Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Romantic Assassin

This article is a follow-up to a previous piece revealing the Existentialism in Assassins Creed and there will be a third to follow this one.  You can read the first article here.

When I look at the philosophy of Assassins Creed I do not see one but three definite philosophical strands woven together.  These are explicit Existentialism, implicit Romanticism, and demonstrative Stoicism.  The Existentialism is explicit in that it’s right out there with the Creed.  The Romantic is implicit in that it is built into the structure of the stories themselves.  Finally, the Stoic elements are demonstrated primarily through the characters.

The Romantic is the most difficult of the three philosophies to approach.  Not because the subject matter is complex.  The issue is the diverse concept of the Romantic itself.  Assassin’s Creed is a Historical Romance, but we do not use that terminology anymore because the term Romance has come to be associated with the bodice-ripper novels found in the Romance section of the bookstore.  So instead we call it action/adventure.  There are actually just over fifty uses of the word Romantic which means that anyone discussing the Romantic has to define their terms to avoid confusion.

Jacques Barzun, possibly the foremost academic authority on the Romantic, identified four cornerstone themes in narrative Romances:  the hero’s quest/journey, unique settings, a love interest, and the supernatural.  The noble knight ventures forth across fields and mountains on a quest to save his beloved princess from a fierce dragon.  Taking inspiration from the film Moulin Rouge!, these four cornerstones can be distilled into the values of Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.


Encountering the supernatural evokes any number of emotions from awe to disbelief.  The point is that the supernatural forces us to question reality.  Many of the early Gothic Romances were mysteries where characters sought to discover the truth behind apparently supernatural events through the use of logic and reason to find a natural explanation. In some stories, the victims of the supernatural go mad, in other words, they lose their rational faculties.  In modern Romantic stories, such as Science-Fiction, the extraordinary is used to challenge the character’s beliefs about the nature of reality and sometimes alter their preconceived beliefs

At first glance it may seem contradictory to acknowledge that Nothing is True and yet pursue Truth as a value.  To reconcile this we must remind ourselves that the Creed is not to be taken literally.  It is not a denial of Truth rather it is an admonition to independent critical thinking, an important tool in discovering Truth.  I see it like the Scientific Attitude that approaches life thinking oneself to be wrong until proven right.   This is the opposite of mainstream thinking where people assume themselves to be right until proven wrong.

The pursuit of Truth takes three forms in Assassin’s Creed.  The most obvious is discovering and uncovering the latest Piece of Eden which serves as the supernatural components in the stories. 

Another recurring theme is betrayal where the character believed a person to be one way but later discovered this to not be true.  Al Mualim’s plot is uncovered; Lucy Stillman, Daniel Cross, and Shay McCormack all become Templars; Juno manipulates Connor; Aveline’s step-mother proves to be the “Company Man”; Hornigold turns his back on the Pirate Republic; the Assassin Pierre Bellec murders the leader of the Paris Assassins.  The list is extensive.  The idea here is that people are not who they appear and the Truth must be uncovered.

The third is the over-arching conspiracy.  The ACU is a world where conspiracy theories are for the most part true and secret societies manipulate events behind the scenes. The thing about conspiracies is that they are hidden.   They are a truth to be uncovered and have secrets to be revealed.

In AC Syndicate there are a series of side missions harkening back to Victorian ghost stories.  Charles Dickens asks Jacob and Evie if they believe in ghosts.  Jacob answers no in a rather dismissive tone.  Who can blame him?  Afterall, nothing is true.  Evie on the other hand gives an emphatic and excited yes.  Of all the Assassins in the series, Evie is probably the most thrilled by the supernatural as seen by her intense interest in the Pieces of Eden beyond merely obtaining a McGuffin.  The Romantic encourages us to pursue possibilities with the same childlike enthusiasm we see in Evie’s response to Dickens. 


Years ago there was a lecture at Glasgow University where someone argued that the Romantics were early environmentalists.  I disagree.  The often taught focus of the Romantics on Nature misses the point.  The real focus is not on Nature itself but on the beautiful and the sublime.  The object of attention just happens to be Nature.  This can be expanded to other objects such as architecture, design, and even fashion.  This carries with it the notion that life should aspire to imitate art and we should strive to make life beautiful.

The Romantic acknowledges two forms of beauty, the Beautiful and the Sublime.  Beauty is serene, calm, symmetrical, and ordered.  The sublime is big, powerful, and overwhelming like a rugged cliff set against a stormy sky.  When faced with the sublime we feel small against the grandeur and feel both terrified and yet inspired.

