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.