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.