Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Secrets of the Templars in Assassin’s Creed III

When I saw the early trailers for Assassin’s Creed III there were chills, particularly the Rise trailer. For someone like myself who knows the historical, cultural, and philosophical backdrop for the series I expected this game to be a metaphoric call to arms challenging us – the players – the rise up to face the challenges of our own age. In this regard I was slightly disappointed when I played the game. The challenge was there, but it took a very different and more esoteric form than what I had expected.

What we have is not so much a call to arms but rather a revelation. This edition of the series might well have been called “The Rise of the Templars” for in no other storyline do we see the Templars so elevated and the Assassins so downplayed. So, for those who identify with the Assassins the narrative was more of an exposition into the lay of the land.

Within the Assassin’s Creed series there are hidden teachings. They are not hidden because of some diabolical plot. They are hidden simply because most discussion and judgement of games focus exclusively on matters related to general gameplay, such as the graphics or the combat system. The teachings are revealed the story, the characters, dialogue, and themes within the narrative and clearly visible to those familiar with the socio-political background, both historic and modern.

Perhaps teachings is too strong a word. I do not believe that the writers of the series, Corey May, Jefferey Yohalem, Joshua Rubin, and Danny Wallace, have consciously imbued their work with “teachings”, however in creating a series about two rival ideologies it is part of the nature of the beast that these ideologies are explored.

I must stress that when I use the terms “Templars” or “Assassins” I am not referring to any literal organisation, but rather ideologies as presented in the game in the form of these fictional secret societies. In real life, these ideologies are believed, expressed, and acted upon by many individuals who may or may not be part of some formal of organisation.

In Assassin’s Creed III we are given the clearest examples of the Templar ideology in any of the games. In fact, the representative for the Assassins, Connor Kenway, is constantly being derided by the Templars with no strong counter arguments like we saw from Ezio in previous games. Consider these three key quotes from the character Haytham Kenway, the Master Templar in Assassin’s Creed III.

The people never have the power, only the illusion of it. And here is the real secret: they don't want it. The responsibility is too great to bear. It's why they are so quick to fall in line as soon as someone else takes charge. They want to be told what to do. They yearn for it. Little wonder that, since all mankind was built to serve.
I see the world the way it is, not as I wish it would be.
 Even when your kind appears to triumph, still we rise again. And do you know why? It is because the Order is born of a realization. We require no creed. No indoctrination by desperate old men. All we need is that the world be as it is.
Compare these words with those of Shadia Drury, in Leo Strauss and the American Right (1999), she argues that Leo Strauss taught that the "perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what's good for them."

Leo Strauss was a professor of political science at the University of Chicago from 1949-1969 and has since become a shadowy but pivotal figure in modern global politics as the “father of neo-conservatism”. Professor Harvey Mansfield, a Straussian philosopher at Harvard University, summed up Strauss’ message for the BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares (2004).
“He did want to have a school of students to get others to see what he had seen, that Western liberalism led to nihilism. [It] had undergone a development that at the end of which it could no longer define itself or defend itself. A development which took everything praiseworthy and admirable out of human beings and made us think to the dwarf animals, lead us into herd animals, sick little dwarves satisfied with the dangerous life in which nothing is true and everything is permitted.”
The use of the word “liberalism” in the above quote seems to refer to classical liberalism, or what today we might call libertarianism, as opposed to the liberal socialism currently associated with the word liberal.

The story of Connor begins with him being duped. The ancient known as Juno appears to Connor as a “spirit” and sets him on his path with the purpose to prevent the Templars from gaining premature access to her temple, however the quest is presented in such a way that in Connor’s mind he is avenging his mother’s death and protecting his village. In the end he succeeds in protecting the temple, but discovers that the Templars were not responsible for his mother’s death and the Americans that he aided do eventually drive his people from their village, so he failed to achieve what he wanted even though he succeeded in his role as Juno’s pawn.

This is reminiscent of an idea of Leo Strauss. Basically, the he sees society divided into three groups. There are the wise that accept reality as it is in all of its cold brutality and yet do not flinch. The next group are the gentlemen, these are people of belief and honour who are willing to fight and die for their beliefs. The third are the vulgar masses driven by their animalistic desires for self-indulgence and consumerism. Society must be ruled by the covert manipulations of the wise upon the gentlemen to control the vulgar masses.

Juno, who is arguably representative of the Templar ideology, is the wise manipulating the naïve idealism of Connor, the noble gentleman. To put it into a modern context, Drury uses the example of the “wise” Paul Wolfowitz manipulating the “gentleman” George W. Bush into the Iraq War.

