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... a spark from the fire

Although the philosophy teacher had begun sending his letters directly to the old hedge, Sophie nevertheless looked in the mailbox on Monday morning, more out of habit than anything else.

It was empty, not surprisingly. She began to walk down Clover Close.

Suddenly she noticed a photograph lying on the sidewalk. It was a picture of a white jeep and a blue flag with the letters UN on it. Wasn\'t that the United Nations flag?

Sophie turned the picture over and saw that it was a regular postcard. To "Hilde Moller Knag, c/o Sophie Amundsen ..." It had a Norwegian stamp and was postmarked "UN Battalion" Friday June 15, 1990.

June 15! That was Sofie\'s birthday!

The card read:

Dear Hilde, I assume you are still celebrating your 15th birthday. Or is this the morning after? Anyway, it makes no difference to your present. In a sense, that will last a lifetime. But I\'d like to wish you a happy birthday one more time. Perhaps you understand now why I send the cards to Sophie. I am sure she will pass them on to you.

P.S. Mom said you had lost your wallet. I hereby promise to reimburse you the 150 crowns. You will probably be able to get another school I.D. before they close for the summer vacation. Love from Dad.

Sophie stood glued to the spot. When was the previous card postmarked? She seemed to recall that the postcard of the beach was also postmarked June--even though it was a whole month off. She simply hadn\'t looked properly.

She glanced at her watch and then ran back to the house. She would just have to be late for school today!

Sophie let herself in and leaped upstairs to her room. She found the first postcard to Hilde under the red silk scarf. Yes! It was also postmarked June 15! Sophie\'s birthday and the day before the summer vacation.

Her mind was racing as she ran over to the supermarket to meet Joanna.

Who was Hilde? How could her father as good as take it for granted that Sophie would find her? In any case, it was senseless of him to send Sophie the cards instead of sending them directly to his daughter. It could not possibly be because he didn\'t know his own daughter\'s address. Was it a practical joke? Was he trying to surprise his daughter on her birthday by getting a perfect stranger to play detective and mailman? Was that why she was being given a month\'s headstart? And was using her as the go-between a way of giving his daughter a new girlfriend as a birthday present? Could she be the present that would "last a lifetime"?

If this joker really was in Lebanon, how had he gotten hold of Sophie\'s address? Also, Sophie and Hilde had at least two things in common. If Hilde\'s birthday was June 15, they were both born on the same day. And they both had fathers who were on the other side of the globe.

Sophie felt she was being drawn into an unnatural world. Maybe it was not so dumb after all to believe in fate. Still--she shouldn\'t be jumping to conclusions; it could all have a perfectly natural explanation. But how had Alberto Knox found Hilde\'s wallet when Hilde lived in Lillesand? Lillesand was hundreds of miles away. And why had Sophie found this postcard on her sidewalk? Did it fall out of the mailman\'s bag just as he got to Sophie\'s mailbox? If so, why should he drop this particular card?

"Are you completely insane?" Joanna burst out when Sophie finally made it to the supermarket.


Joanna frowned at her severely, like a schoolteacher.

"You\'d better have a good explanation."

"It has to do with the UN," said Sophie. "I was detained by hostile troops in Lebanon."

"Sure ... You\'re just in love!"

They ran to school as fast as their legs could carry them.

The Religious Knowledge test that Sophie had not had time to prepare for was given out in the third period. The sheet read:


1. Make a list of things we can know. Then make a list of things we can only believe.

2. Indicate some of the factors contributing to a person\'s philosophy of life.

3. What is meant by conscience? Do you think conscience is the same for everyone?

4. What is meant by priority of values?

Sophie sat thinking for a long time before she started to write. Could she use any of the ideas she had learned from Alberto Knox? She was going to have to, because she had not opened her Religious Knowledge book for days. Once she began to write, the words simply flowed from her pen.

She wrote that we know the moon is not made of green cheese and that there are also craters on the dark side of the moon, that both Socrates and Jesus were sentenced to death, that everybody has to die sooner or later, that the great temples on the Acropolis were built after the Persian wars in the fifth century B.C. and that the most important oracle in ancient Greece was the oracle at Delphi. As examples of what we can only believe, Sophie mentioned the questions of whether or not there is life on other planets, whether God exists or not, whether there is life after death, and whether Jesus was the son of God or merely a wise man. "We can certainly not know where the world came from," she wrote, completing her list. "The universe can be compared to a large rabbit pulled out of a top hat. Philosophers try to climb up one of the fine hairs of the rabbit\'s fur and stare straight into the eyes of the Great Magician. Whether they will ever succeed is an open question. But if each philosopher climbed onto another one\'s back, they would get even higher up in the rabbit\'s fur, and then, in my opinion, there would be some chance they would make it some day. P.S. In the Bible there is something that could have been one of the fine hairs of the rabbit\'s fur. The hair was called the Tower of Babel, and it was destroyed because the Magician didn\'t want the tiny human insects to crawl up that high out of the white rabbit he had just created."

