Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Lost Assassin’s Creed

In October 2014 I performed my usual ritual of buying the latest Assassin’s Creed game.  There was only one problem.  I didn’t own an Xbox One to play Assassin’s Creed Unity.  So I read the novelization and watched the “movie” on Youtube – a series of cutscenes edited together.  Eventually, I did get that Xbox One and finally played through Unity.

When I play an Assassin’s Creed game I play an Assassin’s Creed game.  There is no deep analysis and no taking notes.  I just scamper across rooftops, open chests, and climb vantage points just like any other player, but as I play through I start to see a pattern form.  A dominant theme seems to rise to the surface.  The theme that struck me playing Unity was the warning against radicalism.

The Assassin’s Creed series was inspired by the book Alamut by Vladamir Bartol.  The edition of the book on my shelf includes a brief essay after the final chapter by Michael Biggins where he writes:
“If “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” stands as a symbol of the licence granted to the Ismaili elite, then the unrelated subsidiary motto, “Omnia in numero et mensura” acquires an ultimately cautionary significance. All things within measure, nothing too much. In other words, skepticism and rationality are important assets, but overdependence on them at the expense of compassion leads to the tragedy that engulfs Hasan as much as it does his witting and unwitting victims.”
The motto, “Omnia in numero et mensura” translates as “all things in measure , and number , and weight” which is pretty vague without context.  It comes from a verse in The Book of Wisdom 11:21, one of the books in the Catholic version of the Old Testament, which reads:
Yea and without these might have been slain with one blast , persecuted by their own deeds, and scattered by the breath of thy power ; but all things in measure , and number , and weight.
The gist of the passage is declaring that God is all-powerful but acts in moderation.  So the meaning of the motto becomes “all things in moderation”.   This could be called the lost Assassin’s Creed and emerges as the central theme in the game Assassin’s Creed Unity.

When Arno Dorian begins his adult story the status quo sees a truce between the Assassins and the Templars at a time when the reins of leadership were in the hands of two political moderates, Honore Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau for the Assassins and Francois de la Serre for the Templars.  Over the course of the tale both men are murdered by extremists within their own ranks. Francois-Thomas Germain leads the coup against de la Serre culminating in his murder and the Assassin Pierre Bellec poisons Mirabeau.  Both Germain and Bellec see their leaders as embodying a corruption of the true purpose of their respective organisations and seek to purge that corruption by killing the leadership.

When running through the Parisian sandbox there comes a point when the verbal abuse hurled at poor Arno by the street thugs becomes repetitive.   One of the common phrases uses the term “moderate” as an insult.  This may seem strange to our 21st century ears where radical, and not moderate, is the common insult. 

The media may deride radical Islam, fundamentalist Christians, or the extreme political right and left, but this could be spun in another direction.  We value people who are true to their beliefs and extoll their self-sacrifice for those beliefs, but we draw the line when they impose on our beliefs and values.  As for the moderates, they compromise.  They compromise their beliefs, their values, and their integrity.  So, t is not too hard to see the moderates as being false at best and traitors to the ideology at worse.

There is nothing inherently wrong with radicalism.   The word radical originally meant the root of a plant, but in the 18th Century it came to mean the advocates of the root principles, or fundamentals, of an ideology.  This is paralleled in one interpretation of the origin of the word assassin as “those faithful to the foundation”.  This denotes an absolute uncompromising adherance to certain basic principles.  In theology, these are known as dogma, a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true that cannot be changed or discarded without destroying the ideology itself.  Dogma is different from doctrine in that a doctrine is a set of principles that can be compromised but a dogma cannot.

Douglas Bader famously said, “Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools”. Wisdom is knowing how the world works.  This includes understanding why the rules are in place, discerning which rules can be broken and when, and the possible repercussions.  This enables the wise man to make compromises without sacrificing the essential principles behind the rules.  It takes wisdom to know doctrine from dogma.

However, for the fool the rules become an easy ticket to being right and therefore righteous.  We have rules to keep the fools in line so they come to perceive the rules as an authority.  If you follow the rules then you are aligned with the authority and thus become the authority.  This is where radicalism, fundamentalism, and dogma get their bad reputation.  Today we see radicals as people to whom every principle of their ideology is dogma.  This leads to a strict adherence to the rules and a fanatical enforcement of them at the expense of the principles behind the rules.  A fool follows rules and the wise man is guided by the principles behind the rules.

The lost Assassin’s Creed of Omnia in numero et mensura puts the Creed into context by advocating balance and as an appeal to wisdom in interpreting all things, including the Creed.  It is a safeguard in whose light the Creed becomes, “Nothing is true except what is and everything is permitted except what is not”.  Truth must be judged on the authority of reality and actions must be judged on purpose and consequence.  Wisdom shows us which rules are dogma and which are doctrine, in other words, which can be broken and which cannot.

This is the lesson learned by Arno at the end of the game.
The Creed of the Assassin Brotherhood teaches us that nothing is forbidden to us. Once, I thought that meant we were free to do as we would.  To pursue our ideals, no matter the cost. I understand now. Not a grant of permission. The Creed is a warning. Ideals too easily give way to dogma. Dogma becomes fanaticism. No higher power sits in judgement of us. No supreme being watches to punish us for our sins. In the end, only we ourselves can guard against our obsessions. Only we can decide whether the road we walk carries too high a toll. We believe ourselves redeemers, avengers, saviours.  We make war on those who oppose us, and they in turn make war on us. We dream of leaving our stamp upon the world...even as we give our lives in a conflict that will be recorded in no history book.  All that we do, all that we are, begins and ends with ourselves.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Tale of the Jackdaw

Of the five branches of philosophy, the fifth is Aesthetics. Its surface question is “What is beauty?” Dig a bit deeper and the questions become ones like “What is quality?” and “Why do we like whatever we like?”

My theory is that we are drawn to things that resonate with us. This has more to do with how we perceive it and how we perceive ourselves in relation to it with little to do with the thing itself.  With this is mind, ask yourself dear reader, who is your favourite Assassin and why?

