive without realizing that you have to die, she thought. But it’s just as impossible to realize you have to die without thinking how incredibly amazing it is to be alive.

Sophie remembered Granny saying something like that the day the doctor told her she was ill. “I never realized how rich life was until now,” she 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 con- fused.


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 some- thing 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.

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Posted by Mr. D. Sader @ 11:48 am
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… 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 here.

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 questions:

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 eyes.

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 post- mark. 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 TO BE GOOD PHILOSOPHERS IS THE FACULTY OF WONDER.

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 thought.

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 again?

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 hid- den 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 all?”

“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.

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… 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 delay.

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 Newcastle.)

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 evil.

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 bridesmaid.

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 them.

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 lions!

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.

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… 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 you!”

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 her.

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 ex- perience 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 all- important 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 “life- germs.” 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 question.

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 ei- ther 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 be- ings. “The opinions of most people,” he said, “are like the playthings of infants.”

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 “element.”

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 inter- action 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 part.

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 wa- termelons 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 transfor- mations 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.

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…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 envelope.

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 con- struct 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 all- important 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 dinosaur.

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 consists.

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 materialist.

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 formation.

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.

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… 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 health.

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 mailbox.

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 hur- ried 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 ways.

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’ claims.

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 dared not go to war or take other decisive steps until they had consulted the oracle at Delphi. The priests of Apollo thus functioned more or less as diplomats, or advisers. They were experts with an intimate knowledge of the people and the country.

Over the entrance to the temple at Delphi was a famous inscription: KNOW THYSELF! It reminded visitors that man must never believe himself to be more than mortal—and that no man can escape his destiny.

The Greeks had many stories of people whose destiny catches up with them. As time went by, a number of plays—tragedies—were written about these “tragic” people. The most famous one is the tragedy of King Oedipus.

History and Medicine

But Fate did not just govern the lives of individuals. The Greeks believed
that even world history was governed by Fate, and that the fortunes of war could be swayed by the intervention of the gods. Today there are still many people who believe that God or some other mysterious power is steering the course of history.

But at the same time as Greek philosophers were trying to find natural explanations for the processes of nature, the first historians were beginning to search for natural explanations for the course of history. When a country lost a war, the vengeance of the gods was no longer an acceptable explanation to them. The best known Greek historians were Herodotus (484-424 B.C.) and Thucydides (460-400 B.C.).

The Greeks also believed that sickness could be ascribed to divine intervention. On the other hand, the gods could make people well again if they made the appropriate sacrifices.

This idea was in no way unique to the Greeks. Before the development of modern medicine, the most widely accepted view was that sickness was due to supernatural causes. The word “influenza” actually means a malign influence from the stars.

Even today, there are a lot of people who believe that some diseases— AIDS, for example—are God’s punishment. Many also believe that sick people can be cured with the help of the supernatural.

Concurrently with the new directions in Greek philosophy, a Greek medical science arose which tried to find natural explanations for sickness and health. The founder of Greek medicine is said to have been Hippocrates, who was born on the island of Cos around 460 B.C.

The most essential safeguards against sickness, according to the Hippocratic medical tradition, were moderation and a healthy lifestyle. Health is the natural condition. When sickness occurs, it is a sign that Nature has gone off course because of physical or mental imbalance. The road to health for everyone is through moderation, harmony, and a “sound mind in a sound body.”

There is a lot of talk today about “medical ethics,” which is another way of saying that a doctor must practice medicine according to certain ethical rules. For instance, a doctor may not give healthy people a prescription for narcotics. A doctor must also maintain professional secrecy, which means that he is not allowed to reveal anything a patient has told him about his illness. These ideas go back to Hippocrates. He required his pupils to take the following oath:

I will follow that system or regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider to be for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. 1 will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked nor suggest any such counsel, and in like manner I will not give to a woman the means to produce an abortion. Whenever I go into a house, I will go for the benefit of the sick and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption, and further, from the seduction of females or males, whether freemen or slaves.

Whatever, in connection with my professional practice, I see or hear which ought not to be spoken abroad, I will keep secret. So long as I continue to carry out this oath unviolated, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and the practice of the art, respected by all men in all times, but should I violate this oath, may the reverse be my lot.
Sophie awoke with a start on Saturday morning. Was it a dream or had she really seen the philosopher?

She felt under the bed with one hand. Yes—there lay the letter that had come during the night. It wasn’t only a dream.

She had definitely seen the philosopher! And what’s more, with her own eyes she had seen him take her letter!

She crouched down on the floor and pulled out all the typewritten pages from under the bed. But what was that? Right by the wall there was something red. A scarf, perhaps?

Sophie edged herself in under the bed and pulled out a red silk scarf. It wasn’t hers, that was for sure!

She examined it more closely and gasped when she saw HILDE written in ink along the seam.

Hilde! But who was Hilde? How could their paths keep crossing like this?

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…wisest is she who knows she does not know…

Sophie put on a summer dress and hurried down to the kitchen. Her mother was standing by the kitchen table. Sophie decided not to say anything about the silk scarf.

“Did you bring in the newspaper?” she asked.
Her mother turned.
“Would you get it for me?”
Sophie was out of the door in a flash, down the gravel path to the mailbox. Only the newspaper. She couldn’t expect an answer so soon, she supposed. On

the front page of the paper she read something about the Norwegian UN battalion in Lebanon.

The UN battalion … wasn’t that the postmark on the card from Hilde’s father? But the postage stamp had been Norwegian. Maybe the Norwegian UN soldiers had their own post office with them.

“You’ve become very interested in the newspaper,” said her mother drily when Sophie returned to the kitchen.

Luckily her mother said no more about mailboxes and stuff, either during breakfast or later on that day. When she went shopping, Sophie took her letter about Fate down to the den.

She was surprised to see a little white envelope beside the cookie tin with the other letters from the philosopher. Sophie was quite sure she had not put it there.

This envelope was also wet around the edges. And it had a couple of deep holes in it, just like the one she had received yesterday.

Had the philosopher been here? Did he know about her secret hiding place? Why was the envelope wet?

All these questions made her head spin. She opened the letter and read the note:

Dear Sophie, I read your letter with great interest— and not without some regret. I must unfortunately disappoint you with regard to the invitation. We shall meet one day, but it will probably be quite a while before I can come in person to Captain’s Bend.

I must add that from now on I will no longer be able to deliver the letters personally. It would be much too risky in the long run. In the future, letters will be delivered by my little messenger. On the other hand, they will be brought directly to the secret place in the garden.
You may continue to contact me whenever you feel the need. When you do, put a pink envelope out with a cookie or a lump of sugar in it. When the messenger finds it, he will bring it straight to me.

P.S. It is not pleasant to decline a young lady’s invitation to coffee, but sometimes it is a matter of necessity.

P.P.S. If you should come across a red silk scarf anywhere, please take care of it. Sometimes personal property gets mixed up. Especially at school and places like that, and this is a philosophy school.

Yours, Alberto Knox

Sophie had lived for almost fifteen years, and had received quite a lot of letters in her young life, at least at Christmas and on birthdays. But this letter was the strangest one she had ever received.

It had no postage stamp. It hadn’t even been put in the mailbox. It had been brought straight to Sophie’s top-secret hideout in the old hedge. The fact that it was wet in the dry spring weather was also most mystifying.

The strangest thing of all was the silk scarf, of course. The philosopher must have another pupil. That was it. And this other pupil had lost a red silk scarf. Right. But how had she managed to lose it under Sophie’s bed?

And Alberto Knox … what kind of a name was that?

One thing was confirmed—the connection between the philosopher and Hilde Moller Knag. But that Hilde’s own father was now confusing their addresses—that was completely incomprehensible.

Sophie sat for a long time thinking about what connection there could possibly be between Hilde and herself. Finally she gave up. The philosopher had written that she would meet him one day. Perhaps she would meet Hilde too.

She turned the letter over. She now saw that there were some sentences written on the back as well:

Is there such a thing as natural modesty? Wisest is she who knows she does not know… True insight comes from within.
He who knows what is right will do right.

Sophie knew that the short sentences that came in the white envelopes were intended to prepare her for the next big envelope, which would arrive shortly thereafter. She suddenly had an idea. If the “messenger” came to the den to deliver a brown envelope, Sophie could simply sit and wait for him. Or was it a her? She would definitely hang on to whoever it was until he or she told her more about the philosopher! The letter said that the “messenger” was little. Could it be a child? “Is there such a thing as natural modesty?” Sophie knew that “modesty” was an old- fashioned word for shyness—for example, about being seen naked. But was it really natural to be embarrassed about that? If something was natural, she supposed, it was the same for everybody. In many parts of the world it was completely natural to be naked. So it must be society that decides what you can and can’t do. When Grandma was young you certainly couldn’t sunbathe topless. But today, most people think it is “natural,” even though it is still strictly forbidden in lots of countries. Was this phi- losophy? Sophie wondered.

The next sentence was: “Wisest is she who knows she does not know.”

Wiser than who? If the philosopher meant that someone who realized that she didn’t know everything under the sun was wiser than someone who knew just a little, but who thought she knew a whole lot—well, that wasn’t so difficult to agree with.
Sophie had never thought about it before. But the more she did, the more clearly she saw that knowing what you don’t know is also a kind of knowledge. The stupidest thing she knew was for people to act like they knew all about things they knew absolutely nothing about.

