The Matrix Philosophy
There are key elements of Philosophy, Theology, Teleology and Ontology present throughout The Matrix Series. The overall story involves a critique of a society much like our own which has allowed technological controls to run amok, impinging on freedoms, but also many more themes, centering on ages-old philosophical, religious, and technical issues.
Philosophical InfluencesIn all of three films, there are a multitude of references, from Gnosticism to Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, with concepts of Purpose, Enlightenment, Nirvana and Reincarnation or Rebirth, Free Will versus Destiny, Perception, Maya, Karma and perusal of Existence itself. In many ways The Matrix is about a hyperreality, an awareness and maintenance of the idea that the material, physical world is an illusion.
MythsChristian fans say the world we live in is a "Matrix", of sorts, and the only way of escaping is through achieving enlightenment or everlasting peace. Notable "escapees" over the years have included Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth and Muhammad. These fans embrace The Matrix, and believe there are many simularities to the New Testament with Neo, Morpheus and Cypher playing the parts of Jesus, John the Baptist and Judas respectively. However, Christian anarchists believe the main difference between The Matrix and our outside world lies in their paradise, rather than the dark future portrayed in the films.
The Matrix Trilogy also follows all phases of the Campbellian heroic myth arc with near-literal precision, including even minor details like the circular journey, the crucial battle happening underground, and even the three-headed immortal enemy (the three agents). The character of the Oracle is strongly similar to that of the Oracle of ancient Greek legend. In particular, her warning to Neo that he faces a choice between saving his own life or Morpheus' is very reminiscent of the warning that the Oracle gave to King Leonidas when setting out for the Battle of Thermopylae. In the Greek legend, she warns Leonidas that either his city will be left in ruins, or that a Spartan king must die, thus Leonidas is left with the choice of his own life or the survival of his city. It could be further argued that had Neo chosen to save his own life, Smith would have gained the access codes he needed from Morpheus and the city of Zion would have fallen. Thus, ultimately, Neo's choice was the same as that of Leonidas: his own life, or the fate of a city.
TechniquesThere have been several books and webpages written about the philosophy of The Matrix. One of the major debates arising from the film is the age-old philosophical question: Is our world real, or is it merely an illusion? The ideas underlying The Matrix have been explored in philosophical texts in epistemology, such as Plato's allegory of the cave and Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy. In a well-known Solipsistic thought experiment, the subject is a brain in a vat of liquid; in the Matrix, Neo is a body in a vat.
Postmodern thought plays a tangible role in the films. In an opening scene of the first film, Neo hides an illegal MiniDisc in a false copy of Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation, a work that describes modern life as a hyperreal experience of simulation based upon simulacra, or elements of presentation. Interpretations of The Matrix often reference Baudrillard's philosophy to demonstrate that the movie is an allegory for contemporary experience in a heavily commercialized, media-driven society, especially of the developed countries. Postmodern references are scattered throughout the films, in fact.
IdeologiesSome academics have argued that the Matrix series is consistent with a Marxist analysis of society. Professor Martin Danahay and then PhD candidate David Rieder co-wrote a chapter of the best-selling book The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (ISBN 081269502X) in which they argue that the movie gives a visual image of Marx's ideas, particularly in the scene where Morpheus tells new recruit Neo that the computers have reduced him to nothing more than a battery. "Humans in The Matrix must produce electricity to run the machines that enslave them, just as workers in Marx's analysis must produce surplus value through their work," Danahay explained. "Also, the rebels in the movie liberate Morpheus from an office, and they rescue Neo from his white-collar job. The rebels are trying to get workers to wake up and realize they are being exploited, which is one of Marx's aims, too." Danahy and Rider also argue that rebellion against the machines' domination is an analogy for the modern-day workplace with the evil agents dressed like corporate executives, and Neo escaping from his cubicle to escape them. When he ambushes the evil agents later in the movie, they are in an office high-rise complete with impersonal decor. (Source: Arlington Star-Telegram, June 10, 2003).
Similarly, the Maoist International Movement has adopted the Matrix as one of its favourite films, asserting about the first that they "could not have asked for more in a two and a half hour Hollywood movie", viewing it as an exercise in dialectics in which a new mode of production is explored, the "battery mode of production". The youth wing of the Russian Communist Party has also embraced the Matrix and its sequels with youth wing leader Oleg Bondarenko asserting there is "no difference" between Neo and Lenin as revolutionaries.