My favourite is Edward  Kenway. This is not to say that he is the best or ideal assassin. That position is reserved for the likes of Altair or Ezio (though I'm on team Ezio with this one). For the entirety of the game Black Flag Kenway isn't even an assassin. At the end he says that he has issues to sort out and that he would join the brotherhood when they are done, which he does.  I like Kenway because I identify with his story about a Jackdaw trying to be an Eagle. Ezio is noble, wise, and has clarity of purpose. He is the quintessential Eagle.  Edward Kenway is not.

In animal lore, the Jackdaw is equated with thievery and both craftiness and foolishness, he's too clever for his own good. He is the kind of person who does things the quick and easy way, is smart enough to succeed to a point, but is scrambling to hold that position and never feels truly worthy of it because he feels he did not earn it.  Living in constant fear of being caught out for the fraud he believes himself to be.

As Mary Read tells him, "No one honest has an easy life, Edward. It's aching for one that causes the most pain."  Her point here is that people have what they have because they sacrificed freedom and ease to get it. Those unwilling to make the same sacrifices see the "easy life" these others seem to have and want it for themselves. They ache for the benefits but do not want to pay the cost.

Aristotle called pride the crown of virtues. In other words, pride is the reward for living a life of positive habits. The opposite is arrogance where someone expects the benefits of virtue and pride but lack the works to back it. .  An arrogant person is the kind who demands respect but has done nothing deserving respect.  Rather than fullness, for the arrogant there is only emptiness

Imagine a cup and no matter how much you pour into it the cup never fills. The trick is that to everyone watching the cup is overflowing and you're making a mess.  Doc Holiday in the film Tombstone describes his nemesis, Johnny Ringo, this way. "A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it. "  Edward Kenway suffers the same affliction. He can never steal enough or become renowned enough to bolster his sense of self-worth.  He's never good enough in his eyes despite his acquired wealth and fame.  He is contemptuous of people of accomplishment, status, and rank because he believes that he deserves it more than they do.

Of course this is fiction, but in real life it's the same principle -- without the violence. We each have an idea of ourselves that we carry around with us. Commonly called the self-image. The question is whether this image is consistent with reality or not. A person who sees their cup as empty is constantly looking to fill it, but since the problem is one of perception not abundance, enough is never enough.  Such people may have lives filled with money, power, respect, love and be the envy of others, but they lack the capacity to accept the fact that they have these things and therefore constantly strive for them.

Kenway was born to a poor family working the farm, but he always knew that he was meant for more. It was almost as though he saw the bigger picture while his family and neighbours saw only pixels.  Some people are happy with the world they are given while others see and therefore want more.  This is often the case with heroes in stories.  They are set apart from the other characters because they see, or at least sense, a world beyond the mundane drudgeries of life.

The first example of Kenway reaching above his allotted station in life is made evident in the novelisation of the game to explain his motivations for leaving Caroline to make his fortunes as a privateer.  He had won the heart of most beautiful woman in the area but her family was rich. Of course her parents disapproved of her marrying beneath herself and Edward came to resent the two of them living in a shack on his parent’s farm. Caroline was okay with this because she loved Edward, but he couldn’t live with himself.  He needed to prove that he was better to Caroline, to her family, and to his neighbours.  He needed to become rich.

Money is useless. It's just bits of metal, paper, or bytes. So the pursuit of money is also useless. But people do not pursue wealth for the money. They pursue what the money represents. For Edward, the pursuit of wealth was the pursuit of love, self-worth, and freedom.

It's been said that the people who say "money isn’t everything" are people who have it. They take money for granted and do not appreciate that having money enables all the great things that "money can’t buy", like love, self-worth, and freedom.  However, St. Columba wrote that the man who is not satisfied with little will not be satisfied by more. Money enables what is already there. It's like how Dr. Erskine describes the super soldier serum in the film Captain America. It “amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse.”  This is true for all forms of power.

For Edward Kenway becoming rich drove him to want to become richer, possessed of the "one last big score" mentality. He became so obsessed with acquiring the means to his end that he forgets his end purpose of returning to Caroline.   He reaches rock bottom with the death of Mary Read while in prison and the grief driven drunken binge that followed.  It is during this haze that he envisions his nemesis, Woodes Rogers, taunting him with Aesop's tale of the jackdaw.

"Aesop once wrote of an eagle, soaring high above a shepherd's field that swooped down on powerful wings to seize a grazing lamb and carry it off to her nest. Flying close by, a jackdaw saw the deed, and it filled his head with the idea that he too was just as strong and capable. So with a great flapping and rustling of feathers, the jackdaw came down swiftly and clutched at the coat of a large ram. But when he tried to fly away, he found he could not lift the animal, for his size and strength were not up to the task. And even as the jackdaw struggled, the ram hardly noticed he was there. Nearby, just across the field, the shepherd saw the fluttering bird and was quite amused. Running up, he captured the jackdaw and clipped its wings. That evening he gave the jackdaw to his children as a gift. "What an odd little bird this is, father!" they laughed and shouted. "What do you call him?" "This is a jackdaw," the father said. "But if you should ask him, he would claim to be an eagle."

This is the central point of the story.  Edward Kenway is the jackdaw.  He coveted the positions of the rich in his neighbourhood growing-up and believed that money would make him noble.  He dresses-up in the robes of an Assassin, but has not earned the right to do so.  He pretends to be Assassins throughout the story and granted he has the innate skills to pull it off, but he is no Assassin.  When he fails he sees himself as the fraud he is, but in doing so he transforms.

For years I've been rushing around, taking whatever I fancied, not giving a tinker's curse for those I hurt. Yet here I am... with riches and reputation, feeling no wiser than when I left home. Yet when I turn around, and look at the course I've run... there's not a man or woman that I love left standing beside me.

It may seem a trite lesson. "I sought riches but all I needed was love", but it's deeper than that.  It is about the cup that never fills, like some tartarusian torture, and a lesson in how to fill it.  If you aspire to greatness, to be the hero or the Assassin, or to be loved and respected, it is not enough to pursue to benefits or trappings that you associate with these things.  Dressing like a doctor does not make you one.  Rather you must pursue to virtues that result in these benefits.  If you want wealth, then develop positive work habits and an eye to spot opportunity.  If you want love from others, then learn to respect their thoughts, feelings, needs, and space instead of assuming that yours somehow trump theirs.

