In January 2006, I was (barely) nineteen years old. I was six weeks into a long and grueling Army medic training program, intermittently single and engaged (it was complicated), and a devout Christian. I genuinely believed that God was the only path to happiness—yet I felt miserable almost every day, and my misery could be explained only partly by my extremely negative experience in the U.S. Army.1
Every aspect of an Army trainee’s life is heavily controlled. During the first portion of my medic program (“Black” phase), soldiers were allowed only two books and no electronic devices. One of my books, of course, was the Bible. The other slot usually was occupied by a generic fantasy novel—something to pass the time on Sunday mornings after church.
When I went to the base library and picked up Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind, I had never heard of the author, and I had no particular reason for selecting that particular book. It was in the fantasy section, and I hadn’t yet read it; that was good enough for me. By the time I finished reading it, I knew that Wizard’s First Rule was anything but generic fantasy—but I couldn’t yet put my finger on what was different about it.
One Sunday in early spring, I was sitting in an open third-floor window, sunning myself like a cat and reading Goodkind’s Faith of the Fallen, which remains my favorite book to this day. I vividly remember reading the final few pages, closing the book, setting it aside, and remaining perched in the window for nearly an hour, contemplating the story I had been intensely absorbed in for several months.
Finally, I went to my locker and took my Bible off of the top shelf. I put Faith of the Fallen in its place, already having decided to keep it and pay the $15 library fine. I then went outside and committed a crime.2
I found a trash can, removed the bag, tossed the Bible into the can, and burned it. Fortunately, no one witnessed my act of heresy; I knew that potentially I could be subject to severe disciplinary action, including court martial. I just didn’t care.
Had I then understood the fundamentals of Objectivism, as I do now, I would have prioritized my own well-being and perhaps conducted a more private book burning at a later time.
After that Sunday, I never prayed or went to church again. I finished all of the Sword of Truth books available at the time, then read them all twice more. I slowly came to believe that the “sins” I routinely committed—such as secretly not wanting to selflessly serve others—weren’t actually sins at all, and that it was OK—in fact, it was moral—to want to be successful and happy, here, on this planet.
Early in 2007, I tracked down Goodkind’s fan mail address and wrote him a letter. I told him that he’d saved my life. I told him how much I appreciated that the heroes in his books acted in ways that I’d never seen in fiction, much less in real life. They consistently acted according to the principle that their lives were their own and that no one had a right to harm them or take their property for any reason—not in the name of “charity,” or of forcing them to do the so-called “right” thing, or any other alleged justification.
To my great surprise, Goodkind wrote back to me. He mentioned that his favorite author is Ayn Rand and encouraged me to read her work. I’d never heard of Rand, but on Goodkind’s advice, I walked down to the library and checked out the only two books of hers available—Anthem and The Virtue of Selfishness. The rest, as they say, is history.
Over the following three years, I purchased and read everything by Rand and Goodkind that I could get my hands on. Slowly but surely, the quality of my personal relationships, my satisfaction with my (post-military) career, my health, my finances, and my view of myself all improved. My wife (then on-and-off fiancée), who previously had been just as miserable and conflicted as I was, started reading Goodkind and Rand as well; her health, attitude, and approach to her career also improved by orders of magnitude. We got married in 2008, and we’re still happily married today.
Because we leverage the principles of Objectivism in our daily lives, we both have rewarding careers and social lives, ample income and free time, and the ability to travel the world before our mid-thirties. (Over the next five years, we’re going to Hong Kong, Japan, Greece, Egypt, Norway, Denmark, the Maldives, New Zealand, Italy, and Spain.) It’s nearly impossible to overstate how powerful these life-serving ideas can be—anyone who understands, embraces, and lives by them can be successful.
After five years of studying and contemplating the complex and controversial ideas in Sword of Truth, I spent $1,200 and eight hours to have the Wizard’s Rules tattooed on my arms. They are (verbatim):
- People will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they’re afraid it is.
- The greatest harm can result from the best intentions.
- Passion rules reason, for better or worse.
