Podcast Episode: Knights Radiants & Stoicism

“Life before death. Strength before weakness. Journey before destination.” That is the First Ideal of the Immortal Words for all ten orders of the Knight Radiants present in the Stormlight Archive, a series written by Brandon Sanderson. Today, I’ll argue that these words can also be interpreted according to the ideals of Stoic philosophy.

Let’s get this book undone.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to Books Undone. I’m your host, Livia J. Elliot, and today I bring you a bookish hot take blending one of the most famous fantasy series, and a bit of Stoic philosophy—I’m talking about Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, and Stoicism, respectively.

Before we actually get into the discussion, let me make some disclaimers. First, there are some spoilers in this podcast; I will focus on the Immortal Words, and the quotes that you’ll hear in this episode are mostly from my favourite book in the series, Oathbringer, but other books and scenes are also mentioned. Second, please know that this is my subjective opinion of the Knights Radiant’s Ideals; the beauty of books is that they resonate with each of us in a different way, unique to each of us. Therefore, what I’ll explore here may or may not resonate with you, and my proposal here may or may not be what Sanderson originally intended. That said, know that you are allowed to disagree—after all, this is just my personal take.

So, without further ado, let me introduce the quote-on-quote “contenders.”

The Stormlight Archive is a ten-book series within the Cosmere, a fantasy universe written by Brandon Sanderson. In this series, the Knight Radiants are a military organisation composed of ten orders, each guided by Five Ideals. The First Ideal is the opening line of this episode and is shared across all orders. This podcast episode is airing before book five (titled “Wind and Truth”) is released, and at this stage, we don’t know all of the Ideals—only a handful. We only know that Ideals two-to-five varied per order and, additionally, some Radiants had tweaked versions, like Teft did.

If you look around the internet, there are plenty of takes on philosophy (modern or ancient) and its intersection with the Knights Radiants. Personally, I like Stoicism, and when I read Oathbringer, the First Ideal resonated with me because of that.

But what is Stoic philosophy? Let me do a hasty history recap.

Stoicism was one of the dominant philosophical systems of the Hellenistic period. It was founded around 300 BCE by Zeno of Citium, who also studied under the Cynic Crates and was influenced by the teachings of Plato’s Academy. Chronologically, the next Stoic whose work survives to this date is Lucius Seneca, through his famous Letters of a Stoic; these were not written to be a book, but the letters he sent to a number of acquaintances throughout his life… but later on, someone compiled and publish them as a book. They are quite casual and easy to read, and a great start if you want to dig deeper into Stoicism. But before you ask, yes, Seneca was the tutor of the arsonist emperor Nero.

The next philosopher is Gaius Musonius Rufus, who was also alive during Nero’s time; from him, we have a collection of extracts from his lectures. In turn, Rufus was the teacher of the next Stoic, Epictetus, whose Discourses and Enchiridion are actually the compilations of the class notes taken by one of his students.

Epictetus died in 135 CE, and his lessons actually influenced the last and most famous Stoic—Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, aka Marcus Aurelius the last of the Five Good Emperors. His personal journal was probably written during his campaign in central Europe (CE 171-175) and later compiled. It was published in a book titled Meditations, which can be easily acquired today in several editions. My suggestion? Don’t start reading about Stoicism with Aurelius.

Explaining Stoicism is tricky, and the whole point of this episode is presenting how the First Ideal of the Knights Radiant relates, in my subjective opinion, to the key values of Stoicism… thus, let’s (finally!) dive in.

“Life before death” is the first part of the Immortal Words, and it can have plenty of meaning. Granted, at a first step, it is an oath to defend life and not kill or sacrifice others unnecessarily… but I also saw it as a description of who the Knights Radiants were—people who had been broken, but that instead of lying down and giving up (namely, choosing to die in life), they rose to the challenge and decided to live.

We can look at this from a Stoic perspective because they often discussed facing life’s challenges.

