Just as a quick notice to people who have not yet read the Stormlight Archive epic fantasy series: This post will not contain any spoilers to the series and consists primarily of a discussion of the general motivations and themes from the books. On a further note, I am extremely jealous of you all for getting the opportunity to read Sanderson’s magnum opus for the first time.
The times we now live in are unprecedented in the modern age, what is being asked of us is also something very few of us could have imagined at the beginning of the year, as the wistful tune of Auld Lang Syne faded into a chorus of cheering and celebrations on New Years Eve. In the last week I finished my undergraduate degree, an effort which has brought all of the stress, anxiety, delirious joy and tough periods of acclimatization to the man I would like to think I have started to become through my actions, thoughts and words.
In the week that has passed without this external pressure to constantly tackle assignments and complete exams in less than ideal circumstances, I have been able to examine the situation which has now engulfed the entirety of the planet. As I now possess the requisite time to return to my passion for writing, I would like to share with you all my thoughts on the pandemic in a stoic context, along with giving you all one out-of-left-field book recommendation in the process.
The Way of Kings was written by Brandon Sanderson and published to universal acclaim in 2010, long before we had ever imagined our modern world as being as fragile as it is now proving to be. This gargantuan piece of literature truly redefines the meaning of epic fantasy in terms of scale and also, in my eyes at least, how impactful a philosophy, even if it may be fictional, can be if encountered at the right time in a person’s life. You may rightfully be questioning why I am mentioning this work of fiction in a post on Stoicism, but in the days since I finished my legal studies I have returned to this work and its sequels and found a number of parallels with the ethos it provides and Stoicism with one character in particular – Dalinar Kholin – drawing further comparisons with Marcus Aurelius in my eyes. To avoid spoilers, I will however keep my inspection of the source work as basic as possible but would highly recommend The Way of Kings and the works of Sanderson to just about anyone.
Just like our own world in the present moment, the world of Roshar is in a less than desirable position and at times seems to be on the verge of collapse, yet as has been shown by our ability to come together in times of crisis, the unwillingness of people to fall into despair remains. In this fictional work an organisation known as the Knights Radiant help keep the world in question from falling into darkness. This group has a few mantras which they live by, they are also as varied as the members of the organisation itself. The most important words they are expected to live by however are as follows, “Life beforeDeath, Strength before Weakness, Journey before Destination.”
Examining the meaning behind these words, it is further elaborated that even the act of simply living, that act of persistence despite all else and the constant difficulty and despair which may pervade our lives in times such as these, is an act which should be commended. This is mirrored in our own world by Lucius Annaeus Seneca who allowed that, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” Yes, times remain uncertain and no end is in sight at present, yet while we are here, we must live.
We live for those on the frontlines who are facing a pandemic which they were in no way prepared for prior to those heady early days of 2020. We live for those we have lost, and we live for those we may yet lose. While we are here and while we can we live because with every life comes a chance to do good, even in isolation we can make this world a better one through our thoughts and actions, particularly in the simple act of staying at home and giving our immensely heroic frontline workers a fighting chance. “Life before Death” allows that while living is not always easy it remains our duty to live well while we can and do what we ought to while we’re here, not only for those we care for but also for those unknown to us who require the best version of ourselves at any given moment.
With their mantra of “Strength before Weakness,” the Radiants were always reminded that all of us are weak at some stage in our lives, but while we are still standing and while we have the opportunity we should lend a hand to the fallen. Muhammad Ali once allowed that, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” The coronavirus has left many of us on our knees; emotionally and physically people are struggling across the globe. I can imagine that some of you now reading this may be in a similar position even.
Yet while we are still standing and while we can, we should lend a figurative, and definitively not a physical hand, to those we can. Even the smallest of acts can make a huge difference; helping with an elderly neighbour’s groceries, checking in on those who may be struggling or in my case setting up a virtual running club to help my friends through their exams. While our sacrifices may seem minimal in the grand scheme of things, when compared to healthcare workers and others on the frontline, it is alright to feel overwhelmed.
There is no shame in feeling weak at a time like this, there can be no strength without weakness and in accepting the fact that we are all weak at some point in our lives and reaching out to another for help or encouragement, is one of the truest forms of resilience any of us are truly capable of. Just as Marcus Aurelius noted in the Meditations, “Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?”
“Journey before Destination.” While a world without the impacts of Covid-19 may seem to have occurred in another millennium, it is vital to remember that this is part of our journey, and at present a challenge we all must face. One of the primary Stoic teachings relates to amor fati or a love of one’s fate, which is at present of the utmost importance to us all. The several-month-long period we have been forced to endure without the presence of our loved ones, without the capability to embrace or even contact those we care for and countless other sacrifices we have all been forced to make, remains only a small part of our journey in the greater context of our lives.
There are always dark moments in our lives, and while it may remain a cliché to state that the night is darkest before the dawn, I have found to date that we cannot truly enjoy the light without the presence of darkness. No life is truly bereft of such trying and at certain points heart-breaking times, but at the same point no life is ever truly complete without it either. Right now we must accept that the journey is the more important aspect, the destination that final goal which at present for one of the few times in human history is a shared one of an end of this pandemic, is of secondary importance. Who we are and who we become as a result of the journey we embark upon is what counts, as my great mentor Marcus Aurelius once stated, “Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
With the mention of the long deceased yet ever-present Roman Emperor, I would like to neatly segue into a brief discussion of the true Stoic in the Stormlight Archive, Dalinar Kholin. While the two characters are far from mirror images of each other, they are two men I have come to admire greatly, despite the fact that one of them is a fictional character. When we are introduced to Dalinar he is a man struggling with the virtues he has imposed upon himself at a time of unprecedented change in his own country and world as a whole. He has been pushed into a position he never actually wished to attain, but ensures that while he can he will do his utmost in the role for the good of his people. Having accepted that there is no one else as capable as himself in the position and to shirk this responsibility would lead to the suffering of many others. With this acceptance of responsibility comes consequences of which Dalinar is to pay dearly, but he would never have been capable of making any other decision and as such accepts this as part of the journey he has deigned to undertake.
