Arthur Throws a Templar Tantrum

by Arthur B

James Wasserman's The Templars and the Assassins is not Assassin's Creed fanfic, but then again it kind of may as well be.
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Some incidents in history seem to attract more than their fair share of legends; for instance, whilst the Crusades in general constituted a massive and pervasive disruption in the histories of Europe and the Middle East alike, people seem to get especially fixated on the Knights Templar, a sect of Christian warrior-monks, and the so-called Assassins, the militant arm of the Nizari sect of Ismailis (the Ismailis themselves being a splinter sect of Shia Islam). The idea that these organisations concealed a secret doctrine that has been transmitted to subsequent secret societies is a godsend when it comes to speculative historical fantasy, or if you want to give your particular occult group a bit of extra gravitas, but it has resulted in the accretion of all sorts bits of questionable scholarship around the subject penned by authors at times more interested in pushing an ideology or promoting a legend than making a credible historical argument.

Take, as an example, The Templars and the Assassins: The Militia of Heaven by James Wasserman. Wasserman is a long-standing member of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), an initiatory society primarily associated with Aleister Crowley and his Thelemite religious teachings. Wasserman assures the reader that he is going to start off by laying out the facts about the historical background to the Crusades and the development of Islam, and the recorded facts about the Assassins and the Templars, before providing his more opinionated conclusions. However, right out of the gate he ends up promoting a range of personal opinions that became evident to me even though I’m no professional historian myself.

For instance, Wasserman isn’t even able to finish the first chapter without making his particular political stance extremely clear - namely, that he’s a NRA-supporting hardline libertarian prone to spouting hard-right Republican talking points. He talks about “Statism” in a way which fairly clearly indicates his libertarian political outlook (if the citation of Atlas Shrugged as a useful reference on political conspiracies in the bibliography wasn't enough of a giveaway), and he openly buys into the CFR-Bilderberg-Trilateral Commission conspiracy theories of the John Birch era. (I swear, 700 years from now when those institutions are long dead we’ll have secret societies claiming descent from them). He also seems to be not keen on democracy either, basically equating it with mob rule and lynchings - a position regularly taken by libertarians who resent the ability of a majority-supported government to place restrictions on them.

This libertarianism puts Wasserman in a tricky position; on the one hand, he purports to look to personal liberty as his major guiding principle, but on the other hand he’s in deep with the OTO, an organisation built around a hierarchical power structure and dissemination of information which would seem to have a certain inbuilt spiritual elitism. Yes, Crowley did declares “Do What Thou Will Shall Be The Whole Of The Law” and “Love Is The Law, Love Under Will”, but then he spent much of his spiritual system trying to convince practitioners of specific, idiosyncratic definitions of Will, and Law, and Love and for that matter Do, Thou, Whole, What, Shall, Under, Is, Be, The and Of. (Crowley’s tendency to use misleading terms is illustrated in the “Scientific Illuminism” that he promoted and Wasserman openly supports; this is a philosophy which claims to follow “the method of science, the aim of religion”, but Crowley’s grasp of the scientific method seems to have been weak his writing does not seem to include the sort of controls, lab notes, and testable hypotheses that would back that statement up.)

Tangentially speaking, I do find it odd how people who get deep into conspiracy theory tend to behave in exactly the sort of conspiratorial way they accuse others of. For further examples, see Scientology, see the militia movement, see the bizarre activities of Lyndon LaRouche and his supporters, see Donald Trump going after the Clinton Foundation whilst using the Trump Foundation as a personal piggy bank. Is this some form of projection, or an assumption that t's better to do unto others before they do unto you?

To get back to Wasserman’s shaky political ground, though, he specifically goes out of his way to slams secular humanism and moral relativism - drawing comparisons between these principles and the purported moral depravity of late Roman empire - in terms strikingly similar to that which fundamentalists of the US religious right have done for the past few decades. Frankly, this is an incredibly odd and short-sighted position for an OTO member to take. Secularity and a rejection of absolutism in the religious sphere is responsible for the very personal and religious freedom which Wasserman prizes.

The political forces out to overthrow secular humanism and moral relativism in America would, if they got into power and were able to implement that vision, not hesitate to go after a magical order following the teachings of a famed bisexual drug user who called himself “the Great Beast”, declared that “The industrial use of Semen will revolutionise human society”, and incorporated his sex magick teachings into the selfsame magical order. In short, the OTO would be among the first groups banned by hardline fundamentalists if they were able to undermine the First Amendment to a sufficient extent to allow them to do so, and Wasserman’s embrace of their rhetoric and politics makes him a turkey avidly advocating for Christmas.