This is why Edward Kenway is my favourite Assassin.  Not because he is the best but because his journey is profound and relatable.  My family was never hung in a Florentine piazza, or my village burned, and I was certainly not raised on a “farm” to become an Assassin, but I have aspired to greatness with as little effort or sacrifice as possible.  I have felt like a fraud hoping no one notices.  I have asked myself, “if you’re so smart then why aren’t you successful?”  And I have felt that I was not good enough as a man for the woman I was with at the time.  I think this is true for a lot of people.  This is what makes Edward Kenway’s story, the Tale of the jackdaw, our story.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The Revolutions of Assassin's Creed

Like thousands of others, I watched the trailer for the new Assassin’s Creed game Syndicate soon after it was made public.  We now finally have a Victorian Assassin, well two actually, the Frye twins Jacob and Evie.  For those too involved in the spirit of the trailer here is Jacob’s introduction to the game:

It’s a bloody marvellous time to be alive, an age of invention, so many clever blokes dreaming up impossible machines sorting away more gold than Queen Victoria herself.  But none of those shillings ever makes it into the pockets of the poor devils whose blood is spilt building this glorious empire.  The working class sleeping walks through life unaware of the machine that drives them. Let's wake them up then, shall we?

At first I thought he might be referring to the Chartist Movement, a working-class movement for political reform in Britain which existed from 1838 to 1858, but the game is set in 1868.  So it is a bit late.  One thing for certain is the talk of revolution, something that is quickly becoming a common feature in advertising the Assassin’s Creed games. To understand the scope of what I am referring to, here are the trailers. 

Rise Trailer


Defy Trailer

Freedom Cry


The common theme is revolution and fighting for the people, the powerless against the powerful.  I get excited at the thought of revolution, like at the end of Les Miserable standing on the barricade.  Perhaps that is part of the reason I get excited about Assassin’s Creed. There’s this vicarious involvement that video games allow. You can “be” the character leading his band of brothers against tyranny.  I assume that like me others get so pumped-up being this person and in this world that you want to go out into the real world and do something with all that energy only to step through your front  door and find yourself sorely disappointed by the real world.

Revolution is literally in the DNA of Assassin’s Creed.  In the Western storytelling tradition, Assassin’s Creed traces its origins to the historical Romances of Sir Walter Scott, particular another hooded member of a rag-tag brotherhood of outsiders fighting for the people and against the injustices of the rich and powerful.  Of course I am referring to Robin Hood.

As mentioned in previous articles, modern Middle-Eastern scholars are swaying towards the notion that the origin of the word assassin is asasiyun, meaning "those faithful to the foundation", however the old belief that the word is derived from hashishin is still held by the general public.  The word hashashin means hashish user, but the connotation is an outcast or outsider. This is the interpretation used by Ra's al ghul in the television series Arrow when he tells Oliver Queen that the word assassin referred to people outside of society.  This also connects back to Robin Hood.  The term outlaw originally referred to someone punished for a crime by being placed outside of the protection of the law – literally an out-law.  So in theory, someone could legally murder an outlaw and it not be considered a crime.  Outlaw, outcast, or hashishin, it’s all the same thing.

The Assassin’s Creed series never provides their definitive etymology, but it's safe to say the outcast theory plays a part. The Assassins are often cast as outside of society due to the secret knowledge they possess and being aligned with the poor, simple, every day folk against the powers that be as represented by the Templars.  This fits Assassin’s Creed's Romantic Robin Hood heritage of the plucky outsiders -- or outlaws if you please -- fighting the evil rich people.

This Robin Hood  trope of the plucky, heroic revolutionaries fighting for the freedom of the common man against the injustices of an evil government, corporation, or, in the case of Assassin's  Creed, a powerful  secret society  pulling the strings behind the scenes, is one of the most common in modern narrative  fiction. It’s right up there with the boy meets girl trope found in almost every rom-com.

I’m not the only one who feels this trope. Revolution sells. Advertisers use revolution to promote their products. Only today I walked past a shoe store with a poster in the window asking, "What do you stand for?"  Well, apparently if you wear these shoes you can feel like a rebel standing for your principles fighting the system and “the man”.  But what exactly is “the system” and who is the man?

The System

Understanding the so-called system begins with recognising the human condition. All living organisms must produce to survive. Production is the result of the combination of time, energy, skill, and will.  A tiger is engaging his production when hunting and a gazelle when it's grazing. For humans, production is more complicated. We require food and also shelter and clothing to survive. This need is the foundation of all human society and production, the application of human time, energy, skill, and will is the means to this end. The result of human production is the entirety of the man-made Artificial Reality in which we reside.

Human production is possibly the most powerful resource on the planet. It has the power to change reality itself. As with any resource, especially one this powerful, people wish to harness it for their own purposes and to manage it. Others fear how it is used, so they attempt to control how individuals and groups of individuals use their production. In response, others resist these attempts by others to own, manage, or control their production.

Every human being is born with time, energy, will, and the capacity to develop skills. To be free is to own your production. To be unfree, to be a slave, is to have another claim ownership of your production -- your time, energy, skill, and will.

But freedom is nothing without the power to act on that freedom. Power is the means by which we work our will in the world, to exercise our freedom, so there is no point to freedom without the means to act on that freedom?  According to this theory, the more power you have the freer you are.

Of all the powers that be, the most versatile and reliable is money. Suppose you have a craving for a double shot latte. You have the freedom to get it but do you have the power to get it?  What means must be employed?  Do you have a car or bus fare to get to Starbucks or can you walk? Once you get there do you have the money to buy it or can you charm someone to buy it for you? Maybe you have a friend working there who can give you one for free.  For something as simple as getting a cup of coffee we must employ the range of powers at our disposal, most of which we take for granted. Of all these forms of power the most reliable is cold hard cash.

Money is power and the more power you have the more means at your disposal to exercise your will in the world -- your freedom.  So how do we get money? Ironically, we get money by selling our freedom.

We trade our production (our freedom) to another person in exchange for money, a symbolic representation of production. With money, we do not have to trade our production to buy milk. Imagine if we had to do chores at the local shop to make purchases.