Epictetus, the slave philosopher, lectured that, “Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths.” Meanwhile, Seneca looked down upon those who had never faced a challenge in their lives by saying:

“I judge you as unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you."

Both were implying that life isn’t easy, that many things may (and will!) happen to us… but that (a) it is up to us to rise up to the challenge (like the Radiants do), and (b) recognise that no matter what happens, life is precious.

To the Stoics, life is the only journey we have, and every day, we must do better by overcoming the trials and acting in a way that makes ourselves (or our future selves) proud. They argued that if we give our best every single day, at the end of our lives, we will regret nothing. But more importantly, all the Stoics argued that life was precious because of its challenges.

We will come back to this idea.

For now, let me return to the Stormlight Archive , especially to Oathbringer. Many times during the book, Dalinar argued that life was difficult, but saw it as a path meant to grow and improve by swearing (as the Third Ideal) that “I will take responsibility for what I have done. If I must fall, I will rise each time a better man.”

We can easily compare Dalinar’s Third Ideal to the Stoic belief of improving and maturing as we overcome our challenges… and also to how they both valued being alive regardless of the many terrible things that may happen to us.

Nevertheless, both for the Stoics and the opening sentence of the First Ideal, we can glimpse at something else… life comes (literally!) before death. This means we are all journeying towards that shared goal—the end of our lives.

Death as the ultimate destination is something Stoicism embraces. They called it memento mori, often translated to English as “Remember you must die”.

Must is the key word because death is unavoidable.

Returning to the First Ideal and into its last (and most epic) sentence, when we say “journey before destination”, we can give a first meaning akin to memento mori. Regardless of who you are, where you are in life, what you have done, and how you have lived… death awaits us. If life is a journey, then death is our final (and shared!) destination.

Granted, there is so much more to this sentence, and I’ll get there later in the episode. For now, let’s focus on the first interpretation, which compares “Life before death” and “Journey before destination” to the Stoics’ memento mori.

This is unquestionably a grim reminder—but it is meant to teach us how valuable and precious life is and how, as a consequence, we must cherish it and make the best of it.

The Stoics advised us to take each day as a gift, and Aurelius was quite brutal when writing his journal (ahem, now published as Meditations) because he was talking to himself… in a way perhaps akin to what Oathbringer (the in-book book of the Stormlight Archive) is for Dalinar. That is why Aurelius advised himself to, “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly.”

Aurelius was somehow saying journey before destination because if we aren’t dead yet, then the journey continues and it is up to us to keep going, to do better. As Dalinar said, “The most important words someone can say are, ‘I will do better’.”

If we accept that we will eventually die (because that is our shared destination), then the journey itself (life) has to be seized and lived—thus returning to “life before death” and the value of being alive.

However… it is not just our life but everyone else’s. We are all mortal; every single person (and pet!) that you have met is mortal, and one way or another, we will all eventually get to that shared destination.

Parenthesis. I’m doing this podcast while shuddering at the idea of ageing and dying; this is literally easier said than done. This is something that, if it resonates with you, you’ll need to practice your entire life. Epictetus advised to ‘Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.’ The Stoics themselves struggled with memento mori, to the point that Aurelius was repetitious about it. That struggle, that search for self-improvement, is the whole point of philosophy.

That said, at some stage in our journey, this awareness of death as unavoidable… becomes depressing—but the Stoics argued that such a notion was, actually, empowering. Memento mori is a reminder that we need to create priority and meaning, putting things into perspective and giving urgency to what is really urgent… thus tweaking our journey towards that destination.

If we accept that we all die, perhaps you’ll realise (sooner than later) that the detour to your grandpa’s house after a 12-hour work shift, and whose only purpose was to say, “hey, how are you doing?” is actually worth it. I may have been destroyed after so many hours of non-stop uni courses and work… but I went to his house whenever I could, sometimes thrice per week, and now I regret nothing. Those detours were, perhaps, one of the wisest decisions younger-me ever took.

