Saturday, 12 August 2017

Ezio's Creed

The year is 1511 and the place the winding streets of Constantinople.  The Assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze, age 52, is escorting his future wife, Sofia Sartor, to their destination when she asks him about the Assassin’s Creed.  Ezio speaks the words, “Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted.”  The phrase strikes her as being rather cynical, but then Ezio goes on to explain:

“It would be if it were doctrine. But it is merely an observation of the nature of reality. To say that nothing is true, is to realize that the foundations of society are fragile, and that we must be 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 their consequences, whether glorious or tragic.”

When we speak of secret societies, like the Assassins, we associate them with manipulating events from the shadows to further their mysterious goals.  I see it a bit differently.  I believe that such societies may also safeguard dangerous ideas and control how these ideas are interpreted.

The Creed may once been such a secret, but it has entered the public sphere over the last hundred years.  As such it has been used by people like the beat poet William S. Burroughs to justify nihilism and hedonism.  I believe the writers of Assassin’s Creed have been successful in reclaiming the original prescribed meaning of the Creed as something more and this is illustrated by Ezio’s description of the Creed found in Assassin’s Creed Revelation.

Ezio’s first point is that the Creed is not doctrine.  We see this repeatedly in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.  Edward Kenway observes, "It might be that this idea is only the beginning of Wisdom, and not its final form."  Minerva also addresses this when outlining Desmond Miles’ potential post-apocalyptic future by describing how good ideas become transformed into doctrines and then twisted into messages contrary their their original meaning, like the Creed.

The Creed is not hard, fast doctrine and is not to be taken literally otherwise it does become cynical, nihilistic, and hedonistic.  Instead it must be treated as a mere observation on the nature of reality that we must learn to accept.

From the statement, “Nothing is true” Ezio extrapolates the lesson that the foundations of society are fragile and that we must be the shepherds of our own civilization.  How did he get from point A to B?  A good place to start is understanding the difference between objective and subjective reality.

Objective Reality is the world that is. This is the reality governed by the laws of science, reason, and logic. The Creed does not deny this truth.  Gravity is, whether you believe it or not. Subjective Reality is the world as each individual perceives it with their beliefs, biases, value judgements and imposed meanings.  This is the truth the Creed rejects. Far too often people present their subjective beliefs as objective truths.  This is a dangerous confounding of reality. Objective truths exists regardless of human consciousness, but the products of human consciousness, like society and its institutions, do not.  Societies, nation-states, and civilizations are ostensibly real, but ultimately they are all the products of human consciousness that will cease to exist without human belief.  This makes them fragile.

At the heart of the Creed is the Existentialist belief that nothing has inherent meaning and that all meaning is imposed upon things by individuals, therefore we must find the “best” meanings to bestow. Ezio extends this process to include human civilization placing the followers of the Creed in the role of shepherds helping to protect and guide individuals toward assigning the “best” meaning to support this fragile idea.

You may have notice that I placed the word best in quotes.  Whenever someone makes a value judgement by saying something is good, bad, or the best, we need to determine their criteria.  Ezio places the Assassins in the role of shepherd, but does not say to what end or purpose.  Throughout the Assassin’s Creed franchise is is made clear that the goal of the Assassins is wisdom.  The good is the wise and the moral is the rational.  As Mary Read said, “We're Assassins and we follow a creed, aye. But it does not command us to act or submit - only to be wise.”  We also have the appearance of Minerva, the Roman goddess of Wisdom, as a member of the precursor race, and this conversation Ezio is having with Sofia, whose name means wisdom.

What then is wisdom?  There are countless answers to that question.  My answer is that wisdom is simply knowing how the world works and learning to apply that knowledge effectively according to the rules of Objective Reality. Of course no one can know everything, so we must take a scientific attitude towards life by which we can change course in the light of new information backed by objective facts and reason.  This is part of another interpretation of the Creed in which nothing is true is also applied to scientific truths.  Our scientific knowledge is based on the information at hand but can change with new information. So we must be psychologically prepared to change our beliefs at a moment’s notice.

From this apparently cynical statement that nothing is true, Ezio positions the Assassins as the shepherds of civilization guiding them to wisdom.  This is in keeping with a statement from Ezio in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, where he says, “One must choose to search for truth. Forcing it on others accomplishes little”. Assassins are not in the business of imposing their ideas on others through the use of social institutions but rather acting as guides from the shadows working in the dark to serve the light.

Ezio’s analysis of the second half of the Creed is more straight-forward. Everything is permitted seems like a call to hedonism.  In the 1960’s this translated into the phrase, “If it feels good, do it” which drove the hippie culture of the time and the sexual revolution that followed. But if you take a moment to consider this half of the Creed you find that this is not an accurate interpretation.

