remains as thin-skinned as a child.

So now you must choose, Sophie. Are you a child who has not yet become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to become so?

If you just shake your head, not recognizing yourself as either a child or a philosopher, then you have gotten so used to the world that it no longer astonishes you. Watch out! You are on thin ice. And this is why you are receiving this course in philosophy, just in case. I will not allow you, of all people, to join the ranks of the apathetic and the indifferent. I want you to have an inquiring mind.

The whole course is free of charge, so you get no money back if you do not complete it. If you choose to break off the course you are free to do so. In that case you must leave a message for me in the mailbox. A live frog would be eminently suitable. Something green, at least, otherwise the mailman might get scared.

To summarize briefly: A white rabbit is pulled out of a top hat. Because it is an extremely large rabbit, the trick takes many billions of years. All mortals are born at the very tip of the rabbit’s fine hairs, where they are in a position to wonder at the impossibility of the trick. But as they grow older they work themselves ever deeper into the fur. And there they stay. They become so comfortable they never risk crawling back up the fragile hairs again. Only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. Some of them fall off, but others cling on desperately and yell at the people nestling deep in the snug softness, stuffing themselves with delicious food and drink.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” they yell, “we are floating in space!” But none of the people down there care.

“What a bunch of troublemakers!” they say. And they keep on chatting: Would you pass the butter, please? How much have our stocks risen today? What is the price of tomatoes? Have you heard that Princess Di is expecting again?

When Sophie’s mother got home later that afternoon, Sophie was practically in shock. The tin containing the letters from the mysterious philosopher was safely hidden in the den. Sophie had tried to start her homework but could only sit thinking about what she had read.

She had never thought so hard before! She was no longer a child—but she wasn’t really grown up either. Sophie realized that she had already begun to crawl down into the cozy rabbit’s fur, the very same rabbit that had been pulled from the top hat of the universe. But the philosopher had stopped her. He—or was it a she?—had grabbed her by the back of the neck and pulled her up again to the tip of the fur where she had played as a child. And there, on the outermost tips of the fine hairs, she was once again seeing the world as if for the very first time.

The philosopher had rescued her. No doubt about it. The unknown letter writer had saved her from the triviality of everyday existence.

When Mom got home at five o’clock, Sophie dragged her into the living room and pushed her into an armchair.

“Mom—don’t you think it’s astonishing to be alive?” she began.

Her mother was so surprised that she didn’t answer at first. Sophie was usually doing her homework when she got home.

“I suppose I do—sometimes,” she said.

“Sometimes? Yes, but—don’t you think it’s astonishing that the world exists at all?”

“Now look, Sophie. Stop talking like that.”

“Why? Perhaps you think the world is quite normal?”

“Well, isn’t it? More or less, anyway.”

Sophie saw that the philosopher was right. Grownups took the world for granted. They had let themselves be lulled into the enchanted sleep of their humdrum existence once and for all.

“You’ve just grown so used to the world that nothing surprises you any more.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about you getting so used to everything. Totally dim, in other words.”

“I will not be spoken to like that, Sophie!”

“All right, I’ll put it another way. You’ve made yourself comfortable deep down in the fur of a white rabbit that is being pulled out of the universe’s top hat right now. And in a minute you’ll put the potatoes on. Then you’ll read the paper and after half an hour’s nap you’ll watch the news on TV!”

An anxious expression came over her mother’s face. She did indeed go into the kitchen and put the potatoes on. After a while she came back into the living room, and this time it was she who pushed Sophie into an armchair.

“There’s something I must talk to you about,” she began. Sophie could tell by her voice that it was something serious.

“You haven’t gotten yourself mixed up with drugs, have you, dear?”

Sophie was just about to laugh, but she understood why the question was being brought up now.

“Are you nuts?” she said. “That only makes you duller’.”

No more was said that evening about either drugs or white rabbits.

The Myths

... a precarious balance between the forces of good and evil …

There was no letter for Sophie the next morning. All through the interminable day at school she was bored stiff. She took care to be extra nice to Joanna during the breaks. On the way home they talked about going camping as soon as the woods were dry enough.

After what seemed an eternity she was once again at the mailbox. First she opened a letter postmarked in Mexico. It was from her father. He wrote about how much he was longing for home and how for the first time he had managed to beat the Chief Officer at chess. Apart from that he had almost finished the pile of books he had brought aboard with him after his winter leave.

And then, there it was—a brown envelope with her name on it! Leaving her schoolbag and the rest of the mail in the house, Sophie ran to the den. She pulled out the new typewritten pages and began to read:


Hello there, Sophie! We have a lot to do, so we’ll get started without delay.

By philosophy we mean the completely new way of thinking that evolved in Greece about six hundred years before the birth of Christ. Until that time people had found answers to all their questions in various religions. These religious explanations were handed down from generation to generation in the form of myths. A myth is a story about the gods which sets out to explain why life is as it is.

Over the millennia a wild profusion of mythological explanations of philosophical questions spread across the world. The Greek philosophers attempted to prove that these explanations were not to be trusted.

In order to understand how the early philosophers thought, we have to understand what it was like to have a mythological picture of the world. We can take some Nordic myths as examples. (There is no need to carry coals to Newcastle.)

You have probably heard of Thor and his hammer. Before Christianity came to Norway, people believed that Thor rode across the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats. When he swung his hammer it made thunder and lightning. The word “thunder” in Norwegian—“Thor-d0n”—means Thor’s roar. In Swedish, the word for thunder is “aska,” originally “as-aka,” which means “god’s journey” over the heavens.

When there is thunder and lightning there is also rain, which was vital to the Viking farmers. So Thor was worshipped as the god of fertility.

The mythological explanation for rain was therefore that Thor was swinging his hammer. And when it rained the corn germinated and thrived in the fields.

How the plants of the field could grow and yield crops was not understood. But it was clearly somehow connected with the rain. And since everybody believed that the rain had something to do with Thor, he was one of the most important of the Norse gods.

There was another reason why Thor was important, a reason related to the entire world order.

The Vikings believed that the inhabited world was an island under constant threat from outside dangers. They called this part of the world Midgard, which means the kingdom in the middle. Within Midgard lay Asgard, the

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