Sunday, 5 April 2015

Understanding the Assassin’s Creed

The first step in deciphering the Assassin’s Creed is determining what the Creed is.  In this there is a bit of confusion for the game players.

In the first Assassin’s Creed game, the Creed is stated absolutely and without question:
“Stay your blade from the flesh of an innocent.  Hide in plain sight.  Never compromise the Brotherhood.”
In the Ezio trilogy that followed and in Black Flag, the Creed is stated absolutely and without question:
“Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted”
In Assassin’s Creed III and Liberation, there are constant references to “The Creed”, but it is never stated by any character.

In Rogue and Unity, the “tenets of the Creed” are stated absolutely and without question:
“Stay your blade from the flesh of an innocent.  Hide in plain sight.  Never compromise the Brotherhood.”
By way of explanation for this apparent discrepancy, it is suggested that while “Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted” is mentioned in the first game as a saying or motto, when Altair reformed the Assassin Order he adopted it as the Creed with the original creed becoming a subset as “tenets of the Creed”.  So everything is permitted, except killing innocents, being indiscreet, and compromising the group.  I have a few issues with these tenets. 

First, it is not a creed.  The “tenets of the Creed” would more accurately be called the Assassin’s Code.  A code, as in a code of conduct or moral code, is a statement of prescribed action, whereas a creed or tenet is a statement of belief.  In a philosophical system one follows on from the other.  I believe this therefore I must do that.  The “tenets of the Creed” do not naturally follow-on from the Creed. In fact they contradict it. Perhaps this is why every major Assassin character in the series violates the Assassin’s Code.

Just to keep things straight, for the purposes of this article I will be referring to “Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted” as the Assassin’s Creed and the “tenets of the Creed” as the Assassin’s Code.  Moving on…

Second, in the first game, the Assassin’s Code does play an integral part of the story; however it is also a guide to gameplay.  The game will warn the player if he kills an innocent and if it happens again it will reset the level and part of the game is to hide after making a kill, admittedly, compromising the order is not incorporated into the gameplay.  This leads me to think that the Assassin’s Code was created as a gaming device and not to be doctrine.

Finally, there is no historical precedent for the Assassin’s Code. The Assassin’s Creed was referred to by Friedrich Nietzsche in his book The Genealogy of Morals (1887) and prior to that in the book, The History of the Assassins: Derived from Oriental Sources by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1835).  “‘Nothing is true and all is allowed,’ was the groundwork of the secret doctrine.”  This gives the Assassin’s Creed real world legitimacy, while the Assassin’s Code was just something made-up for the game.

For these reasons, I see the Assassin’s Code as purely fictional and would go so far as to wish it had never resurfaced in the games. So, from my perspective there is only one Creed: Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted.  The next question is how this should be interpreted.

Throughout the Nineteenth Century, the Creed has had a strong association with nihilism.  This is often invoked when discussing Hammer, Nietzsche, and Friedrich Lange, another writer on the Assassins and their Creed who may have influenced Nietzsche.

In response to this, I quite like this scene from Black Flag.
Mary Read: We're Assassins and we follow a creed, aye. But it does not command us to act or submit - only to be wise.
Edward Kenway: Oh, do tell. I'd love to hear it.
Mary Read: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted. This is the world's only certainty.
Edward Kenway: Everything is permitted? I like the sound of that. Thinking what I like and acting how I please.
Mary Read: You parrot the words, but you do not understand them.
Kenway is approaching the Creed on face-value.  This interpretation is what leads to the accusations of nihilism.  I am sometimes surprised when the great minds and academics of Nineteenth Century Germany make this same error. The Creed cannot be interpreted on face-value.  To do so renders it nonsense.  For if nothing is true, then neither is the statement that nothing is true, therefore everything is true.  It does not work.

I find the easiest way to understand the Creed is first to understand the nature of the reality that it observes.  For this, I use the metaphysical model of the Triune Reality.

The basic model states that we exist in three “realities” simultaneously:  the Objective, the Subjective, and the Artificial.

Objective Reality is the world that is as governed by the Laws of Nature.  This reality is largely understood through Empiricism and the Scientific Method and is also known as Existential Reality, Nature, or simply the Universe.

As physical beings, humans are subject to the Laws of Nature, just like every other thing that exists.  However, humans are also conscious, imaginative, and self-aware things.  We not only perceive Objective Reality, but also assess it and impose meaning upon it according to our perception, values, and judgement.  This creates an internal mental construct of reality, or schema, a Subjective Reality unique to every individual.

We may exist in Objective Reality, but we each live in our own special Subjective Reality with ourselves at the centre.  Each person is the star of their show and everyone else is just supporting characters and extras.

Objective Reality is a harsh place to exist.  To survive, humans have always banded together into social groups comprised of many Subjective Realities and create technology to protect and sustain themselves.  This creates the man-made Artificial Reality composed of two types, the Social and the Material.

The Social aspect describes human social institutions such as religions, governments, and legal systems as well as culture, traditions, and customs.  The Material aspect includes every man-made construct from homes and cities to spears, factories, and toothpaste.

Artificial Reality is created and maintained through human production for the purpose of improving the quality of human life against the harsh demands of Nature.  Thomas Hobbes observed that without the benefits of Artificial Reality the life of human kind would be, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Despite being a protection against Nature, the Artificial Reality is still derived from Nature and therefore subject to its laws, although in the case of the Social aspect this may not seem readily apparent in the relative short term.