Ezio says,  “To say that everything is permitted, is to understand that we are the architects of our actions, and that we must live with their consequences, whether glorious or tragic.”  There are a few points being made here.  The first is that we are the architects of our actions.  Notice the use of the word architect.  This implies a creative force and decision making process within the confines of Objective Reality.  An architect’s designs must take the forces of nature into account or the building will collapse, likewise we must make our choices according to the limitations of Objective Reality to avoid negative outcomes.  You may choose to leap from a tall building, there is nothing stopping you, but the forces of nature will pull you to the ground and you have no say it that.

Actions have consequences.  This is the nature of reality and the power to act as you choose does not negate this. Reality as we understand it is the product of a complex chain of action and consequence reaching back to the beginning of existence with every individual choice ever made by every person who ever was comprising each link.  The Sanskrit language has a single word to describe this -- karma.

This recognition of consequence makes the Creed both an affirmation and a warning.  The affirmation encourages us to liberate ourselves from the limitations born from fear, doubt, law, or moral restraints to rise above and achieve glory.  The warning is twofold.  Our choices may bring tragic consequences to ourselves or others.  The second reminds us that other people have the same freedom to act as we do and their actions may have dire consequences for ourselves or others, so we must drive defensively through life.  

So how do you choose the right actions to gain glory and avoid tragedy?  This concept of right action is covered by the branch of philosophy called Ethics.  In this context, Ezio does not provide any instruction.  He does not tell us how we should act. This is expected given his speech at the Bonfire of the Vanities in Assassin's Creed II where he declared,

"We don't need anyone to tell us what to do...We are free to follow our own path.  There are those who will take that freedom from us, and too many of you gladly give it...Choose your own way.  Do not follow me or anyone else."

This brings us back to the only admonition to action that the Assassins provide.  Be wise.  The Creed is a starting point.  To be wise you must first empty your mind of certainty of everything you think  you know and the ego attached to it. Nothing is true. Only then can you critically develop new ways of thinking divorced from cognitive biases, preconceived  notions, and prejudices. This is like the famous Buddhist analogy of emptying the cup before it can be filled.   In the spirit of opening new mental attitudes, we find new opportunities for action by breaking unproductive habits and not succumbing to the comfort found in following the common wisdom of the herd.  

Far from being cynical, as Sofia first observed, the Creed is an observation, a guide, and a gateway to a new way of thinking and acting.  Once we recognise that the world as we know it is built upon something as fragile as thought, we can then use those ideas as shepherds and architects to guide the world to something truly enlightening.  This is Ezio’s Creed.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Assassin's Creed -- The Movie

The Assassin’s Creed film has finally arrived to the sounds of boos from critics and fans alike.  It currently sits with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 17% as the latest in a long line of video game to movie flops.  A few reviewers whom I watch on a regular basis placed it in their top ten worst film lists.  I decided to avoid the film and wait for the Netflix premier, but a few impassioned Youtube fans encouraged me to  make-up my own mind and see it.  As someone who has been writing about the philosophy behind the Assassin’s Creed games for over six years now, for me – personally – this was one of the best films of 2016.  So, what did I see that the critics and fans missed?
First -- a quick disclaimer.  What I’m writing here is not a review of the film, but really the same sort of analysis that I apply to the Assassin’s Creed games in my other articles.  So, yes…spoilers.
The critics all praised the acting, the directing,  and the action sequences in the film, but collectively criticised the unlikable, boring characters and the baffling storyline.  It could be argued that the critics simply did not understand the film as it was told in the language of the game with concepts like the Assassins, Templars, artefacts of Eden, and the animus being alien to them and not fully elaborated on in the film, however fans turned their backs on it as well.  
As for the fan reaction, I have noticed three types of Assassin’s Creed fans.  The ones who are into gameplay and enjoy jumping off rooftops and stabbing people in the face, those who are into the story and the lore, and finally those who are into the philosophical messages  and themes  behind it all.  Of course you can enjoy more than one element, so there is overlap, but most people would fall primarily into one category or another.  
For those fans of the gameplay, the film delivers through the historical sequences, but they complained that this is only a small fraction of the film.  They were given a taste of the film they wanted but never got.  Fans primarily of the story and lore got their service too in the form of Easter eggs scattered throughout the film.  What no one expected from Assassin’s Creed was a film made for that minority third type of fan in the form of a psychological drama with socio-political overtones.
Fans expected Assassin’s Creed to be an action-based historical romance, the same genre as the games, where the modern story serves as a frame for the real historical story that the game-makers wanted to tell.  The “protagonist” of the first five games is Desmond Miles, but he just sits in the animus the whole time with all of the action happening in the past.  That said, we do see Desmond grow throughout these games with the expectation that the series would eventually shift gears to give us a modern Assassin’s tale with Desmond as the hero, but this promise was never fulfilled and ended with Desmond’s shoehorned death.
The film takes a different approach by telling the modern story the games never delivered.  The relationship between past and present is reversed with the past serving to inform and move the present day story.  Many fans were disappointed with this change in perspective, especially since it reduced the Assassins of the Spanish Inquisition to action sequences and did not fully developed characters.
Why did the filmmakers shift the genre from historical romance to a modern psychological drama?  It was a risky decision that did not pay off for them.  I see two reasons.  The first is that  it is easy to view history as fiction simply because it is the past.  By setting the game primarily in the modern, that wall is broken down and strengthens the Templar and Assassins metaphor in terms of the films socio-political message and call to action.  The second reason has to do with how the filmmakers re-thought the animus.
In the games Sean, Rebecca, and Lucy all speak of the dangers of the animus and the harmful toll it can take on the psyche, but we never really see it.  We see that Clay Kaczmarek, Subject 16, drew crazy shit on the walls and we are told that he lost his mind, but that is about it.  Lucy speaks of the dangers of the bleeding effect, but this plot line is completely dropped.   I had thought while playing the game that eventually Desmond would learn to use the bleeding effect to his advantage and summon the power of his ancestors when outside the animus, but this never happened.  However, it does happen in the film.