Then there was the next question: "Indicate some of the factors contributing to a person\'s philosophy of life." Upbringing and environment were important here. People living at the time of Plato had a different philosophy of life than many people have today because they lived in a different age and a different environment. Another factor was the kind of experience people chose to get themselves. Common sense was not determined by environment. Everybody had that. Maybe one could compare environment and social situation with the conditions that existed deep down in Plato\'s cave. By using their intelligence individuals can start to drag themselves up from the darkness. But a journey like that requires personal courage. Socrates is a good example of a person who managed to free himself from the prevailing views of his time by his own intelligence. Finally, she wrote: "Nowadays, people of many lands and cultures are being intermingled more and more. Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists may live in the same apartment building. In which case it is more important to accept each other\'s beliefs than to ask why everyone does not believe the same thing."

Not bad, thought Sophie. She certainly felt she had covered some ground with what she had learned from her philosophy teacher. And she could always supplement it with a dash of her own common sense and what she might have read and heard elsewhere.

She applied herself to the third question: "What is meant by conscience? Do you think conscience is the same for everyone?" This was something they had discussed a lot in class. Sophie wrote: Conscience is people\'s ability to respond to right and wrong. My personal opinion is that everyone is endowed with this ability, so in other words, conscience is innate. Socrates would have said the same. But just what conscience dictates can vary a lot from one person to the next. One could say that the Sophists had a point here. They thought that right and wrong is something mainly determined by the environment the individual grows up in. Socrates, on the other hand, believed that conscience is the same for everyone. Perhaps both views were right. Even if everybody doesn\'t feel guilty about showing themselves naked, most people will have a bad conscience if they are really mean to someone. Still, it must be remembered that having a conscience is not the same as using it. Sometimes it looks as if people act quite unscrupulously, but I believe they also have a kind of conscience somewhere, deep down. Just as it seems as if some people have no sense at all, but that\'s only because they are not using it. P.S. Common sense and conscience can both be compared to a muscle. If you don\'t use a muscle, it gets weaker and weaker."

Now there was only one question left: "What is meant by priority of values?" This was another thing they had discussed a lot lately. For example, it could be of value to drive a car and get quickly from one place to another. But if driving led to deforestation and polluting the natural environment, you were facing a choice of values. After careful consideration Sophie felt she had come to the conclusion that healthy forests and a pure environment were more valuable than getting to work quickly. She gave several more examples. Finally she wrote: "Personally, I think Philosophy is a more important subject than English Grammar. It would therefore be a sensible priority of values to have Philosophy on the timetable and cut down a bit on English lessons."

In the last break the teacher drew Sophie aside.

"I have already read your Religion test," he said. "It was near the top of the pile."

"I hope it gave you some food for thought."

"That was exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. It was in many ways very mature. Surprisingly so. And self-reliant. But had you done your homework, Sophie?"

Sophie fidgeted a little.

"Well, you did say it was important to have a personal point of view."

"Well, yes I did ... but there are limits."

Sophie looked him straight in the eye. She felt she could permit herself this after all she had experienced lately.

"I have started studying philosophy," she said. "It gives one a good background for personal opinions."

"But it doesn\'t make it easy for me to grade your paper. It will either be a D or an A."

"Because I was either quite right or quite wrong? Is that what you\'re saying?"

"So let\'s say A," said the teacher. "But next time, do your homework!"

When Sophie got home from school that afternoon, she flung her schoolbag on the steps and ran down to the den. A brown envelope lay on top of the gnarled roots. It was quite dry around the edges, so it must have been a long time since Hermes had dropped it.

She took the envelope with her and let herself in the front door. She fed the animals and then went upstairs to her room. Lying on her bed, she opened Alberto\'s letter and read:


Here we are again, Sophie! Having read about the natural philosophers and Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, you are now familiar with the foundations of European philosophy. So from now on we will drop the introductory questions which you earlier received in white envelopes. I imagine you probably have plenty of other assignments and tests at school.

I shall now tell you about the long period from Aristotle near the end of the fourth century B.C. right up to the early Middle Ages around A.D. 400. Notice that we can now write both B.C. and A.D. because Christianity was in fact one of the most important, and the most mysterious, factors of the period.

Aristotle died in the year 322 B.C., at the time when Athens had lost its dominant role. This was not least due to the political upheavals resulting from the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.).

Alexander the Great was the King of Macedonia. Aristotle was also from Macedonia, and for a time he was even the young Alexander\'s tutor. It was Alexander who won the final, decisive victory over the Persians. And moreover, Sophie, with his many conquests he linked both Egypt and the Orient as far east as India to the Greek civilization.