Beauty may not be the first word one uses to describe Assassin’s Creed, and yet it is not uncommon for a game to be described as beautiful.   Rather than being a value explicitly expressed in the game it is inherent in the game design itself as artists craft an amazing world from pixels extolling the beautiful and the sublime in both natural scenery and manufactured architecture. There was a scene in AC Unity where I stepped onto balcony of Arno’s home literally admiring the view when to my surprise an achievement popped-up for admiring the view.             

The set designers are not the only ones concerned with beauty.  In life we tend to view people with an over-interest in fashion as being shallow, vain, and foolish, however we watch our Romantic heroes run about in clothes designed specifically for them by fashion designers as if the hero just put that ensemble together themselves.

When we think about the Assassin’s appearance we are struck emotionally on some level.  This is a response to beauty.  No, we may not describe them as beautiful.  We might use words like striking, inspiring, or the ubiquitous cool, but these all fit into the Romantic concept of Beauty. Sartorially speaking, the Assassin’s do not hide in plain sight.  The hero dresses in a manner that stands-out from the crowds as something extraordinary.  We find this behaviour in many heroic/warrior cultures.  For example among the American Indians the warriors would adorn themselves to stand out and be noticed.  This practice was adopted by the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok who both dressed flamboyantly.

In philosophy, this takes us back to the philosophy of Dandyism particularly as expressed by Charles Baudelaire.  Most people think of the dandies as being simply over-interested in appearance, but that was not true.  At its core dandyism is the belief that those not born into wealth, privilege, and title can aspire through hard work to out-do the nobles of their time in character, manners, and dress. Baudelaire called dandyism “the last gasp of heroism in decadent ages”.  He believed that democracy promoted the lowest common denominator and that through dandyism one might rise above the mediocrity promoted by society. This was expressed through fashion, but it was really about manner and attitude.

This brings us to another aspect of the beauty, the character of an individual.  A beautiful person with a bad character is described as vain, a word meaning useless.  Physical and sartorial beauty is not enough.  Inner qualities like grace and charm are also necessary.  There is also the concept of being dashing.  These are all featured in the Assassins to varying degrees.  Charm is to show courtesy, respect and interest in others while being dashing is to demonstrate the virtue of courage.  I doubt that part of the Assassin education is charm school and no character in the game promotes these qualities, and yet nearly all of the Assassins possess them.


Consider this scene from the film Up in the Air:
Ryan Bingham: You know why kids love athletes?
Bob: Because they screw lingerie models.
Ryan Bingham: No, that's why we love athletes. Kids love them because they follow their dreams.
Replace that word athlete with the word hero and you have an idea of why we love heroes.  It isn’t so much that heroes follow their dreams as they have the freedom and power to do so.  Really it’s this freedom and power that is valued when we engage in hero worship and emulation.

Freedom is the right to act and power is the means to act.  The freedom to act is nothing without the power to act.  You are free to buy that expensive car, but without the means to buy the car you cannot take advantage of that freedom.

Power is a necessary requirement, but people tend to forget that there are various forms of power:
1. Internal Power: Character qualities, like ambition, charm, intelligence, or the will to act.
2. Physical power: These include things like strength, beauty, dexterity, and physical skill.
3.  Material power: This is basically money and those things money can buy. 
4.  Social Power:  The ability to harness the powers of others.
5.  Legislative Power: This is power granted by government.
6.  Titular Power: This is power inherent in a position, like being President of the United States.
7.  Time:  This may not seem like a form of power until you run out of it.

With this is mind, consider that to increase knowledge, learn a skill, make a new friend, or even for a woman to put on make-up is to cultivate one’s power.  The pursuit of power is not only, as most people believe, to increase political power for the purpose of ruling over others.  Power is merely an asset allowing you to act as you will – to follow your dreams.

We admire heroes because they have this freedom and power.  That may have been enough when the vast majority of people had no freedom or power, but since the Medieval Period most people have the freedom and power that our ancestors only dreamed about.  As a consequence our expectations changed in what we expected from our heroes.

For the ancient Greeks and Romans the concept of the hero had no moral dimension.  It was simply an extraordinary individual who could be either good or bad.  With the rise of Christianity, Biblical characters were seen as heroes to emulate and this sort of rubbed-off onto the concept of the hero making them exemplars of morality and community values. 

The heroes we are most familiar with are the Romantic heroes.  These characters were inspired by Medieval stories but given modern relevance. In Romantic narrative fiction the two primary figures are King Arthur and Robin Hood.  These translate into the archetypes of the Knight and the Outlaw.  The Knight is the defender of the benevolent social order.  In most stories the Knights are police officers, soldiers, or government or free agents working to protect the people.  The Outlaw is the opposition to a malevolent social order.  These are the plucky rebels like the Rebel Alliance of Star Wars, the crew of Serenity in Firefly, or the freedom fighters of the Hunger Games series.  Often they are depicted as the criminals with the “heart of gold” working to support the people.

