Saturday, 25 April 2015

The Assassin’s Creed – Nothing is true; everything is permitted

This article originally appeared on my Evil Thoughts of a Decadent Mind page on 18 April 2013.  This is the one that started all this as mentioned in my blog description.  You can view the original and the comments here.

Where other men blindly follow the truth,

Remember, nothing is true
Where other men are limited by morality or law,
Remember, everything is permitted.
We work in the dark to serve the light.
We are assassins.

I like criticism. Now there is a lost art. The role of the critic is to examine a piece of creation or a social phenomenon, or even a political phenomenon, and put it into a philosophical context that both the consumer/s and the creator/s may have missed. Unfortunately, the role of critic in society has devolved into two types. The academic critic is driven by ideology and the pop critic, with his thumbs up or down reviews, is usually driven by the market. The best place for reading proper old-fashioned criticism is the internet. I have written several and many folks have written some brilliant pieces.  The keen eye of the critic is most often active in the arts of painting, literature, and cinema. I know it is foolish to ever claim to be the first, but I know of no one who has ever written a proper criticism of a video game. I wonder why not. The best games have story and characters so why not unpeel the layers to reveal the hidden messages?

The frame story of the Assassin’s Creed series is actually pretty weak. The idea is that a secret society has created a machine called the Animus that allows a person to tap into the genetic memories of their ancestors. A bartender named Desmond Miles is kidnapped by this secret society, The Knights Templar no less, because they seek information known only to his ancestors, and Desmond must relive the memories of his ancestors to find the answers. In Assassin’s Creed 1, the ancestor is Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad (born 1165) a member of The Assassins, or Hashishin, during the Third Crusade. In Assassin’s Creed 2 and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood the ancestor is Ezio Auditore da Firenze (born 1459) a Florentine noble during the Italian Renaissance.  The world of Assassin’s Creed is one where two secret societies are locked in a nearly thousand year struggle for the soul of mankind. The Animus provides the narrative means of linking the past and the present to give the player a much larger picture of historical events in relation to the present.

There was a time when the Knights Templar were of little interest outside historians, but today they have become the foundation of the conspiracy theorist’s grand narrative. Their history in brief is that the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, commonly known as the Knights Templar, were a religious order formed circa 1129 who fought during the Crusades as the elite troops of Christendom. To fund their activities in the Holy Land the Knights Templar had to be able to move money from the West to the Middle-East quickly and so invented the foundations of the banking system. They not only moved wealth to the Holy Land, but also from it and thus became very rich. King Philip IV of France was in debt to the Templars, so he pressured Pope Clement V to disband the Order in 1312 and, Jacque de Molay, the Templar Grand Master, was burned at the stake and the Templars disappear from history.

The conspiracy theory goes that the Templars, though disbanded by papal decree, continued to operate behind the scenes ever since as the secret money men controlling the strings of puppet governments. Their modern decedents are the cabal of international bankers and multi-national corporations moving us towards a one world government – The New World Order. This seems to be the premise accepted in the Assassin’s Creed games.

The only opposition to the Templars in the game are the Assassins. Historically, the Assassins active during the Crusades were an order of Nizari Ismailis, part of the Shia branch of Islam, which existed from 1092 to 1265 under the leadership of the Persian Hassan-i Sabbah. The name assassin comes from the Arabic hashishin, or “users of hashish” but also carries the connotation of “outcast” or “rabble”. Sabbah’s followers were known for their athletic prowess, intelligence, and ability to blend in. Their targets were exclusively politicians and generals and during the Crusades they were known to take contracts on Crusaders and Saracens alike, whichever suited the guild’s purposes. In 1257, the Mongol warlord Hülegü destroyed Alamut, the Assassin’s mountain headquarters in northwestern Iran, including their library, so not much is known of their beliefs. Then in 1265 their strongholds in Syria fell to Baybars, the Mamluk sultan, and that was the end.

Just as conspiracy theorists postulate that the Knights Templar survived their reported demise to become the secret ruling elite, the game Assassin’s Creed resurrects the Assassins in the mold of the plucky outcasts murdering key figures to disrupt the machinations of the Templars to enslave mankind.

Now let’s take a step back from the game for a moment and look at the larger game. There is a hierarchy to the world. In every human society, no matter their claims to egalitarianism, there have been people at the top, people at the bottom, and people in-between. The gauge for determining a person’s place is power. Power is the means by which we work our will in the world. People of great power command wealth, some control armies, and some control both. This can be on a global, national, or local scale, but the principles are the same. The people at the bottom have limited power, so they learn to submit.

