BOOK NEWS AND REVIEWS
SOPHIE'S WORLD: A NOVEL ABOUT THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY BY JOSTEIN GAARDER. HARDCOVER EDITION (1994) -- FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX: NEW YORK. PAPERBACK EDITION (1996) -- BERKLEY BOOKS: NEW YORK.
"He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth." Goethe (quotation at the beginning of this book).
This is a work of both fiction and nonfiction -- both genres are interwoven into an exciting story about a fourteen-year-old girl's encounters with the great ideas of Western philosophy. (She celebrates her fifteenth birthday about two-thirds of the way through the book, which is an important event in the story.) Sophie Amundsen lives with her mother in Lillesand, Norway. Her father, who is a merchant marine captain, is on an ocean voyage during the story. This fascinating teenager begins receiving letters from an unknown teacher who first asks her about various philosophical questions such as, "Who are you?" "Where does the world come from?" The letters then include essays on the great philosophers, beginning with the ancient Greeks (e.g., Heraclitus, c. 540-480 B.C., Democritus, c. 460-370 B.C., Socrates, 470-399 B.C., Plato, 428-347 B.C., and Aristotle, 384-322 B.C.) and proceeding through discussions of the origins of Judaism and Christianity. Later, the instructor introduces her to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment philosophers she studies are the British empiricists, John Locke (1632--1704), David Hume (1711-1776) and Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753). Prior to examining their ideas, she learns about the works of two great Rationalists, René Descartes (1596-1650) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). By the time Sophie learns about the Middle Ages, she has discovered that her private tutor is Alberto Knox whom she eventually meets and studies with face-to-face. The remaining philosophers /revolutionary thinkers that Sophie studies are: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Hegel (1770-1831), Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Marx (1818-1883), Darwin (1809-1882), and Freud (1856-1939). They are discussed in detail by her tutor.
The fiction part of Sophie's World is primarily concerned with describing the mysterious postcards and other communications Sophie receives about another teenager of the same age, Hilde Knag, who is a complete stranger to Sophie. The postcards, etc. are from Hilde's father, a United Nations officer stationed in Lebanon, and they emphasize that the father will be sending Hilde an important present for her birthday. Why does Sophie receive these postcards, etc. from Hilde's father? Why was Sophie selected by Alberto Knox to receive private tutoring in philosophy? She initially confides only in her friend, Joanna, about these strange but exhilarating questions and experiences. Only later in the story does she tell her mother about her philosophy lessons with Alberto Knox, and the messages she receives about Hilde from Hilde's father. Mr. Knox and his wonderful messenger dog named Hermes also become entangled in the mystery of Hilde's postcards. The resolution of this mystery is a philosophical paradox related to Bishop Berkeley's concept of our perceptions of the world. He was a British philosopher of the Empirical school who explained human awareness and knowledge of the world as created by a supreme being.
Sophie's World is an international bestseller and it has been on The New York Times Bestseller List for several weeks. This is an interesting cultural phenomenon for a book devoid of lust, violence, greed and the other "seven deadly sins." One reason for its popularity is because it is a charming story of a teenager's developing intellectual curiosity about life and the world. A second reason is that it provides the reader with stimulating and concise discussions of the great philosophers. The author shows that although many of their ideas were originally developed more than two thousand years ago (e.g., by Plato, Socrates and Aristotle), they have practical applications to today's world -- such as using them to resolve Sophie's paradoxical experiences. In the modern world of constantly shifting values and breaks in the foundations of civilized society, it is essential for gifted students to learn about the philosophical and cultural roots of Western civilization. The origins of our ways of thinking about the world and solving problems in academic, professional and applied fields are based upon philosophical issues discussed in Jostein Gaarder's book. But he has not presented a compendium of ancient and quaint ideas merely for the reader's amusement. Rather, these ideas represent the best thinking related to perennial philosophical issues and practical problems.
The gifted student can read Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy (1926) or Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy (1945) for more detailed discussions and analyses of the ideas contained in Sophie's World. But this book will be more attractive to teenagers who are just becoming interested in the formal study of philosophy. During the last fifteen years, the writers at Gifted Education Press have emphasized the teaching of humanities and philosophy to gifted students beginning at the upper elementary level. We have worked with school districts from different areas of the United States that have been concerned with providing this type of curriculum to gifted students. We highly recommend Sophie's World for use in the humanities curriculum because it provides intellectually advanced students with an overview of philosophy through the eyes of a charming and bright teenager.
