“The Matrix”, a 1999 film by the Wachowski brothers, adapts a number of new and ancient philosophies about the truth behind reality, but the most central to the overarching framework of the film is adapted from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. While “The Matrix” mirrors Plato’s allegory almost exactly in structure, its storyline is far more complex and it is effectively adapted to be a modern sci-fi/action movie. The film draws in a modern audience, who can relate to its protagonist, Neo, because we too may have felt disconnected from present society. Not many people in the past one hundred years have been chained to a cave wall watching shadow puppets.
Just as the prisoners in the cave, Neo is chained to massive wall where machines harvest his body’s heat to power themselves. Neither the prisoners nor the people in the matrix realize that they are prisoners; they are completely unaware the reality they think they know is false. While explaining the matrix, Morpheus says to Neo, “…you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.” “The Matrix” adapts the dark cave, where prisoners are literally chained, to become one of a virtual state, where people are not physically bound, but mentally, furthering their belief that they are free though they are not. This prevents them from doing anything about their imprisonment.
A central theme in both Plato’s Republic (as well as most of his and his teacher Socrates’ philosophy) and “The Matrix” is the idea of human’s limitations in knowledge. According to Andy Clark, Philosopher and Cognitive scientist, “The Matrix” forces its audience to “ask questions about what the actual limits and bounds of our own behavior are.” “The Matrix” manifests these limitations not only in the characters’ acquisition of knowledge, but also of their ability to break physical limitations that the captive humans are still subjected to. Just as Neo is able to perform physically impossible feats once he learns to manipulate the matrix, the philosopher is able to learn infinite wisdom once he breaks free from the cave. John Partridge, professor of Philosophy states that the basis of Socratic wisdom is recognizing one’s limits of understanding and then working toward breaking those limits. Neo applies this to his physical limitations, which the alternate reality has placed upon him. Knowing his limits and knowing that they are not real, allows him to accomplish anything in the matrix, such as stopping bullets in mid-air and flying (which he does in the very last seen of the movie). “The life you’ve led is not, in fact, the totality of what is possible for you. And if you can release yourself from the bonds you don’t even see, you would then be able to see the world as it truly is” (Partridge).
One key dilemma The Matrix elaborates on is whether or not the prisoners want to break free from their perceived reality. In The Cave, Plato casts the cave in a very negative light: the prisoners are chained, the images are dark and distorted, the voices are misconstrued echoes. “Transcending this [imprisoned] state is the aim of genuine education, conceived as a release from imprisonment, a turning or reorientation of one’s whole life, an upward journey from darkness into light” (Grau). While in The Matrix, the virtual reality is a pleasant one, though its inhabitants are mindless, they also have very minor worries and life is not harsh or scary. A major plot twist in the story is when Cypher betrays the group because he prefers the easier way of living provided by the matrix and would rather return than fight the machines. While it’s hard to believe anyone would want to stay chained to the wall of a cave, it is not that hard to imagine staying in a virtual world like the one we live in today as opposed to entering a dark, post-apocalyptic war zone. Robin Hanson argued that though we think we seek out knowledge, most of our brain activity is directed toward pleasing emotions and physical pleasure; we tend not to think about what causes us distress. Though we would like to think we would want to break free from the matrix, she says, in reality our bodies would most likely choose whatever brings most pleasure with the least amount of stress (Hanson). This conflict is also discussed in “Vanilla Sky” a movie about a man who must choose whether or not to continue to live in a perfect dream world, or return to real life where his entire face is deformed. Though in this movie the ‘perfect dream world’ is created by humans and is inevitably flawed, giving more of a motive against it.
“The Matrix”, like Plato’s The Cave, engages the reader in a fictional world that also connects with our own world, causing us to critically analyze our perceptions of reality. “The Matrix” modernizes the original allegory and ads human dilemma, emotions and intense fight scenes to connect the ancient philosophy to a rapidly evolving world.
“The Matrix.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Matrix>.
Hanson, Robin. “Was Cypher Right?: Why We Stay In Our Matrix.” Robin Hanson. GMU, Sept. 2002. Web. 16 Feb. 2012. <http://hanson.gmu.edu/matrix.html>.
Matrix Philosophy – The Cave. YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. 28 Nov. 2008. Web. 16 Feb. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N50NRQB99Sw>.
“Plato’s Cave and “The Matrix”" Philosophers Explore The Matrix. Ed. Christopher Grau. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. 240. Print.
NOTE: I only used Wikipedia for basic plot summary that I could not remember explicitly, and two of the sources in my essay came from the video. Sorry the picture is sideways, but it won’t reorient.