We acknowledge that all people have the Natural Rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness and any violation of these rights is immoral and grounds for moral retribution. This puts a check on the power of the powerful. Through the instrument of law the weak are protected from the abuses of the mighty.  But what if the law favours the powerful over the weak? What happens when the phrase becomes, “and freedom and justice for all who can afford it”? What if the very laws themselves serve the interests of the people of power and not the people?

We may read Assassin’s Creed as being subversive in that it complements the narrative given by the conspiracy theorists, particularly in these dark days when it seems that their predictions are coming to pass. Or we may view it as a metaphor. The Templars represent the powers-that-be seeking to control people and the Assassins are those willing to fight such controls, not only for themselves but for all people. These people who “work in the dark to serve the light”.

Consider this fictitious scenario. Police raid a home or place of business without announcing themselves. Perhaps they have a warrant; perhaps they do not. Either way, that is not announced upon their arrival. The occupants respond to the armed intrusion with gunfire and some of the officers are killed during the arrests. Should those who killed the policemen be accountable for murder?

I believe that the vast majority of people would say yes. We are taught through our social conditioning to obey the police and that murder is wrong. However, in a liberal society based on individual rights, the answer would be no. Such an invasion would be a violation of property rights unless the police have a search warrant issued by a judge who determines if there is reasonable cause for such an action. So regardless of the fact that these invaders are wearing uniforms, without a warrant they are, under the law, intruders, and the occupiers have the right to defend their property using reasonable force.

If we reject this interpretation, then what we are saying is that the State, meaning the people of power, can use force against the people as they choose and it is illegal for the people to oppose them. We have taken power from the law and put it in the gun. Of course the people of power have more guns, so those who choose to fight back must use force with surgical precision, meaning assassinations.

However, although I can make a moral argument for using assassination as a political tool, when we look through history we find that the most famous assassinations were not performed in the advance of liberty, but by either the insane, by the men of power themselves, or by the few acting in personal interest in the name of the people. The only exception that comes to mind is the assassination of Julius Cesar and perhaps John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. “Sic semper tyrannis”, or “thus always to tyrants” Booth shouted from the stage. In order to preserve the Union, Lincoln acted against the prescribed powers in the Constitution and impeachment was not an option given Lincoln’s popularity after the war. So though Booth may have been wrong, a case can be made that he acted morally.

The Assassinations

The game Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is broken-up into segments with the core chapters concerned with three primary assassinations. The first is a corrupt cardinal and banker who flaunts his hedonistic lifestyle, the second is an effete French general who believes his value stems from his birth status and not his actions, and the third is a rival assassin (the Murderer) whom Ezio spares.

With each victim we have their final words and Ezios admonitions:

To the Banker:

Juan: The things I have felt, seen and tasted. I do not regret a moment of it.
Ezio: A man of power must be contemptuous of delicacies.
Juan: But...I gave the people what they wanted.
Ezio: And now you pay for it. Il piacere immeritato si consuma da sé (Pleasure unearned consumes itself). Requiescat in Pace (Rest in Peace).

To the General:

Octavian: I only wanted respect.
Ezio: Respect is earned, not inherited or purchased.
Octavian: Perhaps you are right... I need more time...
Ezio: Che tu sia parte nella morte (May you be equal in death). Requiescat in Pace (Rest in Peace).

To the Murderer:

Micheletto: I am not yet dead.
Ezio: I did not come here to kill you. He who is the cause of someone else becoming powerful is the agent of his own destruction.

In the additional story available as downloadable content, The Da Vinci Disappearance, Ezio kills the leader of cult that wants to use a hidden Pythagorean code make people more enlightened.

Ercole: You... an Assassin... the enemy of knowledge?
Ezio: One must choose to search for truth. Forcing it on others accomplishes little.
Ercole: These lost people... warring kingdoms... I would have ended their suffering.
Ezio: Che tu possa conoscere la verità nella morte. (May you know the truth in death.) Requiescat in pace. (Rest in peace.)

Each of these characters is symbolic of power in our society. The Cardinal/Banker represents pleasure. However it is not as simple as that. Why are people religious? It makes them feel good. Why do they consume? It makes them feel good. Why do they rack up consumer debt with the banks? To pay for feeling good. To all this Ezio says, “Pleasure unearned consumes itself”. All of these pleasures are of value, but they must be earned. The pleasures of faith through deeds, the pleasure of consumption through work, and such honest thrift saves us from the banker’s debts.

I find it interesting that morality here is equated with hedonism when it takes the form of self-righteousness. It is so obvious, but rarely articulated. The image of the Cardinal/Banker seems perfect to express the do-gooders supporting the power of the state to satisfy their own self-importance all in the name of righteousness.

The French general represents those born into power. From my association with the wealthy, I have found that the men who earned their wealth are good, if not great, men. However, their children are another matter. Often they have an innate sense of entitlement which is unearned and they grow to command others as their fathers had. Some are capable and others are not. To them Ezio reminds them that “Respect is earned, not inherited or purchased”.

