The Matrix is a film that provides a new twist on an ancient Allegory that Plato recorded in his book the Republic. On this episode of the Sci Phi Show we’ll explore the Allegory of the Cave and how the Matrix takes it in a new direction.
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The film the Matrix asks a host of philosophical questions but one of its over riding ideas is Plato’s allegory of the Cave and we will explore this idea on this episode of the Sci Phi Show
The 1999 film the Matrix by the Wachowski brothers is full of a host of interesting philosophical questions but one of the over riding themes of the film is an interesting reversal of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Plato was an ancient Greek philospher, studnet of the founder of Western Philosphy, Socrates, and he talked about the allegory of the Cave in his manuscript the Republic.
The Allegory of the Cave is a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon and seeks to illustrate for the reader the true nature of the world to make us see beyond the world that is in front of us. In the story we are asked to picutre a group of men who have been chained in a cave since infancy and all they can see are flickering shadows of various obejcts being carried by other men in front of a fire and the shadows of these objects are projected on the wall in front of them. The objects are statues and models of objects from the real world, straw and clay men and animals, tress and other things. There are also sounds made by the people moving the objects, but the prisoners attribute these sounds to the shadows on the wall. Over time the men name and seek to understand the shadowy images on the wall in front of them. This is their reality, this is as close as they get to the real world. What the men see is not the real world but this shadowy projection. I think you can see how this fits in with the Matrix films, with humans imprioned in a virtual world by the machines and unable to understand what is really going on as they go about their lives.
Plato then asks us to imagine a man, chained from infancy and knowing no other life, is freed and able to explore his world from a new perspective. He is able to look directly at what would likely be the blinding light of the fire. He struggles to understand what he sees, struggles to make sense of the objects that have been casting the shadows on the walls, to understand the deeper reality behind the objects that have been creating what he took for the total of reality. After some time of adjustment the prisoner is can exit the cave complex and move out into the real world, into the brilliant and again blinding, light of day. To see the real world and see real animals and men and trees, things he had only previously known as flickering shadows on the wall.
At this point what does the man do? Plato suggests that if he goes back into the cave and tries to tell the other prisoners of all the wonders he has seen, what the true nature of the world is then e will be met with scorn and ridicule if he is lucky and possibly violence. The other prisoners in the cave will assume his journey has addled the mans mind. He will be babbling of things they have no experience of, things they can’t even conceive of because they are so wildly out of their experience and the freed man will no longer even be all that good at identifying and understanding the shadows projected on the wall because his eye sight has adjusted to this wider reality. He no longer is adjusted to the dim light of the cave but the brilliant light of the sun. The men in the cave, even if offered their freedom would, Plato concludes, probably not leave the cave, all they have ever known, because the experience of leaving the cave seems to have driven the other prisoner mad, with his talk of real objects and the sun and other wonders.
Part of the purpose of the Allegory of the Cave is to illustrates Plato’s “big idea”, his Theory of the Forms. The forms are the perfect representaion of things that exist in some higher realm that all our earthly things take their form and nature from. The forms are the “really real”, the highest and most basic nature of reality. Plato envisioned the forms existing in some sort of etheral realm of ideas, later Philosophers, the Christian Platonists envisioned the forms as existing in the mind of God. The idea of the forms is an idea we will have to return to in a later episode and explore more fully.
How the Allegory of the Cave acts as the backdrop to the Matrix films, or at least the first one, strikes me as quite interesting. At first glance the analogy seems obvious, the denizens of the Matrix are the prisoners in the cave and the crew of the Nebecenezzer and the inhabitants of Zion are the freed prisoners who have walked free of their shackles and seen the real world. But this is where it gets interesting. Unlike in Plato’s Allegory those freed from the cave and able to wander in the world don’t see a greater more perfect and more beautriful world but one so much worse and more horrible than their existence in the Matrix. Far from being a higher level of existence this world is bleak, black and destroyed. Infested with killer robot squids, horrible bland food and itchy ill fitting clothing.
So what should we make of this version of the Allegory of the Cave, it seems like so many of the ideas contained in the Matrix to turn the usual understanding on its head. Given the choice between life in Zion and on the Nebecchenezza I think I can understand why Cypher would choose the blissful ignorance of the matrix over the harsh bleak reality of life in the real world.
In Plato’s vision of the world we have an eternal realm that contains the forms and as our understanding grows and as we undertake the philosphers task we grow in understanding and appreciation of the forms. That as we look and understand the world we find chinks and cracks in the this world, a chance to see outside the cave and glimpse the real world. To move beyond this mere shadow and move closer to the really real. To move outside of the cave, to go beyond the flickering images and shadows, to get beyond this world, to leave the cave.
The world of the Matrix presents us with a decidely different vision a bleak and horrible one. The comfortable fantasy existence of the Matrix is so much better and easier than the real world. You might struggle to some degree but nothing like in the real world and there is no giant robot squids out to tear you limb from limb. There is truth in the real world, the truth about what the world is really like, not the illusion created by the machine overlords. But it is a dark and terrible truth, a truth of human kind locked in an endless war that can probably never be won. A world that awaits a messiah figure in Neo, but a world where leaving the cave doesn’t lead to a bright outside world, a world with the sun, something so much greater than the flicker firelight that illuminated the cave, but a blasted and barren world with less light and few of the pleasures of the illusory world that has been left behind.
William Shakespeare in his play Hamlry has Hamlet observe, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy Horatio”. The answer that the world of the matrix gives to this question is an interesting one, because it asserts that that statement has it backwards. In truth there are far fewr things than are dreamt of in the philosophy of Horatio. That reality is less diverse and wonderful than even in Hortaio’s reductionist philosophy.
I think Plato would have recognized this retelling of his story of the CAve but would have been surprised that people could think that leaving the cave and experincing the real world would be in a sense to move to a darker and even more cramped and unpleasnt cave. Perhaps Plato’s Cave and the Wachazki’s Matrix represent the funadmental difference of pointo f view between the acnient and modern world.
This does suggest an interesting paradox, the ancients had a more expansive and wonderous view of the world, they saw it as so much more than the mere appearance, and they living in a time of disease, pain, suffering and before the discovery of antibiotics and anathestics. The modern though has a world where so many of these struggles and hardships are overcome. Where strep throat isn’t a possible death sentence but a minor inconvenicne, where going to the dentist or needing surgery is certainly unpleasant but relativly pain free experience. Yet we view the world as that of the Matrix, amazing material comfort and pleasure but in reality there is nothing but a bleak and blasted landscape that we use the pleasures to distract us from. I’m not sure who has it worse off, although in fairness I do say this as a modern who has enjoyed much of the benifits of these pain reduction technologies and live in a society where obesisty is regarded as a far more pressing problem than starvation.
Which version of the Allegory of the Cave do you find best reflects reality? Which would you rather? You can find more information on the different ideas contained in this episode in the show notes on sciphishow.com. I can be reached with comments via firstname.lastname@example.org, you can leave comment in the show notes at sciphishow.com and you can also leave comments on our Facebook page Facebook.com/sciphishow, you can also follow the show via thesciphishow on twitter. If there is a topic you would like me to look into please don”t hesitate to ask. And don’t forget, it’s Phi with a P H.