The examples above point to the American neoconservatives of the right-wing Republican Party to be analogous to the Templars. This can be supported by a thinly veiled reference to the modern anti-capitalist protestors. As Benjamin Church dies he tells Connor, “Are these the same men and women who fight with muskets forged from British steel? Who bind their wounds with bandages sewn by British hands? How convenient for them. We do the work. They reap the rewards”. This criticism is reminiscent of those levelled against the occupy protestors fighting against the very corporate institutions that provide the iPhones in their hands, their Levis, and the McDonalds they eat.

It is easy to see the Templars as corporatists or Republicans and the Assassins as their liberal opposition, but that is narrow thinking. If we imagine the Templars as presented in the game, then no doubt they would hedge their bets and play both sides. Church goes on to say,
“It's all a matter of perspective. There is no single path through life that's right and fair and does no harm. Do you truly think the Crown has no cause? No right to feel betrayed? You should know better than this, dedicated as you are to fighting Templars - who themselves see their work as just. Think on that the next time you insist your work alone befits the greater good. Your enemy would beg to differ - and would not be without cause.”
What Church is suggesting is the very simple adage that there are two sides to every story, but the implications are incredibly complex. He is describing a context in which no path is without a potential victim and every alleged villain sees himself as an angel fighting evil for the greater good. Connor answers with the weak retort, “Your words may have been sincere, but that does not make them true.”

The answer to Church is not whether someone is morally in the right, either in fact or according to their intensions. The questions are how far they are willing to go to force their will on others and what the natural consequences of their actions are. Connor should have known this, but he was ill-prepared.

When the time came for Connor to become full-fledged Assassin, Achilles decided to forego the ritual. Looking back, we are reminded of this vow taken by the initiate:

Assassin: "Where other men blindly follow the truth, remember..."
Initiate: "Nothing is true."
Assassin: "Where other men are limited by morality or law, remember..."
Initiate: "Everything is permitted."
Assassin: "We work in the dark to serve the light. We are Assassins."

Questions of right and wrong in the conventional sense are merely social constructs and therefore simply the products of many minds in unison. None of it is true. What is true are the consequences of actions. What we see in the traditional right vs. left paradigm are two moral sides operating on the same principles. There is not much in action and consequence to separate the likes of Leo Strauss from his liberal counterparts, like Saul Alinsky and Carroll Quigley. The essential philosophy is the same. People must be controlled, manipulated, and lied to for the greater good as interpreted by the “wise”.

Carroll Quigley was a history professor at Georgetown University and a mentor to President Bill Clinton. In his book, Tragedy and Hope, Quigley writes:
The argument of two parties should represent opposed ideas and policies, one perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to doctrinate and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can “throw the rascals out” at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy. The policies that are vital and necessary for America are no longer subjects of significant disagreement, but are disputable only in details of procedure, priority, or method.” (1966)
No matter if you choose the path to the left or the right the final destination is the same. Think of it like “good cop/bad cop”. The “Right” is portrayed in a largely negative context in the media, whereas the “Left” in a positive light as those desirous to help people through social programs and welfare. One is the stick and the other the carrot, but the destination is still the corral.

Consider the post-911 world. Avoiding all the conspiracy theories surrounding that incident, the fact is that under the presidency of George W. Bush we saw a huge consolidation of power to the executive office and numerous civil rights losses, both foreign and domestic, particularly under the Patriot Act. The world was outraged; however these policies have been continued and expanded upon under Barack Obama, most notably with the passage of National Defence Authorization Act 2012 which allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens without due process of law and the murder of US citizens on American soil without trial. The only difference between the policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama are how they are packaged. Where Bush outraged the world as the evil rich, white Republican, popular opinion readily swallowed the same medicine from the caring, black Democrat. But the outcome is the same.

Looking back at Haytham’s statement: “All we need is that the world be as it is. “ It is the natural flow of power to consolidate. The goal of the Templars is to be the ones to whom the power flows, whereas the goal of the Assassins is the dissemination of power from the few to the many.

On the surface, popular opinion is all for the Assassin’s way of things, but in practice this is not the case. As Ezio says in Revelation, “To say that everything is permitted is to understand that we are the architects of our actions and that we must live with our consequences, whether glorious or tragic.” What he is talking about here is the responsibility that comes with power. Power is the means by which people work their will in the world and with these actions come consequences; with freedom comes responsibility. When we take responsibility and consequence from people, they lose their freedom.

In Assassin’s Creed III, the Templars seek to purchase the tribal lands of Connor’s people in order to preserve it from encroachment and thereby protect the Mohawk there. On the surface this looks like a positive act. If Connor went along with it, he would have succeeded in saving his people. However, the Templars wanted to preserve the land not to protect the Indians, but rather to have free access to the temple site and they were more than happy to allow the natives to remain provided they did not interfere.