There are also elements of conspiracy theories in the films. Similar to John Carpenter's They Live, the Matrix is presented as the 'System', which secretly controls everything and which, according to the theorists, will eventually consume everyone. In the Matrix, high positions in companies and organisations are held only by those who are part of the System (programs, like Smith or Ramakandra). The Agents are those who uphold the 'order' and keep the 'consipracy' safe, like the MIB of pop culture.
Discussion & CritiqueThe following is my own edited text, adapted discussion previously posted elsewhere. M.R.M. Parrott
- also read: The Illusion of Choice
Despite a persistent view that only the first film is "philosophical", each film is just as philosophical as another, it is just that they cover different areas and themes in Philosophy, and illustrate the increasing stakes of each level. Generally, the films are about:
- M1 - Birth/Awareness (self)
- M2 - Life/Love (world)
- M3 - Death/Sacrifice (universe)
- M1 - Epistemology/Mind (self)
- M2 - Ethics/Morality (world)
- M3 - Ontology/Metaphysics (universe)
There is a complete and consistent, even Neo-Kantian, system of Philosophy described through the simulations within the movies, and the layers of metaphorical signposts from our cultures are prolific. The sequels are harder to get into, but just as rewarding. After all, the sequels couldn't just repeat the same Platonic-Cartesian mental reality puzzles from the first film, as Philosophy doesn't stop there, either. There is a unifying circle of themes traveling through the films, from Epistemology and Mind, through Ethics and Morality, to Ontology and Metaphysics, then leading back to Epistemology, and so on, to reinform the questions again. Reloaded, more than many critics have assumed, holds many keys to unlocking the trilogy. As any good second act of three, M2 also demonstrates the full stakes of the story, while Revolutions realizes and resolves them.
"The prophecy was a lie"Throughout, there are many hints that even the "real" machine world was just another Matrix program, which further ties in with Baudrillard's desert of the real - the "precession of simulacra". When we look back at Morpheus introducing Neo to what the Matrix it's even more meaningful and ironic. One simulacra is that of fighting - a question bothering some from day one with the Matrix films - and why fighting is the only metaphor/meme being used. What is it about "wire fu" that is so meaningful to the story, some could ask, especially in lieu of so many other choices or layers? Why does Neo even bother to physically fight, if he is so powerful? The answer could be that even that is a simulacra and simulation of the real fight, of freedom over tyranny. Beyond just questioning the fighting metaphor, beyond a mere need for action and marketing tie-ins for the kids, we must see the hidden purpose of the ubiquitous fighting throughout the films.
But, while we were so intent on the sequels aligning with our own particular vision of what we wanted them to be, some of us fans seem to have wanted the first film to be remade two times, because that's what most sequels seem to be these days. Yet, the Matrix films were indeed written together as a true trilogy, and operate as a trilogy on many levels, beyond the George Lucas approach to trilogies as repetitive "acts" with repeated themes, and more along the lines of Peter Jackson's interpretation of Lord of the Rings.
There is actually much more going on philosophically in M2 and M3, but most of us fail to notice it on the first viewings, because we seem to want more of the "brain in a vat" theory, as if that were the only thing about the Matrix or Philosophy in general, and as if the first film didn't drive the point home clearly enough. The dumbed-down descriptions from some posters online are laughable, if innocent and naive, as they miss the import of what is happening through the progress of the trilogy. Hint: the upshot of both Zion and the machine world is that they are not real.
When we think of Reloaded and Revolutions not being as philosophical M1, then we are missing all the many clues which destroy that simplistic impression. Beyond the entertainment layers, M2 and M3 are actually hard - hard to figure out, and perhaps, hard to appreciate by the mass culture. The first film is easy for anyone to understand and like, at least on the first few levels. We must always remember what Cornell West said while filming Reloaded and Revolutions (which were produced together): "There are 40 layers going on in these films. Some people only come away appreciating 1 or 5, others can appreciate all 40." After reflecting on them, watching them carefully over and over, we come around to letting go of our preconditions of what they were supposed to be. These "sequel" films deserve far more credit than many are willing to give for being every bit as philosophical and original as the first.
"The problem is choice"For example, some refer to the Oracles comment to Neo that, the Architect "can't see past any choice." In other words, they think she was saying that what the Architect said would be the consequences of Neos choices weren't the consequences at all. Yet, what the Oracle was saying was the Architect would not have understood Neo's choice, that it was a "quintessential delusion", but that she would have understood it, or at least, she thought she could. The Oracle had intuition, we must remember, and thus some appreciation for love, but the Architect was all about logic. It is not that there was only one choice the Architect could not see past, but the one in question was key, and the consequences of the choice were quite real, at least within the context of the "game" of the story.