“Journey before destination” is so incredibly powerful because it has so much meaning attached to it beyond relationship to memento mori. I told you we’d dive deeper, so let’s analyse how it relates to another of the Stoic values; one less grim yet equally complex to apply.

Amor fati translates to “love of one’s fate” and relates to another Stoic idea, known as the dichotomy of control. And oh dear, Oathbringer is so full of discussions around these two.

Let’s start with amor fati, the concept of treating every moment (no matter how challenging!) as something to be embraced, not avoided… and then we can bring in the dichotomy of control. To do this, I’ll focus on one specific Stoic philosopher; Epictetus.

Epictetus was a slave; his quote-on-quote “name” is a Greek word that means acquired. He was crippled by his owner, who hammered Epictetus’ knee just for the fun of it. Why am I telling you this? So you can put his advice into perspective. After everything that happened to him, this Stoic philosopher said,

“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens, happens the way it happens: then you will be happy."

Epictetus instructed us to accept the journey, embrace it, and make the most of it exactly as it is. He was also advising that we have little control over said journey, because, at the end of the day, we exist in a vast world, with a lot of individuals living with juxtaposed interests, and a lot of things that can happen that we had no way of foreseeing or controlling (Taravangian, anyone?).

This idea leads us directly into the dichotomy of control… and yes, this is also incredibly hard to accept. Epictetus wrote a lot about this, instructing that:

“Some things are within our power while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing."

What Epictetus was saying is that, ultimately, the only thing we control are our intentions. For example, I may have intended to do something (let’s say, to record this podcast) but the myriad of uncontrollables around happen (for example, I needed more time than planned to finish edits on a book)… and the recording was delayed (spoiler alert, it actually happened like that). This is such a common occurrence in our daily lives, that we have a saying for it. “Life happens”. Too often, if I may confess.

What the dichotomy of control aims to highlight is that attempting to control what we cannot control will only bring pain and misery because we will never manage it. Look, even the Stormfather has limited control; for example, he has the ability to summon Stormlight, but only within a highstorm… which is also within his control; but outside of a highstorm? Nope, it doesn’t happen (parenthesis again, at least, within the four books published now).

Moving on with the Stormlight Archive, do you know who else said something along the lines of the dichotomy of control? Jasnah Kholin. She said, “The question is not whether you will love, hurt, dream, and die. It is what you will love, why you will hurt, when you will dream, and how you will die. This is your choice. You cannot pick the destination, only the path.”

In my subjective opinion, Jasnah’s point was quite Stoic (in a sense) because she highlighted that feelings are within our control (for example, who to love, why you hurt), but little else is. To some extent, while we have some degree of control about our journey, our agency is often limited to how we feel about something… and I dare say that automatic reactions or emotions, such as those derived from trauma, may not even be within our control.

Regardless, at the same time, Jasnah’s words also reinforced memento mori and the idea that our shared destination is death, and we can only influence our journey.

Wit gave excellent advice to Shallan, talking about what happens when we don’t accept how little control we truly have. Wit said,

“There are two kinds of important men, Shallan. There are those who, when the boulder of time rolls toward them, stand up in front of it and hold out their hands. All their lives, they’ve been told how great they are. They assume the world itself will bend to their whims as their nurse did when fetching them a fresh cup of milk. Those men end up squished."

These people want to control what they cannot, and thus struggle to accept that a journey will have more than success. Because even when we do everything right… we can still fail. These people will be squashed because if they truly, unquestionably believe themselves in control of everything that happens in their lives… they are setting themselves up for failure. It will reach a point where they commit no mistakes and still fail due to extraneous circumstances.

We may plan everything very carefully, but external and uncontrollable things may happen (hello, Taravangian again!).

After this, Wit tells Shallan about a very rare group of people with a different mindset. About them, Wit says:

“They are oh so rare. They know they can’t stop the boulder. So they walk beside it, study it, and bide their time. Then they shove it—ever so slightly—to create a deviation in its path. These are the men… well, these are the men who actually change the world."