When William Johnson tried to convince the tribal elders of the Templars’ humanitarian goals, they rejected him citing the idea of personal responsibility. If you want to project us, then give us the means to protect ourselves. When someone seeks to do for you they have taken power from you. You become like a child. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; give him a fish everyday and he becomes your slave.

So when Haytham Kenway reveals the secret that the people do not want power because “The responsibility is too great to bear” this is the principle that he is evoking. If leaders provide the people with bread and circuses (sustain their lives and entertain them), then the people will naturally obey because they do not want to lose their benefits or accept the responsibility that comes with freedom. The state will see to your child’s education, provide benefits when you are unemployed, look after you in your old age, and provide medical care for you. You don’t have to worry about a thing, so you can now focus on reproduction, entertainment, and consumption. All that they ask for in return is your obedience and your taxes.

I have read some reviews of Assassins Creed III in which people seem very disappointed in Connor as a character, whereas his father, the Templar Haytham Kenway is amazingly popular. We see the Assassins through the eyes of the Templars as naïve fools fighting for a world that can never be. As General Pitcairn on his deathbed says to Connor, “You wield your blade like a man, but your mouth like a child”. Likewise, Thomas Hickey mocks Connor for chasing butterflies, ideals that can never be realised. We are also given examples of Assassins who turned to the Templars: Haytham Kenway, Lucy Stillman, and Daniel Cross. At the end of the story our hero, Desmond Miles, chooses the way of Juno and the Templars rather than the path of the Assassins as represented by Minerva. Even Achilles seeks to dissuade Connor from becoming an Assassin. Assuming Connor to be a boy with full knowledge of what he is asking of him, Achilles says, “Oh you might dream of being a hero. Of riding to rescues, of saving the world, but stay this course and the only thing you're gonna be is dead. The world's moved on boy. Best you did too.”

Death, pain, hardship, loss, and public disdain are recurring themes throughout the series. Haytham Kenway recognises that it is the creed that sees the Assassins through the painful life they choose as outcasts and rebels destined to be alone. He rejects the creed as the indoctrination of old men and since many assassins are born into the order one might rightly call the creed an indoctrination of their children. This is a life rejected by Benjamin Tallmadge whose father was an Assassin, but he chose a different life so that he could have a family outside the order. The same can be said of Desmond who was born and raised in the order but ran from it. We are given more examples of people born into the Assassins than we are of those who chose it, whereas all the Templars join as adults.

It can be said that the modern world was born during the Renaissance, but it not come into full maturity until the beginning of the Romantic Era in 1776. The picture presented of the Assassins is one where the Templars embraced the Modern and evolved new strategies to exploit it, but the Assassins are still bound to medieval notions that simply no longer apply.
During the Middle Ages the Templars sought to control people through brute force and during the Renaissance through the force of religion. Both Altair and Ezio were capable of responding on these terms. However, during the modern era the Templars discovered the value of cultivating the illusion of freedom in order to create a plantation of free range humans managed by the Templars. This is something the Assassins are ill-equipped to confront, and we see this in the cynicism of Achilles and the naiveté of Connor.

One might easily see Assassin’s Creed III not as a call to arms but as a revelation of the world as it is. The message is that people by nature value security more than they value freedom. This means that they will willingly submit to any authority capable of providing it. The Templars recognise this fact, so rather than being simply cruel authoritarians according to the stereotype, they are looking to help people by providing security not only from physical threats but also natural ones, like the need for food, shelter, clothing, and medical attention. On the surface this may seem like benevolence, but consider that of the so-called 1% controlling the bulk of America’s wealth, roughly 43% of them live in the counties surrounding Washington DC. The Templars and their cronies are getting rich at the expense of everyone else, nonetheless as long as people feel secure, in every sense of the word, they will accept and even defend the current status.

An important often over-looked point concerning the American Revolution is best exemplified by the Boston Tea Party. Due to changes in the East India Company the price of tea in Boston had never been cheaper, even with the new tax. The people of New England paid far less for tea than the people of Old England. What people miss is that the tea party was not about the amount of tax. The issue was the tax itself as a matter of principle.

The same can be said of arguments against slavery. The average slave was well cared for with food, shelter, clothing, entertainment, and even spending money provided. The issue was not whether the slaves were cared for. It was the principle that no human being should be owned as property.

To put this is a modern context, when people engage in an activity that either national or local government does not approve they seek to ban it in the name of the public health. This was first tried with cigarettes in which a fine, a penalty for usage, was built into the cost of the product and wrongly called “a tax”. Many people supported this because they either did not smoke so the fine did not affect them or they were smokers who knew they should not be smoking anyway. But these health concerns were irrelevant. The principle being established was the power of government to regulate, ban, or fine any legal activity it chooses. Now we see governments placing similar fines on gasoline, trans fats, and even banning large sized sodas in New York City.