The next sentence was about true insight coming from within. But didn’t all knowledge come into people’s heads from the outside? On the other hand, Sophie could remember situations when her mother or the teachers at school had tried to teach her something that she hadn’t been receptive to. And whenever she had really learned something, it was when she had somehow contributed to it herself. Now and then, even, she would suddenly understand a thing she’d drawn a total blank on before. That was probably what people meant by “insight.”

So far, so good. Sophie thought she had done reasonably well on the first three questions. But the next statement was so odd she couldn’t help smiling: “He who knows what is right will do right.”

Did that mean that when a bank robber robbed a bank it was because he didn’t know any better? Sophie didn’t think so.

On the contrary, she thought that both children and adults did stupid things that they probably regretted afterwards, precisely because they had done them against their better judgment.

While she sat thinking, she heard something rustling in the dry undergrowth on the other side of the hedge nearest the woods. Could it be the messenger? Her heart started beating faster. It sounded like a panting animal was coming.

The next moment a big Labrador pushed its way into the den.

In its mouth it held a big brown envelope which it dropped at Sophie’s feet. It all happened so quickly that Sophie had no time to react. A second later she was sitting with the big envelope in her hands—and the golden Labrador had scampered off into the woods again.

Once it was all over she reacted. She started to cry.
She sat like that for a while, losing all sense of time.
Then she looked up suddenly.
So that was his famous messenger! Sophie breathed a sigh of relief. Of course

that was why the white envelopes were wet around the edges and had holes in them. Why hadn’t she thought of it? Now it made sense to put a cookie or a lump of sugar in the envelope when she wrote to the philosopher.

She may not always have been as smart as she would like, but who could have guessed that the messenger was a trained dog! It was a bit out of the ordinary, to put it mildly! She could certainly forget all about forcing the messenger to reveal Alberto Knox’s whereabouts.

Sophie opened the big envelope and began to read.


Dear Sophie, When you read this you may already have met Hermes. In case you haven’t, I’ll add that he is a dog. But don’t worry. He is very good- tempered—and moreover, a good deal more intelligent than a lot of people. In any event he never tries to give the impression of being cleverer than he is.

You may also note that his name is not without significance.

In Greek mythology, Hermes was the messenger of the gods. He was also the god of seafarers, but we shall not bother about that, at least not for the moment. It is more important that Hermes also gave his name to the word “hermetic,” which means hidden or inaccessible—not inappropriate for the
way Hermes takes care to keep the two of us hidden from each other.
So the messenger has herewith been introduced. Naturally he answers

to his name and is altogether very well behaved.
But to return to philosophy. We have already completed the first part of

the course. I refer to the natural philosophers and their decisive break with the mythological world picture. Now we are going to meet the three great classical philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Each in his own way, these philosophers influenced the whole of European civilization.

The natural philosophers are also called the pre-Socratics, because they lived before Socrates. Although Democritus died some years after Socrates, all his ideas belong to pre-Socratic natural philosophy. Socrates represents a new era, geographically as well as temporally. He was the first of the great philosophers to be born in Athens, and both he and his two successors lived and worked there. You may recall that Anaxagoras also lived in Athens for a while but was hounded out because he said the sun was a red-hot stone. (Socrates fared no better!)

From the time of Socrates, Athens was the center of Greek culture. It is also important to note the change of character in the philosophical project itself as it progresses from natural philosophy to Socrates. But before we meet Socrates, let us hear a little about the so-called Sophists, who dominated the Athenian scene at the time of Socrates.

Curtain up, Sophie! The history of ideas is like a drama in many acts.

Man at the Center

After about 450 B.C., Athens was the cultural center of the Greek world. From this time on, philosophy took a new direction. The natural philosophers had been mainly concerned with the nature of the physical world. This gives them a central position in the history of science. In Athens, interest was now focused on the individual and the individual’s place in society. Gradually a democracy evolved, with popular assemblies and courts of law.

In order for democracy to work, people had to be educated enough to take part in the democratic process. We have seen in our own time how a young democracy needs popular enlightenment. For the Athenians, it was first and foremost essential to master the art of rhetoric, which means saying things in a convincing manner.

A group of itinerant teachers and philosophers from the Greek colonies flocked to Athens. They called themselves Sophists. The word “sophist” means a wise and informed person. In Athens, the Sophists made a living out of teaching the citizens for money.

The Sophists had one characteristic in common with the natural philosophers: they were critical of the traditional mythology. But at the same time the Sophists rejected what they regarded as fruitless philosophical speculation. Their opinion was that although answers to philosophical ques- tions may exist, man cannot know the truth about the riddles of nature and of the universe. In philosophy a view like this is called skepticism.

But even if we cannot know the answers to all of nature’s riddles, we know that people have to learn to live together. The Sophists chose to concern themselves with man and his place in society.

“Man is the measure of all things,” said the Sophist Protagoras (c. 485- 410 B.C.). By that he meant that the question of whether a thing is right or
wrong, good or bad, must always be considered in relation to a person’s needs. On being asked whether he believed in the Greek gods, he answered, “The question is complex and life is short.” A person who is unable to say categorically whether or not the gods or God exists is called an agnostic.

The Sophists were as a rule men who had traveled widely and seen different forms of government. Both conventions and local laws in the city- states could vary widely. This led the Sophists to raise the question of what was natural and what was socially induced. By doing this, they paved the way for social criticism in the city-state of Athens.

They could for example point out that the use of an expression like “natural modesty” is not always defensible, for if it is “natural” to be modest, it must be something you are born with, something innate. But is it really innate, Sophie—or is it socially induced? To someone who has traveled the world, the answer should be simple: It is not “natural”—or innate—to be afraid to show yourself naked. Modesty—or the lack of it—is first and foremost a matter of social convention.

As you can imagine, the wandering Sophists created bitter wrangling in Athens by pointing out that there were no absolute norms for what was right or wrong.

Socrates, on the other hand, tried to show that some such norms are in fact absolute and universally valid.

Who Was Socrates?

Socrates (470-399 B.C.) is possibly the most enigmatic figure in the entire history of philosophy. He never wrote a single line. Yet he is one of the philosophers who has had the greatest influence on European thought, not least because of the dramatic manner of his death.

We know he was born in Athens, and that he spent most of his life in the city squares and marketplaces talking with the people he met there. “The trees in the countryside can teach me nothing,” he said. He could also stand lost in thought for hours on end.

Even during his lifetime he was considered somewhat enigmatic, and fairly soon after his death he was held to be the founder of any number of different philosophical schools of thought. The very fact that he was so enigmatic and ambiguous made it possible for widely differing schools of thought to claim him as their own.

We know for a certainty that he was extremely ugly. He was potbellied, and had bulging eyes and a snub nose. But inside he was said to be “perfectly delightful.” It was also said of him that “You can seek him in the present, you can seek him in the past, but you will never find his equal.” Nevertheless he was sentenced to death for his philosophical activities.

The life of Socrates is mainly known to us through the writings of Plato, who was one of his pupils and who became one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Plato wrote a number of Dialogues, or dramatized discussions on philosophy, in which he uses Socrates as his principal character and mouthpiece.

Since Plato is putting his own philosophy in Socrates’ mouth, we cannot be sure that the words he speaks in the dialogues were ever actually uttered by him. So it is no easy matter to distinguish between the teachings of Soc- rates and the philosophy of Plato. Exactly the same problem applies to many
other historical persons who left no written accounts. The classic example, of course, is Jesus. We cannot be certain that the “historical” Jesus actually spoke the words that Matthew or Luke ascribed to him. Similarly, what the “historical” Socrates actually said will always be shrouded in mystery.

But who Socrates “really” was is relatively unimportant. It is Plato’s portrait of Socrates that has inspired thinkers in the Western world for nearly 2,500 years.

The Art of Discourse

The essential nature of Socrates’ art lay in the fact that he did not appear to want to instruct people. On the contrary he gave the impression of one desiring to learn from those he spoke with. So instead of lecturing like a traditional schoolmaster, he discussed.

Obviously he would not have become a famous philosopher had he confined himself purely to listening to others. Nor would he have been sentenced to death. But he just asked questions, especially to begin a conversation, as if he knew nothing. In the course of the discussion he would generally get his opponents to recognize the weakness of their arguments, and, forced into a corner, they would finally be obliged to realize what was right and what was wrong.

Socrates, whose mother was a midwife, used to say that his art was like the art of the midwife. She does not herself give birth to the child, but she is there to help during its delivery. Similarly, Socrates saw his task as helping people to “give birth” to the correct insight, since real understanding must come from within. It cannot be imparted by someone else. And only the understanding that comes from within can lead to true insight.

Let me put it more precisely: The ability to give birth is a natural characteristic. In the same way, everybody can grasp philosophical truths if they just use their innate reason. Using your innate reason means reaching down inside yourself and using what is there.

By playing ignorant, Socrates forced the people he met to use their common sense. Socrates could feign ignorance—or pretend to be dumber than he was. We call this Socratic irony. This enabled him to continually expose the weaknesses in people’s thinking. He was not averse to doing this in the middle of the city square. If you met Socrates, you thus might end up being made a fool of publicly.

So it is not surprising that, as time went by, people found him increasingly exasperating, especially people who had status in the community. “Athens is like a sluggish horse,” he is reputed to have said, “and I am the gadfly trying to sting it into life.”

(What do we do with gadflies, Sophie?)

