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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 coffee, 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 when 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.


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 position 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." I............
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