So how much is a person's production worth? A thing, any thing, is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. If someone wanted to pay a high salary to someone to sweep floors, then janitors would be rich. This is why it's called the job market. Not because people are shopping for jobs.  It's the other way around.  Employers are shopping for employees and deciding their value -- or at least how much they are willing to pay for them.

When making purchases consumers look for "value for money" meaning that they want the best and most at as little cost as possible. The seller is looking for the maximum return on his investment. If he can buy widgets cheap and sell them at ten times what he paid for them, then he's one happy camper.

In the job market you might think that the employer is analogous to the seller, but you would be wrong. He’s the consumer.  We sell our production (freedom) and we want a maximum return on our investment.  This means getting as much money as possible costing as little freedom as possible -- high pay, low hours, and little work is the ideal.

The employer wants value for money. His ideal is paying as little as possible for another  person's  production and squeezing as much labour as possible  from the employees, or as they say in retail "if you've  got time to lean; you've  got  time to clean".  If an employee is late or lazy then the employer is not getting his money’s worth.  If the employee is costing the employer a certain amount of money but is not making the employer enough money to cover the wages, then the employer is not getting his money’s worth.

One of the comparisons made between the American North and South during the period before and after the Civil War was that while the South owned slaves, free production, the owner had to pay for the slaves upkeep in food, shelter, clothing, and, if the master was kind, medical care. Whereas in the North, factory workers were underpaid and still had to pay for their own upkeep. The argument was that it was sometimes better to be a slave in the South than a factory worker in the North.

The saying goes that we all have a boss.  From the lowly minimum wage employee, to their boss, to the corporate executives, they all have bosses; they all want to get paid; and they all want to keep getting paid and will do whatever they were hired to do to ensure that.  This universal need to sell our production for money and the employee/employer relationship is "the system" and it will continue to exist as long as people need food, shelter, clothing, and entertainment.

In this eternal dynamic of employee and employer there is a third outside party with no metaphysical connection with the other two. The worker needs a boss and a boss needs a worker, but neither needs government.

Government however needs both. Labour (the people) who empower government with votes, support, and even through their apathy and acceptance. Management empowers government with money.  This is provided either directly through taxes, donations, bribes, or favours, or indirectly through the wages paid to employees who then pay a portion of these wages to government through taxation.

So the people give government social power and companies give it monetary power. In exchange the government grants favours writ in legislation and enforced with police, courts, prisons, and military. Whoever controls the government with its monopoly on force controls the production of a nation.

This is the foundation of revolution -- all revolutions.  The people fight for freedom -- the ownership of their production and a maximum return on their invested freedom. When they don't get it they say they are being exploited, which is just a fancy way of saying used. When they fight business it’s for higher wages and more benefits. When they fight government they are resisting the force of government control their lives. 

Here's an interesting side-thought, if a person trades one months production (freedom) for £1,000 and this person is then taxed £1,000 per year, then he has spent one month of the years as a slave to government.  This is just an example.  It is estimated that the average person works three to four months for government. Why do they do it?  Is it a sense of civic duty or because men with guns will arrest them and put them in jail if they don't?

Joining the Revolution

Ultimately, everyone wants to control this exclusive power of force wielded by government.  Of the recent trailers for Assassin’s Creed, you may have noticed the absence of Unity in the above showcase.  Strange that the trailer for the game set during the French Revolution is the least revolutionary.  Instead there is Lord’s cover of the Tears For Fears song, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”.  This is true.  Everyone does want to rule the world, perhaps not directly but everyone has an opinion of how the world should be.  They are more than happy to tell you what should or should not be a law. They often forget that laws are backed by the force of government, so when you want something to be illegal, ask yourself if you are happy for government to use force to make someone act as you choose.

Business leaders and politicians are not some alien species, unless you believe David Icke. They are people with families, children, hopes, dreams, and feelings. The difference is that they have power and others do not and people with power work their will in the world.  Since time immemorial people have talked about what they would do or what should be done to make their society better -- whatever their idea of "better" might be. The difference between them and the people with power is that the powerful can actually do something about it. In the words of Larens Prins in Black Flag, "You live in the world but you cannot make it move.” The powerful can and do.

Someone with monetary power can simply buy what they need to change the world, anything from manpower, to media coverage, to politicians. Revolutionaries have social power, the power of the people -- the power of numbers.  But this is as unstable a foundation as monetary power is stable.

Universities are traditionally starting points for revolution. This is not because of the ideas that students encounter, though that does play a part. Students are not fully independent from their parents and have no dependents. This affords them the luxury of being revolutionaries. It's hard to join the cause if you have to maintain your job and provide for a family. At best the revolution is a past time or volunteer work on the side.  You show up for the rally and then get the kids their dinner. Even the most dedicated volunteers have to sustain their lifestyle.

Another problem with people power is that there are as many individual purposes as there are individuals and these purposes can change on a whim. Today the public is on your side but tomorrow they have moved on to something else and you stand alone on the barricade.

Since the source of revolutionary power is social power, then a political rally or protest is a display of that power. It is the equivalent of brandishing a gun at the powers that be. But what if the powers are not threatened? What if they know that all they have to do is wait it out and the threat will peacefully disperse and return to feed the kids? This is what happened with the Iraq War protests, possibly the largest mass protest the world has even seen and it accomplished nothing.

A more violent form a protest involves looting. This is hardly the grand ideological movement that revolutionaries want. It is as simple as an event creating opportunities for people to steal and later justifying it as protest.  This gets media attention, but still nothing changes.  It is not revolution.

The problem in converting the revolutionary trope from fiction to real life is the consideration of money. For the hero to act he must have the means to act, the power to act, and most of the time this means money. In real life our range of action is limited by the amount of money at our disposal, but this is never a problem suffered by fictional characters unless it pertains to the plot. Even in sitcoms supposedly poor characters can afford to leave their jobs and fly across America for another character’s wedding at a moment's notice and no matter menial their job they all have nice homes.

