For a week or two back in 2010, you went by the name ‘Mildred Wetdrop’ at school. You claim that Mr. Tony came up with it, but he says it’s all you. I like the name Mildred – I think that part of the name is a pretty good fit for you. Thinking about this episode reminds me that I’ve been meaning for years now to explain why we named you after a woman who is arguably the universe’s number one troublemaker.
‘Sophia’ was a popular name around the time that you were born. This chart from Baby Name Voyager (click the image to enlarge) shows how the name kind of went dormant for the first two-thirds of the last century before blowing up like a swarm of 17-year cicadas. In absolute terms, it’s not as big as ‘Heather’ was in the 70s (here’s that chart), when there was period when three of every 500 babies were being Heathered. In 2006, Sophias were occurring fewer than 2 times per 500 and about 2.6 times per 500 in 2011. If Baby Name Voyager is to be believed (and why would it lie?), ‘Sophia’ was the 9th most popular name for girls in ’06, had become 4th most popular by 2009 and was number one in 2011. You got a bit shortchanged in the unique name department.
In our defense, it didn’t even occur to us to check on the popularity of the name until you were nigh upon us, and by then we’d been thinking of you as ‘Sophia’ for months. And I, for one, really like the name Sophia. It’s vowely, with two of its three consonants forming a single soft sound to make more room for melody. And there’s the whole “It’s Greek for wisdom” thing. Wisdom is good; everybody likes wisdom.
But that’s not what I have been meaning to tell you. What I have been meaning to tell you is the real reason that I like the name Sophia. It’s going to take a few paragraphs, but the short version is that ‘Sophia,’ to me, is not just another word for ‘wisdom,’ but a name that tells a story about how wisdom is impossible without mistakes. And this is the story of the woman who made the biggest, most wonderful mistake of all time.
As the story unfolds, you may find yourself thinking of Pandora. You know Pandora — the first woman, created by the gods to punish men for stealing the gods’ fire. The gods gave her this jar and said “don’t open it,” and Pandora is curious — not bad, mind you, but curious — and opens it anyway. And lo! and behold! it is full of all manner of woe and all of the things that make life painful and short, and these things all fly out and all of humankind suffers throughout the rest of history from war, disease, envy, guile, etc. This isn’t Pandora’s story, but it may explain why I believe that we owe Pandora our thanks. It isn’t that I like woe. I am decidedly anti-woe. But I don’t see how beauty can exist without it.
But enough wind-up — here’s the pitch. Every culture tells a story about the beginning of the universe. Gnostic Christians of the second and third centuries blended Judaic and Hellenic traditions and came up with a creation story that had the side benefit of explaining how a perfect and all-powerful God could create a world that is so patently imperfect. It begins like this: first, there is nothing other than God and the void. Then, God “emanates” a pair of beings called “Aeons,” male and female. Those Aeons emanate another pair, who emanate another, in a succession of progressively paler reflections of the face of God. Eventually you get about fifteen levels down and you find Sophia.
Accounts of what happens next vary, but all agree on one thing: Sophia is not especially good at being a level fifteen Aeon. In some versions, she yearns to know the ineffable, to experience the light of the prime creator. This is impossible, and her anguish and loneliness flow out of her and take the form of the Demiurge. In others, she wants to possess a little of the divine light so that she can create something more interesting than the next crop of Aeons. When she finds what she is looking for (or when she thinks that she has found it), it is another Aeon who creates the Demiurge by emanating his anger and jealousy at Sophia for daring to leave her station to harvest light from the void.
However it happens, here is what you end up with: you have Sophia, who upsets the perfect harmony of the universe by wanting something more than the life she was born into. Perhaps more important for the physical universe waiting to be born, you have the child of unauthorized, unguided emanations, the Demiurge.
