Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Stoic Assassin

This is the third and final instalment of a series looking at the three key philosophies in Assassin’s Creed.  You can read part one on Existentialism and part two on the Romantic at the links.

When you look over the philosophical landscape you will notice certain key features occupying a particular space.  I call these Philosophical Cohorts.  These are distinct philosophical ideas that have more commonality than differences and can actual work together without too much contradiction.  If there is contradiction, it can prove beneficial as some of the philosophical extremes temper each other.

In the space occupied by Assassin’s Creed we find philosophies like Existentialism, the Romantic, Stoicism, political libertarianism, and Objectivism to name a few.  The spotlight here shines on Stoicism.

Stoicism is unique among philosophies in that it is one of the few used in everyday language to describe a particular attitude or personality type.   Altair and Connor Kenway are both described as stoic by critics and fans.  This is due to the emphasis Stoicism places on cultivating a particular attitude.

It is this focus on proactive character shaping and building that has brought about resurgent interest in Stoicism in recent years as people use it as a sort of self-help path, which it is.  If you check for meet-up groups on-line, it is far easier to find Stoic groups than Existentialists ones.  It was when I when looking for an Existentialist group, and finding none, that I made-up a joke. “I was going to form an Existentialist club, but then I thought, ‘What’s the point?’”

So why is Stoicism making a comeback?  It’s been said that the study of philosophy began when someone asked a wise man, “What must I do to be happy?”  The five branches of philosophy are arguably built around this premise, making philosophy self-help, however this objective was lost along the way.  For example, happiness depends on context, so to establish this we have Metaphysics answering the question, “What is reality (context)?”, but so many philosophers get side tracked on this point and never get back to the happiness part.   Existentialism tends to do this.  Stoicism on the other hand retains the focus on happiness and this gives the philosophy something the people want.  Stoicism not only describes reality it also proscribes beneficial thoughts, attitudes, and actions. 

I believe that the Creed perfectly summarizes Existentialism.  Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted.  Likewise, the Romantic can be summarized by its values of Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.  For Stoicism, the Serenity Prayer serves as a basic summary:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Stoicism does not go as far as Existentialism in saying that “Nothing is True”, but it does tell us not to concern ourselves with things over which we have no control, such as things that are not true.  Take the past for example.  The past is an imagined construct.  The only reality of it lies in what it leaves behind.  These are the affects and effects of the past.  Your past experiences have affected your psyche making you who you are now and the effects of the past are the consequences present in your immediate now. 

Suppose you were in a fire as a child and now you fear fire.  That event is in the past.  It’s not real, however the psychological affect remains and that is what you have to deal with regarding fire today.  I am writing this on my computer.  The computer exists in the now as a consequence of me purchasing it.  Should something happen to my computer and it’s gone, then for all intents and purposes it no longer exists in my reality. Beyond affect and effect, the past is not real.  It’s just an idea.  So don’t worry yourself over it.  Stoicism encourages not wasting emotional energy on things that do not exist for us or that you cannot control.  The same hold true of the future.

There is a scene in AC Liberation where Aveline has just figured-out that her step-mother is her mysterious nemesis known only as "the company man".  This causes a bit of an existential crisis for her.  Aveline knows what she must do as an Assassin but has her doubts.  She turns to her fellow Assassin Connor Kenway for help. She asks, “Connor, are you always certain in the means and ways of the brotherhood?” He replies in his usual stoic brevity, "I trust my own hands".

What the hell, Connor? Aveline’s reality just came crashing down and she’s faced with a difficult decision and the best you can come-up with is some cryptic response.  Allow me the conceit of rewriting Connor’s reply.

Aveline, you say that you are having doubts about how we Assassins do things, and it’s good to question, but I don’t think that is the real issue here.  You are worrying about the future, about consequences that may or may not occur.  The future you imagine is not real and is beyond your control. What you can control is what is at hand right now and you can only trust yourself to do what you can with the information you have in the moment.

Aveline responds saying "Of course" as if Connor is simply reminded her of something already covered in her philosophy class at Assassin school.  We see this kind of behaviour quite a bit from the Assassins – this attitude of acceptance.

One of my favourite lines in AC Black Flag is something Edward Kenway says to Thatch. “I'm not of the same mind, mate. But I won't begrudge you the state of yours.”  The acceptance that other people should not be expected to think as we do.  When you read through internet comments it is as though people are in a constant state of outrage because others have a different point of view or have one that they find offensive.  Stoicism teaches that we must expect that people will be people.