Like most heroes and primary characters, the Assassins have money at their disposal for the sole purpose of advancing the plot. Imagine if Connor said, "Sorry Achilles, I can make the assassination of the evil Templar because I have work till six".  The Assassins primary income seems to derive from treasure chests sitting in plain sight that no one ever thinks to break open, real estate development, and international trade. Either way, the Assassins are not poor. Ezio was a noble. Connor had access to Achilles resources.  Aveline was a wealthy merchant. Edward started off poor but ended rich due to his lucrative pirating exploits.

So where does this leave our real world Assassins lacking in monetary power or people power?  I think it is all about attitude – an individual’s orientation to reality.  This orientation is determined by our beliefs and values.  I would define myself as having a revolutionary attitude because I do not like my actions dictated by laws or policies made-up by people that I do not know and do not know me.  I agree with Douglas Bader who wrote, “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men”.  With that in mind, I do not take kindly to fools who follow and enforce the rules concocted by other fools who attained positions of power over me by following other rules.

What makes the way of the Assassin revolutionary is the realization that everything is permitted so your rules only have as much power over me as you are able to enforce.  This means I will follow your rules for only one of two reasons.  Either I agree with them or I am not willing to risk the consequences of disobedience.  I will not smoke in a public place because I do not wish to annoy people and not because it’s against the law.  I will smoke in a deserted public place.  I will pay taxes because I do not want to go to jail, but will not if I could safely avoid it.

There have always been schemers and planners.  Those people with an overwhelming sense of how things should be and the arrogance to believe they are exclusively right and that this gives them the right to force their will on others.  If these people have a small amount of power it’s the asshole in the office.  If these people have a lot of power it’s the asshole in the corporate office, government, or the community action group.  What’s new is their ability to control and monitor you and this begs the question of what you can or will do in response.

Assassin’s Creed is for the outlaws, the outcasts, the hashishin, the revolutionaries.  With one snikt of the hidden blade the powerful fall to the powerless.  In some ways it’s a revenge fantasy vicariously played out.  The dark side of Assassin’s Creed is this message that of all the forms of power material power may be the most reliable and constant, social power may be dramatic yet fickle, but the one that trumps them all is physical power.  Money will not save you from the hidden blade and the crowd becomes your disadvantage.

Although the Assassin’s Creed trailers sell revolution, in the Rise and Defy trailers the assassins stand apart only making an appearance at the end.  He is not their leader.  He is not their organiser.  He is not part of their revolution.  However, it is implied that he is willing to take action as needed.  This is played out in the games themselves where the revolution serves only as a backdrop.  So perhaps the real message is not one of revolution but an understanding that events are currents that pull us along and all that we can control is how we choose respond to them.   Do we obey or do we rise and defy?

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

An Assassin’s Creed Conspiracy Theory

I’m no expert in video game production, but I do know that your favourite video game was years in the making and that one of the starting points is the story.  The story of Assassin’s Creed Black Flag is the basic MacGuffin plot where various parties attempt to secure an object (or as Star-Lord, you know, the legendary outlaw, might put it, - something  having a “shiny suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon vibe”).

In Black Flag, the MacGuffin in question is the Observatory, a structure built by the precursor race to observe people.  This is done with a device that is basically a high-tech version of the animus that uses a crystal cube – a prism if you will – containing the blood (DNA) of the person whose eyes you want to see through.  Using such a device and having ample blood samples would allow a person to spy on anyone in the world.

Black Flag was released to the general public on 29 October 2013.  This is important because four months earlier in June 2013 The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom published the initial revelations of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.  The article revealed the existence of a data mining program called PRISM which enables government agencies to spy on people through their online activities.

Is it a coincidence or a conspiracy?  Did someone at Ubisoft know about PRISM and sought to inform the public under the guise of a video game plot?  Who knows?  Stranger things have happened.  But it is interesting to imagine a video game series set in the world of conspiracy and government control to be active in uncovering real life conspiracies and government control.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Assassins Kill Their Parents

I am not a big Superman fan.  Don’t me wrong, I don’t hate him and I will happily watch him in animation or a film, but I am not heavily invested in the character.  I do have a friend who is and he was outraged by the ending of the film Man of Steel where Superman kills Zod to prevent him from killing a group of cornered bystanders.  What made my friend angry was that the writers put Superman in a position where he had to choose between killing Zod and saving the innocents.

When we consume media, it is easy to get caught up in the story and forget that there is a storyteller making these characters say what they say and do as they do.  All stories are contrived.  A good storyteller makes us forget that he is there pulling everyone’s strings.  A good critic asks us to see the storyteller and ask what he is telling us beneath all the distractions of character, setting, and plot.

What the storytellers of Man of Steel seem to be saying is that under the right set of circumstances even the best people will do something terrible.  Superman fans will accept that message from just about any character except Superman, who is meant to be an ideal.

A question that bothered me for years, the kind of question you find yourself pondering now and again while alone, is why the storytellers involved in the Assassin’s Creed series made it so that most of the Assassins killed either their parents or a parental figure.  What is it with killing their parents all the time?

Altair kills Al Mualim, a father figure.  Ezio gets a pass on this one; however in his trilogy we see the animosity between Desmond and his father.  Connor kills his father.  Aveline kills her step-mother and contributes to the events leading her mentor to kill himself.  Edward, Adewale and Arno all get passes as well, however there are family issues with Edward, who is disowned by his  parents for becoming a pirate, and Arno, like Ezio, has the murdered father issues times two as he lost both his father and his foster father to murder.

My first thought was that this was some kind of Freudian thing where a boy does not become a man until he kills his father or his father dies.  This may be the case, but it seems too obvious an answer.  It is also very likely that the storytellers were just telling a story and the parent/child conflict just makes for a good story.   They may not have even noticed the recurring theme of patricide in Assassin’s Creed.  

The solution that I arrived at is quite simple.  You must kill your parents.  No, not literally.  The parents are symbolic of the invisible prison in which you live your life and no one can be truly free until they destroy that prison.  This prison fashioned by your parents is what I often call “the program” and sometimes “the matrix”.

Ever wonder how the snake got into the Garden of Eden?  I think that God put him there.  He gave mankind free will but nothing to choose between.  So what’s the point?  The snake provided Adam and Eve with an option that they had never considered and therefore an opportunity to exercise their free will.  In the end, they chose Enlightenment over God and as a curse were forced to accept adult responsibilities.