The film explores how experiencing the animus would affect a person’s mind.  Imagine if such a device existed.  The subject would experience the thoughts and feelings of another person. No big deal right?  Fact is that a person’s entire psycho-emotional grasps on reality would be broken down.  This pairs with John Locke’s memory theory of identity.  He wrote that identity exists within the context of consciousness and consciousness is connected to memory.  

It is a common trope in science fiction where a person’s (or android’s) identity is called into question when it is discovered that their memories are false.  What the animus does by visceral exposure to another’s memories is create a psychological blending that undermines an individual’s sense of identity.  Basically, the person no longer knows where their identity stops and the other person’s starts.  There is a scene where one of the animus subjects introduces himself to Calum by the name of his ancestor as if he could not distinguish the two identities.  Other subjects were not so fortunate as the experience caused a complete psychological breakdown rendering them  psychotic.  

This is compounded by the bleeding effect, which became a key concept in the film.  Adding to the problem of merging memories, and therefore identity, there is a manifestation of these memories as real time visions.  The result is that exposure to the animus causes both an identity breakdown and a collapse in the perception of reality.

What we have here is a forced Existential Crisis where the character realizes that everything that he believed to be true, himself and the reality in which he operates, to be a construct that can collapse.  We have two choices in these situations.  We can either fight that realisation and become psychotic or accept it to become empowered, which is what Calum Lynch does when he successfully achieves the leap of faith with full synchronisation with his ancestor Aguilar.

This is the main character’s psychological journey.  A story is a person with a problem and how that problem is resolved.  Once the problem is no longer a problem, the story ends.   The person with a problem in Assassin’s Creed is Calum Lynch.  As a young boy, he entered his home to find his mother’s throat cut.  In his shocked state, his father suddenly appears wearing the trademark Assassin’s hood.  He tells Calum, “your blood is not your own” and orders him to flee just as several police vehicles arrive on the scene.   Calum’s problem is that he does not understanding what happened.  His world suddenly fell apart -- again an existential crisis.  Why did his father suddenly murder his mother?  The problem is resolved not when he learns why, but when he truly understands why on a psycho-emotional level.  

Both of Calum’s parents were secretly Assassins.  We see this quite often in the games, such as with Ezio Auditore and Haytham Kenway who were both ignorant of their parent’s hidden life.  The police vehicles that arrived were actually Templars, the ancient enemies of the Assassins, and Calum’s father killed his mother at her requests to spare her being captured and experimented on at the Abstergo labs. So for Calum to reach resolution, he must first come to understand the Assassin’s,  their devotion to the Creed, and why they were willing to sacrifice everything they loved for it.  Every event in the film works to this end.  The conclusion comes when Calum finally reaches that state of acceptance.

This brings us to the central theme of the film.  The Templars and the Assassins represent two groups in society which can be conveniently split politically between right and left, or the establishment and the anti-establishment.  The establishment believes that the wise should rule.  Today, the establishment takes two opposing forms.  One that defines wisdom primarily by success and the other primarily by intelligence.  In both cases, they believe that the populations needs to be controlled and they do so with the consent of the people who want to be ruled by “the good king” who will make everything better.  The games and the film both depict these good and bad Templars.  The bad Templars who simply want power over others and the good Templars do the exact same thing, but sincerely believe that they do so to help others.

