Sophie’s World as graphic novel–A new approach to teaching the history of philosophy

Review by C.J. Bunce

In every generation experts in every field attempt to share and spread knowledge, and improve upon what came before by bottling the past and re-stating it all for the next generation to better understand.  Edith Hamilton did it in the 1940s by re-looking at primary historical materials and summarizing the history of myths into her book Mythology Five decades later, in 1991, Norwegian teacher Jostein Gaarder took on a similar subject: the history of philosophy.  He did it by looking at philosophy a different way for his students.  Through the eyes of teenager Sophie he taught readers about the questions humans have asked themselves for thousands of years.  His avant garde approach was the novel Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy.  This month the book gets an English translation and a new form as a graphic novel in publisher Self Made Hero’s latest publication, Sophie’s World: A Graphic Novel About the History of Philosophy.  The first volume of this enlightening new book is available this month for the first time here at Amazon.

It’s a big task to translate a book of dense ideas into pictures, so writer Vincent Zabus and the artist known as Nicoby break it in two. The first volume of this graphic approach takes readers from the earliest philosophers to Socrates and then on to Galileo.  As with all aspects of studying history, the history of thought overlaps with other disciplines, and that comes through here as new students of the subject get their first dip into the history of religion and the history of science.

One day, Sophie, the story’s heroine, receives a cryptic letter as she’s talking to her cat.  The letter asks simply, “Who are you?” followed by another, asking “Where does the world come from?”  Who is doing this and why?  Soon Sophie embarks upon her own virtual classroom in understanding philosophy, as the book incorporates her own thoughts and feelings into a story fleshing out larger topics that a student of philosophy would dig into much deeper working on a college degree.  So this is merely an overview, but it’s simple enough for anyone about second grade and upward to understand.  Questions begin to pile up for Sophie, as a brief history of Western philosophy is laid out before her, beginning with the concepts of mythology, natural philosophy (and key natural philosophers), leading into the concepts of atoms, fate, and the historians of ancient Greece.  The story introduces the place of Socrates in philosophy as its founding father, moving along to Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus and Hellenism.  It takes readers through the Romanesque thought of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance view of the 17th century and the Baroque view of the 18th century.  Her search for answers takes Sophie on a journey exploring the major schools of thought, as she tries to uncover her secretive teacher all toward “knowing thyself.”  Here is a look inside:

Key sequences that would be good for anyone today to revisit explain the differences between fact and opinion and why that’s important, as well as why we follow experts in disciplines over the utterings of ultracrepidarians: those who express opinions on matters beyond their expertise.  The book discusses, without answering anything definitively, ideas like verifiable truths, reason and rational thought, the soul, good and evil, it explores reality and the worlds of senses and forms, debate, oratory, and allegory, utopia and the foundations of political philosophy as well as religion, including faith and reason, knowledge and belief, and growth of knowledge in the sciences, including chemistry, technology, and astronomy.  All are handled through the eyes of a teenager with easily understandable explainations.

It’s not a substitute for an actual philosophy text or history, but it may spark interest in the subject of philosophy and it’s a good overview of the history of thought and belief.  The first volume of the enlightening Sophie’s World: A Graphic Novel About the History of Philosophy is available now.  Order it for your favorite burgeoning thinker or yourself here at Amazon.

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