(Wasserman’s position gets even more odd and inconsistent when he tries to push his spiritual ideas. Bizarrely, mere paragraphs after his slamming of “secular humanism and moral relativism” later he talks of how Julian the Apostate was “imbued with the faith and asceticism of that rare soul who achieves spiritual greatness” - so much for a just-the-facts approach. And for that matter, doesn’t a position which wants to provide moral and spiritual credibility both to aspects of Christianity and to Julian the Apostate more or less demand a certain amount of moral relativism? In the same paragraph in which Christianity is spoken of as having had repeatedly corrupt leadership and doctrines responsible for the “suffering and weakness of Western civilisation”, supposedly it also served a higher purpose of leading generations of human beings to a “higher stage of spiritual evolution” - rather depends on your conception of spiritual evolution, and a rather “end justifies the means” way of looking at it.)

Wasserman’s political stance does not only leave him with strange bedfellows; it also leads him into flat-out factual error. At one point in the first chapter he goes off on a tangent about “judicial activism” - a common target of Republican talk radio anger - when discussing the development of common law in England. In process of doing so, he demonstrates that he doesn't even slightly understand the basic principles of common law. He claims that in a common law system, legislation from representative bodies is only source of law, and judges cannot make or reinterpret law from the bench. This is absolutely and completely incorrect and is the precise reverse of the truth: in a common law system, judicial precedent can establish new principles of law, and in fact the body of precedents established by judges is “common law”, as opposed to statute law.

I’m harping on about this point because it demonstrates that Wasserman is either willing to make grand, sweeping statements about subjects he actually doesn’t have the most basic, simple understanding of, based solely on the say-so of those he ideologically agrees with, or that Wasserman is willing to flat-out misrepresent facts for the sake of making a point. Whichever of these is the case isn’t so much important as the fact that one of them is the case, and as a result Wasserman’s credibility is badly dented; if he can’t even be trusted to report the facts accuracy, why should anyone give any credence to the conclusions he draws from those facts, especially when those conclusions can tend to be a little tenuous?

This isn’t the only major factual error I noted before I’d even finished the first chapter. Wasserman weirdly talks about Maccabean revolt as though it were a war of conquest rather than a provincial rebellion. He buys the whole “effete decadent Romans fell to rugged, many Germans” myth hook, line and sinker, despite the fact that the fall of Rome is generally accepted to have been a bit more complicated than that. He declares that Latin “became a dead language” with the fall of Western Empire, which is utter nonsense, since it was still lingua franca of the region for over a thousand years after that. He uncritically regurgitates the baseless “droit du seigneur” myth. He declares that personalised romantic love was not known in Western culture prior to medieval troubadours’ tales of courtly love, which rather leaves Sappho’s poetry and Plato’s philosophy of love out in the cold. Early on in his discusson of the history of Islam he refers to Osama bin Laden as a “Muslim leader” without qualification, like Bin Laden was a leader with political legitimacy and standing rather than a renegade terrorist.

This factual unreliability is exacerbated by Wasserman being a bit inconsistent about his footnotes, and in particular his tendency to just do without them for long stretches of text, which gets problematic when he starts reporting especially contentious or apocryphal-sounding stories, like the legend about the Templar leaders cursing enemies to death (with apparent efficacy) when they were burned for heresy. The bibliography provided contains a mixture of standard references and less credible sources, such as Nesta Webster, the notoriously antisemitic conspiracy theorist whose work pushed the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion as though their authenticity were some how an open question, rather than them being the laughably transparent forgery they clearly were. (Webster was one of the early 20th century theorists responsible for digging up the centuries-stale Illuminati conspiracy theories; it is ironic that Wasserman would seem to entertain suspicions about supposed Illuminati fronts like the Council on Foreign Relations, given the Illuminati aim of overthrowing church and state would presumably appeal to libertarians.)

By giving lip service to the forms of academia without substantiating a great swathe of his assertions, Wasserman’s volume looks superficially credibly researched whilst, as I have illustrated above, being no such thing. I can spot less outright factual inaccuracies in the long sections discussing the Templars and the Assassins themselves, but because Wasserman precedes these by completely undermining his own credibility I find that I can’t trust them very much either, and perhaps I would spot more errors if I were more studied in the areas of history in question.

On top of that, Wasserman draws tenuous conclusions about the organisations he discusses that don’t seem to be well-supported even by the historical facts he presents. From an early stage in the book he pushes idea of mystical societies generally having the same general common underlying doctrines, which I think rather underestimates human creativity and relies on a mix of questionable statements about contact with higher intelligences and broad generalisations that more or less any theistic group could be mashed into with enough effort.