As children we only know what our gods, commonly known as Mom and Dad, have taught us and the world they made for us.  The entire framework of our minds, both conscious and unconscious, comes from them. We learn by their lessons, their examples, and the experiences they provide for both good and ill. Our parents created us; our bio-electric computer brain was formed by them.   So if you lash-out because of a chemical imbalance, it’s because of them.  Sometimes our life choices are forced or determined by our gender, that’s because of your father.  So when it comes to freedom, the power to exercise our free will, to what degree was our lifetime of choices predetermined by our parents?  Either through inherited biology or active nurturing.

The Program

I find that the best metaphor for understanding our psycho-emotional make-up, aka “the soul”, is the computer.  A computer can be said to have four parts: the hardware, the operating system software, the factory pre-installed software, and then the personal software downloaded by the user.  Each of these is analogous to the elements of our psycho-emotional make-up.

Hardware:  This is the physical aspect which includes our electro-chemical brain and how the body produces and responds to these chemicals.  For example, changes in serotonin levels can alter how someone perceives and responds to reality.  In terms of study, this is represented by the fields of neurobiology and psychiatry.  When we speak of mind altering drugs, we are talking about affecting the computer’s hardware.

Operating System:  Are you a Mac or a PC?  Each operating system is closely linked to the hardware and determines how the computer functions.  Likewise, humans have evolved certain instinctive modes of behaviour as a species.  This is the field of evolutionary psychology.  For the most part, people are largely unaware of how our operating system affects our behaviour, but it accounts for a great many of our natural drives.

In the age old debate of Nature vs. Nurture, these are the Nature parts of the equation.  The next level represents Nurture.

Factory Software:  in a computer, these are the programs pre-installed by the manufacturer.  The same holds true for the human computer.  The manufacturers in this case are the parents.  The child may have inherited certain hardware and OS aspects, but Factory Software refers mainly to what is called social conditioning and takes place during the first roughly seven years of life.  The agents of this conditioning are primarily parents and siblings but later in the process friends, peers, teachers, and mass media all come to play a role in framing how reality is perceived and understood.

Social conditioning can be divided in two phases.  The first is the unconscious phase.  This is where an infant absorbs things like language, dialect, and even facial expressions from their parents.  Although the child is conscious, they are primarily acting on instinct since they are still developing their cognitive abilities.  The second phase is the conscious phase where the child has the capacity to interpret and process their experiences.  The child may respond either positively or negatively to their conditioning.  For example, if the parent makes the child do chores the child may respond positively and accept a program for a positive work ethic, or the child may respond negatively and accept a program for a negative work ethic.  It all depends on how the child emotionally responds to the experience. 

Despite the child being conscious and cognitive, this period of life becomes largely forgotten. So as an adult a person may have a set of pre-programmed responses to certain stimuli, but have no idea how that program came into existence.  As a child, this person may have seen the colour orange just as he was startled by a car backfiring.  The result is distaste for the colour orange lasting the remainder of his life even if that event has been completely forgotten.

When you first get a computer or laptop and first turn it on this is what you have: hardware, an operating system, and factory software.  You did not design it and you have very little control of how it does what it does.  Likewise, your soul is as it is. You had no say in how the electro-chemical brain of yours was designed and wired and you had no control over how that brain was first programmed by the agents of your social conditioning.  What you can control is how you choose to use the computer given what you have.

The final level is the Personal Programs.  These are largely determined by personal experiences and repeated patterns of behaviour.  We are what we repeatedly do.  The problem is that Nature and Nurture have already predetermined how we process our new experiences, how we perceive reality, and the beliefs and values that drive our actions.  When a person says, “follow your heart”, “trust your instincts”, “let your conscience be your guide”, or “remain true to yourself” what they are really saying is to follow your programming.

What haven’t you noticed today? 

Well, you don’t know because you didn’t notice it.  When Al Mualim asked Altair if he regretted his life as an Assassin, Altair answered that he cannot judge because he has known no other life.  He was raised to be an Assassin from infancy.  This is a recurring theme throughout the Assassin’s Creed series.  Yes, we do see adults join the Assassins, but there is a strong element of Assassin parents raising their children to be Assassins.  As a result they know no other life except for the one chosen for them.

It is unclear to what degree Ezio's father prepared him for life as an Assassin.  Edward Kenway simply arranged for young Haytham to receive combat training and encouraged independent thought to prepare his son (much to the frustration of Haytham's jealous half-sister, Jennifer) without ever revealing its true purpose.  In the modern day, the Assassins went so far as to send their children to a commune called "the farm", which seems rather ominous, to indoctrinate them.  But is it indoctrination or simply child rearing?

I once met a girl, who was nineteen at the time, who had no idea what the religious significance of Easter was.  One of her parents was a Christian and the other was an Atheist.  They decided not to force either belief on her and allow her to decide when she was old enough.  There are a few problems with this tactic.  First, if a parent believes that a stove is hot, then they will prevent their child from touching it and thus protect them from harm.  If a parent truly believes Christian doctrine, then they will raise their child accordingly and thus save them from eternal hellfire.  Second, if a child is not socially conditioned (programed) to believe in the supernatural, then they never will.  Their brains will not possess the wiring to allow it.  By not choosing to raise the daughter as a Christian they inadvertently chose to raise her as an Atheist.  The contrary is also true, its is very difficult for someone who was raised religious to ever truly abandon it. They may swap religions easily enough, but few become Atheists without deep down feelings that they made a mistake.  No matter how much our parents try to be unbiased they cannot help but make us.

The word kindergarten means “garden of children”.  It stems from a theory of child rearing that believed that every child’s soul was like a seed that only needed to be cared for and it would just grow into whatever it was meant to be.  It is from this concept that we get the expression “bad seed” to described someone just born bad. This theory runs contrary to what had been the norm for most of human history.  It was believed that a child’s mind came into the world as a blank slate to be filled.  Parents and social institution were not so much raising children as taking  a pro-active role in programing them according to whatever they believed to be right or best for the child.  Today we see this as wrong so instead we allow the child’s programming to occur by accident rather than on purpose as if that relieves parents and institutions from any responsibility for the outcome.