A Divine Voice

It was not in order to torment his fellow beings that Socrates kept on stinging them. Something within him left him no choice. He always said that he had a “divine voice” inside him. Socrates protested, for example, against having any part in condemning people to death. He moreover refused to inform on his political enemies. This was eventually to cost him his life.

In the year 399 B.C. he was accused of “introducing new gods and
corrupting the youth,” as well as not believing in the accepted gods. With a slender majority, a jury of five hundred found him guilty.

He could very likely have appealed for leniency. At least he could have saved his life by agreeing to leave Athens. But had he done this he would not have been Socrates. He valued his conscience—and the truth— higher than life. He assured the jury that he had only acted in the best interests of the state. He was nevertheless condemned to drink hemlock. Shortly thereafter, he drank the poison in the presence of his friends, and died.

Why, Sophie? Why did Socrates have to die? People have been asking this question for 2,400 years. However, he was not the only person in history to have seen things through to the bitter end and suffered death for the sake of their convictions.

I have mentioned Jesus already, and in fact there are several striking parallels between them.

Both Jesus and Socrates were enigmatic personalities, also to their contemporaries. Neither of them wrote down their teachings, so we are forced to rely on the picture we have of them from their disciples. But we do know that they were both masters of the art of discourse. They both spoke with a characteristic self-assuredness that could fascinate as well as exasperate. And not least, they both believed that they spoke on behalf of something greater than themselves. They challenged the power of the community by criticizing all forms of injustice and corruption. And finally—their activities cost them their lives.

The trials of Jesus and Socrates also exhibit clear parallels.

They could certainly both have saved themselves by appealing for mercy, but they both felt they had a mission that would have been betrayed unless they kept faith to the bitter end. And by meeting their death so bravely they commanded an enormous following, also after they had died.

I do not mean to suggest that Jesus and Socrates were alike. I am merely drawing attention to the fact that they both had a message that was inseparably linked to their personal courage.

A Joker in Athens

Socrates, Sophie! We aren’t done with him yet. We have talked about his method. But what was his philosophical project?

Socrates lived at the same time as the Sophists. Like them, he was more concerned with man and his place in society than with the forces of nature. As a Roman philosopher, Cicero, said of him a few hundred years later, Socrates “called philosophy down from the sky and established her in the towns and introduced her into homes and forced her to investigate life, ethics, good and evil.”

But Socrates differed from the Sophists in one significant way. He did not consider himself to be a “sophist”—that is, a learned or wise person. Unlike the Sophists, he did not teach for money. No, Socrates called himself a philosopher in the true sense of the word. A “philosopher” really means “one who loves wisdom.”

Are you sitting comfortably, Sophie? Because it is central to the rest of this course that you fully understand the difference between a sophist and a philosopher. The Sophists took money for their more or less hairsplitting expoundings, and sophists of this kind have come and gone from time
immemorial. I am referring to all the schoolmasters and self-opinionated know-it-alls who are satisfied with what little they know, or who boast of know- ing a whole lot about subjects they haven’t the faintest notion of. You have probably come across a few of these sophists in your young life. A real philosopher, Sophie, is a completely different kettle of fish—the direct opposite, in fact. A philosopher knows that in reality he knows very little. That is why he constantly strives to achieve true insight. Socrates was one of these rare people. He knew that he knew nothing about life and about the world. And now comes the important part: it troubled him that he knew so little.

A philosopher is therefore someone who recognizes that there is a lot he does not understand, and is troubled by it. In that sense, he is still wiser than all those who brag about their knowledge of things they know nothing about. “Wisest is she who knows she does not know,” I said previously. Socrates himself said, “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.”

Remember this statement, because it is an admission that is rare, even among philosophers. Moreover, it can be so dangerous to say it in public that it can cost you your life. The most subversive people are those who ask questions. Giving answers is not nearly as threatening. Any one question can be more explosive than a thousand answers.

You remember the story of the emperor’s new clothes? The emperor was actually stark naked but none of his subjects dared say so. Suddenly a child burst out, “But he’s got nothing on!” That was a courageous child, So- phie. Like Socrates, who dared tell people how little we humans know. The similarity between children and philosophers is something we have already talked about.

To be precise: Mankind is faced with a number of difficult questions that we have no satisfactory answers to. So now two possibilities present themselves: We can either fool ourselves and the rest of the world by pretending that we know all there is to know, or we can shut our eyes to the central issues once and for all and abandon all progress. In this sense, humanity is divided. People are, generally speaking, either dead certain or totally indifferent. (Both types are crawling around deep down in the rabbit’s fur!)

It is like dividing a deck of cards into two piles, Sophie. You lay the black cards in one pile and the red in the other. But from time to time a joker turns up that is neither heart nor club, neither diamond nor spade. Socrates was this joker in Athens. He was neither certain nor indifferent. All he knew was that he knew nothing—and it troubled him. So he became a philosopher— someone who does not give up but tirelessly pursues his quest for truth.

An Athenian is said to have asked the oracle at Delphi who the wisest man in Athens was. The oracle answered that Socrates of all mortals was the wisest. When Socrates heard this he was astounded, to put it mildly. (He must have laughed, Sophie!) He went straight to the person in the city whom he, and everyone else, thought was excessively wise. But when it turned out that this person was unable to give Socrates satisfactory answers to his questions, Socrates realized that the oracle had been right.

Socrates felt that it was necessary to establish a solid foundation for our knowledge. He believed that this foundation lay in man’s reason. With his unshakable faith in human reason he was decidedly a rationalist.
The Right Insight Leads to the Right Action

As I have mentioned earlier, Socrates claimed that he was guided by a divine inner voice, and that this “conscience” told him what was right. “He who knows what good is will do good,” he said.

By this he meant that the right insight leads to the right action. And only he who does right can be a “virtuous man.” When we do wrong it is because we don’t know any better. That is why it is so important to go on learning. Socrates was concerned with finding clear and universally valid definitions of right and wrong. Unlike the Sophists, he believed that the ability to distinguish between right and wrong lies in people’s reason and not in society.

You may perhaps think this last part is a bit too obscure, Sophie. Let me put it like this: Socrates thought that no one could possibly be happy if they acted against their better judgment. And he who knows how to achieve hap- piness will do so. Therefore, he who knows what is right will do right. Because why would anybody choose to be unhappy?

What do you think, Sophie? Can you live a happy life if you continually do things you know deep down are wrong? There are lots of people who lie and cheat and speak ill of others. Are they aware that these things are not right—or fair, if you prefer? Do you think these people are happy?

Socrates didn’t.

When Sophie had read the letter, she quickly put it in the cookie tin and crawled out into the garden. She wanted to go indoors before her mother got back with the shopping in order to avoid any questions about where she had been. And she had promised to do the dishes.

She had just filled the sink with water when her mother came staggering in with two huge shopping bags. Perhaps that was why her mother said, “You are rather preoccupied these days, Sophie.”

Sophie didn’t know why she said it; the words just tumbled out of her mouth: “So was Socrates.”

Her mother stared at her, wide-eyed.
“It was just so sad that he had to die as a result,” Sophie went on thoughtfully. “My goodness! Sophie! I don’t know what I’m to do!”
“Neither did Socrates. All he knew was that he knew nothing. And yet he was

the cleverest person in Athens.”
Her mother was speechless.
Finally she said, “Is this something you’ve learned at school?”
Sophie shook her head energetically.
“We don’t learn anything there. The difference between schoolteachers and

philosophers is that school-teachers think they know a lot of stuff that they try to force down our throats. Philosophers try to figure things out together with the pupils.”

“Now we’re back to white rabbits again! You know something? I demand to know who your boyfriend really is. Otherwise I’ll begin to think he is a bit disturbed.”

Sophie turned her back on the dishes and pointed at her mother with the dish mop.

“It’s not him who’s disturbed. But he likes to disturb others—to shake them out of their rut.”

“That’s enough of that! I think he sounds a bit too impertinent.” Sophie turned back to the dishes.

“He is neither impertinent nor pertinent,” said Sophie. “But he is trying to reach
real wisdom. That’s the great difference between a real joker and all the other cards in the deck.”

“Did you say joker?”

Sophie nodded. “Have you ever thought about the fact that there are a lot of hearts and diamonds in a pack of cards? And a lot of spades and clubs. But there’s only one joker.”

“Good grief, how you talk back, Sophie!”
“And how you ask!”
Her mother had put all the groceries away. Now she took the newspaper and

went into the living room. Sophie thought she closed the door more loudly than usual. Sophie finished doing the dishes and went upstairs to her room. She had put the red silk scarf on the top shelf of the closet with the Lego blocks. She took it down and

examined it carefully. Hilde …

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… several tall buildings had risen from the ruins …

Early that evening Sophie’s mother went to visit a friend. As soon as she was out of the house Sophie went down the garden to the den. There she found a thick package beside the big cookie tin. Sophie tore it open. It was a video cassette.

She ran back to the house. A video tape! How on earth did the philosopher know they had a VCR? And what was on the cassette?

Sophie put the cassette into the recorder. A sprawling city appeared on the TV screen. As the camera zoomed in on the Acropolis Sophie realized that the city must be Athens. She had often seen pictures of the ancient ruins there.

It was a live shot. Summer-clad tourists with cameras slung about them were swarming among the ruins. One of them looked as if he was carrying a notice board. There it was again. Didn’t it say “Hilde”?