One Stoic technique is to tell yourself at the start of the day that you will meet stupid, rude, annoying, and cruel people throughout your day.  By preparing yourself in advance you have no reason to be shocked when you do meet one.  It is about managing your expectations.  If you believe that you are destined to meet your soul mate and will live in perpetual bliss for the rest of your life, then chances are that life will disappoint.  Instead cultivate realistic expectations and accept life as it is and not as you wish it was.

One of the big issues that Stoicism has to contend with in regards to public perception is the idea of the stoic personality as someone cold, emotionless, and tacit. The prime Assassins for this are Altair and Connor.  The philosophy behind this is the recognition that we cannot control the actions of others, but we can control how we choose to respond.

Ten years ago my “soul mate” left me.  I was emotionally and psychologically devastated.  My life went from being a social man about town before the relationship to being a virtual hermit ever since.  It would be easy for me to scream, “She ruined my life!”, but that would be wrong.  Leaving me was her right as a human being.  What caused this damage was not her leaving but the way I chose to respond to it.  I spent months replaying events in my mind feeling constant pain and loss that took nearly a year to ease.  My brooding only aggravated the problem, prolonged the grieving process, and caused the damage.  I did this to myself.

Stoicism teaches that we are responsible for our own emotional responses and works on the premise that no one can make us feel something that we do not choose to feel.  In an age when emotions are encouraged and allowed to run wild and undisciplined, this choice may not seem apparent.  However, we know from examples among our fellow humans that emotional self-control is not only possible but also common in various cultures and zeitgeists.  The ancient Greek Stoics called the state resulting from emotional self-discipline apatheia, from which we get the modern word apathy, but the proper translation of apatheia is tranquillity.  This pursuit of tranquillity is just one of many similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. 

It is the emphasis on cultivating emotional self-control that has led to apparently emotionless people to be called stoic.  The truth is we can also choose to be happy and that is the point that is missed by non-Stoics.  It is not about feeling nothing.  It is about taking responsibility for our feelings.

Another important Stoic concept is un-attachment and this figures into an interpretation of the Creed.  To recognise that Nothing is True is to see the impermanence of things.  Mary Read alludes to this in Black Flag when she describes the Creed as, “the world’s only certainty” possibly in reference to the expression, “the only constant is change”.  Things, people, and situations do not last.  They may be true today and right now, but they are not True in the sense of constancy.

A key Stoic philosopher was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.   Every now and then he would sleep on the floor to remind himself that his comforts are impermanent. This type of self-denial serves to help us to not take our comforts for granted but also to remind us that we can exist without these comforts and conveniences.  One of the problems of wealth is that it protects the rich from the real world.  The trivial is given too much value and the demands of reality like food, shelter, and clothing are taken for granted as simply always existing.   In short, it’s what we call First World Problems.  Stoic practices show us that we can survive happily without our mobile phones, internet, or any number of luxuries that we have come to see as necessities.  Another common technique among Stoics when faced with challenges is to ask, "What's the worst that can happen and can I live with that?"

The second part of the Creed also has Stoic implications.  When we recognise that everything is permitted, remember that this applies to others as much as it does ourselves.  We cannot control or necessarily predict the actions of others because everything is permitted.  You must then decide how you choose to respond to how others use their freedom.


Throughout the Assassin’s Creed series there are constant references to a philosophical core belief system that is never revealed in full.  After all, this is a video game series and not some philosophical treaties.  What we do have is the Creed.

As mentioned in a previous essay, the phrase “Nothing is True, Everything is permitted” is most likely of ancient origin, at least Friedrich Nietzsche seem to think so in 1887.  It had been erroneously attributed to the Medieval Assassins of Iran and Syria, but it was not until the game series that it became known as The Assassin’s Creed.   I believe that within this simple phrase we have allusions to Existentialism, the Romantic, and to Stoicism and that all three of these philosophies can be found expressed in the game series. 

The Assassins of the game are wholly fictional works created by a committee of writers overseen by corporate interests.  However, the three philosophies behind the Creed are very real and accessible.  We may not know the philosophical core beliefs of the fictional Assassins, but chances are that a follower of a synthesis of these three philosophies would fit right in within the Assassin Order.

Since Assassin’s Creed is a modern work of fiction, it’s good to provide examples of the Assassin’s principles outside of the game context.  With this is mind, I have posted below a video of Dennis Hopper reciting the poem If by Rudyard Kipling.  Within its verses you will find this synthesized philosophy of Existentialism, the Romantic, and Stoicism that I believe represents the Assassin Philosophy.