[Book]”Wisest is she who knows she does not know”

“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.”

― Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

It was two years ago when I first thought that I should try reading something about philosophy. Years ago, when I have just graduated from university, a friend of mine shared Facebook post in which she recommended a book named “Sophie’s World”. I searched for the book title out of curious and found out that it was a book about philosophy. Then after the talk with my serendipitous friend of mine (you should get acquainted with her if you are an active reader of my blog) and getting impressed by her broad knowledge inclusive of philosophy, I decided to read something about philosophy. First, I attempted to take the course of “Introduction to Philosophy” on Coursera as a start. The course is offered by University of Edinburg and you could find the link here for your ease of reference. Specifically, the course was designed to lead the students through the very basic definitions that lay the foundation for the study of philosophy, i.e. the definition of philosophy itself, knowledge and then have students discover more about different schools of philosophy by addressing several popular topics of Philosophy like the Philosophy of Mind, the Moral Philosophy, Epistemology or the Philosophy of Knowledge, Philosophy of Science, and finally a brief introduction about the Philosophy of Time travel. As usual, my effort of keeping up with a course on Coursera is not always successful. Hardly could I find time to finish a course on Coursera. I always had difficulties in concentrating on watching the videos or finishing the assignments and then gave up following the course right after the second week. While writing this post, I have to re-visit the home page of the course to understand what they are teaching about and surprisingly find myself somehow understand why the course was designed this way. Many thanks, of course, should come to the two books I am about to talk about hereunder: “Sophie’s World” by Jostein Gaarder and “From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest” by T.Z. Lavine.

If the above mentioned course offered by Coursera provides the learners with lectures by theme, the two aforementioned books, however, gave us an overview of philosophy by chronological order. “Sophie’s World”, written by Jostein Gaarder in 1991, is a novel about a fifteen-year-old girl named Sophie Amundsen getting introduced to philosophical thinking and the history of philosophy by an old philosopher named Alberto Knox. I suppose the author intended to make philosophy much more comprehensible to teenagers by translating all the history of philosophy into a fiction with plots and twists and actually, I was not so impressed by such conversion. I prefer listening to the thoughtful conversations between Alberto and Sophie to understanding all the plots and twists of the novel, some of which are quite unnatural to me. The book has made a very comprehensive summary of Western thoughts from the time in which Greek Mythology were written to the time of modern philosophers like Sartre. Though it was said that the book is highly recommended for the fifteen-year-old, as a 24-year-old I felt it a little bit not easy to comprehend at all right all the thoughts written in this novel. Perhaps it was due to my limited English level that prevents me from understanding all the thoughts shared in the novel thoroughly, but on the second thought I do not think a Vietnamese book may not be better. Perhaps it was due to the large amount of information conveyed by the author and it would be better to have the book re-read for several times. Forgoing the unnecessary complication created by the plot of the novel, I do love the writing of Jostein when it comes to reciting the history of philosophy or explaining the philosophic thoughts in some parts of the novel, wherein he merely wrote about philosophy, philosophic thoughts or stories about the philosophers. My favorite parts in “Sophie’s World” were the chapters of “The Renaissance”, “The Baroque”, “Hume”, and “Our Own Time”. I was thrilled at the beautiful philosophic thoughts as well as the enthralling writing by the author in these chapters. I have been taught of the idea of individualism of the Renaissance before when I was a student at secondary school. I was energized by the idea of “carpe diem” or “seize the day” introduced in the chapter of Baroque. I was surprised to realize that I somehow share the same questions of “How do you know?” and “Will the sun rise tomorrow?” with Hume. And I was absolutely thrilled at the interpretation of Sartre’s ideas by Jostein. By saying it a mere interpretation, I mean I have not read the original thoughts of Sartre and hence, what I read there may be the interpretation of Jostein only.  Specifically, Satre once said “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.  It is up to you to give [life] a meaning”, “Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.”  You remember the post of mine back in 2014 named “I hate when people say “I am obliged to do something even when I don’t want…”, don’t you? I hate when people say they have no choice to disclaim themselves from their cowardice for not doing something. And when I skimmed through the following passage, I just wanted to read this passage out loud to everybody in the “I-told-you-so” manner. The following passage was the explanation of Alberto to Sophie about the statement made by Sartre: “That was precisely Sartre’s point. Nevertheless we are free individuals, and this freedom condemns us to make choices throughout our lives. There are no eternal values or norms we can adhere to, which makes our choices even more significant. Because we are totally responsible for everything we do. Sartre emphasized that man must never disclaim the responsibility for his actions. Nor can we avoid the responsibility of making our own choices on the grounds that we ‘must’ go to work, or we ‘must’ live up to certain middle-class expectations regarding how we should live. Those who thus slip into the anonymous masses will never be other than members of the impersonal flock, having fled from themselves into self-deception. On the other hand our freedom obliges us to make something of ourselves, to live ‘authentically’ or ‘truly.’ “

After finishing “Sophie’s World”, I started reading “From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophic Quest” (“FSTS”) written by T.Z. Lavine immediately. Normally, I often avoid reading books of the same genre/ the same author consecutively like that. If the first book is a fiction, I will switch to a non-fiction then. If the first one was written by Jane Austen, I will surely avoid picking another piece written by Austen for the next reading. But I challenged myself reading another book about philosophy after reading “Sophie’s World”. FSTS also presents the philosophic thoughts in a chronological order as “Sophie’s world”. However, it is blessed that FSTS focused on philosophy only (It was blessed that no plot was involved) and the chapters were named after the typical philosophers, namely, Plato, Descartes, Hume, Hegel, Marx, and Sartre. The final chapter is spared for the brief introduction about the contemporary philosophy. The book was first published in 1984, prior to the date of release of “Sophie’s World”. No matter how long it was written before, the book is still listed among the must-read philosophy books for college students. After reading “Sophie’s world”, coming to terms with philosophic terminology and having general ideas about Western philosophy, I feel much more comfortable on reading FSTS. In FSTS, Lavine detailed the main sets of belief of each philosopher and usually made her own comments by the end of each chapter. I was still a fan of Hume after reading FSTS, becoming interested in Hegel, wondering if I have misinterpreted Sartre’s existentialism and totally bewildered at Descartes’ ideology.

I finished reading the two aforementioned books by the end of 2015. Perhaps, I will make time to re-read these two books in the future to gain further understanding in this field.  I intended to create a mind map to summarize the philosophic thoughts written in these two books but failed to do so due to limited time. I feel grateful for myself having spent sometimes on such seemingly boring subject. While it may be too soon to realize the benefits of philosophy reading, at least to my brain capacity, I had been given with the chance of reveling into the thoughts of the old men, realizing the linkage between philosophy and politics as well as other scientific subjects, being thrilled at the philosophic thoughts that underlie the political movements in the history and associating some philosophic thoughts with my daily life. Given my limited knowledge about books in relation to philosophy, for an amateur like me, these two books were fine for a start in philosophy.

For your ease of reference, please find the link of these two books on Goodreads embedded in the two following images:

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“Sophie’s World” by Jostein Gaarder
from socrates to sartre
“From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest” by T. Z. Lavine

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