After a minute or two there was a close-up of a middle-aged man. He was rather short, with a black, well-trimmed beard, and he was wearing a blue beret. He looked into the camera and said: “Welcome to Athens, Sophie. As you have probably guessed, I am Alberto Knox. If not, I will just reiterate that the big rabbit is still being pulled from the top hat of the universe.

“We are standing at the Acropolis. The word means ‘citadel’—or more precisely, ‘the city on the hill.’ People have lived up here since the Stone Age. The reason, naturally, was its unique location. The elevated plateau was easy to defend against marauders. From the Acropolis there was also an excellent view down to one of the best harbors in the Mediterranean. As the early Athens began to develop on the plain below the plateau, the Acropolis was used as a fortress and sacred shrine… During the first half of the fifth century B.C., a bitter war was waged against the Persians, and in 480 the Persian king Xerxes plundered Athens and burned all the old wooden buildings of the Acropolis. A year later the Persians were defeated, and that was the beginning of the Golden Age of Athens. The Acropolis was rebuilt— prouder and more magnificent than ever—and now purely as a sacred shrine.

“This was the period when Socrates walked through the streets and squares talking with the Athenians. He could thus have witnessed the rebirth of the Acropolis and watched the construction of all the proud buildings we see around us. And what a building site it was! Behind me you can see the biggest temple, the Parthenon, which means ‘the Virgin’s Place.’ It was built in honor of Athene, the patron goddess of Athens. The huge marble structure does not have a single straight line; all four sides are slightly curved to make the building appear less heavy. In spite of its colossal dimensions, it gives the impression of lightness. In other words, it presents an optical illusion. The columns lean slightly inwards, and would form a pyramid 1,500 meters high if they were continued to a point above the temple. The temple contained nothing but a twelve-meter-high statue of Athene. The white marble, which in those days was painted in vivid colors, was transported here from a mountain sixteen kilometers away.”

Sophie sat with her heart in her mouth. Was this really the philosopher talking to her? She had only seen his profile that one time in the darkness. Could he be the same man who was now standing at the Acropolis in Athens?

He began to walk along the length of the temple and the camera followed him. He walked right to the edge of the terrace and pointed out over the landscape. The camera focused on an old theater which lay just below the plateau of the Acropolis.

“There you can see the old Dionysos Theater,” continued the man in the beret. “It is probably the very oldest theater in Europe. This is where the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were performed during the time of Socrates. I referred earlier to the ill-fated King Oedipus. The tragedy about him, by Sophocles, was first performed here. But they also played comedies. The best known writer of comedies was Aristophanes, who also wrote a spiteful comedy about Socrates as the buffoon of Athens. Right at the back you can see the stone wall which the actors used as a backdrop. It was called skene, and is the origin of our word ‘scene.’ Incidentally, the word ‘theater’ comes from an old Greek word meaning ‘to see.’ But we must get back to the philosophers, Sophie. We are going around the Parthenon and down through the gateway …”

The little man walked around the huge temple and passed some smaller temples on his right. Then he began to walk down some steps between several tall columns. When he reached the foot of the Acropolis, he went up a small hill and pointed out toward Athens: “The hill we are standing on is called Areopagos. It was here that the Athenian high court of justice passed judgment in murder trials. Many hundreds of years later, St. Paul the Apostle stood here and preached about Jesus and Christianity to the Athenians. We shall return to what he said on a later occasion. Down to the left you can see the remains of the old city square in Athens, the agora. With the exception of the large temple to Hephaestos, the god of smiths and metalworkers, only some blocks of marble are preserved. Let us go down …”

The next moment he appeared among the ancient ruins. High up beneath the sky—at the top of Sophie’s screen—towered the monumental Athene temple on the Acropolis. Her philosophy teacher had seated himself on one of the blocks of marble. He looked into the camera and said: “We are sitting in the old agora in Athens. A sorry sight, don’t you think? Today, I mean. But once it was surrounded by splendid temples, courts of justice and other public offices, shops, a concert hall, and even a large gymnastics building. All situated around the square, which was a large open space … The whole of European civilization was founded in this modest area.

“Words such as politics and democracy, economy and history, biology and physics, mathematics and logic, theology and philosophy, ethics and psychology, theory and method, idea and system date back to the tiny populace whose everyday life centered around this square. This is where Socrates spent so much of his time talking to the people he met. He might have buttonholed a slave bearing a jar of olive oil, and asked the unfortunate man a question on philosophy, for Socrates held that a
slave had the same common sense as a man of rank. Perhaps he stood in an animated wrangle with one of the citizens—or held a subdued conversation with his young pupil Plato. It is extraordinary to think about. We still speak of Socratic or Platonic philosophy, but actually being Plato or Socrates is quite another matter.”

Sophie certainly did think it was extraordinary to think about. But she thought it was just as extraordinary the way her philosopher was suddenly talking to her on a video that had been brought to her own secret hideout in the garden by a mysterious dog.

The philosopher rose from the block of marble he was sitting on and said quietly: “It was actually my intention to leave it at that, Sophie. I wanted you to see the Acropolis and the remains of the old agora in Athens. But I am not yet sure that you have grasped just how splendid these surroundings once were … so I am very tempted to go a bit further. It is quite irregular of course … but I am sure I can count on it remaining just between the two of us. Oh well, a tiny glimpse will suffice any- way …”

He said no more, but remained standing there for a long time, staring into the camera. While he stood there, several tall buildings had risen from the ruins. As if by magic, all the old buildings were once again standing.

Above the skyline Sophie could still see the Acropolis, but now both that and all the buildings down on the square were brand-new. They were covered with gold and painted in garish colors. Gaily dressed people were strolling about the square. Some wore swords, others carried jars on their heads, and one of them had a roll of papyrus under his arm.

Then Sophie recognized her philosophy teacher. He was still wearing the blue beret, but now he was dressed in a yellow tunic in the same style as everyone else. He came toward Sophie, looked into the camera, and said:

“That’s better! Now we are in the Athens of antiquity, Sophie. I wanted you to come here in person, you see. We are in the year 402 B.C., only three years before Socrates dies. I hope you appreciate this exclusive visit because it was very difficult to hire a video camera …”

Sophie felt dizzy. How could this weird man suddenly be in Athens 2,400 years ago? How could she be seeing a video film of a totally different age? There were no videos in antiquity … so could this be a movie?

But all the marble buildings looked real. If they had recreated all of the old square in Athens as well as the Acropolis just for the sake of a film—the sets would have cost a fortune. At any rate it would be a colossal price to pay just to teach Sophie about Athens.

The man in the beret looked up at her again.
“Do you see those two men over there under the colonnade?”
Sophie noticed an elderly man in a crumpled tunic. He had a long unkempt

beard, a snub nose, eyes like gimlets, and chubby cheeks. Beside him stood a hand- some young man.

“That is Socrates and his young pupil, Plato. You are going to meet them personally.”

The philosopher went over to the two men, took off his beret, and said something which Sophie did not understand. It must have been in Greek. Then he looked into the camera and said, “I told them you were a Norwegian girl who would very much like to meet them. So now Plato will give you some questions to think about. But we must do it quickly before the guards discover us.”

Sophie felt the blood pounding in her temples as the young man stepped
forward and looked into the camera.
“Welcome to Athens, Sophie,” he said in a gentle voice. He spoke with an

accent. “My name is Plato and I am going to give you four tasks. First you must think over how a baker can bake fifty absolutely identical cookies. Then you can ask yourself why all horses are the same. Next you must decide whether you think that man has an immortal soul. And finally you must say whether men and women are equally sensible. Good luck!”

Then the picture on the TV screen disappeared. Sophie wound and rewound the tape but she had seen all there was.

Sophie tried to think things through clearly. But as soon as she thought one thought, another one crowded in before she had thought the first one to its end.

She had known from the start that her philosophy teacher was eccentric. But when he started to use teaching methods that defied all the laws of nature, Sophie thought he was going too far.

Had she really seen Socrates and Plato on TV? Of course not, that was impossible. But it definitely wasn’t a cartoon.

Sophie took the cassette out of the video recorder and ran up to her room with it. She put it on the top shelf with all the Lego blocks. Then she sank onto the bed, exhausted, and fell asleep.

Some hours later her mother came into the room. She shook Sophie gently and said:

“What’s the matter, Sophie?”
“You’ve gone to sleep with all your clothes on!”
Sophie blinked her eyes sleepily.
“I’ve been to Athens,” she mumbled. That was all she could manage to say as

she turned over and went back to sleep.

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… a longing to return to the realm of the soul…

Sophie woke with a start early the next morning. She glanced at the clock. It was only a little after five but she was so wide awake that she sat up in bed. Why was she wearing a dress? Then she remembered everything.

She climbed onto a stool and looked on the top shelf of the closet. Yes—there, at the back, was the video cassette. It hadn’t been a dream after all; at least, not all of it.

But she couldn’t really have seen Plato and Socrates … oh, never mind! She didn’t have the energy to think about it any more. Perhaps her mother was right, perhaps she was acting a bit nuts these days.

Anyway, she couldn’t go back to sleep. Perhaps she ought to go down to the den and see if the dog had left another letter. Sophie crept downstairs, put on a pair of jogging shoes, and went out.

In the garden everything was wonderfully clear and still. The birds were chirping so energetically that Sophie could hardly keep from laughing. The morning dew twinkled in the grass like drops of crystal. Once again she was struck by the incredible wonder of the world.

Inside the old hedge it was also very damp. Sophie saw no new letter from the philosopher, but nevertheless she wiped off one of the thick roots and sat down.

