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sophieSophie’s World is a novel on the history of philosophy—written especially to be accessible for young people. It’s cool because it wraps a lot of textbook information into a novel, making it much more palatable than a straight-up textbook, and much more nerdy than your typical story. I sure enjoyed the combination! And the last third of the book gets downright trippy. So that’s fun, too.

Also, I found out during the course of reading this book that it was the inspiration for one of my favorite people to major in philosophy. (She’s now working on her PhD in philosophy.) Which is pretty awesome.

One fun thing about this book is that the original text is in Norwegian and the story is set in Norway. What’s funny is that you forget you’re reading a translation until you catch something that’s just slightly off from the normal English term or idiom, or that refers to things that we wouldn’t do. (In the latter category, I mean like when I came across Sophie working on “conjugating English verbs.” For a second I thought, “What?” And then, “Ohhh, because she’s studying English as a foreign language. Of course.”)
Other instances: use of “illusive” instead of “elusive,” “correction fluid” where we would say “whiteout” (although maybe that’s a British usage?), “cafeteria” for “café,” and some spots with a missing preposition. It was just fun to have little reminders here and there! (Also, I’m certainly not trying to bash the translator… I couldn’t do anywhere near as good a job translating into any language.)

Another thing I loved about this book was that I had to read it slowly. It took me a long time—and not just because it was 500 pages! I had to really slow down to wrap my head around the things each philosopher postulated, especially the ones I wasn’t as familiar with. (On the flipside, it was kind of a diagnostic for me to see which philosophers I was familiar with and which ones I wasn’t by how much I had to slow down. Turns out, I’m pretty familiar with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Marx, Darwin, Freud, and some others… and not as familiar with Berkeley, Bjerkeley, Spinoza, Hume, and some others. Good to know.)

Here are some quotes that I enjoyed slowing down to ponder:

  • Socrates: “He who knows what good is will do good.” Commentary: “Socrates thought that no one could possibly be happy if they acted against their better judgment. And he who knows how to achieve happiness will do so. Therefore, he who knows what is right will do right. Because why would anybody choose to be unhappy?”
  • Plato said that “a state that does not educate and train women is like a man who only trains his right arms.” YES.
  • “A sculptor is working on a large block of granite… one day a little boy comes by and says, ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘Wait and see,’ answers the sculptor. After a few days the little boy comes back, and now the sculptor has carved a beautiful horse out of the granite. The boy stares at it in amazement, then he turns to the sculptor and says, ‘How did you know it was in there?’” Very Michaelangelo of the little boy… (He said that every piece of marble has a figure already in it that is waiting to be discovered and displayed by the sculptor.)
  • Galileo: “The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.”
  • “When we speak of the ‘laws of nature’ or of ‘cause and effect,’ we are actually speaking of what we expect, rather than what is ‘reasonable.’ The laws of nature are neither reasonable or unreasonable, they simply are.”
  • Goethe: “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.”
  • “The thoughts that are washed along with the current of past tradition, as well as the material conditions prevailing at the time, help to determine how you think.” It’s crazy to think about how differently I would think—and therefore, how different I would be—if I lived in a different time period.
  • “The tension between ‘being’ and ‘nothing’ becomes resolved in the concept of ‘becoming.’ Because if something is in the process of becoming it both is and is not.”
  • “A composition—and every work of art is one—is created in a wondrous interplay between imagination and reason, or between mind and reflection. For there will always be an element of chance in the creative process.”
  • “She who wins the lot of life must also draw the lot of death, for the lot of life is death.”

So much to think about! Have fun processing these… And if you want more to think about, or are just interested in philosophy or learning to think well, pick up Sophie’s World! It’s great.