This is a feel-good book. There are laughs to be had reading about quirky Socrates, there's inspiration to be found in Dan overcoming his leg injury and finding unreasonable happiness, and there's even a love story ending in a marriage.
Even the depths of philosophical paradoxes plumbed by Socrates and Dan can't bring down the upbeat tone. If it gets complicated, one or the both of them will crack a joke, and, even if they don't the ultimate message is: Don't Worry Be Happy.
This is, quite simply, a self-help novel promoting Socrates' Zen-like philosophy as a cure for unhappiness. It mostly consists of two men talking about ideas on how to live life. Dan seeks to implement those ideas, and that he eventually finds unreasonable happiness is meant to show us that we, too, would find it were we to adopt the same strategies. We're given pages and pages and of Socrates' detailed explanations of exactly what the nature of the peaceful warrior is.
The novel is also the chief product in the real Dan Millman's line of multiple other books, seminars, audio programs, exotic adventure trips, and other goods and services, many of them featuring the charismatic Socrates. This might seem a little cynical: is this book just a pill in paper form?
But you could argue that all authors, whether of the self-help movement or held to be canonical great masters, are, in some sense, simply saying, "Here's my vision of the world; read it, and you'll be a little more like me."
Way of the Peaceful Warrior. We've got two parts to that title, yes? There's the contradictory-sounding peaceful-warrior bit, and something about a "way."
While we ordinarily think of warriors as tough-talking military commandos (think Arnold Schwarzenegger blasting with a machine gun in Predator), here we have warriors who meditate and don't worry over things. But they're still warriors, the book tells us, whether it's Socrates ninja-ing stick-up criminals (4.375-380), Dan performing gymnastics feats, or simply being happy and truly aware of life.
So that may be a different take on what a "warrior" is than what we're accustomed to.
Now to the "way" part. That's pretty self-explanatory: it means how to go about being a peaceful warrior. Socrates tells Dan, “I have shown you the way of the peaceful warrior, not the way to the peaceful warrior. As long as you tread the way, you are a warrior” (8.20). And of course, the book is basically an instruction manual in the way of peaceful warriorhood.
All in all, it's a straightforward title with no tricks.
Dan slips away for a moment during his outdoor wedding with Joy, sees that Socrates' business card now reads Happiness, and feels his teacher is present everywhere—got it, great, but what does this ending express about the novel and its philosophy?
Well, it's definitely an ending that brings firm closure to the book by giving us a direct message: mission complete, Dan.
All through the novel up to this point, Dan has wondered if he's really attained happiness yet, or a warrior's state of mind yet, or enlightenment yet. Going through the gate (see Symbols, Imagery, Allegory) was a profound vision that convinced Dan he surpassed his fear of death—but then again, Socrates taught him again and again that visions and feelings and thoughts come and go and can't be trusted.
So what if Dan's fear of death were to return? What if his training and discipline were to fade away once more, as when Socrates sent him away for years? Has he really succeeded?
But during the ending, in this private moment of Dan's wedding, the teacher's business card affirms the student's happiness. (Because in this book, if Socrates says something, it must be true.) Dan is delighted by the changed card. He feels “the truth” (E.34). Socrates has not abandoned him. Socrates is one with everything; he is the beautiful trees and clouds nearby, and all of this nature is Socrates saying, "Yes, Dan, you did it, you are happy at last."
Then check out the very last two lines (E.35). “Socrates was here. He was everywhere.” We get the italics emphasizing: It was real. The strange man jumping on the gas station rooftop unbelievably and giving you all those odd visions—all of that happened, maybe not literally, but in a true enough sense. And those truths will never forsake you, Dan, because Socrates and what he taught you is everywhere you will go; they will always be with you.
In short, Dan won. He did it. He's happy. That's what the ending is saying. Aw, shucks.
You might never expect a gas station to serve as the main setting of a novel, but in this novel it is… and it's quite a clear metaphor. Back in the 1960s, it was more common to have an attendant run out and wash your windows and pump your gas when you drove up to a gas station, so basically, you were getting serviced, tuned up, fixed, and repaired.
