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.


  1. Hello Daniel,
    This is AB. I loved your blog on this subject dude.
    i was looking for same thinking which i perceived from this game and i found your " nothing is true.." article at your original blog.
    i have one question and my thought about Assassins which i perceived from these games.

    Many people think Assassins are Atheists but in my point of view they are like Agnostic. So just wanted to have your thoughts on this.

  2. When writing about the Assassins, its important to determine which Assassin's we are talking about. I see three. There are the historic Assassins, who were certainly not atheists. Then there are the fictional Assassins from the AC universe. Whether or not they are portrayed as atheists or not is open to debate. Then there is the third type, the real life followers of the creed. This third one is probably easiest to answer.

    The Creed taken literally is nonsense. If nothing is true, then neither is the statement that nothing is true, therefore everything is true. I like to see this first part the Creed as having an addendum, Nothing is true except what is true. This means not taking any alledged truth for granted, being aware of cognative biases, and accepting that every truth is only most likely true. This mentality leads to atheism. However, if some absolute proof of the divine manifested without any doubt or dispute, I'm sure that atheists will become deists because now there is proof when before there was none. As for the agnostics, they are basically in the same boat. The agnostic approach is that there may be a divine force, but they just don't know for sure. So, like the atheists, they will accept the existence of the divine when its been proven to them.

    Another important aspect is more political. In the absence of a literal divine presence, people have been quick to claim to know the will of the divine. When Westboro Church declares that "God hates fags", God doesn't show up to refute them. Part of the Creed is cutting this off at the root. If there is no divine, then claiming authority from the divine to control the behaviours of others loses all substance.

    Finally, there are the Assassins in the ACU. The premise set-out in the first game is the discovery that all evidence of the divine stems from precursor artefacts and there is actually no God. The Templars decide to maintain the believe in the divine as a means to control the populace despite knowing the truth. The Assassins on the other hand tolerate the widespread belief in the divine by neither condemning or condoning it. They just accept that some people believe it and choose to work within that framework. This attitude of acceptance my seem more in keeping with agnostics that atheists, especially these days when atheist can be rather militant in asserting their beliefs. To my immediate recollection, the only Assassins to give the slightest hint of a belief in the supernatural are Connor, but this may have changed in the course of his story, and Evie Frye who admits to a belief in ghosts which Jacob scoffs.

    Personally, I don't see any real difference between an agnostic and an atheist. As a personally example, I spent ten years believing a truth and eventually realised it was not true. Then I found myself debating with a believer who accussed me of being closed minded. Are you still closed minded when you approach a belief with an open mind and judge it false? In the broadest of terms, I think atheists have tested religion and find it false, but agnostics are non-commital because they haven't explored the ideas to their satisfaction. So those are my thoughts.

  3. Hello!

    When I first got into Assassin's Creed, their 'Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted' gave me the most profound philosophical leap in my life. Initially, when I first heard the creed, I thought it was some trite nonsense. However, it stuck with me for some reason and I found myself pondering it with increasing frequency, until one day it's meaning struck me and I felt my entire world shift. All this was before I played the games.

    I looked online to find someone to talk about this and it seemed like no one else seemed to care about the philosophy behind the game, until I stumbled across your post in your other blog. I came back to read that post many times in the next few months, until I realized you had linked this blog.

    The point of all that text above is that your blog provided me with the second most profound experience in my life. I learned so much from your analysis of the games and you have given me so many tools to help shape my life. I try to live by the Creed everyday. It has become my motto. Thank you, for all that you have done.

    P.s I was excited to see that Edward was your favorite too! For exactly the same reasons. He was the assassin I most relate to.

  4. Hi Daniel.
    again but this time i am off the topic hope you will not mind and please don't because i find no one to explore this.
    i wanna know deep meaning of below sentence and i find only you who can clear my views because i like how you think.
    People say " God doesn't have free will"
    I understood basic meaning but it makes me feel like that statement is self contradictory.
    I hope u ll not get irritated by this attitude of mine but really i think you can explain this though (i think you might not like to discuss about GOD here) sorry for that.

    1. I'm not sure if I understand the question. It is widely believed that God has free will. The debatable point is whether humans have free will. In answer to the question, "If God is good and all-powerful, then why is there evil in the world?" The typical Christian response is that God gave humans free will and will not act against it. The whole point of the serpent in the Garden of Eden was to give humans the opportunity to exercise their free will. The question then becomes, "if God will not counter human free will and if 7 billion people are making free will choices everyday that create a consequencial ripple effect, then how much is God capable of acting given the self-imposed restrictions on His actions?"

      As for human free will, this is central to many deistic and atheistic belief systems. In AC Syndicate, there is a line where Maxwell Roth says to take away a man's freedom is to take away what makes him human. This same notion is present in Existentialism as if free will is what defines humanity and to take it away is a sin.

      However, studies show that humans operate mostly on auto-pilot according to their neurological programming from Nature and Nurture. More and more people seem to be coming to the idea that free will is a choice to be exercised or not.

      I would argue that the way of the Assassin is to promote in one's self disciple and conscious living as exercises to keep the muscle of free will strong.

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