- There is magic in sincere forgiveness—in the forgiveness you give, but more so in the forgiveness you receive.
- Mind what people do, not only what they say, for deeds will betray a lie.
- The only sovereign you can allow to rule you is reason.
- Life is the future, not the past.
- Deserve victory.
- A contradiction cannot exist in reality. Not in whole, nor in part.
- Willfully turning aside from the truth is treason to oneself.
(The eleventh rule is unwritten but implied throughout the series. Readers are encouraged to infer it themselves.)
Taken at face value, some of the rules are poorly formulated and untrue; some are contradictory (most glaringly, #3 and #6); and some (e.g., #1 and #3) are intended as warnings that many people do act this way rather than recommendations about how one should act or descriptions of how people are determined to act. It’s unfortunate that Goodkind was so imprecise when he sought to condense those lessons into pithy statements. But the ideas and principles to which the rules are meant to refer are valid, and they are better communicated through the actions of characters in the novels.
To this day, total strangers regularly “inform” me that my tattoos are upside-down (meaning, they can’t easily read them). I politely tell them that no, they aren’t—they’re oriented so that I can read them. They’re reminders to myself on how to live well—and reminders of how much I’ve changed for the better since I first checked out a tattered and torn copy of Wizard’s First Rule.
I credit both Rand and Goodkind, in different respects, with saving my life. Although Goodkind is not the originator of Objectivism (nor do I suggest that he perfectly understands and communicates Rand’s ideas), his subtler, more mainstream, and less controversial delivery of some of her ideas made it much easier for me to segue into Rand’s more direct and polemical style. This better enabled me to focus on and evaluate the content of her philosophy.
So miserable was my pre-Goodkind, pre-Rand life, that had I not discovered their works, I might be dead today. Even if I wouldn’t have killed myself, I certainly would have become steadily more miserable over time—more spiritually dead. Had I remained a Christian, it would have been extraordinarily difficult for me to entertain the idea of exploring (much less adopting) a radically new philosophy.
As of this writing, the Sword of Truth series spans more than eighteen books, some of which are nearly as thick as Atlas Shrugged. The core story arc, though, spans only eleven books, beginning with Wizard’s First Rule and ending with Confessor, and it was completed in 2007. In terms of philosophical richness and deeply engrossing storytelling, this core series is the centerpiece of Goodkind’s fiction showcase. And, in my view, Faith of the Fallen is his magnum opus and one of the best novels ever written. If you’re serious about living a good life and love to see real heroism masterfully dramatized, I think you’ll love Sword of Truth.3
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1. For an indication of conditions in the military similar to those I experienced, see Matt Young, “I Hope the Military Doesn’t Change My Brother Like It Did Me,” Time, March 13, 2018, https://time.com/5193840/military-afghanistan-service-marine-corps/; Liam Brennon, “How Veterans Affairs Denies Care to Many of the People It’s Supposed to Serve,” Washington Post, November 8, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/how-veterans-affairs-denies-care-to-many-of-the-people-its-supposed-to-serve/2019/11/08/2c105b48-0183-11ea-9518-1e76abc088b6_story.html; David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “Lying to Ourselves: The Demise of Military Integrity,” War on the Rocks, March 10, 2015, https://warontherocks.com/2015/03/lying-to-ourselves-the-demise-of-military-integrity/.
2. Although the Uniform Code of Military Justice does not explicitly prohibit the burning of religious texts, the “catch-all” articles “§ 909. Art. 109. Property other than military property of the United States—Waste, spoilage, or destruction” and “§ 934. Art. 134. General article” can and have been used to punish the destruction of such texts.
3. The short-lived TV series Legend of the Seeker, although (very) loosely based on the Sword of Truth series, bears almost no resemblance to the books and cuts out virtually all of the philosophically important content. I don’t recommend it. Also, be advised that the Sword of Truth books contain graphic, sometimes sexual violence. These scenes are often disturbing, but never gratuitous; they’re intended to portray the consequences of certain antilife ideas. Finally, note that some versions of the Sword of Truth e-books are riddled with typos and formatting errors. The paperback versions are much cleaner.