This comes out at several points in his reflections on the Assassins, in which he swallows the idea that the Ismailis had a rigid structure of nine grades of initiation, though most allusions to this come from anti-Ismaili sources. He also provides an entirely speculative outline of that structure, declaring with more or less no evidence whatsoever that the topmost grade had parallels to Crowley’s Thelemite philosophy. Despite claiming not to follow the anti-Ismaili propaganda line that the different levels of initiation led followers to step by step to atheism, he still pushes idea that initiates progressively abandoned religious restrictions. His speculation becomes completely farcical when he ascribes the whole “Nothing is true, everything is permissible” quote to Assassin founder Hassan-i-Sabbah, when that quote was invented and attributed to Sabbah by Vladimir Bartol for his 1938 novel Alamut.

Concerning the Templars, Wasserman argues that Bernard of Clairvaux was engaging in substantial theological creativity in devising the Rule of the order by creating a scope for warrior-monks in Christianity which wasn’t there before; he uses this to suggest that the creation of the Templars constituted some sort of spiritual great leap forward. However, this misses several points that he outlines in his own summary of the history which, taken together, makes the Templar Rule seem not a revolutionary document but merely an evolutionary summation of trends that had already existed.

Firstly, the Templars were already in existence for some time when Bernard wrote the Rule, so it wasn’t a matter of Bernard inventing the idea of warrior-monks out of whole cloth so much as it coming down to him scrabbling for an after-the-fact theological justification for an institution which already existed. Secondly, the Templars were not the first militant order, having been preceded by the Hospitallers. Thirdly, the First Crusade itself rammed the idea of warfare as a religious duty into Western Christianity, well before the Templars were even founded. Fourthly, Bernard puts a lot of emphasis on the Templars being a revival of a lost ideal of knighthood - in other words, he’s tapping into an idea which already existed in folklore and legend, rather than introducing a new idea. (Indeed, Wasserman himself notes how the Rule likes to present the Templars as the revival of this tradition, like later secret societies would like to present themselves as being successors to the Templars, but of course it is one thing to claim that and another thing to have a genuine institutional link to those predecessors.)

More broadly, in his reflections Wasserman fallaciously argues that the lack of any credible evidence of Templar heresy somehow has equal evidential weight for the lack of evidence of the absolute absence of heresy from their ranks. He attempts to liken claimed Templar sexual rites to older traditions, but surely that can be explained by accusers drawing on past stories about heresies - such as the practices attributed to the Cathars and Bogomils - when drawing up their accusations and torturing bogus confessions out of their prisoners. Indeed, Wasserman specifically claims some sort of relationship between the Cathars and the Templars, on the shaky ground that both happened to be present in the Languedoc region, but given that the Templars tended to be participants in the persecution of the Cathars an adoption of Catharism by Templars seemed unlikely - but if the French authorities wanted to paint Templars as heretics, drawing parallels with Cathars an obvious tack to take since that would be a heresy the French authorities had extensive experience with. Wasserman himself notes that none of the Templars died proclaiming and defending heretical beliefs, unlike Cathars; had any significant number of Templars adopted Cathar beliefs, surely some of them would have followed the example of Cathars when it came to their martyrdom.

Wasserman tries to argue that as an institution, the Templars were probably largely innocent, but they may have had an inner corps of heretics. However, he completely elides question of how such an inner sect would have been able to get away with it without being spotted and put down by the rest of the Order. The information Wasserman himself provides on the strict Rule the Templars were governed by, and the mass self-criticism and mutual accusation sessions and the like the Templars took part in, suggests an organisation where personal privacy wasn’t really a thing. The Templars were more than willing to punish their own with incredible harshness for infractions, so why would they have tolerated a sniff of heresy? Wasserman wants to argue that Templars went further than anyone in terms of picking up aspects of local culture, including local mystical traditions, in the Holy Land; however, the structure and practices of the Templars seems to have been designed with an eye to keeping them culturally and ideologically isolated and self-policed, like the Sea Org in Scientology or something. Likewise, Wasserman’s attempt to insinuate that there was some sort of tradition of progressive initiation into heretical secrets in the Templars relies on a comparison to the purported initiatory practices of the Assassins and other Nizari Ismailis - which are, again, as he admits built entirely on supposition and guesswork riffing to an extent on anti-Ismaili sources.

It is important to Wasserman to argue that Templars had some form of hidden knowledge, whether this was held by them as an institution or by a small group within them going off-mission, because this is necessary for his concluding argument that presents them as a major link in development of Western mysticism by providing a means for Islamic mysticism to be injected into the West. However, the Templars were alone in their incursion into the Holy Land, and were not alone in picking up local customs and ideas - we Europeans finally picked up on Arabic numerals from the Crusades, for crying out loud. It is far more credible to believe that there was not one single narrow stream of ideas being passed from institution to institution, but a broad river of influence which didn’t involve anyone specific necessarily having to pick up stuff from anyone specific to permit a particular idea or set of ideas to make their way to Europe. You can trace a tradition of horror in literature back from Thomas Ligotti and Ramsey Campbell through H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Robert Chambers, Oscar Wilde, Mary Shelley and Anne Radcliffe, but that doesn’t mean that those were all the secret initiates of a society of authors. Nobody needs to be initiated by someone who can trace their line of initiation back to Sophocles to study and understand Plato.

