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 ex-plained 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 thestars, 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 goback 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?
Socrates…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 cofee, 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 philosophy? 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 hen 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.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF ATHENS
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 mytholog-ical 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 pro-gresses 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 CenterAfter 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 positin 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 questions 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 nver 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 Socrates 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 hi 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 knowing 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 sayit 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, Sophie. 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 happiness 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?
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, Sphie."
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.
…… 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 Acrop-olis 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——rouder 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 wose 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 anyway ……"
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 handsome 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 hasan 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.
… 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 thiker 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 Socrate' 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 Good
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 Sophists 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 "beau-tiful," 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 enales 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 together 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 human 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.
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 literall 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 knowlede 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 gingerbread 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, expe-riences 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 manaes 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:
BODY SOUL VIRTUE 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 arrior 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 forgotten, 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?
The Major's Cabin
…… 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 pth 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 book-shelves 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 discovered 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 blurrd. 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.
Sophie ould 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 belonged 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 aking 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 mther 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.
"Aren't you going to invite anyone? I mean, don't you want to have a party?"
"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."