I should mention that, in this story, the cosmos comprises three substances: spirit, energy and matter. God and all of the Aeons are made from spirit. But the Demiurge isn’t an Aeon. The system of harmonious emanation that spawned the thirty Aeons had stumbled over Sophia’s passions. The result, the Demiurge, is flawed: he can not see spirit. The Demiurge looks around the apparently empty void and concludes (quite rationally) that he is all that there is — that he is the prime creator. Using his power to shape matter and energy, this poor, blind, orphaned bastard sets about creating a universe. Needless to say, it is not a perfect universe. The Demiurge’s creation is full of pain and sadness, populated by creatures cut off from the sheltering light of God.
But trapped within the fallen material universe is a shard of light, a piece of Sophia. This tiny trace of spirit is enough to make us dimly aware that there is more to existence than matter and energy. The voice of Sophia within us compels us to try to pierce the veil of spirit-blindness that shrouds the Demiurge’s creation so that we can become a part of the perfect wholeness that is God. In a sense, our legacy, as Sophia’s grandchildren, is a dissatisfaction with the status quo.
It’s a ripping yarn, right? There are a lot of variations on this story, some of which present Sophia as more culpable for the universe’s flaws. And I’ll wager that a desire to make something more out of one’s life was probably viewed more dimly in, say, third century Egypt than in the modern reality that the baby boomers built. But Sophia’s prime motivation — whether to know God more fully or to create something new — is very human and very easy to understand.
And you can see why I am drawn to the name. ‘Sophia’ may mean wisdom, but it tells a story about how wisdom contains and is derived from its opposite. And it has three distinct advantages over ‘Pandora.’ First, I would have had as much chance of getting AT to agree to name you ‘Pandora’ as I would have had getting her to agree to name a boy ‘Socrates.’ (If you had been a boy, this would be a sore subject.)
Second, the framework of Pandora’s story does not leave much room for her to be anything other than an agent of someone else’s will. The gods designed her to be curious and then gave her a jar labeled “DO NOT OPEN.” The ending was a foregone conclusion. Suppose we say that Sophia is a sort of Robert Oppenheimer, whose curiosity drives her to look farther than any other before her, to give birth to a force with untold creative and destructive capabilities, to anguish over how that force is used and to seek redemption. Then Pandora is merely a suicide bomber whose actions are coordinated by those outside of the blast radius.
Third, Pandora’s is a story about how a universe that was once a paradise — and which might have remained a paradise — was sullied forever. In contrast, a corollary to Sophia’s story is that the universe that we inhabit could not be anything other than broken. Our daily struggle to find meaning behind the material world’s pain and joy is a necessary consequence our existence outside of an austere realm of pure spirit, a realm where there is really no place for humans.
And for me, the profound beauty of this life comes from that struggle, or something very much like it. Whether our quest for meaning comes from a ghost in the machine or a hyper prefrontal cortex does not much matter. The fact is that we have to contend with questions of where everything comes from, our place in everything and where we go when everything is done.
Anyway, the day may come when you experience a twinge of annoyance at being one of four Sophias in your Geometry class. Or when your boss becomes a little too comfortable referring to you and the new analyst as “the Sophias.” Or when a satirical cinematic sendup of high school politics (featuring Winona Ryder as an out-of-touch parent in an ironic shout out to the film’s 1988 predecessor) is titled “Sophies.” You may be excusably angry with us for choosing such a common name. We just didn’t want to you have to wonder what we had in mind.
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By the way, the Gnostic Christians would not have agreed with the conclusions I draw from their myths. They might point out that I stopped before the end of the story where Jesus sweeps in and saves the day. Well, as Torquemada said about a different bunch of heretics, they can damn well go to hell.
If you came to this page looking for actual information on the Gnostic Sophia, you should probably search again. I’ve blended stuff from several conflicting sources here and left a bunch of stuff out. And maybe even gotten some stuff wrong. I first encountered this story in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. I have read it elsewhere in the twenty years since my first run-in with that novel, but my understanding of the story is probably unduly influenced by the meaning ascribed to it by Eco’s characters. Good luck to you, tho. As of this writing, the state of the internet on this topic is roughly 1999. If you’re looking for a couple of search terms to help sort the wheat from the chaff, try “Pleroma” and “Achamoth,” or maybe “Ialdabaoth.”