Using this as a baseline, we can identify six variations of this theme.  In addition to the traditional knights and outlaws, who we’ll call white, are the black and grey versions.  The Black Knight is the defender of a malevolent social order usually opposing the White Outlaw while the White Knight primarily opposes the Black Outlaw.  In the film Die Hard, John McLain is the White Knight against Hans Gruber the Black Outlaw.  However the formula can vary.   In the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is the White Knight hired by the American government to oppose the Black Knights of the Nazis.  As the colour implies, the greys are morally ambiguous.  They may have good intentions, but their means are negative.  So the Grey Knights might see themselves as bringing peace but do so by restricting freedom.  The Grey Outlaw might strike out against the authoritarian regime by blowing-up a government installation with no regard for innocent casualties.  A character like Daredevil is a White Outlaw fighting Black Outlaws but often finds himself against the Punisher, a Grey Outlaw.

In Assassin’s Creed, the Assassins are traditional White Outlaws, however they are perceived by the general public as being Black Outlaws while the Assassins themselves seem concerned with crossing the line into the grey.  The Templars are mostly Grey Knights.  Occasionally, there are Black Knights in the mixed, but for the most part they have nominal good intentions.  Haytham Kenway, Shay McCormack, and Elise de la Serre are all examples of Grey Knights who see the Assassins as well-meaning but ultimately misguided and a danger to society.

These moral delineations of white, grey, and black are largely fixed according to how selfless or selfish the actions. As White Outlaws, the Assassins fight for freedom as their primary value.  This is built into the Creed and explains cryptic statements found through the game series such as when Evie says to Queen Victoria, “But with the greatest respect, our philosophy forbids us from assisting with the expansion of the Empire.”  How does she get that from, “Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted”?  This is where Existentialism and the Romantic overlap.  As mentioned earlier, Nothing is True is an admonition to independent critical thinking.  This is not possible without the freedom to think as you choose.  To say that Everything is permitted is an existential truth, but a state of bondage is designed to control and prevent human action.  We might rephrase the Creed as, “Freedom to think and to act”.  Imperialism runs counter to the Creed so Evie rejects it.


When people think of love it is usually so-called romantic love that initially comes to mind.  Who can blame them?  It is the topic of countless songs, shows, movies, and books.  It can rightly be called a cultural obsession, but this mentality does love a great disservice. 

In the pie chart of love, romantic love represents the smallest sliver of the experience of love.  It is the dopamine driven rush found at the beginning of a relationship lasting about a year or two before settling into what we can call a proper form of love.  The big picture of love includes various forms of love such as family love, love for a spouse, love of friends, love of community, and even love of ideology.  The ancient Greeks had different words for each of these types of love, but unfortunately English only has the one word to work with in understanding the concept.

Another unfortunate twist of language is that the Romantic has lent its name erroneously to the concept of romantic love, so to keep these concepts clear; I’ll be referring to romantic love by its Greek name eros.

The foundational form of love found in the traditional Romances is what is today called courtly or fine love.  The knight acts to impress the object of his affection that he serves and worships mostly platonically.  There is no eros here.  So it seems strange that eros is today called romantic love when it’s absent from the Romances.

So what is love?  Love is a strong emotional response to values and values are those things that we act to gain or to keep.  This is why love is often associated with desire and sacrifice.  Values are those things we desire to possess and those things that we are willing to risk or sacrifice other values to preserve.

Love is an emotional response, so understanding love requires some understanding of how emotions work.  When the Creed states that “nothing is true” it is acknowledging that what people think is reality is actually their perceived idea of reality.  Your brain responds to these ideas with the chemical cocktail that we call emotions.  The basic process is: Perception -> Assessment -> Response --> Action. This process occurs so fast that the conscious mind barely notices it and not at all if the mind isn't paying attention. This creates the illusion that emotional responses emerge instantaneous from nowhere completely independent of the mind. The ancients believed the source of emotions to be a spirit that comes upon a person.

If someone pulls a gun on you there is sudden fear. You perceive the gun, assess that it is a gun (a lethal weapon), and the emotional response is fear for the purpose of acting in self-preservation.  But what if your perception is false and you only think it's a gun?  The chain of events is the same. The emotions are valid in the sense that they are truly believed and felt, but the premise of the emotion is faulty and can lead to harmful actions. Similarly, suppose someone pulls a gun on you but you have never seen a gun before.  You would not know to be afraid.  In this case the perception is accurate but the assessment is faulty leading to a flawed but understandable emotional response.

There is very little eros in Assassin’s Creed beyond passing encounters.  So you will not find much in terms of a love story.  The closest that the series ever came to making eros a central theme is AC Unity with Arno and Elise playing the Romeo and Juliet roles of lovers who belong to warring factions. 