She recalled that the video-Plato had given her some questions to answer. The
first was something about how a baker could bake fifty identical cookies.
Sophie had to think very carefully about that, because it definitely wouldn’t be

easy. When her mother occasionally baked a batch of cookies, they were never all exactly the same. But then she was not an expert pastry cook; sometimes the kitchen looked as if a bomb had hit it. Even the cookies they bought at the baker’s were never exactly the same. Every single cookie was shaped separately in the baker’s hands.

Then a satisfied smile spread over Sophie’s face. She remembered how once she and her father went shopping while her mother was busy baking Christmas cookies. When they got back there were a lot of gingerbread men spread out on the kitchen table. Even though they weren’t all perfect, in a way they were all the same. And why was that? Obviously because her mother had used the same mold for all of them.

Sophie felt so pleased with herself for having remembered the incident that she pronounced herself done with the first question. If a baker makes fifty absolutely identical cookies, he must be using the same pastry mold for all of them. And that’s that!

Then the video-Plato had looked into the camera and asked why all horses were the same. But they weren’t, at all! On the contrary, Sophie thought no two horses were the same, just as no two people were the same.

She was ready to give up on that one when she remembered what she had thought about the cookies. No one of them was exactly like any of the others. Some were a bit thicker than the others, and some were broken. But still, everyone could see that they were—in a way— “exactly the same.”

What Plato was really asking was perhaps why a horse was always a horse, and not, for example, a cross between a horse and a pig. Because even though some horses were as brown as bears and others were as white as lambs, all horses had something in common. Sophie had yet to meet a horse with six or eight legs, for example.

But surely Plato couldn’t believe that what made all horses alike was that they were made with the same mold?

Then Plato had asked her a really difficult question. Does man have an immortal soul? That was something Sophie felt quite unqualified to answer. All she knew was that dead bodies were either cremated or buried, so there was no future for them. If man had an immortal soul, one would have to believe that a person consisted of two separate parts: a body that gets worn out after many years—and a soul that operates more or less independently of what happens to the body. Her grandmother had said once that she felt it was only her body that was old. Inside she had always been the same young girl-The thought of the “young girl” led Sophie to the last question: Are women and men equally sensible? She was not so sure about that. It depended on what Plato meant by sensible.

Something the philosopher had said about Socrates came into her mind. Socrates had pointed out that everyone could understand philosophical truths if they just used their common sense. He had also said that a slave had the same common sense as a nobleman. Sophie was sure that he would also have said that women had the same common sense as men.

While she sat thinking, there was a sudden rustling in the hedge, and the sound of something puffing and blowing like a steam engine. The next second, the golden Labrador slipped into the den. It had a large envelope in its mouth.

“Hermes!” cried Sophie. “Drop it! Drop it!” The dog dropped the envelope in Sophie’s lap, and Sophie stretched out her hand to pat the dog’s head. “Good boy, Hermes!” she said. The dog lay down and allowed itself to be patted. But after a
couple of minutes it got up and began to push its way back through the hedge the same way it had come in. Sophie followed with the brown envelope in her hand. She crawled through the dense thicket and was soon outside the garden.

Hermes had already started to run toward the edge of the woods, and Sophie followed a few yards behind. Twice the dog turned around and growled, but Sophie was not to be deterred.

This time she was determined to find the philosopher—even if it meant running all the way to Athens.

The dog ran faster and suddenly turned off down a narrow path. Sophie chased him, but after a few minutes he turned and faced her, barking like a watchdog. Sophie still refused to give up, taking the opportunity to lessen the distance between them.

Hermes turned and raced down the path. Sophie realized that she would never catch up with him. She stood quite still for what seemed like an eternity, listening to him running farther and farther away. Then all was silent.

She sat down on a tree stump by a little clearing in the woods. She still had the brown envelope in her hand. She opened it, drew out several typewritten pages, and began to read:


Thank you for the pleasant time we spent together, Sophie. In Athens, I mean. So now I have at least introduced myself. And since I have also introduced Plato, we might as well begin without further ado.

Plato (428-347 B.C.) was twenty-nine years old when Socrates drank the hemlock. He had been a pupil of Socrates for some time and had followed his trial very closely. The fact that Athens could condemn its noblest citizen to death did more than make a profound impression on him. It was to shape the course of his entire philosophic endeavor.

To Plato, the death of Socrates was a striking example of the conflict that can exist between society as it really is and the true or ideal society. Plato’s first deed as a philosopher was to publish Socrates’ Apology, an account of his plea to the large jury.

As you will no doubt recall, Socrates never wrote anything down, although many of the pre-Socratics did. The problem is that hardly any of their written material remains. But in the case of Plato, we believe that all his principal works have been preserved. (In addition to Socrates’ Apology, Plato wrote a collection of Epistles and about twenty-five philosophical Dialogues.) That we have these works today is due not least to the fact that Plato set up his own school of philosophy in a grove not far from Athens, named after the legendary Greek hero Academus. The school was therefore known as the Academy. (Since then, many thousands of “academies” have been established all over the world. We still speak of “academics” and “academic subjects.”)

The subjects taught at Plato’s Academy were philosophy, mathematics, and gymnastics—although perhaps “taught” is hardly the right word. Lively discourse was considered most important at Plato’s Academy. So it was not purely by chance that Plato’s writings took the form of dialogues.
The Eternally True, Eternally Beautiful, and Eternally


In the introduction to this course I mentioned that it could often be a good idea to ask what a particular philosopher’s project was. So now I ask: what were the problems Plato was concerned with?

Briefly, we can establish that Plato was concerned with the relationship between what is eternal and immutable, on the one hand, and what “flows,” on the other. (Just like the pre-Socratics, in fact.) We’ve seen how the Soph- ists and Socrates turned their attention from questions of natural philosophy to problems related to man and society. And yet in one sense, even Socrates and the Sophists were preoccupied with the relationship between the eternal and immutable, and the “flowing.” They were interested in the problem as it related to human morals and society’s ideals or virtues. Very briefly, the Sophists thought that perceptions of what was right or wrong varied from one city-state to another, and from one generation to the next. So right and wrong was something that “flowed.” This was totally unacceptable to Socrates. He believed in the existence of eternal and absolute rules for what was right or wrong. By using our common sense we can all arrive at these immutable norms, since human reason is in fact eternal and immutable.

Do you follow, Sophie? Then along comes Plato. He is concerned with both what is eternal and immutable in nature and what is eternal and immutable as regards morals and society. To Plato, these two problems were one and the same. He tried to grasp a “reality” that was eternal and immutable.

And to be quite frank, that is precisely what we need philosophers for. We do not need them to choose a beauty queen or the day’s bargain in tomatoes. (This is why they are often unpopular!) Philosophers will try to ignore highly topical affairs and instead try to draw people’s attention to what is eternally “true,” eternally “beautiful,” and eternally “good.”

We can thus begin to glimpse at least the outline of Plato’s philosophical project. But let’s take one thing at a time. We are attempting to understand an extraordinary mind, a mind that was to have a profound influence on all subsequent European philosophy.

The World of Ideas

Both Empedocles and Democritus had drawn attention to the fact that although in the natural world everything “flows,” there must nevertheless be “something” that never changes (the “four roots,” or the “atoms”). Plato agreed with the proposition as such—but in quite a different way.

Plato believed that everything tangible in nature “flows.” So there are no “substances” that do not dissolve. Absolutely everything that belongs to the “material world” is made of a material that time can erode, but everything is made after a timeless “mold” or “form” that is eternal and immutable.

You see? No, you don’t.

Why are horses the same, Sophie? You probably don’t think they are at all. But there is something that all horses have in common, something that enables us to identify them as horses. A particular horse “flows,” naturally. It might be old and lame, and in time it will die. But the “form” of the horse is eternal and immutable.
That which is eternal and immutable, to Plato, is therefore not a physical “basic substance,” as it was for Empedocles and Democritus. Plato’s conception was of eternal and immutable patterns, spiritual and abstract in their nature that all things are fashioned after.

Let me put it like this: The pre-Socratics had given a reasonably good explanation of natural change without having to presuppose that anything actually “changed.” In the midst of nature’s cycle there were some eternal and immutable smallest elements that did not dissolve, they thought. Fair enough, Sophie! But they had no reasonable explanation for how these “smallest elements” that were once building blocks in a horse could suddenly whirl to- gether four or five hundred years later and fashion themselves into a completely new horse. Or an elephant or a crocodile, for that matter. Plato’s point was that Democritus’ atoms never fashioned themselves into an “eledile” or a “crocophant.” This was what set his philosophical reflections going.

If you already understand what I am getting at, you may skip this next paragraph. But just in case, I will clarify: You have a box of Lego and you build a Lego horse. You then take it apart and put the blocks back in the box. You cannot expect to make a new horse just by shaking the box. How could Lego blocks of their own accord find each other and become a new horse again? No, you have to rebuild the horse, Sophie. And the reason you can do it is that you have a picture in your mind of what the horse looked like. The Lego horse is made from a model which remains unchanged from horse to horse.