Just as Altair could not judge between his life and one he had never known, neither can we conceive a life, lifestyle, or state of being that we never experienced.  All we know is the life produced and fixed by our parents or parental figures.  Since all of our choices only exist within this predetermined context, then we can never be truly free from them.  This psychological foundation will always be there.

Imagine two girls.  One girl was raised (socially conditioned) by her parents to have a very free and liberal view of sex.  The other girl was raised in an environment where open sexuality was frowned upon.  She decided to rebel and eventually got a job in the sex industry.   On the surface, she was sexually free and open, but deep in her unconscious was a sense of shame and guilt.  Eventually she burned-out and left the industry seeing it as a bad experience.  The other girl did the same, but felt no such guilt and when she left the industry it was on a positive note.  The difference between these two girls is one acted consistently with her program and the other did not.

This story illustrates that it is not so easy to “kill your parents”.  Simply rebelling against the program will not do the job.  Feelings like fear, guilt and shame are the part of the anti-virus software designed to keep you in-line with the program. The programming will be a part of you until your learn to change it.

Sure, the theme of patricide in Assassin’s Creed could be an accident.  However, if we look at the series as Existentialist mythology, then the clear message is that we will never be truly free until we overcome our  programming and its associate worldview and learn to see what we haven’t noticed.

So how do we change the program?  Well, it could be argued that all religion, psycho-therapy, hypno-therapy, and self-help is devoted to that purpose and as a result there are countless points of view from thousands of self-proclaimed experts.  We all want that magic pill to set us free to be who we choose to be or whoever we think that we want to be or should be and there are plenty of salesmen ready to make a living by selling it to us.

I do not know the answers, but the lesson I take from Assassin’s Creed in this regard is that we are who we were programmed to be and we know no other way to be.  The idea of killing your parents is a metaphor for challenging our preconceived notions concerning ourselves and the world as we experience it.  We may not be able to “kill” the program, but by recognising it we can begin the process of transcending it.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Assassin's Creed: Seek This Symbol

This article originally appeared on my Evil Thoughts of a Decadent Mind page on 18 November 2012.  Unlike the other re-postings,I have chosen to re-edit, add to, and amend portions of this article. The original article and comments can be found here.

When people ask me what I write, I answer, “the cultural, history and philosophy of the Romantic Era from 1776-1929”. Since philosophy covers metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics, I write about all these subjects as they pertain to the Romantic. Yet my most popular article by far is a critique of Assassin’s Creed focusing particularly on the ideas expressed in the game Assassin’s Creed 2.2, titled “Brotherhood”. I am currently on my second play-through of the latest release, Assassin’s Creed 3 and I thought that I would take a moment and share some ideas.

When any aesthetic expression is put into the world certain people are drawn to it but for very personal and often unique reasons. This game series has fans all over the world, but I doubt that very many see what I see. Likewise, I may see things beyond whatever was conceived by the creative team behind it.  This is not to boast.  It is is the nature of any artistic experience for the audience to make their own interpretation that may bear little resemblance to the artist's intent, but that by no means diminished the affect it has on the audience.  The emotional response is very real. 

Where I got the chills in Assassin's Creed III was the scene where Juno, the Ancient who had downloaded her consciousness into various "temples", she shows young Ratonhnhak√©:ton (Connor) the insignia of the Assassins and tells him to “Seek This Symbol”. That is where I got the chills. This article explains why.

There are two kinds of people in the world. There is us and them. Humans are by nature small group animals with about 100-150 people in a group. We can say that what binds them together are familial ties, but that is superficial. Values are those things we act to gain or to keep. These values are determined by beliefs, and the habits required to attain these values are called virtues. When beliefs, values, and virtues are shared by members of a group we say that they have a common purpose. This is the glue that binds humans together as a couple, a family, a gang, a tribe, and a nation. We might even call it love.

All of these things, beliefs, values, virtues, shared purpose, and levels of group identity, are all abstracts. They have no physicality. So we manifest them as symbols. A symbol is not merely the representation of an ideology, but also of the group that adheres to that ideology. This is why the desecration of a symbol invokes such wrath. We love our symbols because they symbolise our love, our love of ourselves as part of the group we identify as us.

Humans may be small group animals by nature, but we no longer live in small groups. The groups we form are within the context of a larger group all filled with numerous other groups divided along a myriad of largely superficial lines, like race, national origin, religion, politics, and even cultural consumption. The result is that symbols lose their exclusivity to us. Anyone can impose any meaning, be it great or trivial, upon a symbol as they utilise it according to their fancy. A person may wear a cross for a number of reasons without any of them signifying identification with the beliefs, values, or virtues of Christians as a group.

Ubisoft, the company behind the Assassin’s Creed series, has made the symbol for the Assassin Brotherhood readily available in numerous forms, from jewellery, to belt buckles, to decals. What this says is, “I like the game Assassins Creed.” But there is more to it.

Within the context of the game’s story the symbol represents a secret society. It is a gang of men and women who have dedicated themselves to a system of beliefs, values, and virtues. Through this there is a common purpose and a brotherhood. Now suppose players of the game once exposed to this ideology find that they share these beliefs, values, and virtues. Does it not stand to reason that they will invest their emotions in the symbol as well? At this point the symbol transcends, “I like the game Assassin’s Creed” and becomes “I believe in the Assassin’s Creed”. The transition is made from art into life.

So let’s look at the symbol itself. First though, I need to give a brief disclaimer. I have no idea how the designers at Ubisoft came upon the design or what their intentions were.  All that I have is speculation.  I will note that a reader informed me once that the image the represents a flame burning on a lamp or brazier. Perhaps as the flame of Truth or enlightenment. This would fit within the Assassin's Creed lore and it is an interesting idea. It would be nice if it's origins were as ancient as this reader seemed to imply rather than just something that the Ubisoft creative team made-up, but he did not, or could not, elaborate or support this idea with evidence.  So it remains an interesting notion for now.