AC Black Flag focuses on two forms of love.  The Greeks make a distinction between the love of lovers, eros, and the love of spouses.  Once the initial passions of a relationship cool down they settle into something more stable and mundane.  This is the love Edward feels for his wife Caroline.  It is his desire to be a worthy provider for her that drives him to become a privateer which in turn led to him becoming a pirate and then Assassin.  So you might say his story is driven by love. 

Another form of love in Black Flag is the love of friends.  The story takes a great deal of time building the friendship of Edward to Mary Reed, Edward Thatch, and Adelewale making them three of the most likeable characters.  Towards the end there is a melancholy scene where Edward imagines all his friends who had died gathered on his porch drinking and laughing like old times. 

Edward’s grandson, Connor Kenway, has a different focus.  For Connor there is his village and the settlement. His love is the love of community.  Looking at love as a motivator as we act to gain or keep values, most of Connor’s actions are towards preserving his village and building the settlement.  This involves the level of care and concern he feels particularly towards the settlement, but at the same time he Is largely disconnected from it in the sense that the members come across as positive acquaintances rather than friends.  So really it is the idea of the settlement and the people in it that he loves.

There is another form of love filled with strife and anger, but beneath the violent surface there is a deep connection.  This is the love between siblings and the embodiment of this is of course Jacob and Evie Frye in Ac Syndicate.  Their love for each other is a major theme in the game and the execution in the story makes their love palpable as it leaps from the screen.  Despite their playful mockery of each other that gradually deepens into conflict, in the end their bond of love is secure and sees them through as they realise that they are better together than apart.

Within families there is this sibling love but there are other forms as well.  I am told that the love a parent feels for their child is powerful.  This is not openly apparent in Assassin’s Creed though there are hints in Haytham Kenway towards his son, Connor.  The other form is the love of a child to their parent.  We see this in Ezio’s story.  All forms of family love can be found in the Auditores but the key to the story is how Ezio feels about his family as a concept particularly about his father’s legacy.  In AC Brotherhood we see the light and shadow of this with the Auditores versus the Borgias and the paternal legacy both sons look to uphold.

When early Christians described the love between God and Mankind the ancient Greek word they used for love was agape.  Today we may call this the love of ideology.  An ideology is a collection of beliefs and beliefs are sometimes described as being ideas with emotional attachments.  So yes, you can love an ideology.  This is why people become hostile when they feel that their ideology is being attacked.  This is the basis behind the notion of blasphemy. 

No doubt all the Assassins have a love for the Creed and each have acted to advance and preserve it, but as a story showing this kind of love, I will have to go with Altair in AC1.  In order to promote and preserve an ideology organisations are created.  The Assassins exist as an organisation for the Creed.  However, of all the Assassins we see, we see very little of any kind of organisation.  We know it’s there, but our main characters act independently of it, completely disregard it, or assume sole leadership of it.   Only Altair is a servant of it.  When he fails to do so he is demoted and must prove himself once again from the bottom rank.  Enduring this shows a level of devotion to the organisation that we do not see in the other Assassins.

To accept love as a Romantic value is not to simply value eros.  It is essentially to value values.  I recent learned of a fellow named Matthieu Ricard.  He is a Buddhist monk and the son of French philosopher Jean-Fran├žois Revel.  According to the story I heard, young Matthieu grew-up in an atmosphere where the leading French Existentialists, Sartre, Bouvoir, and Camus, were regular guests of his father.  They would sit around smoking cigarettes and drinking wine.  Ricard noticed that these leading lights of Western philosophy looked miserable.  Ricard went on to embrace Eastern philosophy and is now known as “the happiest man on earth”.  In its rejection of imposed values Existentialism fails to replace them with new values.  A life without values is a life without love.  This is one area where the Romantic helps to support the truths of Existentialism by encouraging a life where we invest our emotions in the things that matter to us.


Romantic stories like Assassin’s Creed serve a valuable purpose in teaching values.  They inspire us through example and emotion to have inquisitive minds in pursuit of Truth and to be true to ourselves and to others.  They encourage us to allow our lives to become works of art and beauty and not settle for the mundane.  They give us heroes to emulate and who show us that we can cultivate the freedom and power necessary to make our dreams a reality.  Finally, the Romantic encourages us to make those important value connections with our values, our partners, our friends, our community, and with our own ideologies.

For the vast majority of people who have purchased and played games within the Assassin’s Creed series all they see is another video game and they judge it solely on its gameplay.  However, for the relative few who are touched on a deeper emotional level a connection is made with the Assassin’s Creed Universe and the conduit for this connection are the Romantic elements of the series.  This opens the doors to the deeper levels of Existentialism and Stoicism.    

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