And that's exactly what Socrates, the attendant of the station in the novel, does to Dan.
They begin his training at night. Dan starts off in the book with only his day-time, ordinary, conventional life as a college student: the known world beneath the sun, where everyone plays by ordinary U.S. rules of consumerism, unhealthy food, and insistence on finding (or buying) purpose, meaning, and goals.
But the night brings Dan to Socrates and his alternate world of the peaceful warrior's way: meditation, calm, etc. So it's literally a night-and-day difference between the two worlds. Dan struggles to pick which of the two paths he'll follow. Soon enough, he's Socrates' loyal student, and by then, they're meeting in the daylight too. So the peaceful warrior's way begins to become 24/7 for Dan.
With one exception, those are the two major places in the novel—the gas station and college—though there are a few other surrounding spots, too, such as Tilden Park where Socrates, Dan, and Joy picnic. So what's the exception?
Ah, that's the mountains. The Sierra Nevada range is where Dan takes off to for his final chance at discovering unreasonable happiness. So in the Sierra Nevada we have trees, wilderness, a cave—quite different from the urban setting we've seen before in the book. Cities are population centers, which induces conformity of thought; mountains are out in the middle of nowhere: Dan, alongside Socrates, can pursue truth in two-player solitude.
Many novels, such as those of Faulkner and Dickens, express a great deal about how social and historical forces exert so much control over our lives, but we get the opposite view in Way of the Peaceful Warrior. This is a self-help book about how you can be happy. Rise above your circumstances, Socrates tells Dan, and therefore us. Don't be bound by the where and when of your birth. You can do it!
The setting of Berkely and the late 1960s, then, is in a way pretty irrelevant to the novel and its philosophy. The anti-war and hippie movements that were big in Berkeley at the time are never mentioned, for example. In short, historical forces, social and political causes, and other major elements of setting are all out of the picture.
Warriors, warriors we call ourselves. We fight for splendid virtue, for high endeavor, for sublime wisdom, therefore we call ourselves warriors. —Aunguttara Nikaya
A warrior may seem an odd way to describe someone who, like Dan, devotes his life to calm, meditation, health, and so on. But the epigraph emphasizes that these qualities discussed in the book are indeed warrior qualities. This devotion requires a warrior's discipline and training. Also, of course, there's that time Socrates ninja-s the people trying to rob him and Dan (4.375-380), so that's pretty freakin' warrior-like.
This is a straightforward book aimed at a mass readership. You'll have no problem with it; in fact, you can probably breeze through in two or three sittings. There are some slightly confusing philosophical passages at times, but we explain plenty of them in our Themes section, and so many of the ideas are repeated that if you don't get something once, it's bound to turn up again and again in different words.
So have no fear! Don't worry; be happy.
The writing style in Way of the Peaceful Warrior is as empty of distractions as Socrates' mind must be. It just says directly what the author means, with little to no befuddling complexities of syntax. Indeed, the straightforward, simple writing style matches the straightforward, simple type of attention Socrates advocates.
Here's an example of just how straightforward the prose style is:
“I dressed quickly and skipped down the rear steps of Harmon Gym to watch the sky over Edwards Field turn orange with the sun's final glow. The cool air refreshed me. Relaxed and at peace with the world, I ambled downtown to get a cheeseburger on the way to the U.C. Theater. Tonight they were showing The Great Escape, about a daring escape of British and American prisoners of war.” (2.2)
Any confusion reading that? We thought not. How is this simplicity achieved in the paragraph above? Well, half the sentences start with the grammatical subject, which helps ease the work of understanding. There are no semicolons or dashes, although the novel is not averse to those. The vocabulary is simple. Only four words have three syllables; none have more, and the rest have fewer. In short, although some of the philosophical ideas might get difficult at times, the writing style is just plain and clear.
About halfway through the novel, Socrates sets up a metaphor for Dan: the gate. Socrates says:
“The realm of the warrior is guarded by something like a gate. It is well hidden, like a monastery in the mountains. [...] The gate exists inside you, and you alone must find it.” (4.69-71)
It's something we're told that Dan has to “blaze some kind of inner path” to (4.77).
