Friday, 3 April 2015

The Existentialist Assassin and the Ritualization of Philosophy

Ever notice that religions – just about any religion – have it pretty good.  Well, pretty good when compared to any philosophical school.  Religions have holidays, traditions, symbols, songs, sacred stories, social and political considerations, special outfits and distinguished titles for their leaders and teachers.
In contrast, philosophy is pretty boring.   Followers of a particular philosophy have books -- and that's about it.  There are no Stoic holidays. Existentialists don't get to wear special symbols of their philosophy around their necks. And there are no hymns for the Pragmatists.  Not to mention that no one is concerned about accidentally offending someone’s philosophical beliefs, except perhaps the Atheists at Christmas time.  If a religion is a belief and a philosophy is a belief, then why is philosophy treated like religion’s ugly little sister? Because it doesn’t have the razzmatazz of ritual.

The key difference between religion and philosophy are the rituals. Religions have them and philosophies don’t.  Some will argue that religions believe in supernatural beings and philosophies do not.  This is true.  With the exception of Satanism and a few sects of Buddhism, religion is all about the supernatural.  However there is more to it than that.  There is a strong self-identification with religion born from its rituals.  This is considered socially acceptable within reason, but anyone who strongly self-identifies with a particular philosophical school is instantly perceived by the ignorant as being part of some cult. Ask any Objectivist.

Theology is one of the most difficult studies that I have ever encountered, but you do not have to be a theologian to be a Christian. The most dim-witted among us can happily participate in the community and its shared rituals with the most basic understanding of its belief system.  Without the community that forms around ritual there are no children socially conditioned to a particular philosophical school on their mother's knee and therefore no shared belief based self-identification among the people.

Any student or adherent of a particular school of philosophy has to first seek out the philosophy and then choose it from among other philosophies on offer.  Most people who approach philosophy do so as either as disassociated scholars  fascinated  by the variety  of ideas on offer, or as searchers tasting a bit of each  dish on the smorgasbord  and deciding which to put on their plate. Very few become highly invested, self-identified, lifelong advocates of a single philosophical school.

The rarity of such folk is probably what lies behind the accusations of being a cult. We accept such an approach to belief when it comes to religion but not philosophy.  Perhaps in order to make sense of it, some people will perceive a philosophical group as being religious because they cannot understand strong belief and self-identification without  religion being involved, and this leads to the cult label. 

We also see the cult label being applied to fraternal organisations, like the Freemasons.  An Atheist cannot become a Freemason because membership requires belief in a divine being.  It does not matter if you are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or even a Jedi.  You just have to believe in a something.  Beyond that, the Freemasons are primarily an example of how philosophy can be ritualised, but with that comes the outsider’s fears of secret societies with secret agendas.

Ritual is a powerful tool in cementing beliefs and self-reprogramming.  As Voltaire wrote, “If God did not exist, we would have to invent him.”  Philosophy could use the rituals. For one philosophical school, fiction has given us a picture of what it would look like as a ritualised philosophy.

According to European legends, the final words of Hassan-i Sabbah were, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." Historically, this legend is most likely entirely fictional. Remember, to the medieval audience of such legends the Assassins were the bad guys and these were the villains final words, a slam on their beliefs.

I like to believe that there is more to it than that.  It is possible that a literary trick is being used here where the storyteller chooses to convey a socially unacceptable point of view by placing the words in the mouth of the villain so that he can blame the villain for the offensive opinion and claim to not advocate it himself.

To Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle-East, the suggestion that, “Nothing is True, Everything is permitted” is a dangerous concept.  It challenges all authority claiming divine right and every moral code based on, “because God says so.”  To be an Atheist literally means to be ungodly ( a = without theist = god) and to be ungodly is to be evil and evil must be destroyed.  This reasoning held sway until the late 19th century and is still around today.  This is why the few Atheists there were kept their heads down, called themselves Deists, or pretended to be Christian.  They hid in plain sight.

Soren Kierkegaard is commonly seen as the first Existentialist, followed by Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.   As a point of interest, self-proclaimed Existentialist Vladimir Bartol wrote the book Almut which inspired the first Assassin’s Creed game.  The term "Existentialism" was coined by the French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the mid-1940s, but Sartre rejected it.  Nonetheless the label stuck.  And it is just a label.  The concepts of Existentialism are much older than the label and Kirkegaard.

During the latter half of the 3rd century BC, about 2300 years ago, an anonymous author calling himself “The Preacher” wrote a book in which he claimed to be King Solomon.  This book is commonly known as the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible.  The themes and concepts presented in the book would be labelled today as Existentialist.

The game series Assassin’s Creed opens with a quote from Ecclesiastes, chapter 1 verses 17-18. This is repeated again at the end of the first game. 

"I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also was a chasing at the wind. For in much wisdom, is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow."

Also in the first game, a great secret is revealed in the underground ruins of the Temple of Solomon to the nine men who discovered it.  Each of them experiences what is today called an Existential Crisis.  This occurs when what you believe to be true is proven false and as a result there is a mental breakdown.

According to the game, what was discovered was an artefact from the precursor race. We can see this allegorically to represent the Creed itself; the realisation that nothing is true and therefore everything is permitted. This is the conclusion found by the Preacher in Ecclesiastes.

In the book, the Preacher recounts his attempts to find meaning and purpose in life, but concludes, "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."  The New International Version of the Bible translates the passage more to the point. "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."  Towards the end of the book, Ecclesiastes 11:9, we have this verse:  “Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.”