Talking about "levels of survival" wouldn't be coherent unless the machines were able to survive. Unless it were a bluff, that is, or more accurately, an algorithm. Some completely miss the ethical reasoning component of Reloaded in this way. Sure there are levels of survival, but forcing a shutdown/genocide brings us to the full expression of the choice as ethical test. The Architect assumes Neo failed the test, and is unemotional about the consequences, hence his later comment to the Oracle, that she had "played a dangerous game".
Some suggested that when Smith goes out of control in M3, why couldnt the machines simply turn off the Matrix, which was their solution to the five previous repetitions of the Matrix going out of control. Yet, this wasn't a viable solution at all, nor was it even a possibility this 6th time. The machines reloaded the Matrix using the prime program and intuitive code from each "One". Turning it off would mean killing everyone connected to it, from which they would have much trouble generating more "copper tops". It was in their best interest to get Neo to follow the path of the One, but "things are a little different this time", as we see. Neo has the "Love" component the other Ones did not have specifically, and he also eventually understands - first clued by the spoon given to him in M2, reminding us all of the spoon in M1 - that even the Machine World isn't real, either. Thus, the whole story is "just another system of control", not just the "vat" theory from M1.
Smiths anti-ethical motives make sense in this context, and many seem to miss his character development, as he is much more than a textbook antagonist. "What do all men with power want?", the Oracle says, "More power." Smith was the agent who found and arrested the hacker, but then through the course of the trilogy becomes the hacker himself, and also the cancer, and even the flesh as Bane, he so hated in M1. The villain becomes that which he hates, and his hatred of humanity is expresed through their "destruction", taking over nearly every human "input/ouput" program inside the Matrix by the end of MIII. "You like what I've done with the place?", he boasts, to Neo. What is the "opposite" of a Christ figure? Anti-Christ, a character wholly interested in power and control, an arch-enemy of Christ.
"The only way to get there, is together"Merv, or the Merovingian, by contrast, was not an agent or an Oracle, but a communications traffic program from an older version of the Matrix, now using the Train Man as a rogue system bus. Merv was a much more flat character in the story, but along with the Oracle, helped Neo to see he had to willingly surrender to Smith in the end, sacrificing his life so that Smith could be defeated. The chain reaction ensuing at the end of M3 had to initiate from the source, then, resulting in the destruction/deletion of the choice and anti-choice programs, Smith and Neo, within the Matrix. The machines are not causing this reaction, but are channelling it through Neo's "real" body via the source.
Thus, the "choice" program of the One was merged with its opposite and negative, via the intuitive program of the Oracle, thus destroying and neutralizing both programs, or resolving the choice, both ethically and systemically. But also, the One sacrifices himself as a gesture toward the Deus ex Machina, so that Peace could be achieved at last, thus expressing the choice in a universal way by denying the self alone. The Oracle later felt she would see Neo again only because she "believed", which echoes Neo's self-belief in M1. Her intuition does not extend beyond the Matrix, though, nor does the Architect's logic.
Love and Life are the subjects of M2, but what conquered "all" in the end of M3 was self-sacrifice, to which love was only a vehicle of understanding it, and against which was opposed the self-love of the Smith program. Such self-sacrifice would not have been fully possible with the previous One programming, and only became possible through selfless love of another program, Trinity. The previous Ones had survived, at least for a few years, into the reloaded Matrix versions, as Morpheus notes of his version in M1, that there was man born inside who freed the first of them.
Without this sacrificial component, the Architect's plan for the Machines would have been fullfilled just as before, Neo would have become that man born inside, to set the first of the new Matrix rebels free for the next reload of the Matrix. Thus, the whole 100 year virtual reality cycle would have to be completed yet again...except things were different. The Oracle was tired of the cycle and took a risk to end it, Smith was affected by his enounter with choice, and Neo was capable of the "connection" the word 'love' implies.
"Just, what is control?"Therefore, if the second and third films had so little intellectual content, like so many Rambo movies, the many intellecutuals online would not be discussing them, and we would not have had so many questions, problems, and insights about them. Good intellectual dramatic works generate questions and true discussion: That is their purpose. The Matrix films, all three of them, get us thinking about big things in unique ways, when so much culture around us is telling us to stop thinking and just buy something.
Is this not a basic purpose of Philosophy??
- M.R.M. Parrott
Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article "The Matrix series" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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