Why protest a tea tax when tea has never been cheaper? Why protest slavery when Southern slaves have a better standard of living than Northern factory workers? Why protest fines posing as taxes when I don’t smoke? Because there should be no taxation without representation, because owning another human being is wrong, and because government should not have the power to regulate our consumption. It’s a matter of principle.

Until society as a whole comes to rediscover the concept that principle is more important than immediate benefit, there seems to be no end to this Templar plantation. However, the writers of the game provide two courses of action for the Assassins in response to this subtle form of Templar control.

The first is the way of Minerva. “Let it burn”. This idea in a modern context is that as the system becomes more unstable it begins moving towards its inevitable collapse which is constantly being predicted either through environmental, economic, or social means. Minerva tells us to prepare for it and let it happen so that new life may emerge from the ashes.

The second course of action is somewhat similar and provided in a more subtle form through the example of the Homestead. For readers of Ayn Rand, this may be called “Going Galt”. For survivalists, it’s called “living off the grid”. It involves separating yourself from the Templar plantation, denying their “free stuff”, and living in a community where power is dispersed with each member contributing their time, energy, and skill to others to tend to their mutual needs for food, shelter, clothing, education, medical care, and protection from outsiders.

It seems very likely that this is the final word on the subject. How does the game series end? The Templars win and Assassins Creed III shows us how they won despite the initial victory of principle in the American Revolution. Fast forward two hundred years and the Templars are the mega-corporation called Abstergo and the Assassins are scurrying around like rats in a cave grossly outmanned and out-gunned both militarily and economically.

In a recent interview, Ashraf Ismail, the director of the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed IV, described Assassin’s Creed III as depicting an attempt at democracy that succeeded whereas Assassin’s Creed IV will depicts an attempt that failed.

In many ways it is true that the American Revolution heralded a new era in freedom and the path of the Romantic Era from 1776-1929 has people in a constant movement towards greater freedom, this includes economic freedom for the individual to freeing literal slaves both in America and worldwide. It can be easily said from a Nineteenth Century perspective that the Assassins achieved their goals. Hooray, now we can all go home.

However, from a Twenty-first Century perspective we have seen in the previous century an unprecedented consolidation of power from the individual to the central government, and now local governments can bravely ban anything that a select group decides the people should not have. It seems petty, but it is the principle of the thing.

The Templar secret is just as it is spelled out by Haytham Kenway. People want the freedom to act as they choose, but they do not want the responsibility that comes with the power to act, so they satisfy themselves with the illusions of power, and therefore the illusion of freedom, and look for someone to tell them what to do.

Does that sound crazy? I recently watched a marketing lecture in which a discovery was disclosed. When you ask people what kind of coffee they prefer, the most common answer is dark rich coffee, however when you provide them with various samples to taste and rank the truth is that most Americans prefer weak milky coffee, but who will admit to that?

To those of us conditioned to the ideals of democracy and freedom it may seem absurd to suggest that people do not really want freedom, just as it is absurd to suggest that people prefer weak and milky coffee over a dark roast. The proof of what people are like is expressed in what they choose to do or not do and not in what they say they would do. Historical incidences of people rising up to fight for their freedom are extremely rare in the big picture despite the levels of hardship they endured. Of the few uprisings that succeeded, most quickly fell into another form of authoritarianism. The American War of Independence is more of an exception than a rule and even then only a third of the population supported it.
The Templars accept the world as it is and require no creed.  The Assassins however realise that without a creed, a code of beliefs to discipline oneself to, that our natures would drag us down into complacency and we will accept the unacceptable as “just the way things are”.  As Wendell Phillips said in a speech addressing the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1853:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty—power is ever stealing from the many to the few…. The hand entrusted with power becomes … the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot: only by unintermitted Agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.
Assassins Creed resonates because we all know who the real-life Templars are. They may not be as obvious and extreme as presented in the game, but on some level we know that there are powerful people in government and commerce consolidating their power. When people lose the power to choose and to act on their choices, then they have lost their freedom. Who are the true Assassins? They are the outcasts who resist these powers.

Author’s Note:  It was a bit of a struggle to finish this one because I had an idea that kept distracting me.  Due to the popularity of my previous article on Assassin’s Creed, with nearly 19,000 views over two years, I have decided to expand it into a self-published book to be sold through Amazon.  I hope to write more on the history and mythology that inspired the series, examine the philosophies expressed, and demonstrate how these apply to the modern real world.


  1. I would definitely buy your book!

  2. This is all very true. I am glad to have found this site, as you offer great perspective to my personal philosophies.

  3. I've read through this article 3 times now, and I'm making my way through your others as well. I hope you get your book published, I really enjoy your in-depth analysis of the AC series.