The Murderer represents those among the people who serve as the fist of those in power. Ezio’s admonition, “He who is the cause of someone else becoming powerful is the agent of his own destruction”, reminds me of the socialist protestors who are in essence demanding a more powerful central government. They are the agents of their own future oppression.

Finally, the cult leader represents academic power and the self-proclaimed intellectual elite. Have you ever noticed that people think that everyone else is an idiot but them? Those that I might consider stupid proclaim that the world is full of idiots and apparently they are the exception. How more so must this be among the educated? These are the people who tell others how they should live if they are to be as intelligent as they are and they seek to accomplish this through the force of government in the form of laws. To this Ezio says, “One must choose to search for truth. Forcing it on others accomplishes little”.

You may have noticed someone missing from the list. The games primary antagonist and final kill. This is Cesare Borgia and he represents political power. He is the overreaching force that controls the Cardinal/Banker, the General, and the Murderer. His end comes when he is defeated by Ezio but proclaims that no man can kill him. Ezio answers that fate will decide and throws him from the castle walls. The message here is that government by its very nature will spawn new Cesare Borgias and we must remain constantly vigilant for their return.

The Assassin’s Creed

But what of the Assassin’s Creed?

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”. There are three sources for this. The first is the 1938 novel ‘Alamut’ by the Slovene writer Vladimir Bartol which was the basis/inspiration for the first Assassin’s Creed game. Strangely, the novel was not translated into English until 2004. The game itself appeared three years later. The next source is a quote mistakenly attributed to the 1880 novel ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, "If God doesn't exist, everything is permitted". The exact phrase, “Nothing is true, Everything is permitted” appeared that same year as “Nichts ist wahr, Alles ist erlaubt”, in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ by Friedrich Nietzsche.

In philosophy, the branch known as Ethics concerns itself with human activities. Those actions with a positive outcome are good and those with a negative outcome are bad. It is impossible to determine right action from wrong action without considering the context. That is where the first two branches come in, Metaphysics (what is reality?) and Epistemology (what is knowledge?). Together, these two branches pose the ultimate question in all of philosophy, “What is Truth?” If there is no Truth, then there are no moral limitations to action and thus is every action permitted.

Now take a moment to consider what you believe to be true. Is God in His heaven? Is global warming threatening life on planet Earth? Would the world be a better place is wealth was equally distributed? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then can you prove any of it or do you just feel that it is true because everyone else says it is?

In his day, Nietzsche was questioning the commonly accepted truths of the Judeo-Christian belief system. Today, we might expand that to include all socially conditioned beliefs that people accept without question. What if none of it was true? What if nothing is true? How would that affect your actions? There would then be no limitations to your will to act, or as Nietzsche famous said, “the will to power”. What he is really addressing here is what modern psychology and self-help call “limiting beliefs”. These are ideas about the nature of reality (truth) that limit our ability to act productively for our own benefit.

To say, “Nothing is true” is not a denial of Objective Reality. It is a denial of Subjective Reality and its power over our ability to engage our free will to act. This is not only important to humanity in general but particularly to the Romantic, since individualism is built upon volition and fettered volition is not true freedom at all but a form of slavery.

When I discovered the idea of the triune nature of reality: Objective, Subjective, and Artificial, I felt incredibly empowered by this idea. Ultimately, what it says is that nothing is true except Objective Reality, but there is more to it.

As we see in Ezio’s admonitions, and as his character as it develops throughout the games, he is constantly preaching a believe system. So we cannot say that “nothing is true”. However, these beliefs he espouses can all be traced by to the idea of Natural Law derived from Objective Reality.

One of the central characters in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is the historical figure Niccolo Machiavelli, who the writers of the game recast as a member of the Assassins. The following is from a scene involving Machiavelli and Ezio Auditore in Rome.

Ezio: Look at this city, the center of Borgia and Templar rule. Killing one man will not change things. We need to take away the source of their power.

Machiavelli: Are you suggesting we appeal to the people?
Ezio: Maybe.
Machiavelli: Relying on the people is like building on the sand.
Ezio: You are wrong. Our belief in humanity rests at the heart of the Assassin Brotherhood.

What Machiavelli is suggesting here is that the people cannot be trusted to do the right thing implying that they are fickle and will pursue short term gain or pleasure rather than long-term happiness and stability. We might go so far as to say that people are ignorant or stupid and therefore incapable of doing the right thing. A religious person might simply say that people are sinful. In all of these scenarios, the conclusion is the same. The people must be controlled, led, coerced, regulated, or nudged to do the right thing. Right being determined by someone else’s idea of truth and imposed by force on others for the good of society.