The anti-establishment rejects both positions.  They believe that every individual person is free to make their own choices without force or coercion.  A person cannot be made to be good.  Goodness is a choice.  They also believe that every person is accountable for their actions.  Traditionally, this would have been the position of the Left.  However, since the turn of the 20th Century the “good Templars” have moved themselves into that position in the minds of the people.  What most people think of as the Right or the Left today are just the two forms of the establishment – the two types of Templars.  The true anti-establishment is more like the libertarians politically.
In the film, the Templars want to end violence by destroying free will.  There is a critical scene where the Templar Master and the head of Abstergo are discussing tactics.  The Master wants to abandon the search for the means of destroying free will because they have already accomplished their goal.  First they tried religion, then politics, and now consumerism and this has worked.  People care more about preserving their lifestyle than they do about civil liberties.  This is the core message of the film.  The Templars have won because you – the viewer – have chosen not to make sacrifices to fight for freedom.
I noticed a few critics missed the importance of this scene.  They approached the film as a traditional macguffin plot seeing who will get the Apple of Eden, but the chief baddie says straight-out that they do not need it.  All the Apple is to the Templar leadership is a vanity project that is costing too much money.
The Creed is mentioned a few times in the film, but there is no scene going into its deeper meaning.  I first thought this was an omission that created confusion for the first-time viewers, then I realised that the film is not preaching the Creed.  It is preaching the concept of freedom and is using the Creed as a metaphor.  When the Assassins say things like, the Creed comes first or the Creed is more important than love, what is really being said here is that freedom comes first and is more important than love.  To be more specific, it is more important than the things we love.  
This addresses the control by consumerism mentioned before.  We love our things: our cars, homes, electronics, etc.  We love the things that comprise our lifestyles.  The film is telling us that our freedom is more important than these things that we love and we must be willing to sacrifice them if we want to be free as they are the instrument of our slavery.
Seeing as this is the core message of the film, we are presented with two different layers.  Calum through his ancestor Aguilar learns the lesson of sacrifice for the Creed.  In this he understands why his father sacrificed his mother and points him to the sacrifices he must make going forward.  We the audience learn through Calum’s journey the lesson of sacrifice for freedom and the sacrifices we must make going forward.
There is a scene where a guard tells Calum the origin of the word Assassin.  He tells him that the word is derived from the Hashashin meaning outcasts.  This is generally accepted.  The word hashashin literally means hash user, but the connotation of the word was outcast or low-life.  The more modern and academically accepted theory is that the word is derived from Assasyun, meaning “those faithful to the foundation”.  
Consider then that the Templars have created a means of controlling people through consumerism.  There is the basic human need for food, shelter, and clothing, security, and entertainment (mental, emotional, and physical stimulation), but once those needs are fulfilled, then what comes next?  Abraham Mazlow suggests in his hierarchy of values that we then move on to higher values like self-actualisation, but the real world shows us that people who have all they need want more and better of the same.  Better food, nicer shelter, fashionable clothing, safe spaces, and more entertainment. We become consumers.  By rejecting this the individual has no hope of being one of the cool kids.  His values are completely at odds with the social norm.  He could not care less about the latest Kardassian.  He becomes an outcast -- a hashashin.
The Templar plan comes crashing down in regards to the Apple of Eden in the form of the greatest threat to all central planners.  The spectre of unintended consequences.  Central planners think that they know best so their plan is perfect, but the unintended consequences reveal themselves showing that the “wise ones” are not all that wise.  One classic example of unintended consequences comes from the days of British India when the government placed a bounty on cobras in an effort to decrease the snake population.  The enterprising Indians took advantages of this and started cobra farms.  When the government learned of this the bounty was discontinued and the Indians released their worthless cobras into the wild.  The unintended consequence of the policy was more cobras than when they had started.  In their arrogance they forget that  the best laid plans of mice and men most oft go awry.   
The Templars in their quest to learn the secrets of the Assassins force normal average men and women into the animus, but in the process actually creates (or more precisely re-creates) the Assassins.  As one guard warns the villain, “you are feeding the beast”.  By the end of the film, those individuals who survived their experience in the animus relatively intact psychologically have fully integrated their ancestor.  Abstergo has unleashed some of the greatest Assassins in history onto the modern world as the unintended consequence of their desire to control that which should not, or cannot, be controlled.

