Who are you? Where does
the world come from?

Nobody of course has the faintest idea. The questions on a scrap of paper that 15-year-old Sophie Amundsen finds one morning, begins her adventure investigating Western philosophy, guided by an enigmatic teacher Alberto. In the process, they learn the truth of their very own existence, in this philosophical mystery, Sophie's World, by Norwegian philosophy teacher Jostein Gaarder.

The marvel of the book lies in the explanation of the most taxing ideas and concepts in philosophy, written so plainly that even a restless teenager could grasp. From the Viking creation myth (familiar to the Norwegian audience for whom this book was originally addressed) to Plato and Aristotle down to Darwin and Freud, it is both an enducational and entertaining read.

I've always been a bit hazy, for instance, on Spinoza. I admired the man for his compassionate outlook and courage in the face of persecution from Christians and his own Jewish tribe (even today, the so-called modern state of Israel is nothing but a tribal collective) but I couldn't figure what exactly Spinoza meant in his famous statement on seeing everything in the context of eternity. But in seven concise pages, Jostein Gaarder delivers a diamond-clear explanation:

Context of eternity

"Spinoza said that it was our passions -- such as ambition and lust -- which prevent us from achieving true happiness and harmony, but that if we recognise that everything happens from necessity, we can achieve an intuitive understanding of nature as a whole. We can come to realise with crystal clarity that everything is related, even that everything is One. The goal is to comprehend everything that exists in an all-embracing perception. Only then will we achieve true happiness and contentment. This was what Spinoza called seeing everything 'sub species aeternitalis' -- to see everything from the perspective of eternity." [p196]

Existential catastrophe

More important than the educational tour in European philosophical thoughts is the ending of Sophie's World. When the people in the book discover they are no more than characters in some writer's imagination, it brings about an "existential catastrophe" for them, although the author did not elaborate on what he means by that.

"After a thorough philosophical study -- which has led from the first Greek philosophers to the present day -- we have discovered that we are living our lives in the mind of a major who is at this moment serving as a UN observer in Lebanon. He has also written a book about us for his daughter back in Lillesand. Her name is Hilde Moller Knag, and she was fifteen years old on the same day as Sophie. The book about us lay on her bedside table when she woke up early on the morning of June 15. To be more precise, it was in the form of of a ring binder. Even as we speak, she can feel the final pages of the ring binder under her index finger."

A feeling of apprehension had begun to spread oround the table.

"Our existence is therefore neither more nor less than a kind of birthday diversion for Hilde Moller Knag. We have all been invented as a framework for the major's philosophical education of his daughter. This means, for example, that the white Mercedes at the gate is not worth a cent. It's just a bagatelle. It's worth no more than the white Mercedes that drives around and around inside the head of a poor UN major, who has just this minute sat down in the shade of a palm tree to avoid getting sunstroke. The days are hot in Lebanon, my friends."

"Garbage!" exclaimed the financial adviser. "This is absolutely pure nonsense."

"You are welcome to your opinion," Alberto continued unabashed, "but the truth is that it is this garden party which is absolutely pure nonsense. The only dose of reason in the whole party is this speech."

At that, the financial adviser got up and said: "Here we are, trying our best to run a business, and to make sure we have insurance coverage against every kind of risk. Then along comes this know-it-all who tries to destroy it all with his 'philosophical' allegations."

Alberto nodded in agreement. "There is indeed no insurance to cover this kind of philosophical insight. We are talking of something worse than a natural catastrophe, sir. But as you are probably aware, insurance doesn't cover those either."

"This is not a natural catastrophe."

"No, it is an existential catastrophe... You cannot insure yourself against the collapse of your whole life. Neither can you insure yourself against the sun going out."

"It makes little difference whether you deal with this situation or not, since you are nothing but a shadow. Anyway, Sophie and I are about to leave the party, since for us the philosophy course has not been purely theoretical. It has also had its practical side. When the time is ripe we will perform our disappearing act. That is how we are going to sneak our way out of the major's consciousness."

Helene Amundsen took hold of her daughter's arm. "You are not leaving me, are you, Sophie?"

Sophie put her arms around her mother. She looked up at Alberto. "Mom is so sad..."

"No, that's just ridiculous. Don't forget what you have learned. It's this sort of nonsense we must liberate ourselves from. Your mother is a sweet and kind lady, just as the Little Red Ridinghood who came to my door that day had a basket filled with food for her grandmother. Your mother is no more sad than the plane that just flew over needed fuel for its congratulation maneuvers."

"I think I see what you mean," said Sophie, and turned back to her mother. "That's why I have to do what he says, Mom. One day I had to leave you."

"I'm going to miss you," said her mother, "but if there is a heaven over this one, you'll just have to fly. I promise to take good care of Govinda. Does it eat one or two lettuce leaves a day?"

Alberto put his hand on her shoulder. "Neither you nor anyone else here will miss us for the simple reason that you do not exist. You are no more than shadows."

"That is the worst insult I've ever heard," Mrs Ingebrigtsen burst out. Her husband nodded. "If nothing else, we can always get him nailed for defamation of character. I'm sure he's a Communist. He wants to strip us of everything we hold dear. The man's a scoundrel."

from Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder (1991, paper edition) p368, 369.

I bought the paperback edition on March 31, 1995, when it first appeared. Initially, I found the ending somewhat melodramatic, not unlike most Hollywood scripts, even in the most thoughtful films.

After mulling for more than seven years now, and thinking over what the Buddha teaches about our mental state or consciousness being our only reality, the ending in Sophie's World may not be so far-fetched, after all. In the Sutra of Hui-neng, there was an incident in which a wind was blowing and the pennants were flapping. One monk said: "The wind is moving." Another said: "The pennants are moving." As they argued, Hui-neng (founder of the Zen movement) came forward and said: "It is not the wind moving. It is not the pennants moving. It is your minds moving."

See also Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger | Spinoza the philosopher saint

Sculpture outside British Museum, picture by Francis Chin, 2001