How did you do with the fifty identical cookies? Let us assume that you have dropped in from outer space and have never seen a baker before. You stumble into a tempting bakery—and there you catch sight of fifty identical gingerbread men on a shelf. I imagine you would wonder how they could be exactly alike. It might well be that one of them has an arm missing, another has lost a bit of its head, and a third has a funny bump on its stomach. But after careful thought, you would nevertheless conclude that all gingerbread men have something in common. Although none of them is perfect, you would suspect that they had a common origin. You would realize that all the cookies were formed in the same mold. And what is more, Sophie, you are now seized by the irresistible desire to see this mold. Because clearly, the mold itself must be utter perfection—and in a sense, more beautiful—in comparison with these crude copies.

If you solved this problem all by yourself, you arrived at the philosophical solution in exactly the same way that Plato did.

Like most philosophers, he “dropped in from outer space.” (He stood up on the very tip of one of the fine hairs of the rabbit’s fur.) He was astonished at the way all natural phenomena could be so alike, and he concluded that it had to be because there are a limited number of forms “behind” everything we see around us. Plato called these forms ideas. Behind every horse, pig, or hu- man being, there is the “idea horse,” “idea pig,” and “idea human being.” (In the same way, the bakery we spoke of can have gingerbread men, gingerbread horses, and gingerbread pigs. Because every self-respecting bakery has more than one mold. But one mold is enough for each type of gingerbread cookie.)

Plato came to the conclusion that there must be a reality behind the “material world.” He called this reality the world of ideas; it contained the
eternal and immutable “patterns” behind the various phenomena we come across in nature. This remarkable view is known as Plato’s theory of ideas.

True Knowledge

I’m sure you’ve been following me, Sophie dear. But you may be wondering whether Plato was being serious. Did he really believe that forms like these actually existed in a completely different reality?

He probably didn’t believe it literally in the same way for all his life, but in some of his dialogues that is certainly how he means to be understood. Let us try to follow his train of thought.

A philosopher, as we have seen, tries to grasp something that is eternal and immutable. It would serve no purpose, for instance, to write a philosophic treatise on the existence of a particular soap bubble. Partly because one would hardly have time to study it in depth before it burst, and partly because it would probably be rather difficult to find a market for a philosophic treatise on something nobody has ever seen, and which only existed for five seconds.

Plato believed that everything we see around us in nature, everything tangible, can be likened to a soap bubble, since nothing that exists in the world of the senses is lasting. We know, of course, that sooner or later every human being and every animal will die and decompose. Even a block of marble changes and gradually disintegrates. (The Acropolis is falling into ruin, Sophie! It is a scandal, but that’s the way it is.) Plato’s point is that we can never have true knowledge of anything that is in a constant state of change. We can only have opinions about things that belong to the world of the senses, tangible things. We can only have true knowledge of things that can be understood with our reason.

All right, Sophie, I’ll explain it more clearly: a gingerbread man can be so lopsided after all that baking that it can be quite hard to see what it is meant to be. But having seen dozens of gingerbread men that were more or less successful, I can be pretty sure what the cookie mold was like. I can guess, even though I have never seen it. It might not even be an advantage to see the actual mold with my own eyes because we cannot always trust the evidence of our senses. The faculty of vision can vary from person to person. On the other hand, we can rely on what our reason tells us because that is the same for everyone.

If you are sitting in a classroom with thirty other pupils, and the teacher asks the class which color of the rainbow is the prettiest, he will probably get a lot of different answers. But if he asks what 8 times 3 is, the whole class will— we hope—give the same answer. Because now reason is speaking and reason is, in a way, the direct opposite of “thinking so” or “feeling.” We could say that reason is eternal and universal precisely because it only expresses eternal and universal states.

Plato found mathematics very absorbing because mathematical states never change. They are therefore states we can have true knowledge of. But here we need an example.

Imagine you find a round pinecone out in the woods. Perhaps you say you “think” it looks completely round, whereas Joanna insists it is a bit flattened on one side. (Then you start arguing about it!) But you cannot have true knowledge of anything you can perceive with your eyes. On the other hand you can say with absolute certainty that the sum of the angles in a circle
is 360 degrees. In this case you would be talking about an ideal circle which might not exist in the physical world but which you can clearly visualize. (You are dealing with the hidden gingerbread-man mold and not with the particular cookie on the kitchen table.)

In short, we can only have inexact conceptions of things we perceive with our senses. But we can have true knowledge of things we understand with our reason. The sum of the angles in a triangle will remain 180 degrees to the end of time. And similarly the “idea” horse will walk on four legs even if all the horses in the sensory world break a leg.

An Immortal Soul

As I explained, Plato believed that reality is divided into two regions.

One region is the world of the senses, about which we can only have approximate or incomplete knowledge by using our five (approximate or incomplete) senses. In this sensory world, “everything flows” and nothing is permanent. Nothing in the sensory world is, there are only things that come to be and pass away.

The other region is the world of ideas, about which we can have true knowledge by using our reason. This world of ideas cannot be perceived by the senses, but the ideas (or forms) are eternal and immutable.

According to Plato, man is a dual creature. We have a body that “flows,” is inseparably bound to the world of the senses, and is subject to the same fate as everything else in this world—a soap bubble, for example. All our senses are based in the body and are consequently unreliable. But we also have an immortal soul—and this soul is the realm of reason. And not being physical, the soul can survey the world of ideas.

But that’s not all, Sophie. IT’S NOT ALL!

Plato also believed that the soul existed before it inhabited the body, (it was lying on a shelf in the closet with all the cookie molds.) But as soon as the soul wakes up in a human body, it has forgotten all the perfect ideas. Then something starts to happen. In fact, a wondrous process begins. As the human being discovers the various forms in the natural world, a vague recollection stirs his soul. He sees a horse—but an imperfect horse. (A ginger- bread horse!) The sight of it is sufficient to awaken in the soul a faint recollection of the perfect “horse,” which the soul once saw in the world of ideas, and this stirs the soul with a yearning to return to its true realm. Plato calls this yearning eras—which means love. The soul, then, experiences a “longing to return to its true origin.” From now on, the body and the whole sensory world is experienced as imperfect and insignificant. The soul yearns to fly home on the wings of love to the world of ideas. It longs to be freed from the chains of the body.

Let me quickly emphasize that Plato is describing an ideal course of life, since by no means all humans set the soul free to begin its journey back to the world of ideas. Most people cling to the sensory world’s “reflections” of ideas. They see a horse—and another horse. But they never see that of which every horse is only a feeble imitation. (They rush into the kitchen and stuff themselves with gingerbread cookies without so much as a thought as to where they came from.) What Plato describes is the philosophers’way. His philosophy can be read as a description of philosophic practice.

When you see a shadow, Sophie, you will assume that there must be
something casting the shadow. You see the shadow of an animal. You think it may be a horse, but you are not quite sure. So you turn around and see the horse itself—which of course is infinitely more beautiful and sharper in outline than the blurred “horse-shadow.” Plato believed similarly that all natural phenomena are merely shadows of the eternal forms or ideas. But most people are content with a life among shadows. They give no thought to what is casting the shadows. They think shadows are all there are, never realizing even that they are, in fact, shadows. And thus they pay no heed to the immortality of their own soul.

Out of the Darkness of the Cave

Plato relates a myth which illustrates this. We call it the Myth of the Cave. I’ll retell it in my own words.

Imagine some people living in an underground cave. They sit with their backs to the mouth of the cave with their hands and feet bound in such a way that they can only look at the back wall of the cave. Behind them is a high wall, and behind that wall pass human-like creatures, holding up various figures above the top of the wall. Because there is a fire behind these figures, they cast flickering shadows on the back wall of the cave. So the only thing the cave dwellers can see is this shadow play. They have been sitting in this position since they were born, so they think these shadows are all there are.

Imagine now that one of the cave dwellers manages to free himself from his bonds. The first thing he asks himself is where all these shadows on the cave wall come from. What do you think happens when he turns around and sees the figures being held up above the wall? To begin with he is dazzled by the sharp sunlight. He is also dazzled by the clarity of the figures because until now he has only seen their shadow. If he manages to climb over the wall and get past the fire into the world outside, he will be even more dazzled. But after rubbing his eyes he will be struck by the beauty of everything. For the first time he will see colors and clear shapes. He will see the real animals and flowers that the cave shadows were only poor reflections of. But even now he will ask himself where all the animals and flowers come from. Then he will see the sun in the sky, and realize that this is what gives life to these flowers and animals, just as the fire made the shadows visible.

The joyful cave dweller could now have gone skipping away into the countryside, delighting in his new-found freedom. But instead he thinks of all the others who are still down in the cave. He goes back. Once there, he tries to convince the cave dwellers that the shadows on the cave wall are but flickering reflections of “real” things. But they don’t believe him. They point to the cave wall and say that what they see is all there is. Finally they kill him.

What Plato was illustrating in the Myth of the Cave is the philosopher’s road from shadowy images to the true ideas behind all natural phenomena. He was probably also thinking of Socrates, whom the “cave dwellers” killed because he disturbed their conventional ideas and tried to light the way to true insight. The Myth of the Cave illustrates Socrates’ courage and his sense of pedagogic responsibility.

Plato’s point was that the relationship between the darkness of the cave and the world beyond corresponds to the relationship between the forms of the natural world and the world of ideas. Not that he meant that the natural world is dark and dreary, but that it is dark and dreary in comparison with the
clarity of ideas. A picture of a beautiful landscape is not dark and dreary either. But it is only a picture.

The Philosophic State

The Myth of the Cave is found in Plato’s dialogue the Republic. In this dialogue Plato also presents a picture of the “ideal state,” that is to say an imaginary, ideal, or what we would call a Utopian, state. Briefly, we could say that Plato believed the state should be governed by philosophers. He bases his explanation of this on the construction of the human body.

