A Review of Sophie’s World that Wanders Over to Dutch Philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s Lens Grinding-and-Philosophy Shoppe and Asks Why We do What We Do.

14 Nov

I have been listening to a very interesting book called Sophie’s World by (yet another) Norwegian, this one named Jostein Gaarder.  It is an odd and long retelling of the philosophical history of the world (at least the Western canon, if you don’t include Muslim or Eastern thought, which is leaving out a lot) from the point of view of a teacher named Alberto Knox who come to visit a 15-year-old girl named Sophie Amundsen in Lilesand, Norway. Sophie’s father is absent because he is a ship captain or something along those lines. There is also another girl named Hilda who seems to live on a different plane but at almost the same time, whose father is also away because he is a UN Peacekeeper in Lebanon. I am not far enough along to know what the relationship between Hilda (who may have some relationship to Hildegarde of Bingen) and Sophia (who may have something to do with wisdom), but it is definitely a mixture of fantasy and big chunks of explaining history, from the Greeks through Medieval Scholasticism to Descartes to Spinoza (that’s where I’m at now) and beyond. I don’t know if this is supposed to be a children’s book or an adult book, but either way, it doesn’t really bother me. This book has sold well over 30 million copies, and has been translated into more than 50 languages and has won a bunch of prizes. It has been turned into a movie (can’t imagine how), and a computer game. I, however, had never heard of it, so it’s all Norwegian to me!!



As someone who has read a lot of history, but still has some gaps, whether I forgot or because I didn’t get into specifics on certain things, I was very interested in some of the ways the author, who is in fact a philosophy professor, connects and explains certain things.

I have always wanted to know more about Baruch (later Benedict) Spinoza (1632-1677), for instance. And I was able to glean a little bit of knowledge about him, though it was difficult because I am listening to the book on tape in the car. I knew that Spinoza was of Sephardic Jewish descent and lived in Amsterdam, like scientist Antonie  Von Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), the father of microbiology, he made his living grinding lenses. (Did you notice they were born the same year?? I just did. What a time it was in the Netherlands!) And he died young, at 44, perhaps from silicosis, i.e; from the glass particles he shaved off his lenses lodging themselves in his lungs.


I knew there was something very forward thinking and humanistic in Spinoza’s thinking and that it led to rejection by (first) his people, then most people, then even his family. I knew that he gave his inheritance to his sister. But I forgot how these beliefs manifested themselves. So I looked up a little more.

Among his advances in thought, which included advances in biblical criticism, (at least according to the author), and his book Ethics, published after his death, Spinoza believed in a kind of unity of all things (in opposition to Descartes’s belief that the mind and body are separate, for instance).. If you have a stomach ache, that is you, and then when you don’t have a stomach ache, that is still you. [That example is given by ‘Alberto Knox in Sophie’s World, anyway.) His view was, as the author said, “deterministic”—and yet there were differences of conditions under which things happened or didn’t happen. For example, if one apple tree is planted somewhere with great soil and light, it will grow better than one that is planted somewhere with bad soil and light. It will be “free” at least in the sense that it can reach its potential. But its potential is to be an apple tree, not something else. So, although there are things that have some kind of essential nature, there are conditions under which they are more likely to flourish than others. He believed that things happened because of the “operation of necessity.” But he still believed that things happened according to their nature and that was somehow because of god.

I am not qualified to say much more in this post, but this idea of the conditions under which people flourish interests me. I think like many people who remember their childhood, I felt that although I had many things to be grateful for, I had certain challenges that made life very difficult. I was raised in a stable, middle-class American family where we had dinner at the kitchen table every night. That seems so utterly important to me and my husband that we did everything in our power to recreate it. There are many things that both our sets of parents did that we naturally gravitated to no matter how difficult. His parents’ steadiness and my parents’ humor are two of the gifts we received. And yet, there were “shadowed” things as well. The soil of my childhood was rendered less fit because of five years of bullying. And yet, even as I think of those unhappy years, I feel that even the bullying was a mixed bag of curses and gifts. I tried to give my children an ideal childhood, but they, too, suffered in ways I could not prevent them from doing. Is how I became my adult self nourished or damaged because of the adversity? Was theirs? Was it predetermined? I don’t know. How DO you reach the full potential—of YOURSELF? That is a question I will be thinking about for a long time as I look further into the life and works of this quiet, brilliant lens grinder of Amsterdam.

Writing Spark: Do you think your personality is predetermined? What factors make it up?

One Response to “A Review of Sophie’s World that Wanders Over to Dutch Philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s Lens Grinding-and-Philosophy Shoppe and Asks Why We do What We Do.”

  1. Mustafa November 14, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    Great commentary. I had read the book when I was in high school and I remember enjoying it a lot. I would read it again. About your question in the last sentence: I believe, yes and no. There might be some genetic reason in play that determines how quick you are, how patient you are etc. due to the difference in your chemistry, body temperature and such. But, in my opinion, what makes you what you are highly depends on the experiences you had in your life, as you have already mentioned: mostly the ones in your childhood.

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