NEW SUMMER MENTORING PROGRAM -- The Center for Talent Development at the University of Connecticut will offer a new three week course for rising juniors and seniors from July 7-26, 1996 on the UConn campus. This course will concentrate on providing students with numerous opportunities to work with professors in such areas as art, poetry, biostatistics, health, chemistry, environmental sciences, history, and computer applications. Its primary goal is to develop students' creative productivity by giving them the opportunity to conduct research and engage in independent studies under the supervision of mentor-professors and graduate students. Interested teachers and parents should contact Dr. Jeanne H. Purcell, Director, for applications and information: UConn Mentor Connection: An Inquiry-Based Summer Program for Talented Teens; University of Connecticut; 362 Fairfield Road, U-7; Storrs, CT 06269-2007. Telephone: (860) 486-0283.
A STUDY IN ARTISTIC AND INTELLECTUAL HEROISM: THE KALEVALA
BY MICHAEL E. WALTERS
CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF THE HUMANITIES IN THE SCHOOLS
"Where more is meant than meets the ear." From Il Penseroso (1632), Poem by John Milton.
The mythology of a particular society grants us a glimpse into the sensibility of that culture. Myths were originally related to religious ceremonies as expressed through poetry, music and dance. The early writers were bards who were masters of the oral tradition. These story tellers enabled a culture to develop a unique viewpoint on life and ethics. Although there are universal aspects and themes in all the mythologies of society, each one has a special texture, emotion, mood and tone related to the manner in which these myths are expressed. It is an enriching and intellectually stimulating experience for gifted students to study different mythologies.
The mythology described in this article concerns the Finnish people. Finland is located in Northern Europe and has Norway, Sweden and Russia on its borders. Its landscape sets the background for its myths -- the land of Finland is mostly forests and lakes. Although one-third of the country is above the arctic circle (therefore, frigid in the winter), the remainder of the country has milder temperatures due to the warmer waters of the surrounding gulfs. The Finns have an economy based upon the forest. The forest gives the Finns the following products for export: wood, plywood, cardboard, and most of all, furniture. The Finns have created a modern art form out of their furniture. The lakes, rivers, streams and bays of Finland also provide a shipping and fishing industry. Finland's myths are full of symbols and metaphors related to these landscape features.
The Finns became independent as a nation-state only in the early part of this century. However, they had a unique national culture for more than a thousand years. In 1835, a country doctor, Dr. Elias Lönnrot, compiled what is now considered to be Finland's national mythic epic. He unified the folk tales related to him by his countrymen into a singular epic known as The Kalevala. The word Kalevala means the land of the heroes. What is significant is the term, heroes. The Finns' heroes were magicians who wrote poetry. Their adventures, besides involving very poetic and vivid encounters, also described the battle between good and evil. The linguistic aspects of The Kalevala are of such high quality that this epic is considered by scholars to be among the classics of world literature. It has attracted the attention of many poets and scholars from different cultures. The American poet and linguist, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, translated it into English. He said that his mini-epic, Hiawatha, was influenced by The Kalevala's style and cadence. The modern Jewish philosopher and writer, Martin Buber, translated this Finnish epic into German. He said that the poem had an impact on his own encounter with Jewish mythology, e.g., Tales of the Hasidim.
Gifted students can compare Hiawatha, Tales of the Hasidim, and the Kalevala. By making these comparisons, they will understand both the unique aspects of different cultures, and the universal patterns that occur throughout all of the literature and myths of humanity. It would be a wonderful project for gifted students to try to construct their own mythology as a result their studies. Also, they can examine how the Kalevala inspired the Finnish people. Contemporary Finnish artists and composers have been stimulated by this epic poem. The world renowned Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, has written compositions based on the stories in The Kalevala.
One of the most important elements for gifted students to understand about mythology is its relationship to the giftedness of the "folk." The ordinary people of the world keep the memory of these great stories. But it remains for the gifted individual to refine them into a work of art. After reading the Kalevala, one feels like visiting the land of the heroes.
Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, June-July 1996