According to Plato, the human body is composed of three parts: the head, the chest, and the abdomen. For each of these three parts there is a corresponding faculty of the soul. Reason belongs to the head, will belongs to the chest, and appetite belongs to the abdomen. Each of these soul faculties also has an ideal, or “virtue.” Reason aspires to wisdom, Will aspires to courage, and Appetite must be curbed so that temperance can be exercised. Only when the three parts of the body function together as a unity do we get a harmonious or “virtuous” individual. At school, a child must first learn to curb its appetites, then it must develop courage, and finally reason leads to wisdom.

Plato now imagines a state built up exactly like the tripartite human body. Where the body has head, chest, and abdomen, the State has rulers, auxiliaries, and fa-borers (farmers, for example). Here Plato clearly uses Greek medical science as his model. Just as a healthy and harmonious man exercises balance and temperance, so a “virtuous” state is characterized by everyone knowing their place in the overall picture.

Like every aspect of Plato’s philosophy, his political philosophy is characterized by rationalism. The creation of a good state depends on its being governed with reason. Just as the head governs the body, so philosophers must rule society.

Let us attempt a simple illustration of the relationship between the three parts of man and the state:

head reason wisdom rulers
chest will courage auxiliaries
abdomen appetite temperance laborers

Plato’s ideal state is not unlike the old Hindu caste system, in .which each and every person has his or her particular function for the good of the whole. Even before Plato’s time the Hindu caste system had the same tripartite division between the auxiliary caste (or priest caste), the warrior caste, and the laborer caste. Nowadays we would perhaps call Plato’s state totalitarian. But it is worth noting that he believed women could govern just as effectively as men for the simple reason that the rulers govern by virtue of their reason. Women, he asserted, have exactly the same powers of reasoning as men, provided they get the same training and are exempt from child rearing and housekeeping. In Plato’s ideal state, rulers and warriors are not allowed family life or private property. The rearing of children is considered too important to be left to the individual and should be the responsibility of the state. (Plato was the first philosopher to advocate state- organized nursery schools and full-time education.)
After a number of significant political setbacks, Plato wrote the tows, in which he described the “constitutional state” as the next-best state. He now reintroduced both private property and family ties. Women’s freedom thus became more restricted. However, he did say that a state that does not educate and train women is like a man who only trains his right arm.

All in all, we can say that Plato had a positive view of women— considering the time he lived in. In the dialogue Symposium, he gives a woman, the legendary priestess Diotima, the honor of having given Socrates his philosophic insight.

So that was Plato, Sophie. His astonishing theories have been discussed—and criticized—for more than two thousand years. The first man to do so was one of the pupils from his own Academy. His name was Aristotle, and he was the third great philosopher from Athens.

I’ll say no more!

While Sophie had been reading about Plato, the sun had risen over the woods to the east. It was peeping over the horizon just as she was reading how one man clambered out of the cave and blinked in the dazzling light outside.

It was almost as if she had herself emerged from an underground cave. Sophie felt that she saw nature in a completely different way after reading about Plato. It was rather like having been color-blind. She had seen some shadows but had not seen the clear ideas.

She was not sure Plato was right in everything he had said about the eternal patterns, but it was a beautiful thought that all living things were imperfect copies of the eternal forms in the world of ideas. Because wasn’t it true that all flowers, trees, human beings, and animals were “imperfect”?

Everything she saw around her was so beautiful and so alive that Sophie had to rub her eyes to really believe it. But nothing she was looking at now would last. And yet—in a hundred years the same flowers and the same animals would be here again. Even if every single flower and every single animal should fade away and be for- gotten, there would be something that “recollected” how it all looked.

Sophie gazed out at the world. Suddenly a squirrel ran up the trunk of a pine tree. It circled the trunk a few times and disappeared into the branches.

“I’ve seen you before!” thought Sophie. She realized that maybe it was not the same squirrel that she had seen previously, but she had seen the same “form.” For all she knew, Plato could have been right. Maybe she really had seen the eternal “squirrel” before—in the world of ideas, before her soul had taken residence in a human body.

Could it be true that she had lived before? Had her soul existed before it got a body to move around in? And was it really true that she carried a little golden nugget inside her—a jewel that cannot be corroded by time, a soul that would live on when her own body grew old and died?

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… the girl in the mirror winked with both eyes…

It was only a quarter past seven. There was no need to hurry home. Sophie’s mother always took it easy on Sundays, so she would probably sleep for another two hours.

Should she go a bit farther into the woods and try to find Alberto Knox? And why had the dog snarled at her so viciously?
Sophie got up and began to walk down the path Hermes had taken. She had the brown envelope with the pages on Plato in her hand. Wherever the path diverged she took the wider one.

Birds were chirping everywhere—in the trees and in the air, in bush and thicket. They were busily occupied with their morning pursuits. They knew no difference between weekdays and Sundays. Who had taught them to do all that? Was there a tiny computer inside each one of them, programming them to do certain things?

The path led up over a little hill, then steeply down between tall pine trees. The woods were so dense now that she could only see a few yards between the trees.

Suddenly she caught sight of something glittering between the pine trunks. It must be a little lake. The path went the other way but Sophie picked her way among the trees. Without really knowing why, she let her feet lead her.

The lake was no bigger than a soccer field. Over on the other side she could see a red-painted cabin in a small clearing surrounded by silver birches. A faint wisp of smoke was rising from the chimney.

Sophie went down to the water’s edge. It was very muddy in many places, but then she noticed a rowboat. It was drawn halfway out of the water. There was a pair of oars in it.

Sophie looked around. Whatever she did, it would be impossible to get around the lake to the red cabin without getting her shoes soaked. She went resolutely over to the boat and pushed it into the water. Then she climbed aboard, set the oars in the rowlocks, and rowed across the lake. The boat soon touched the opposite bank. Sophie went ashore and tried to pull the boat up after her. The bank was much steeper here than the opposite bank had been.

She glanced over her shoulder only once before walking up toward the cabin.

She was quite startled at her own boldness. How did she dare do this? She had no idea. It was as if “something” impelled her.

Sophie went up to the door and knocked. She waited a while but nobody answered. She tried the handle cautiously, and the door opened.

“Hallo!” she called. “Is anyone at home?”

She went in and found herself in a living room. She dared not shut the door behind her.

Somebody was obviously living here. Sophie could hear wood crackling in the old stove. Someone had been here very recently.

On a big dining table stood a typewriter, some books, a couple of pencils, and a pile of paper. A smaller table and two chairs stood by the window that overlooked the lake. Apart from that there was very little furniture, although the whole of one wall was lined with bookshelves filled with books. Above a white chest of drawers hung a large round mirror in a heavy brass frame. It looked very old.

On one of the walls hung two pictures. One was an oil painting of a white house which lay a stone’s throw from a little bay with a red boathouse. Between the house and the boathouse was a sloping garden with an apple tree, a few thick bushes, and some rocks. A dense fringe of birch trees framed the garden like a garland. The title of the painting was “Bjerkely.”

Beside that painting hung an old portrait of a man sitting in a chair by a window. He had a book in his lap. This picture also had a little bay with trees and rocks in the background. It looked as though it had been painted several hundred years ago. The title of the picture was “Berkeley.” The painter’s name was Smibert.

Berkeley and Bjerkely. How strange!
Sophie continued her investigation. A door led from the living room to a small
kitchen. Someone had just done the dishes. Plates and glasses were piled on a tea towel, some of them still glistening with drops of soapy water. There was a tin bowl on the floor with some leftover scraps of food in it. Whoever lived here had a pet, a dog or a cat.

Sophie went back to the living room. Another door led to a tiny bedroom. On the floor next to the bed there were a couple of blankets in a thick bundle. Sophie dis- covered some golden hairs on the blankets. Here was the evidence! Now Sophie knew that the occupants of the cabin were Alberto Knox and Hermes.

Back in the living room, Sophie stood in front of the mirror. The glass was matte and scratched, and her reflection correspondingly blurred. Sophie began to make faces at herself like she did at home in the bathroom. Her reflection did exactly the same, which was only to be expected.

But all of a sudden something scary happened. Just once—in the space of a split second—Sophie saw quite clearly that the girl in the mirror winked with both eyes. Sophie started back in fright. If she herself had winked—how could she have seen the other girl wink? And not only that, it seemed as though the other girl had winked at Sophie as if to say: I can see you, Sophie. I am in here, on the other side.

Sophie felt her heart beating, and at the same time she heard a dog barking in the distance. Hermes! She had to get out of here at once. Then she noticed a green wallet on the chest of drawers under the mirror. It contained a hundred-crown note, a fifty, and a school I.D. card. It showed a picture of a girl with fair hair. Under the picture was the girl’s name: Hilde Moller Knag …

Sophie shivered. Again she heard the dog bark. She had to get out, at once!

As she hurried past the table she noticed a white envelope between all the books and the pile of paper. It had one word written on it: SOPHIE.

Before she had time to realize what she was doing, she grabbed the envelope and stuffed it into the brown envelope with the Plato pages. Then she rushed out of the door and slammed it behind her.

The barking was getting closer. But worst of all was that the boat was gone. After a second or two she saw it, adrift halfway across the lake. One of the oars was floating beside it. All because she hadn’t been able to pull it completely up on land. She heard the dog barking quite nearby now and saw movements between the trees on the other side of the lake.

