The Movie ‘The Matrix’ and Plato’s ‘Allegory of a Cave’: How a Paradigmatic Shift in Our Worldview can cause Cognitive Dissonance and Intellectual Disequilibrium. (Or, learning you were wrong all along can make you sick to your stomach.)
by Rob Westerlund
SPOILER ALERT! This blog explores many of the key components of the movie The Matrix. I highly recommend the reader screen the movie prior to reading this post in order to fully enjoy the twists and turns of the movie and to better understand the themes of this post. This is also a spoiler alert for those who have not read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and reading this article would ruin the surprise of that story, but considering it was written around 2300 years ago, I feel like you’ve had enough time to get around to reading it, so what are you waiting for? The Allegory of the Cave can be found in Plato’s The Republic. You can watch an animated presentation of The Allegory of the Cave by clicking here.
In a Nutshell: The movie The Matrix is loosely based on the Platonic tale of the Allegory of the Cave in which Socrates taught his students that some young people are so limited in their upbringing by a lack of education and exposure to the real world that they grow up developing a false worldview and when they finally find out that the real world is very different from what they thought it was they often get sickened by the thought, and sometimes deny the truth.
On Easter weekend of 1999 a groundbreaking film went into wide release around the country called The Matrix.
The film was remarkable for its story, characters, cinematography, and message. Many people claimed this film was an allegory of the Christ story, a prophesied messiah who rises from the dead and is triumphant over evil. Others claimed that this story was a primer on Buddhism, illustrating how the world around us is but an illusion and that the ‘real’ is beyond our senses. To those who are familiar with the writings of Plato, they saw the truth in the message the auteurs, the Wachowski brothers, were trying to share: the message of enlightenment found in Plato’s work The Allegory of the Cave. (Erwin, 2002)
When one compares and contrasts The Matrix and Allegory of the Cave, even a cursory comparison will reveal exciting and eye-opening parallels. The Allegory of the Cave, a short story found in Plato’s The Republic (Plato 308 B.C.), depicts the experiences of Plato’s mentor, Socrates, in an allegorical manner. Socrates was a very wise man who nurtured philosophy, the love of wisdom, to free the minds of the youths of Athens. Socrates was ahead of his time, as are many geniuses. Socrates’ reward for having directed his young students to think independently and outside the box was a death sentence by drinking hemlock. Plato related this tale by comparing Socrates and other students to young children fettered to a rock in a cave where they could not move their heads. Above and behind them was a fire which threw shadows on the wall of the cave which Socrates and the other youth could see. The shadows dancing on the cave wall were understood to be the full extent of reality by the children who did not know anything else but this reality. Finally, one of the children is released from his bonds and jostled into the sunlight. At first the dazzling reality was mind-bending. It was difficult for this child to see at all at first because he had never used his eyes before. Once the child, a character representing Socrates, could see about him he refused to believe that the trees, the animals, and the people around him were real. He experienced the ultimate cognitive dissonance and disequilibrium when realizing that the world was completely different from what he thought it would be. Eventually, after accepting his new reality, the newly-freed and enlightened prisoner had three options; either forget everything he had seen and return to the cave to live in denial of the truth, remain outside the cave and enjoy his newfound freedom and enlightenment, or return to the cave to share the truth with his former cellmates so that they may in turn be freed from their impalpable prison.
Now, taking into consideration these thematic elements of the Allegory of the Cave, many who have seen The Matrix may begin to see the obvious similarities between these two oeuvres. The main character in The Matrix, Thomas Anderson, is unknowingly fettered in his own cave, called the Matrix, and is being fed false information 24 hours a day about a reality via a neural connection to his brain. Even though his body is securely bound in a plastic shell filled with pink goo, his mind is being fed misinformation so that he believes he is leading a normal life in 21st century America. Just as the youth in the cave thought the visions they saw on the wall represented reality, Thomas, or Neo, believed that the sensual input he experienced was real likewise. Neo could not have been told the truth; he would not have believed it. He had to see it to believe it. Note the similarities between Thomas Anderson/Neo and Doubting Thomas, the apostle who would not believe in the reality of the Resurrection until he saw it. (Holy Bible, 1973) Even when Neo was shown the truth of the matrix he, at first, refused to believe.
In a scene with Morpheus, an ersatz John the Baptist, Neo chooses a red pill representing truth and falls down the rabbit hole of reality to find himself nearly blind, atrophied, and bald. His residual self-perception was only an illusion. Just as Socrates was released from the cave Neo was released from the Matrix and was allowed to experience reality at long last. When the truth of human experience was revealed to him, that the world had been taken over by machines and that the remnant of humanity was holed-up underground in a city called Zion, Neo’s mind could not handle the truth and he ‘pops’, vomiting and passing out. This demonstrates Piaget’s theory of Accommodation and Assimilation, in which people either accommodate new truths and change their way of thinking, or assimilate new information, changing it to fit into our current paradigms. The ontological shock of learning about the fate of humanity has led to disequilibrium and unconsciousness. Once Neo recovers consciousness his mentor, Morpheus, consoles him, encouraging him to return to the ‘cave’ of the matrix to help other captives see the light.
While the Matrix may be hailed as a broad allegory of Christianity or Buddhism, it could also be called The Allegory of The Allegory of the Cave. We know from history that Socrates, once he reached his philosophical zenith of enlightenment, or self-actualization, he went back to the young men of Athens to help them to see the truth. Likewise, Neo decides to return to help the people of the matrix to escape from their invisible bonds. While the similarities of these two works are undeniable, clearly there are major differences. We have different names, settings, logistics, and story lines, but as far as the core storyline is concerned, they are very similar.
Perhaps this reworking of The Allegory of the Cave was created by the Wachowski Brothers in order to share Plato’s message to an all new audience. The message both The Cave and The Matrix appear to preach is that people should think critically about their lives and thought processes to ensure that they are adequately challenging their understanding of concepts and their world view. They should not take ‘truths’ or fact that they read or see on the evening news for granted. As sentient beings we need to consider carefully those truths which we hold self-evident and question the information we receive. People can only be set free by the truth if they find the truth, but the truth may not be what they assume it to be. According to Plato and the Wachowskis truth may lie beyond where we think we find truth now. Once we have worked our way up the Maslowian hierarchy to a point of self-actualization we are behooved to return to those who have yet to see the light to lead them, likewise, to a point of understanding.
Plato. (1992). The Republic (380 B.C.) Hackett Publishing Company, 382
Erwin, W. (2002). The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real Open Court,
John the Apostle. (1973). The New International Version – The Holy Bible, Standard Publishing,
Cincinnati, OH John 20:24-29