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Sophie’s World: A Graphic Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder, Vincent Zabus & Nicoby

Scott Parker reads a graphic novel version of Sophie’s World.

The English translation of Jostein Gaarder’s original Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy was published in 1995, and became the bestselling book in the world that year. Indeed, since its original Norwegian publication in 1991, Sophie’s World has been translated into fifty-nine languages, and has sold more than forty million copies. Over these few decades, it has been adopted as a standard introduction to philosophy. Does it need, therefore, to take the form now of a two-volume graphic novel by author, Vincent Zabus, and Nicoby, artist? The novel was already adapted into a movie in 1999, after all! At some point, a popular work just doesn’t need to be popularized anymore. Or so some defenders of ‘real philosophy’ would hold. How much genuine philosophy can you fit into a novel that sells in airports, they would further ask – not to mention into a story that’s told primarily through pictures?

Well, rather a lot, it turns out. Sophie’s World the graphic novel does exactly what Sophie’s World the novel did: it brings philosophy to life and inspires enough sincere wonder to incite a lifetime of reflection. The subtitle, though, is a bit misleading. This isn’t so much a graphic novel about the history of philosophy as it is a graphic novel that evokes the feeling of doing philosophy, which is to say, the feeling of being a philosopher. The history is hardly incidental; but neither is it the medicine for which the story is the sugar.

It is worth summarizing the new book’s narrative to give an indication of how inextricably bound it is to the subject matter. Hilde’s father, a graphic novelist, has to be away from home. While he’s gone, Hilde reads his work in progress – a story about a girl, Sophie, whose father has died. In the graphic novel within the graphic novel, Sophie receives philosophical promptings (for example, ‘Who are you?’, ‘Where does the world come from?’) through the mail. She eventually meets the author of the questions, Alberto, who leads her through the history of philosophy, from ancient Greece to existentialist France. Along the way, Sophie realizes that she’s a character in a story. At the climax of Volume 1, she explains to Alberto: “We’re characters in a graphic novel! We don’t get to decide what happens to us or what we say!” “What?” he responds. “It’s all written!” she tells him. And so the project for Volume 2 presents itself: Sophie will attempt to rebel against the determinism that controls her and achieve free will. Hilde, moved by Sophie’s plight, will try to help Sophie escape from Hilde’s father’s story and live her own life.

Sophie's World
From Sophie’s World: A Graphic Novel © SelfMadeHero 2022

The purpose of philosophy in this conception is clear: to break chains, to escape caves, to achieve meaningful self-consciousness, to liberate. Crucially, like Virgil leading Dante through purgatory, Alberto can guide Sophie only so far. The occasional philosopher’s self-assessment notwithstanding (Hegel, I’m looking at you), philosophy has never reached its conclusion. Therefore for Alberto, the philosophical conversation can only continue, accommodating new ideas and moving ever in the direction of new insights. “The more doors I go through,” he says, “the further I seem to plunge into the unknown.” “Philosophy is an adventure!” Sophie responds. A nervous Alberto answers, “Yes, but of the mind. In theory” – as an intrepid Sophie leads Alberto through his own house, revealing rooms beyond rooms which Alberto had somehow previously overlooked. The metaphor all but writes (and draws) itself: whatever someone, even your philosophy instructor, thinks philosophy is, can only ever reveal their thoughts about philosophy, not ‘philosophy itself’.

But the metaphor isn’t a lesser one for being easy to find. What reader of this magazine has ever forgotten that sense of endless possibility and discovery upon encountering philosophy for the first time? “Oh! There are people who devote themselves to thinking about the most interesting things in the world. I’d like to do that too!” Sophie’s World puts any reader, whether veteran philosopher or initiate, into the mindset of wonder from which philosophy both takes its leave and finds its purpose. The glory of reading philosophy this way is its ongoingness. The impossibility of conclusion becomes its own blessing. The mansion of philosophy will always contain further rooms for exploration. As soon as you think you’ve mapped the territory, you see that you have not. Even if Sophie succeeds in liberating herself from the graphic novel she finds herself in, she will do so of her own efforts and to her own satisfaction, not as the necessary outcome of philosophical history. The jump from the world of appearance to reality isn’t made finally, but only individually and contingently. Sophie’s freedom, if she gains it, will be hers alone.

In this spirit, the meta aspect of Sophie’s World is crucial. Whether you find Sophie’s struggle for freedom compelling as an analogue to your own, her example can’t but call you to account. With or without free will, whatever constraint we free ourselves from, there will be another beyond it, as there’s no context without context. What makes philosophy a uniquely rewarding enterprise (at least in Gaarder’s conception) is its whole-hearted embrace of its foundational contradiction: it single-mindedly pursues a freedom it knows to be impossible. This makes the human condition into a work of art.

If that’s not philosophy, nothing is.

© Scott F. Parker 2024

Scott Parker’s book, A Way Home (Kelson), explores time, home and selfhood.

Sophie’s World: A Graphic Novel About the History of Philosophy. Vols 1 & 2, by Jostein Gaarder, Vincent Zabus and Nicoby, SelfMadeHero, 2022, 264pp, £18.99

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