So which "reality" is Reality?  Objective Reality is the ultimate Truth; however despite its transient nature Artificial Reality can have a greater impact on our daily lives and be, for all intents and purposes, reality.  Subjective Reality may not be reality outside the consciousness of a single individual, but it drives human action.  This action creates a cause which leads to an effect in the other realities. Not to mention the fact that each person's Subjective Reality is the only reality they really know.

To illustrate, consider that Bob loves the rain but Susan hates it, so she imagines and then invents the umbrella thus creating a new material Artificial Reality wherein she is happily dry despite the rain while Bob is wet.  According to Bob’s Subjective Reality, Susan’s invention is evil because it is blasphemous to his rain god, so he rips the umbrella from her and breaks it into pieces, thus wiping her Artificial Reality from existence.  Not content, he goes even further and has umbrellas outlawed, thus creating a new social Artificial Reality that conforms to his Subjective Reality.  Susan is a rebel and does not believe such silly superstitions.  She makes another umbrella, is arrested, and placed in jail.  There is no such thing as a rain god, but that does not change the Objective truth that she is imprisoned and none of these events changes the Objective truth that it is still raining.

With the model of Triune Reality in mind, we can apply it to Ezio Auditore’s description of the Creed from Revelations.
To say that nothing is true is to realise that the foundations of society are fragile and that we must the shepherds of our own civilization. To say that everything is permitted is to understand that we are the architects of our actions and that we must live with our consequences, whether glorious or tragic.
The two points in each sentence do not seem to connect.  How do we get from “nothing is true” to the realisation “that the foundations of society are fragile and that we must the shepherds of our own civilization”? How does “everything is permitted” link with the understanding that we are the architects of our actions?

To recognise that nothing is true is not a denial of Objective Reality.  You can deny the truth of gravity all the way down to the pavement if you like, but it will not change reality.  The “truth” denied by the Creed are the Subjective and Artificial Realities, however these are the foundations of society.  They are conceived from the human mind and created and maintained through human production. Without them, neither would exist.

The Four Fundamental Forces of Nature do not need human intervention in order to exist and thermodynamics will happen without us, or even in spite of us.  It does not matter if you believe in them, they just are.  Society and civilization are not true in the sense that they require human belief and production in order to exist and therefore they are not eternal truths.  They will rise and they will fall and they will disappear no matter how much you take them for granted.  This makes them fragile and means that we have a responsibility to create the kind of societies and civilizations that we want and we must work to maintain them. They are built solely on a collective idea and ideas are just thoughts and ideas can be wrong.

To recognise that everything is permitted is not a license to hedonism.  Part of Objective Reality is the process of Cause and Effect.  Everything is permitted, but all actions (and inactions) still have consequences.  You may jump off a tall building.  Everything is permitted.  However, this permission does not relieve you of the consequential splat at the end.  Each person is solely responsible for their actions and the consequences of those actions.

In Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, we see the initiation ritual for the Assassins.  This too clarifies the Creed.  The initiate and the assembly recite:
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.
To illustrate this consider slavery in the United States prior to the American Civil War.  Slavery has been a part of human existence since the very beginning of civilization and none of the three Abrahamic religions condemned it. In America it had been the norm of everyday life for over 200 years.  During that time there had only been a handful of slave uprisings and most were led by insane people. As a norm, slavery was truth, it was moral, and it was legal.

In Assassin’s Creed Black Flag and Cry Freedom, this “truth” was challenged by the Assassins.  Even in Assassin’s Creed III, Connor points out the hypocrisy of Samuel Adams in advocating freedom for some and not all.

Today, we accept as a norm that it is immoral to claim ownership of another individual, so much so that some academics have difficulty getting into the mind-set of the American Founding Fathers who wrote of liberty but owned human beings as property.  They cannot comprehend that their anti-slavery social conditioning limits their understanding in the same way that the social conditioning of historical figures limited theirs causing them to see slavery as normal, moral, and acceptable.

The “Truths” of people’s everyday lives are primary the result of their social conditioning and these are not necessarily based on Objective Reality, and therefore not truths at all.  People just blindly follow the Subjective and Artificial truths that they were taught to accept as fact.

When these truths become institutionalised, like slavery, standing against them is viewed as both immoral and illegal.  To free a slave is to be a thief and “Thou shalt not steal” not to mention being arrested and put into jail for the crime of taking another man’s property.  This is where the Assassin says, “I will not be limited by the morality and laws that people have made-up to suit themselves.”

This attitude is what leads to working in the dark to serve the light.  It means doing what is right in accordance with Objective Reality, what is commonly called Natural Law, even when society, both legally and morally, determines that action to be evil.

Contrary to popular and academic thought, the Creed is far from being nihilistic or hedonistic.  It simply recognises that existence has no inherent in-born meaning to be discovered and forced on others.  Any meaning life has is the meaning you choose to give it and you are just one of seven billion people each with their own ”truths”.  And yes, everything is permitted, but that does not mean actions do not have consequences.   You can choose to be a hedonist, or a criminal, or an asshole, but with those roles there are consequences.  You can party hard to an early grave, end up in jail, and have no friends.  It’s your choice.

The Creed is about freedom – radical freedom.  You may think as you will and do as you will.  But the natural check to freedom is consequence.  When a person is aware of the consequences of their actions they become aware of their responsibility for their actions. They do not require an outside force, like Church or State, to outline the do’s and don’ts for them.  Unfortunately, there will always be people looking to impose their truths on others and attempt to use the force of law to that end.  In standing against that the Assassins will always be branded as the bad guys, the nihilists, the hedonists, and the anarchists looking to undermine the social order.


  1. Keep up the great articles! The deeper philosophy of these games is what I love yet it seems glossed over by some and sadly ignored by most...