To summarise these two passages together we first have “everything is meaningless” and then “do whatever you want, but be wary of the consequences”.  In other words, “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted”.

My argument is that this concept is ancient and due to its volatile nature has been kept “secret” but always in plain sight if you know what to look for.  The European legends of the Assassins attributed it to them.  Nietzsche referred to it as their motto, but the “Motto of the Assassins” does not have the same ring to it as “the Assassin’s Creed”.

Ubisoft has provided this ancient motto with a catchy, modern, but entirely accurate name – the Assassin’s Creed -- and I believe the Creed to be the perfect summary of what today we call Existentialism.   More than that, the storytellers at Ubisoft have built a mythology around the Creed, created a symbol to wear, the title of Mentor for the leaders, ceremonial attire, oaths to recite, heroes to follow, and catchy phrases to quote.  Basically, in creating a fictional world for a video game series, the creators of Assassin’s Creed have ritualised Existentialism.  There is one thing lacking though.  What do we call it?

Since 2001, people have been claiming their religion as Jedi Knight on census forms around the world.  Due to its modern usage, you can’t exactly call yourself an Assassin without people thinking it’s a job title.  We no longer associate the word Assassin with a belief system.  Actually, we never did.

When the historical Assassins were just killing their fellow Muslims, the trait that initially struck the Europeans was their total devotion to their leader.  So when the word assassin first came to Europe it was used to describe devotion.  There are ballads in which the troubadour describes himself to his lover as being her assassin – totally devoted.   But when the Assassins started killing Christians too, the meaning of the word changed in Europe to mean a killer and has remained so ever since.

During the Nineteenth Century, European scholars began searching for the origin of the word assassin.  The conclusion was that the word is derived from the Arabic word Hashishin meaning hash-smoker.  The problem is that this was also used as a general insult directed at social lowlifes, like calling someone a pot-head or stoner.  So yes, the Assassins were called Hashishin, but so were many non-Assassins.

A more likely origin comes from Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf:

According to texts that have come down to us from Alamut, Hassan-i Sabbah liked to call his disciples Asasiyun, meaning people who are faithful to the Asās, meaning "foundation" of the faith. This is the word, misunderstood by foreign travellers, that seemed similar to "hashish".

Assassin’s Creed is a video game based franchise, inspired by European legends, derived from shadowy historical fact.  So if someone identifies with the Assassin and their beliefs, then which Assassins are they talking about?   Characters in a video game?  A legendary secret order?  Or a radical sect of Islam?   For me, it’s something else entirely.  It’s something new – the Existentialist Assassins.

When Hassan-i Sabbah called his disciples “faithful to the foundations” he meant the foundations of Islamic belief.  From the Existentialist point of view, to recognise that nothing is true is not a denial of objective truth.  It is simply the recognition that subjective perception is not objective reality.  With this in mind, being faithful to the foundation can be interpreted as being faithful to the foundations of reality – objective reality based on science and reason.  Looking at the name question from this perspective, the name Asasiyun seems wholly appropriate for a census form.

When people recognise that I am wearing the symbol of the Assassins from Assassin’s Creed on my ring or as a watch fob, they automatically assume that I am a fan of the game series.  Obviously I am, but that is not why I wear it.  I have no need to announce to the world that I play the games.  In fact, it makes me a bit uncomfortable when I am called out.  When someone unfamiliar with the games asks me about it I find myself dithering for the appropriate answer.  For me, associating it with a video game feels like it trivialises it.  My current answers are this.  “What is that symbol?” It’s an Existentialist symbol.  “What does it mean?”  It means “Nothing is True, Everything is permitted”. 

The Creed teaches us that life is about change, or as Mary Read says in Black Flag, “it is life’s only certainty.”  The day will come the Assassin’s Creed video game series comes to an end.  The stories will dry up, fans will become bored and move on to the next hot game, and like most disposable culture it will be disposed and forgotten. 

When that day comes, the phrase “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted” will still exist.  It might even be called The Assassin’s Creed for as long as it is remembered instead of “the motto of the Assassins”.  Existentialism will still be taught and people will still read Nietzsche.   What I would like to see is the rituals, trappings, symbols, and beliefs presented and represented in the games to merge with the real world philosophy to essentially ritualise Existentialism.

Imagine if a hundred years from now it becomes an interesting point of trivia that the symbol of the Existentialist Asasiyun was developed for an early 21st century video game.  Historically speaking, stranger things have happened.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, really thought provoking. I've always 'dabbled' a bit in philosophy but as it is unfortunately a largely self taught topic in this day and age I haven't been very systematic in learning it. I came to compare the Assassin's Creed and Existentialism by reading about 'Existentialism and Humanism' by Satre and then found your blog which I'm glad I did.

    I think the hard part of Existentialism/The Creed is what should we do with our lives if we accept we are in control? I think it is summed up best by Altair - "We are growing larger. More make their way to our fortresses every day. Men and women. Young and old. From different lands. Of different faiths. Each tells a similar story - of having discovered the first part of our creed: that nothing is true. Too often, though, the revelation undoes them. They lose their morality, certainty, security. Many are driven mad. We must guide them. Help them to heal. Their minds must not be filled with more fairy tales, but with knowledge instead. Let them have answers - and let those answers be difficult and complex. Such is life."