The Christians have their cross, the Muslims their crescent moon, and the Jews their  Star of David. So what should we call this?  Its been called the Assassin's Creed crest, insignia, logo, and symbol.  I prefer to call it just the Assassin's Creed.  A creed is a belief, yes.  However there is another definition for the word creed.  It can also mean the symbol representing the belief.  So the Christian Cross can rightly be called the Christian Creed.

When people ask me what does that symbol you are wearing mean, my typical answer is, "It means Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted."  The Assassin's Creed (symbol) means what it represents, the Assassin's Creed (belief).

Here are a few connections that I have made concerning the Assassin's Creed.  They are not facts, just observations that I find interesting to consider.


You may notice that the symbol looks like the letter “A”.  Sure, we can say A for Assassin.  We could also say A for Atheist.  The creed, “Nothing is True; Everything is permitted” as first expressed by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was an attack on belief, which historically has been used to control people, and in a general sense it rejects all beliefs derived from social conditioning. not only religious beliefs.  Also, the Assassins in the game are portrayed as atheists.

A can also stand for Athena.  It may seems strange to mention a pagan goddess alongside atheism, but the gods and goddesses are very useful tools as symbolic representations.  Athena, as mentioned earlier as Minerva, is in many ways a vivid characterisation of the Assassins, their beliefs, values, and virtues as the goddess of wisdom, battle tactics, invention, commerce, truth, reason, and freedom. As the patron of heroes, particularly Odysseus, she encouraged the virtues of strength, courage, mastery, and honour.

Also of note in this regard is that in the game the Templar leaders carry the title Master, while among the Assassins the preferred title is Mentor. The word mentor originates from Homer’s Odyssey as the proper name of an old man who lived in Odysseus’ town.  During the story both Odysseus and his son are counselled by him, but it is later discovered that this was actually Athena appearing in his form.  The root of the word mentor, men, is the same from which we get the word mental referring to the mind.  It is also the root for the proper name Minerva, aka Athena.  So we have another connection between the Assassins and Athena.

download_ca_redThe letter A can also stand for Anarchy.  The political view of the Assassins is that power must be redistributed to each individual rather than concentrated in a central authority.  If we see political opposition on a scale between individualists on one side and collectivists on the other, then we have a clearer picture of the Assassins on the individualist side along  with the libertarians and anarchists and the Templars on the authoritarian collectivist end with the progressives, socialists and communists.  Power to the people does not mean power to a central authority claiming to act on behalf of the people. it means challenging the central authority as it presently exists and the potential creation of new authorities.

I have chosen to mark as the beginning of the Romantic Era as 1776 for three reasons.  That is the year that Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, James Watt put the first commercial steam engine into operation, and the Declaration of Independence was issued.  Romanticism is about individualism.  The Wealth of Nations brought capitalism that empowered the individual economically, the steam engine heralded the Industrial Revolution created individual opportunity, and the Declaration of Independence heralded the age of Classical Liberalism, which at the time was called radical republicanism, brought individual freedom.  Another interesting relationship was that Adam Smith, James Watt, and many of America’s founding fathers were all Freemasons.

Square_compasses.svgThe symbol of the the fraternal brotherhood known as the Freemasons, or Masons, is a compass and square.  Others have noticed the similarity between this and the symbol for the Assassins, with the compass forming the “A” shape and the square being the portion beneath it.  The “G” is said to stand for God, though not in a purely Judeo-Christian sense, but rather a supreme being as the “great architect of the universe”.  Masons use architectural and stonemason metaphors the illustrate their key principles of brotherly love, relief, and truth.

The similarity between the Mason and Assassin symbols is uncanny and yet may be purely coincidental.  Many theorists put forward the notion that the Mason evolved directly from the historic Knights Templar, however in the game universe, the Assassins are the oppositions to the Templars and the Masons are a separate entity.  I am by no means an expert on Masonic history, but from my understanding and research I would assert that Masons were generally on the side of liberty and were often persecuted by authoritarian regimes, such as the Italian fascists, the Nazis, and the Soviets.  I suspect that given further study many Masonic ideas may be present in the representation of the Assassins in the game.

Personally, I have friends who are Masons and they have given me an invitation to join, however as an atheists I cannot become a Mason.  Though it is funny to me when their friends meet me, notice my Assassin's Creed watch fob, and say things like, "You know what I mean, brother" with a sort of wink and a nudge.

Assassin’s Creed is a fantasy.  None of it is real.  There are no ancient ones, divine or otherwise; there is no Assassin Brotherhood, at least not since the Assasiyun died out after the Crusades; and there is no Knights Templar, although that is often debated on the internet.  So for all intents and purposes the symbol of the Assassins is equally meaningless, and anyone is free to ascribe any meaning to it, be it trivial or profound.

What is real is that there are people in the world who seek power which they usually justify in the name of righteousness.  Power is the means by which a person works their will in the world.  Some people use their power to exert their will over others and others readily accept this authority.  History shows us that human beings have an incredible capacity for self-subjugation to a point where it is perceived as a social norm and anyone who challenges the authority is seen as being weird or fringe.  Since the authority cloaks itself in morality, these outcasts are usually portrayed as evil or deranged.

This is the underlying truth behind Assassin’s Creed.  It envisions a secret group of people, a gang if you will, who rally behind a symbol and bind themselves together in shared beliefs, values, and virtues to challenge the authority –  “to work in the dark to serve the light”.  We talk about fighting for the right, but we really do not mean it.  We fight metaphorically through political activism or vicariously by playing games like Assassin’s Creed, but the authority does not fear metaphoric or vicarious battle.  Fighting means violence if necessary and the Assassins represent a group that sees the oppression that most are blind to and they are willing to do what must be done no matter how terrible.

At the end of Assassin’s Creed 3, the Earth is threatened by a return of the same massive solar flare that wiped-out “the Ones Who Came Before”.  The main character, Desmond Miles, must make a choice.  By activating an ancient device he can save humanity but also free Juno’s consciousness and she will in turn enslave humanity. Athena/Minerva councils him not to activate the device.  Remnants of humanity will survive and they will be free.  Desmond’s choice is one we must all make.  Do we value security and safety under the authority or do we choose freedom even if it means the world burns?  For me, the symbol of the Assassins marks those who choose freedom, no matter the cost and that is something very real.