This marked the beginning of a new epoch in the history of mankind. A civilization sprang up in which Greek culture and the Greek language played a leading role. This period, which lasted for about 300 years, is known as Hellenism. The term Hellenism refers to both the period of time and the Greek-dominated culture that prevailed in the three Hellenistic kingdoms of Macedonia, Syria, and Egypt.

However, from about the year 50 B.C., Rome secured the upper hand in military and political affairs. The new superpower gradually conquered all the Hellenistic kingdoms, and from then on Roman culture and the Latin language were predominant from Spain in the west to far into Asia. This was the beginning of the Roman period, which we often refer to as Late Antiquity. But remember one thing--before the Romans managed to conquer the Hellenistic world, Rome itself was a province of Greek culture. So Greek culture and Greek philosophy came to play an important role long after the political influence of the Greeks was a thing of the past.

Religion, Philosophy and ScienceHellenism was characterized by the fact that the borders between the various countries and cultures became erased. Previously the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Syrians, and the Persians had worshipped their own gods within what we generally call a "national religion." Now the different cultures merged into one great witch\'s caldron of religious, philosophical, -and scientific ideas.

We could perhaps say that the town square was replaced by the world arena. The old town square had also buzzed with voices, bringing now different wares to market, now different thoughts and ideas. The new aspect was that town squares were being filled with wares and ideas from all over the world. The voices were buzzing in many different languages.

We have already mentioned that the Greek view of life was now much more widespread than it had been in the former Greek cultural areas. But as time went on, Oriental gods were also worshipped in all the Mediterranean countries. New religious formations arose that could draw on the gods and the beliefs of many of the old nations. This is called syncretism or the fusion of creeds.

Prior to this, people had felt a strong affinity with their own folk and their own city-state. But as the borders and boundaries became erased, many people began to experience doubt and uncertainty about their philosophy of life. Late Antiquity was generally characterized by religious doubts, cultural dissolution, and pessimism. It was said that "the world has grown old."

A common feature of the new religious formations during the Hellenistic period was that they frequently contained teachings about how mankind could attain salvation from death. These teachings were often secret. By accepting the teachings and performing certain rituals, a believer could hope for the immortality of the soul and eternal life. A certain insight into the true nature of the universe could be just as important for the salvation of the soul as religious rituals.

So much for the new religions, Sophie. But philosophy was also moving increasingly in the direction of "salvation" and serenity. Philosophic insight, it was now thought, did not only have its own reward; it should also free mankind from pessimism and the fear of death. Thus the boundaries between religion and philosophy were gradually eliminated.

In general, the philosophy of Hellenism was not star-tlingly original. No new Plato or Aristotle appeared on the scene. On the contrary, the three great Athenian philosophers were a source of inspiration to a number of philosophic trends which I shall briefly describe in a moment.

Hellenistic science, too, was influenced by a blend of knowledge from the various cultures. The town of Alexandria played a key role here as a meeting place between East and West. While Athens remained the center of philosophy with still functioning schools of philosophy after Plato and Aristotle, Alexandria became the center for science. With its extensive library, it became the center for mathematics, astronomy, biology, and medicine.

Hellenistic culture could well be compared to the world of today. The twentieth century has also been influenced by an increasingly open civilization. In our own time, too, this opening out has resulted in tremendous upheavals for religion and philosophy. And just as in Rome around the beginning of the Christian era one could come across Greek, Egyptian, and Oriental religions, today, as we approach the end of the twentieth century, we can find in all European cities of any size religions from all parts of the world.

We also see nowadays how a conglomeration of old and new religions, philosophies, and sciences can form the basis of new offers on the "view-of-life" market. Much of this "new knowledge" is actually the flotsam of old thought, some of whose roots go back to Hellenism.

As I have said, Hellenistic philosophy continued to work with the problems raised by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Common to them all was their desire to discover how mankind should best live and die. They were concerned with ethics. In the new civilization, this became the central philosophical project. The main emphasis was on finding out what true happiness was and how it could be achieved. We are going to look at four of these philosophical trends.

The Cynics

The story goes that one day Socrates stood gazing at a stall that sold all kinds of wares. Finally he said, "What a lot of things I don\'t need!"

This statement could be the motto for the Cynic school of philosophy, founded by Antisthenes in Athens around 400 B.C.

Antisthenes had been a pupil of Socrates, and had become particularly interested in his frugality.

The Cynics emphasized that true happiness is not found in external advantages such as material luxury, political power, or good health. True happiness lies in not being dependent on such random and fleeting things. And because happiness does not consist in benefits of this kind, it is within everyone\'s reach. Moreover, having once been attained, it can never be lost.

The best known of the Cynics was Diogenes, a pupil of Antisthenes, who reputedl............
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