So, like, what is it? Tune in to Socrates again: “To the gate! To unreasonable happiness! To the one and only goal you've ever had but didn't know it.” (6.11)
Okay. So the gate unlocks unreasonable happiness, the ultimate aim of Dan's, as per Socrates' teachings. Um, then why not just head over there, Dan, and waltz in?
Well, remember Dan's fear of death? That's the scary thing Dan has to overcome to make it through the gate. It's what he heads into the Sierra Nevada mountains to confront. It's only after he's exhausted himself searching for answers that he finally sells everything and makes his final stand in the wilderness.
That's the cave where Socrates tells him “This is your final journey” (8.60) and gives him his final mystical vision (8.61-72). It's that weird sight of himself decomposing over thousands of years, the landscape and everything else changing too. It dawns on Dan, witnessing his own death, that “nothing could possibly matter” (8.71) since mortal, human Dan is no big deal—just flesh that will decompose—and real Dan, and real everyone else, is “the Consciousness that observed all, was all” (8.66) forever and ever, the whole of reality.
This insight enlightens Dan into unreasonable happiness. He realizes the whole business of calling the mind-trip a gate was just some word-play Socrates tricked up to move Dan along toward confronting his fear of death—making the challenge a bit more tangible, in other words. As Dan puts it:
“I had lost my mind and fallen into my heart. The gate had finally opened, and I had tumbled through, laughing, because it, too, was a joke. It was a gateless gate, another illusion, another image that Socrates had woven into the fabric of my reality.” (8.82)
So there you have it, folks. The gate is gateless. It's an illusion, just like the fear of death. Dang, that's deep.
To be honest, we're not quite sure what the House Rules are… and that's the point. Socrates never explains them; he only refers to them as justifications for why various things, like his Warrior, Inc. Best Practices (3.71), have to be done certain ways. The House Rules are as enigmatic as citation styles. Why must MLA Style require parenthetical in-line citations in the body of the text, rather than in footnotes? It just does. Them's the House Rules.
Here are some instances where the House Rules show up:
Socrates: “The House Rules reveal that you can control your efforts, not outcomes.” (5.171)
Again, Socrates: “House rules: For every strength there is a weakness—and for every weakness, a strength.” (7.37)
So why are these rules so dang slippery? Why can we never get a clear idea of what they actually are?! This is frustrating, right?
Yep: they're frustrating… like life is frustrating. These rules are as nebulous as the rules that govern our lives. Part of Dan's big project is that he has to give up on knowing the answers to every little niggling question that comes into his brainpan and start just accepting the mystery of it all.
This is the “life-giving Presence without a name” (4.389). It's barely mentioned in the book, but we thought we'd try to penetrate its mystery here. First, what we know about it.
When Socrates has a heart attack running, Dan attempts to resuscitate him, but seems to have failed. And then:
That's when I felt it—the same Presence I had known many months before. It filled my body. I breathed It; It breathed me. “Please,” I said one last time, “take me instead.” I meant it. And in that moment, I felt a pulse begin to throb in Soc's neck. (7.18)
The next day, Dan visits a recovering Socrates in the hospital, and tells him “The Presence I once felt—it started your heartbeat.” Socrates nods and says, “You were feeling It [...] That was a good lesson” (7.32-35).
That's all that's written about the capital-P Presence. It has something to do with the “Consciousness that observed all, was all” (8.66) which Dan later perceives to be true reality—the fact that the only time is now and the only place is here. What Dan is feeling is the Presence of being present in the moment. And, at least according to this novel, that's really the only way to participate in life.
Like the capital-P Presence, the capital-F Feeling is rarely referred to. It's a flash of intuitive certainty that comes over Dan at certain times, and is effectively a wise Socrates within him.
Here's Dan's first encounter with the Feeling. When anxieties arise over resuming school, Dan calms himself, thinking: “Old urges continue to arise, but urges do not matter; only actions do. A warrior is as a warrior does.” Startled at his own confidence, Dan then thinks: “It was a feeling-certainty, a knowing. It was as if Socrates was inside me, a warrior within. This feeling was to remain with me” (4.392-393).