If this sounds familiar to anyone who has taken an active interest in Stoicism, and in particular the life of Marcus Aurelius, it is because the two men shared a sense of duty and an unwillingness to take the darker of two paths even when virtue was not convenient to them. Marcus was a bookish, philosophically inclined young man who would have much preferred to have been allowed to become a scholar and a philosopher. However, he was given the unfortunate burden of becoming Emperor of Rome. A position he had never desired nor actively sought out, but one which he could not turn away from, as to do so would cause the lives of all Roman citizens to be lessened as a result.
For 19 long years the philosopher held the Empire together despite barbarian invasions, plagues, civil wars, and the full scope of human ineptitude being on display for the entirety of his reign. All those who associated with the Emperor did so to curry favour or because they desired something. All the while Marcus ensured that he would do the right thing and pushed such desires to the back of his mind comparing himself to a watchman who had been left on guard while the rest of the Empire slept. How alone must he have felt? How unbearable must this situation have been for a man who wished to be left alone with his books? Yet he did what was required of him regardless of circumstance, regardless of desire, unwilling to let the lives of others be lessened due to an unwillingness to do what he must on his part.
Dalinar too, like Marcus, felt alone during his journey, he was constantly ridiculed by others as being insane or in clinging to a philosophy which his peers now deemed irrelevant as they clung to material items in order to show off their status and privilege. Yet Dalinar accepted that in the end we will all die, we will all face whatever has to be met at the ends of our lives and our achievements like those of so many others who lived before us will shrink into obscurity and seem so small come the end of our days. Rather it is the way we live day in and day out which will be most important when our final days approach and our time here comes to a close. The choices we make when no one is watching, the way in which we treat others and particularly the responsibility we take for what we have done and what we must do in our darkest hours. A way of living of the utmost importance in our current set of circumstances.
We may be ridiculed and deemed ridiculous particularly at present, when so many claim this pandemic’s severity is being overexaggerated despite the evidence that people are dying and suffering across our world. Yet when we know what is the right course of action, the action which is required of us in that given moment, we know that what we are doing is right and will not let our emotions, whether they be of frustration or embarrassment to dictate what we do and who we are.
Self-control is a Stoic’s strength. Not every emotion has to be acted upon, but it can be accepted and turned to something more productive than an outburst. In becoming who we wish to be we may be deemed a hypocrite, particularly at present when some of us may have underestimated the impact and severity of the virus, before making beneficial changes to our actions and decision making. Yet in the end as Dalinar noted about himself throughout the course of Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, “Sometimes a hypocrite is nothing more than a man in the process of changing.” Right now, many of us feel like hypocrites due to our early dismissal of the pandemic, but it is a part of the journey we all must accept right now for the benefit of others.
What Dalinar and Marcus both held in common is that despite how long and dark the road may seem, the most important thing we can do is to take responsibility for who we are, the actions and missteps included. While constantly moving forward towards being that better person who actively makes this world a little better just by coming through this way. In this pursuit of betterment and in a time when it seems so easy to plateau and stagnate in our development, there is no harm in acknowledging that things will be difficult but our next step is the most important and our capacity to be a good person remains, regardless of circumstance.
Just to finish I would like to quickly thank Brandon Sanderson for his wonderful work which encapsulates so much of what makes the fantasy genre wonderful in my eyes, while simultaneously providing an example of the power of Stoicism to drive a person to be better even in the most trying of circumstances. It is a series which I would recommend to anyone who’s interest has been piqued by my superficial analysis of some of its core themes and my favourite fictional character.
Right now in our own world however, we are all a little scared, we face a level of uncertainty and doubt which cannot be so easily allayed as reading this article and deciding that it has all become so much easier to face. This virus may continue into the end of the year, separating families and loved ones, taking the lives of the most vulnerable of our society and putting an almost unbearable pressure on our frontline workers all across the globe. Yet there remains little we can do to outrightly take on the virus, this is an enemy of which few living have any relatable example in their own lives.
We cannot storm the beaches of Normandy as some of our ancestors were asked to do, we cannot march for freedom against the unfair laws of biased administrations as some of those who have now passed once accepted as their responsibility. Right now all any of us can do is to stay at home, to continue to follow the guidelines set out by our governments and above all else to be kind to one another in these trying times, this is all we have control of right here and now. Things may seem dark and we may be becoming fed up with our current lot, but courage remains stronger than fear and in this very moment through our own humanity and capacity to be better we can hold back the tide, until this virus can finally be vanquished.
Feel free to contact me if you would like a further discussion of any of the points I have raised within this piece or even need a helping hand through difficult times.
Ní néart go cur lé chéile.
Frank Ó’hÁinle has recently completed his undergraduate degree in Law and History at the University of Limerick and is currently preparing to sit his Fe-1 exams (Irish equivalent of the Bar). He remains an aspiring author despite the intense exam workload and hopes to produce something more substantial in the future, at present however his focus is firmly placed upon his fledgling legal career. You can contact him with any queries on his piece or stoicism more generally.