And then, there's Sophie's World, a really realistic yet provoking way of historytelling by Jostein Gaarder. This book makes me feel dizzy. History about philosophy? Hmmm never knew somebody can explain philosophy with such clarity. I even have to read it again and again just to understand one sentence. Hehehe. But still, this book is one of my favourite.
Dreams, symbols, signs, and adventure follow the reader like echoes of ancient wise voices in "The Alchemist", a novel that combines an atmosphere of Medieval mysticism with the song of the desert. With this symbolic masterpiece Coelho states that we should not avoid our destinies, and urges people to follow their dreams, because to find our "Personal Myth" and our mission on Earth is the way to find "God", meaning happiness, fulfillment, and the ultimate purpose of creation.
The novel tells the tale of Santiago, a boy who has a dream and the courage to follow it. After listening to "the signs" the boy ventures in his personal, Ulysses-like journey of exploration and self-discovery, symbolically searching for a hidden treasure located near the pyramids in Egypt.
When he decides to go, his father's only advice is "Travel the world until you see that our castle is the greatest, and our women the most beautiful". In his journey, Santiago sees the greatness of the world, and meets all kinds of exciting people like kings and alchemists. However, by the end of the novel, he discovers that "treasure lies where your heart belongs", and that the treasure was the journey itself, the discoveries he made, and the wisdom he acquired.
"The Alchemist", is an exciting novel that bursts with optimism; it is the kind of novel that tells you that everything is possible as long as you really want it to happen. That may sound like an oversimplified version of new-age philosophy and mysticism, but as Coelho states "simple things are the most valuable and only wise people appreciate them".
As the alchemist himself says, when he appears to Santiago in the form of an old king "when you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true". This is the core of the novel's philosophy and a motif that echoes behind Coelho's writing all through "The Alchemist". And isn't it true that the whole of humankind desperately wants to believe the old king when he says that the greatest lie in the world is that at some point we lose the ability to control our lives, and become the pawns of fate. Perhaps this is the secret of Coelho's success: that he tells people what they want to hear, or rather that he tells them that what they wish for but never thought possible could even be probable.
Coelho also suggests that those who do not have the courage to follow their " Personal Myth", are doomed to a life of emptiness, misery, and unfulfillment. Fear of failure seems to be the greatest obstacle to happiness. As the old crystal-seller tragically confesses: " I am afraid that great disappointment awaits me, and so I prefer to dream". This is where Coelho really captures the drama of man, who sacrifices fulfillment to conformity, who knows he can achieve greatness but denies to do so, and ends up living a life of void.
It is interesting to see that Coelho presents the person who denies to follow his dream as the person who denies to see God, and that "every happy person carries God within him". However, only few people choose to follow the road that has been made for them, and find God while searching for their destiny, and their mission on earth.
Consequently, is Coelho suggesting that the alchemists found God while searching for the elixir of life and the philosopher's stone? What is certain is that the symbolism of the text is a parallel to the symbolism and the symbolic language of alchemism, and similarly the symbolism of dreams is presented as " God's language".
It is also symbolic that Santiago finds his soul-mate, and the secrets of wisdom in the wilderness of the desert. The "wilderness" is a symbol that has been used by many great writers e.g.. Austen in "Mansfield Park", and Shakespeare in "King Lear". In the desert, Santiago meets his "twin-soul" and discovers that love is the core of existence and creation. As Coelho explains, when we love, we always try to improve ourselves, and that's when everything is possible. The subject of love inspires a beautiful lyricism in Coelho's writing: " I love you because the whole universe conspired for me to come close to you."
"The Alchemist" is a novel that may appeal to everybody, because we can all identify with Santiago: all of us have dreams, and are dying for somebody to tell us that they may come true. The novel skillfully combines words of wisdom, philosophy, and simplicity of meaning and language, which makes it particularly readable and accounts for its bestselling status.
Who are you? Where does the world come from? These are two questions Sophie, a fifteen year-old Norwegian girl, receives in her mailbox one day from an unknown stranger. Thus begins a mysterious adventure for Sophie, and an adventure for any person of any age who reads her story.
For Sophie becomes the student of a fifty year old philosopher, Alberto, who proceeds to teach her the history of philosophy. She gets a very creditable and understandable review of the ideas of major philosophers from the Pre-Socratic Greeks to Jean-Paul Sartre.
Mixed in with the philosophy lessons is a wonderful story complete with a mysterious cabin in the woods, a magic brass mirror, a marvelous messenger dog named Hermes, and even brief appearances by Little-Red-Riding-Hood and Winnie-the-Pooh. And it is something of a shock to find out who Sophie and Alberto really are - although it should have been completely obvious to anyone from the very first page of the book.
The philosophy is wonderful and wonderfully presented. Sophie learns about Medieval philosophy while being lectured by a monk in an ancient church, and she learns about Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in a French café. It all begins with a quotation from Goethe: "He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth." Could the world have come from nothing? It all seemed so illogical until Democritus invented the most ingenious toy in the world. Next we see Socrates standing in front of a market stall packed with various goods. "What a wonderful number of things I have no use for." We learn about Plato and his theories about the existence of an ideal world of which we see only the dim reflection. But many mathematicians and scientists think they can catch a glimpse of that ideal world.
Alberto then takes Sophie through Hellenism to the rise of Christianity and its interaction with Greek thought and on into the Middle Ages. We even learn about Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century Catholic Nun who was a preacher, physician, botanist, biologist, and composer. (You can even buy compact disks of her music.) He covers the Renaissance, Baroque, Enlightenment and Romantic periods. Other important figures presented are Descartes ("he wanted to clear all the rubble off the site"), Spinoza ("God is not a puppeteer"), Locke, Hume, Berkeley ("we exist only in the mind of God"), Bjerkely (How did that get in here?), Kant ("the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me"), Hegel, Kierkegaard ("it’s one thing to collect Barbie dolls, but worse to be one"), Marx, Darwin and Freud.
The book approaches its conclusion at a philosophical garden party which Sophie throws to celebrate her birthday. But alas, it turns into a rather sordid affair where Alberto finally speaks the plain truth and then he and Sophie use the confusion to escape to their true identities. The book has other wonderful features, but to mention them would give away too much in advance.
So, if you have anything of the fifteen year old girl in you, or of an elderly philosopher, or love ideas, then read this book, and if you have anyone close to you, read it aloud and argue out the ideas - that’s the way it used to be done. After all Socrates engaged in dialogues not because he claimed to be a teacher but because he believed it takes two to philosophize. The principal alternative is to watch the Medusa-TV sets and run the risk of having your heart turned to stone.
Reviewed by David Park