Later, the Feeling tells Dan the giant in one of his visions is his mind (4.426). In another vision, the Feeling advises him to stay within the pentacle while confronting monsters in an attic (6.89).
Perhaps the point of the Feeling is to show that those who attain such discipline as Dan's become blessed with certain (capitalized!) powers.
It's pretty straight: the narrator of this novel is Dan in the first person. He's there at all key events, all of which basically focus on his struggle to completely adopt Socrates' teachings. It's just Dan, telling you his story, and he's very plain, affable, and direct.
Very soon after the story starts, Dan dreams of the frightening Grim Reaper beckoning him. Boom, there's our monster: Death himself. The dream hints that a white-haired dude is the answer to Dan's fear of his own mortality—and sure 'nuff, the young man then meets Socrates, who seems straight out of the dream.
Dan trains under Socrates, learning the warrior's way. The youth is meditating, clearing his mind, and basically, bettering himself. He just might show his fear of death what's up after all.
Arguably Dan's motorcycle accident—at the start of Chapter 4, midway through the book—is the frustration stage, since Dan is nearly killed, i.e. nearly defeated by death. Pretty soon, though, he's back on his feet and training for about three more chapters. Gonna getcha, fear o' death.
We watch Dan, leading a mediocre life, look and look for happiness/enlightenment, but ever unable to find it. He's getting older, and it seems that maybe he never will become truly happy. In other words, Death will have the last laugh, as Dan won't have lived a fulfilling life. Dan sells everything and heads into the mountains, determined to find an answer. So, clearly, here comes the final battle. And indeed, he plunges from a precipice, skull shattered. Looks like Death has won.
But miraculously enough, Dan is observing his own death—his own decomposition over thousands of years. He sees that death is nothing to be feared, for he's more than his mortal body; he's one with everything, the great Consciousness that is the whole shebang. He returns to life, liberated. He dances gleefully, marries a woman named Joy, and lives unreasonably happily ever after.
Dan is breezing through two years of college, getting gymnastics trophies, getting good grades, getting good kisses from Susie—all seems well in the world… except for these nightmares he has about his mortality. We know this is the exposition cuz of that all-seems-well-in-the-world bit: no tension, no complications yet, just a creepy hint (those nightmares) that something ain't right.
Dan suddenly meets his eccentric teacher Socrates, and then spends the majority of the book learning his lessons, following his training, getting annoyed by him, etc. This is clearly the rising action since it's all about Dan's struggles to meet Socrates' demands. We watch Dan improve, but from time to time, we still get hints that death scares him, so we wonder if his discipline will overcome that ultimate fear.
His training over, Dan drifts away into a mediocre life until he finally decides he's had it with unhappiness and must go into the mountains to find enlightenment—which turns out to be confronting his fear of death, in the final vision Socrates refers to as the gate. We know this is the big climax since the book has been prepping us for an eventual showdown with death—and plus, it's pretty hard to get more ultimate-y than watching a vision of yourself decomposing for thousands of years.
Dan, successfully through the gate, is now unreasonably happy. He celebrates this with Socrates until Socrates says it is time for him to go—and disappears forever. This is the falling action, because the story arc has been all about Dan and Socrates' teacher-student relationship. The teacher leaving the world brings this arc to its conclusion.
Dan marries Joy and receives a final message from Socrates—Happiness—and feels his teacher's presence everywhere. It's confirmation that he's completed his training and won happiness.
Dan, thinking he's happy but secretly fearing death, meets Socrates and, after some back and forth with himself, decides to learn his new teacher's way of life.
Dan does all sorts of training and learning under Socrates—meditation, rigorous dieting, and the like—for the bulk of the book. But despite all this, he cannot find happiness. He separates from Socrates and lives a mediocre life for several years, wondering where happiness is.
In the mountains, Dan has a vision of his own death, leading him to understand that nothing can possibly matter and so a person should simply be happy without reason. Soon after, Socrates mysteriously vanishes, Dan marries Joy, and everything is happy… and done.