Sophie didn’t hesitate any longer. With the big envelope in her hand, she plunged into the bushes behind the cabin. Soon she was having to wade through marshy ground, sinking in several times to well above her ankles. But she had to keep going. She had to get home.

Presently she stumbled onto a path. Was it the path she had taken earlier? She stopped to wring out her dress. And then she began to cry.

How could she have been so stupid? The worst of all was the boat. She couldn’t forget the sight of the row-boat with the one oar drifting helplessly on the lake. It was all so embarrassing, so shameful. . .

The philosophy teacher had probably reached the lake by now. He would need the boat to get home. Sophie felt almost like a criminal. But she hadn’t done it on purpose.

The envelope! That was probably even worse. Why had she taken it? Because her name was on it, of course, so in a way it was hers. But even so, she felt like a thief. And what’s more, she had provided the evidence that it was she who had been there.

Sophie drew the note out of the envelope. It said:
What came first—the chicken or the “idea” chicken ?

Are we born with innate “ideas”? What is the difference between a plant, an animal, and a human?

Why does it rain?
What does it take to live a good life?

Sophie couldn’t possibly think about these questions right now, but she assumed they had something to do with the next philosopher. Wasn’t he called Aristotle?

When she finally saw the hedge after running so far through the woods it was like swimming ashore after a shipwreck. The hedge looked funny from the other side.

She didn’t look at her watch until she had crawled into the den. It was ten-thirty. She put the big envelope into the biscuit tin with the other papers and stuffed the note with the new questions down her tights.

Her mother was on the telephone when she came in. When she saw Sophie she hung up quickly.

“Where on earth have you been?”
“I… went for a walk … in the woods,” she stammered.
“So I see.”
Sophie stood silently, watching the water dripping from her dress.
“I called Joanna…”
Her mother brought her some dry clothes. Sophie only just managed to hide the

philosopher’s note. Then they sat together in the kitchen, and her mother made some hot chocolate.

“Were you with him?” she asked after a while. “Him?”
Sophie could only think about her philosophy teacher. “With him, yes. Him…. your rabbit!”

Sophie shook her head.
“What do you do when you’re together, Sophie? Why are you so wet?”
Sophie sat staring gravely at the table. But deep down inside she was laughing.

Poor Mom, now she had that to worry about.
She shook her head again. Then more questions came raining down on her. “Now I want the truth. Were you out all night? Why did you go to bed with

your clothes on? Did you sneak out as soon as I had gone to bed? You’re only fourteen, Sophie. I demand to know who you are seeing!”

Sophie started to cry. Then she talked. She was still frightened, and when you are frightened you usually talk.

She explained that she had woken up very early and had gone for a walk in the woods. She told her mother about the cabin and the boat, and about the mysterious mirror. But she mentioned nothing about the secret correspondence course. Neither did she mention the green wallet. She didn’t quite know why, but she had to keep Hilde for herself.

Her mother put her arms around Sophie, and Sophie knew that her mother believed her now.

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Sophie sniffed. “It was just something I said because you were so upset about the white rabbit.”

“And you really went all the way to the major’s cabin …” said her mother thoughtfully.
“The major’s cabin?” Sophie stared at her mother.

“The little woodland cabin is called the major’s cabin because some years ago an army major lived there for a time. He was rather eccentric, a little crazy, I think. But never mind that. Since then the cabin has been unoccupied.”

“But it isn’t! There’s a philosopher living there now.”
“Oh stop, don’t start fantasizing again!”
Sophie stayed in her room, thinking about what had happened. Her head felt

like a roaring circus full of lumbering elephants, silly clowns, daring trapeze flyers, and trained monkeys. But one image recurred unceasingly— a small rowboat with one oar drifting in a lake deep in the woods—and someone needing the boat to get home.

She felt sure that the philosophy teacher didn’t wish her any harm, and would certainly forgive her if he knew she had been to his cabin. But she had broken an agreement. That was all the thanks he got for taking on her philosophic education. How could she make up for it? Sophie took out her pink notepaper and began to write:

Dear Philosopher, It was me who was in your cabin early Sunday morning. I wanted so much to meet you and discuss some of the philosophic problems. For the moment I am a Plato fan, but I am not so sure he was right about ideas or pattern pictures existing in another reality. Of course they exist in our souls, but I think—for the moment anyway— that this is a different thing. I have to admit too that I am not altogether convinced of the immortality of the soul. Personally, I have no recollections from my former lives. If you could convince me that my deceased grandmother’s soul is happy in the world of ideas, I would be most grateful.

Actually, it was not for philosophic reasons that I started to write this letter (which I shall put in a pink envelope with a lump of sugar). I just wanted to say I was sorry for being disobedient. I tried to pull the boat completely up on shore but I was obviously not strong enough. Or perhaps a big wave dragged the boat out again.

I hope you managed to get home without getting your feet wet. If not, it might comfort you to know that I got soaked and will probably have a terrible cold. But that’ll be my own fault.

I didn’t touch anything in the cabin, but I am sorry to say that I couldn’t resist the temptation to take the envelope that was on the table. It wasn’t because I wanted to steal anything, but as my name was on it, I thought in my confusion that it be- longed to me. I am really and truly sorry, and I promise never to disappoint you again.

P.S. I will think all the new questions through very carefully, starting now.

P.P.S. Is the mirror with the brass frame above the white chest of drawers an ordinary mirror or a magic mirror? I’m only asking because I am not used to seeing my own reflection wink with both eyes.

With regards from your sincerely interested pupil, SOPHIE

Sophie read the letter through twice before she put it in the envelope. She thought it was less formal than the previous letter she had written. Before she went downstairs to the kitchen to get a lump of sugar she looked at the note with the day’s questions:

“What came first—the chicken or the “idea” chicken?

This question was just as tricky as the old riddle of the chicken and the egg. There would be no chicken without the egg, and no egg without the chicken. Was it really just as complicated to figure out whether the chicken or the “idea” chicken came first? Sophie understood what Plato meant. He meant that the “idea” chicken had existed in the world of ideas long before chickens existed in the sensory world. According to Plato, the soul had “seen” the “idea” chicken before it took up residence
in a body. But wasn’t this just where Sophie thought Plato must be mistaken? How could a person who had never seen a live chicken or a picture of a chicken ever have any “idea” of a chicken? Which brought her to the next question:

Are we born with innate “ideas”? Most unlikely, thought Sophie. She could hardly imagine a newborn baby being especially well equipped with ideas. One could obviously never be sure, because the fact that the baby had no language did not necessarily mean that it had no ideas in its head. But surely we have to see things in the world before we can know anything about them.

“What is the difference between a plant, an animal, and a human?” Sophie could immediately see very clear differences.

For instance, she did not think a plant had a very complicated emotional life. Who had ever heard of a bluebell with a broken heart? A plant grows, takes nourishment, and produces seeds so that it can reproduce itself. That’s about all one could say about plants. Sophie concluded that everything that applied to plants also applied to animals and humans. But animals had other attributes as well. They could move, for example. (When did a rose ever run a marathon?) It was a bit harder to point to any differences between animals and humans. Humans could think, but couldn’t animals do so as well? Sophie was convinced that her cat Sherekan could think. At least, it could be very calculating. But could it reflect on philosophical questions? Could a cat speculate about the difference between a plant, an animal, and a human? Hardly! A cat could probably be either contented or unhappy, but did it ever ask itself if there was a God or whether it had an immortal soul? Sophie thought that was extremely doubtful. But the same problem was raised here as with the baby and the innate ideas. It was just as difficult to talk to a cat about such questions as it would be to discuss them with a baby.

“Why does it rain?” Sophie shrugged her shoulders. It probably rains because seawater evaporates and the clouds condense into raindrops. Hadn’t she learnt that in the third grade? Of course, one could always say that it rains so that plants and animals can grow. But was that true? Had a shower any actual purpose?

The last question definitely had something to do with purpose: “What does it take to live a good life?”

The philosopher had written something about this quite early on in the course. Everybody needs food, warmth, love, and care. Such basics were the primary condition for a good life, at any rate. Then he had pointed out that people also needed to find answers to certain philosophical questions. It was probably also quite important to have a job you liked. If you hated traffic, for instance, you would not be very happy as a taxi driver. And if you hated doing homework it would probably be a bad idea to become a teacher. Sophie loved animals and wanted to be a vet. But in any case she didn’t think it was necessary to win a million in the lottery to live a good life.

Quite the opposite, more likely. There was a saying:
The devil finds work for idle hands.
Sophie stayed in her room until her mother called her down to a big midday

meal. She had prepared sirloin steak and baked potatoes. There were cloudberries and cream for dessert.

They talked about all kinds of things. Sophie’s mother asked her how she wanted to celebrate her fifteenth birthday. It was only a few weeks away.

Sophie shrugged.
“Aren’t you going to invite anyone? I mean, don’t you want to have a party?” “Maybe.”
“We could ask Martha and Anne Marie … and Helen. And Joanna, of course.
And Jeremy, perhaps. But that’s for you to decide. I remember my own fifteenth birthday so clearly, you know. It doesn’t seem all that long ago. I felt I was already quite grown up. Isn’t it odd, Sophie! I don’t feel I have changed at all since then.”

“You haven’t. Nothing changes. You have just developed, gotten older…”

“Mm … that was a very grownup thing to say. I just think it’s all happened so very quickly.”

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