Of course, if this mystical knowledge was picked up by a variety of people and attained through a variety of routes, that means that it isn’t especially important or necessary to join Freemasonry or the OTO or some other organisation claiming some sort of organisational or ideological link to the Templars in order to get at that information. That is especially true today, when there basically isn’t anything all that secret guarded by those organisations in terms of doctrine and ritual in terms of major, substantive information that you can’t pick up through independent study.

Wasserman entirely fails to provide convincing evidence of any cultural exchange between Templars and the Assassins, the only contacts he is able to firmly cite constituting political alliances and conflicts of the whole “is the enemy of my enemy really my friend?” sort. In particular, based on the information Wasserman offers it doesn’t seem possible to assert that either organisation had an especially consistent policy on how they would interact with the other party; the Templars chose to respond on the Assassins’ activities based on the current context and situation, and the Assassins did likewise. As a result, it doesn’t seem like the relationship between the Templars and the Assassins was ever sufficiently stable and cordial to permit for the sort of extensive cultural exchange, including the transmission of closely-guarded Assassins secrets, that is necessary for Wasserman’s thesis.

Precisely because Wasserman takes this business of secrecy and initiation seriously, he doesn’t really give much of an in-depth study of what he believes the secret doctrine actually was, because presumably he considers important parts of it to be, well, secret, and therefore not something to be published in a mass market paperback. His outline of the Ismaili initiatory process suggests that it culminated in a Gnostic philosophical search for spiritual truth, but he doesn’t give many suggestions as to what the actual conclusions of that search may have been.

Wasserman uses his concluding overview of the development of the Western mystical tradition (as he sees it) to restate the version of occult history promulgated first by the Golden Dawn and then modified and added to by Crowley’s successor organisations, the A.’.A.’. and the OTO. He also accepts promotes the claim of his particular OTO faction (the “Caliphate”) to be the major current expositor of the Western mystical tradition (based on Crowley’s claim to be the new link with the inner masters of the Golden Dawn once that organisation collapsed) whilst completely glossing over the existence of any of the other OTO factions, which feels intellectually dishonest in a section which purports to provide an overview of Western occultism.

The OTO is by no means the first organisation to claim or insinuate that they are the inheritors of a mystical tradition running down through the Templars. This isn’t really the case; at most, they can claim to be the latest of a series of secret societies who liked to claim to have some sort of Templar inheritance, but whose claims seem better regarded as a sort of foundational legend to reflect the group’s doctrines and mythology rather than any sort of historical truth. The Golden Dawn-A.’.A.’.-OTO lineage is no more the inheritor of ancient Templar secrets than Wicca is the inheritor of anything more ancient than Gerald Gardner’s Goddess-oriented remix of Golden Dawn practices. This doesn’t invalidate them as religious practices, but they don’t get a special licence to promote revisionist inaccuracies about history any more than anyone else does.

But, of course, the very factors prompting the OTO and its members to want to claim to be inheritors of Templar wisdom also applied to the preceding secret societies - the Masons, the Rosicrucians, and the like - who fancied claiming to be the inheritors of Templar secrets. And the more societies that did this, the more they convinced themselves they were onto a good thing. In tracing history of secret societies claiming connections to Templars or Rosicrucians and the like, Wasserman makes the cardinal error of reading a claim of such a connection as being actual evidence of such a connection - an error which, to be fair, doesn’t originate with him but seems to be entirely pervasive in esoteric circles.

Umberto Eco lays out this whole exercise in collective fantasy in Foucault’s Pendulum. Wasserman at his more factual reads like Wikipedia; at his more speculative, he reads like one of the various crank authors the vanity press at the heart of Eco’s novel publishes. If anyone who has read Eco wants to assess just how accurate his assessment of esoteric literature surrounding the Templars is, The Templars and the Assassins is a perfect example of the genre, and should be read more as an example of what esotericists believe about the subject matter, rather than an accurate and insightful history of the actual organisations.
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Comments (go to latest)
Robinson L at 22:30 on 2016-12-15
Oh, this was such a hoot, thanks Arthur.

Although given the many, many, many instances of inaccuracy, distortion, and flat-out wishful thinking you’ve enumerated in this review, I feel like you’re being over generous to the book by giving it the “Non-Fiction” tag.
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