Sometimes, what we can control is very little… and it is unlikely that we can gauge the real consequences of our actions because they intertwine with so many uncontrollables. Many times, the consequences of our actions actually unfold twenty or thirty years after we caused them… and in other cases, we may not even find out at all! We may remain untouched, while causing so much agony to other people.

However, that third group of people is very important, not only to understand the dichotomy of control but also that the obstacles we face in life can be used to our advantage.

To understand this, let’s briefly return to amor fati and the concept of loving the journey.

“To love of one journey’s”… is complex. Sometimes, it may even seem outright impossible. Why? Because life can bring a bit of success, but it will also bring pain, failure, and misery—and Dalinar wrote exactly about this in his own book, saying:

“The ancient code of the Knights Radiant says ‘journey before destination.’ Some may call it a simple platitude, but it is far more. A journey will have pain and failure. It is not only the steps forward that we must accept. It is the stumbles. The trials. The knowledge that we will fail. That we will hurt those around us.
But if we stop, if we accept the person we are when we fall, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination. To love the journey is to accept no such end. I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one."

That part never fails to give me goosebumps because it summarises everything.

Amor fati, and loving the journey is said almost literally in Dalinar’s book—because the journey is all we have. Dalinar acknowledges that it will have pain and failure, stumbles, trials… because those unwelcomed events are part of the journey. There is no life without struggle because of all the uncontrollables that may act against us.

In Dalinar’s Oathbringer, “To love the journey” is amor fati and the acceptance that while we may have some degree of control in our life path, we generally don’t. But we need to make the best of it, to keep going and take that fabled next step, because the ultimate destination is death and we don’t want our journey to be cut short.

This incredible advice from Dalinar is, unsurprisingly, comparable to another point that Marcus Aurelius noted in his journal: “What stands in the way, becomes the way. The impediment to action advances action.” This phrase was, quite accurately, summarised by modern philosopher Ryan Holiday as “The Obstacle is the Way”1.

And where else did we hear of it? On the third group of people that Wit described to Shallan. Those who “shove it” (the obstacle!) “—ever so slightly—to create a deviation in its path.”

Overall, “The impediment to action advances action” means that something is an obstacle if and only if we decide to look at it as an obstacle.

Remember the dichotomy of control—how we perceive events and how we feel about them are among the few things actually within our control. That is (to me!) what Dalinar refers to when saying, “If we accept the person we are when we fall, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination.” Dalinar is telling us to rise, to stop seeing that impediment as an insurmountable obstacle, and instead, do better and keep living.

If we go back in Stormlight time to that conversation between Wit and Shallan, we can find more Stoic advice. Wit said, “The longer you live, the more you fail. Failure is the mark of a life well lived. In turn, the only way to live without failure is to be of no use to anyone.” Thus, the longer our journey and the more we keep trying, the more that will happen, and the more that we will experience the effects of everything outside of our control.

The longer we live, the more negatives (and positives!) we may encounter.

Amor fati is particularly hard to accept when we’re in the front seat of that vertiginous collision of pain and failure. If everything goes wrong for years on end… how can you love that? That question is for each of us to answer, but remember—we choose how to feel and what to do about it.

Wit advised Shallan to “Accept the pain, but don’t accept that you deserved it.” Namely, accept what happens, but don’t seek to give it a reason because the reasons may be too far away from you, and you’ll waste that precious time chasing something that can’t be easily found. Instead, control your feelings and don’t assign yourself as the cause of that pain… because you may have not been!

“Strength before weakness” is the second part of the First Ideal, which ties in nicely here. At one or more points in our lives, each of us has succumbed to that pain and misery because it may have been just too much.

Teft certainly did, and he found himself unable to love his journey. Teft confessed, “I’m broken,” and the response he got was perfectly Stoic: “Life breaks us, Teft. Then we fill the cracks with something stronger”… because the impediment to action advances action.