There is one final criticism that I have yet to address and that is characterisation.  Critics found the characters to be boring and unrelatable.  What Calum Lynch suffers from is the lack of a sidekick.  Batman has his Robin, Sherlock his Watson, and the Castaway his Wilson.  These sidekicks exist to give us, the audience, a glimpse into the character’s psyche through the interactions of the two characters.  The only alternative is a voice over narration from the character as an inner monologue or a character who talks to himself.  Either way, the audience needs this kind of access in order to care about the character.

Calum has no sidekick, no inner monologue, and does not talk to himself.  He is completely alone in a crazy place, thus robbing the audience of any true insight into his thoughts, feelings, and motivations.  What we see are his interactions with his captors and his fellow inmates, both of whom he holds in contempt and distrust for understandable reasons.  Is it any wonder that he comes across as unlikable?  We are left to interpret his actions as outsiders.  In a sense, this is consistent with the Creed in that we the audience are left to come to our own conclusion without being told how to feel about him.  Likewise, we do not get into the minds of the historic Assassins because their purpose in the story is simply to drive Calum to his resolution.

I also noticed that the portrayal of the Assassins seemed a bit more intense than in the games.  The Assassin’s Creed games, to their credit, do not shy from insinuating that the Assassins are not always “the good guys”.  Fact is that evil companies provide desired products and services.  Evil Empires provide economic and political stability.  These desired things come at the cost of freedom.  The vast majority of people are willing to pay this price.  As the punk band, The Dead Kennedys put it, “Give me convenience or give me death”.  The Assassins reject this sacrifice.   They subscribe to a Nietzschean form of radical freedom demonstrated by a willingness to let the world burn for the sake of freedom.  The film shows this through the Assassin’s intense devotion the Creed, thus making them appear far more radical than their game counterparts.  This is possibly due to the film’s central theme of  advocating personal sacrifice for the sake of the Creed (aka freedom).

Ultimately, the film Assassin’s Creed is an origin story.  it is about how Calum Lynch through the machinations of the Templars, became an Assassin.  The film ends when Calum reaches this state and the scenes after are only there to wrap things-up.  This confused critics who thought that the film was about stopping the Templars and getting the Apple of Eden, but the film already established that this was irrelevant as they did not need the apple anyways.

When people ask me what I thought of of the Assassin’s Creed movie, I always give them a disclaimer.  For me it was one of the best films of 2016, but as the author Anais Nin said, “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.”  What I have shared here is the film that I saw.  You will see the same film differently and your film may not be as good as mine.

Beyond Assassin’s Creed

This post is an experiment and I am eager to see the responses.  There are three distinct facets to the Assassin’s Creed game series.  There is the gameplay.  People enjoy the game -- or not -- and then move on to the next game.  The goal of Ubisoft is to sell as many games as possible today to get their share of that market.  The second is the story or lore aspect.  This is fun and goes beyond just gameplay, but one day the story grows old and we move on to a new lore.  The third is the philosophical element.  What many do not know or understand is the the Assassin’s Creed pre-dates the game series and the philosophy transcends it.  In five, ten, or twenty years time when the gameplay and stories have been forgotten, or are just pleasant memories, the Assassin’s Creed as a concept and its philosophies will remain in some form.
In light of this, I wanted to share from time to time videos that I have discovered that illustrate the principles of the Assassin’s Creed from people who probably know nothing of the games.  They demonstrate that there is a belief system here in which its adherent can rightly say that they are in real life followers of the Creed.  No, they are not committing murder from the rooftops, but they are embracing the ideology of the Assassins through the Creed.

The first video is on the concept of sonder.  To say that Nothing is True is to recognise that each person has their own unique subjective reality.  Sonder drives home that fact by reminding us that from our singular perspective we are the star of out movie, then reminds us that we are an extra in someone else’s.  Everything is permitted not only speaks to our own freedom to act, but also the freedom of others to play the lead role that they choose to play.

The following text is from philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti in which he discusses the notion of social conditioning, the process by which from infancy we are molded to fit into society, first by parents, than peers, then the social institutions like education.  He posits that we must question this conditioning and discover for yourself.  In this context, Nothing is true, Everything is permitted is a challenge to question accepted truths and the imposed behaviours derived from these false truths.

Finally there is Nietzsche.  He referred to the motto of the Assassins in his book The Genealogy of Morals, this was over a century before it came to be known as “the Assassin’s Creed”.  In the text he implies that he contemplated the Creed and the more that I understand of his philosophy, the more I see either the influence of the Creed on his philosophy, or maybe it simply confirmed the ideas he already had.  Watch this video with the Creed in mind -- Nothing is true, Everything is permitted.