I think the majority of people would agree with Machiavelli here, but Ezio’s reply taken in conjunction with the Assassin’s Creed says different. He may be suggesting the idea of spontaneous order, or the invisible hand.

Objective Truth relies on Natural Law. There is a Sanscrit word that does not exist in its pure meaning in English; the word is Karma. It denotes the reality of Cause and Effect that lies at the heart of Natural Law and creates the spontaneous order found in Nature and in society.

Consider this scenario. You should not hit people. Why? Because they might hit you back. That is Natural Law. You avoid pain by not causing pain to others. Now suppose that you are socially conditioned not to hit people because it’s not nice, or God says so, or any other Subjective line of reasoning. You are now at the mercy of those who do not share your social conditioning. They can be violent without any fear of reprisal. They can now act without consequence and so disrupt the Natural order.

I confess that I too agree with Machiavelli, that the people cannot be trusted. However, I believe that is because they live a life where they have be sheltered or protected from the consequences of their actions, and therefore never learned how to be better -- to live up to their own potential.  The solution is not to impose rules based on Subjective Reality, but to allow Nature to take its course. This teaches responsibility and self-control through experience. Positive actions bring positive results and negative actions bring negative results.

For example, an article from Scientific America (April 2011) entitled ‘How Self-Control Works’ by Dan Ariely demonstrates the importance of self-control.

A recent study by colleagues of mine at Duke demonstrates very convincingly the role that self control plays not only in better cognitive and social outcomes in adolescence, but also in many other factors and into adulthood. In this study, the researchers followed 1,000 children for 30 years, examining the effect of early self-control on health, wealth and public safety. Controlling for socioeconomic status and IQ, they show that individuals with lower self-control experienced negative outcomes in all three areas, with greater rates of health issues like sexually transmitted infections, substance dependence, financial problems including poor credit and lack of savings, single-parent child-rearing, and even crime.

A quality like self-control is proven objectively to bring happiness, so it is up to parents to encourage this process of delayed gratification in children until they learn to do it for themselves, otherwise it is up to them to learn it on their own through experiences and hardships. The problem is that some people never learn from their mistakes and so as parents they never teach it to their children.

GK Chesterton said, "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing -- they believe in anything." In other words, belief in nothing creates a vacuum without any sort of standard and all that remains is the post-modern idea of relativistic Truth. So in rejecting Subjective truth we must accept the lessons found in Objective Truth to avoid the vacuum.


In 1987, I studied the book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E. D. Hirsch Jr.. Wikipedia defines cultural literacy as:
Cultural literacy is the ability to converse fluently in the idioms, allusions, and informal content that creates and constitutes a dominant culture. From being familiar with street signs to knowing historical references to understanding the most recent slang, literacy demands interaction with the culture and reflection of it. Knowledge of a canonical set of literature is not sufficient in and of itself when engaging with others in a society, as life is interwoven with art, expression, history, and experience. Cultural literacy requires familiarity with a broad range of trivia and implies the use of that trivia in the creation of a communal language and collective knowledge. Cultural literacy stresses the knowledge of those pieces of information that content creators will assume the audience already possesses.

People can play a game series like Assassin’s Creed and take little from it aside from the combat, challenges, and quests. That’s fine. However for the culturally literate there is so much more to see. That is the role of the critic. He points these things out.

As a Romantic, I recognise the deeper ideology as being more than the “assassin’s creed”. It is also the Romantic's Creed. It is not surprising that Machiavelli appears in the game as a secret leader of the assassins. He is part of the Romantic philosophical canon, and his works influenced others in the canon like Rousseau, Francis Bacon, John Milton, Adam Smith, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.

Blair Worden wrote in "Milton's Republicanism and the Tyanny of Heaven":

In the seventeenth century it was in England that Machiavelli's ideas were most substantially developed and adapted, and that republicanism came once more to life; and out of seventeenth-century English republicanism there were to emerge in the next century not only a theme of English political and historical reflection - of the writings of the Bolingbroke circle and of Gibbon and of early parliamentary radicals - but a stimulus to the Enlightenment in Scotland, on the Continent, and in America.

There is a clever scene towards the end of Brotherhood where Ezio and Machiavelli part company. Machiavelli says, “I intend to write a book about you one day”. Ezio responds, “If you do, make it short”. This is no doubt a reference to Machiavelli’s most well-known work, ‘The Prince.’

I like the idea that the assassins are “outcast” but through their nobility of spirit and their character, as embodied in Ezio, they become princes. I will note that ‘The Prince ‘itself has little bearing on Ezio or the assassins.

For those with the culturally literacy to see it, Assassin’s Creed is more than just a game. It is a call to arms encouraging us to remove the shackles of our social conditioning by recognising that “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” and thus have the strength of will and character to challenge the oppressions of our age.

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