To continue with my parallelisms between Aurelius and Dalinar, Aurelius said, “A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.”

The Emperor was always metaphorical, but as I see it, he was implying that you take the obstacles that life throws at you, and make something out of it… just like a fire can use everything thrown into it to shine brighter. Notice that Aurelius says, “make flame and brightness” and not “char everything” or “smother down”. He purposefully and actively chose to look at obstacles positively because, as per the dichotomy of control, we can decide how to see those obstacles… even when we may have been caused them.

Do you know what Dalinar thought about this? The words that became his Third Ideal. Namely, “I will take responsibility for what I have done. If I must fall, I will rise each time a better man.”

Remember, “the impediment to action advances action”. We cannot accept failure because that would mean our journey ends in failure. Whatever happens, we need to raise a better person. After all, as Dalinar wrote, “But if we stop, if we accept the person we are when we fall, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination.” But we cannot accept that, and instead, we must keep rising—strength before weakness, right?

If we look at it this way, amor fati and the dichotomy of control are not grim nor foreboding, and neither do they take our feelings away. We could argue that they give us a growth mindset for self-improvement, by switching from a focus on the destination to focus on the journey… which in turn reminds us of the importance of the journey itself and that ultimate destination that memento mori indicates. We must be present in the moment, love the journey and cherish it, and not dwell in the past.

As Nohadon wrote in The Way of Kings,

“Does the destination matter? Or is it the path we take? I declare that no accomplishment has substance nearly as great as the road used to achieve it. […] It is the journey that shapes us."

It is not the destination, it’s the journey that matters… and we are the result of that journey.

There is a part in Oathbringer when Kalidin thinks the following:

“What a surreal sensation, being back here, being treated like he was still the boy who had left for war five years ago. Three men bearing their son’s name had lived and died in that time. The soldier who had been forged in Amaram’s army. The slave, so bitter and angry. His parents had never met Captain Kaladin, bodyguard to the most powerful man in Roshar. And then… there was the next man, the man he was becoming. A man who owned the skies and spoke ancient oaths."

We can see it clearly in Kalidin’s journey—everything he went through changed him so much that he thought of his former self as a different person. That is how much change life and time can exert on us.

But in that quote, Kalidin concludes, “And then… there was the next man, the man he was becoming.” It is written in a continuous tense, not in the past (done and dusted). Kalidin sees himself as a work in progress because his journey continues, and so the obstacles will keep coming, and he will rise over and over. Which, spoiler alert, he does—and out of sheer will, as we all should, because that is within our control.

As Nohadon said, “For the substance of our existence is not in the achievement but in the method.” It is not the destination; it is never about the flat achievements or goals… but the journey. How many times do we rise up, how many times does what stands in the way becomes the way, and how many times do we choose to do better?

And choosing to do better is within our control and available to all of us.

“Life before death,” because we still have time, and because life is precious. “Strength before weakness,” because doing better and not succumbing is so, so incredibly difficult. “Journey before destination,” because we need to love life, whatever it takes us.

Amor fati is such a meaningful statement that I wrote an entire interactive book about it; that book is quirky, disguised as a dungeon crawler, and it’s called Means of Egress. You can read it on the free app called Unearthed Stories. I’ll leave all links in the description.

Before we go, thank you for listening to the episode; sharing this personal take on The First Ideal of the Knights Radiants was scary, and scripting the episode took me quite a bit of time.

If you liked it, please like and subscribe, and leave a comment! I always try to answer. If you didn’t like it, that’s okay, we can all have different opinions and this episode was, as usual, my personal take on it; we can agree to disagree.

Finally, if you like bookish discussions of this style, alongside prose analysis and bite-sized deep dives, subscribe to my newsletter—the link is also in the description.

That said, thanks for watching, and happy reading.

  1. Ryan’s Holiday The Obstacle is the Way ↩︎