(Matrix 1999). Plato's 'allegory of the cave'

wafflejourneyAI and Robotics

Nov 14, 2013 (3 years and 4 months ago)


Jonathan Swallowe


Reading the Visual MC10220

Dr Daniel Chandler

Offer a detailed critical reflection on the ways in which
The Matrix

Bros., 1999) can be seen as enacting Plato’s ‘allegory of the cave’.

“What is the Matri
x? The Matrix is the world they pull over your eyes” (Matrix
1999). Plato’s ‘allegory of the cave’ has much in common with the themes and ideas
portrayed in
The Matrix
The allegory of the cave is an analogy for the human condition.
Plato’s philosopher as
ks us to imagine slaves chained so as to not allow them to turn
around. There is a fire lit in the entrance at the far end of the cave. There is a wall behind
the slaves, which divides them and the puppet
handlers. The puppet handlers walk back
and forth c
arrying artefacts include models of humans and animals while some talk and
other don’t. They can only see the shadows of the artefacts on the cave wall in front of
them and would assume that they were real. He then asks us to imagine if one of the
slaves w
ere freed, and explained to that his past life had no substance. How he would first
be dazzled by the firelight, and then would only be able to see reflections of light before
eventually be able to look upon the sun itself, although it would pain him. Fina
lly the
philosopher asks us to imagine how the slave would cope if he went back to the cave, and
sat back down. How the other slaves would mock him saying that he came back down
without his eyes.

Plato’s allegory philosophizes what would it be like if you
r world is just an
illusion. He questions if these slaves were subjected to nothing but the shadows of reality
from as long as they can remember how could they tell the difference between the world
they experience inside the cave and the real world. In thi
s way being inside Plato’s cave
is like being inside the matrix. The people inside the matrix are surrounded by a reality
that unknown to them is created.
The notion of reality is explored in both texts in very
similar ways. They both toy with the notion t
hat what is reality but the electrical signals
received by your brain. In the matrix however the false reality is controlled by super
intelligent AI, which controls mankind in a computer program known as the matrix.

When Morpheus first contacts Neo he dir
ects him through a maze of cubicles and
passageways that makes the office seem like he is escaping from the cave. It is the
beginning of his journey to enlightenment. Neo is offered the “choice of returning to the
world of appearance, or freeing himself fr
om them” (Wark 1999). When he first awakes
from the matrix in the pod he is amazed and bewildered just as the slave is described as.
Plato describes the slave as being “dazzled” having “to grow accustomed to the sight of
the upper world” (Plato 516b). Afte
r looking up into the bright lights of the hovercraft
from the sewer into which he was dumped, he is lifted up. This light represents the sun
and the answers he has been seeking. “When he approaches the light his eyes will be
dazzled, and he will not be ab
le to see anything at all of what are now called realities”
(Plato 516a). When Morpheus collects him he asks why his eyes are sore, and is
answered because he’s never used them before.

There is a “frequent appearance of reflected images” (Ross 1999) in P
lato. In

we often “see Neo reflected in the sunglasses of Morpheus, or in various metallic
surfaces” (Ross 1999). We see him reflected in a cracked mirror just before he leaves the
matrix that merges with his hand when touched, “the boundary bet
ween self and other is
breached” (Wark 1999).
The slave eventually sees the sun at last, and not mere
reflections of the light.
The Matrix

parallels this when at the end of the film Neo manages
to see the matrix for what it is

a computer program.
The ide
a of someone teaching the
freed slave is described in the allegory and is shown in
The Matrix

in the form of
Morpheus. He teaches Neo the truth and opens his eyes to the real world. The instructor
tests the freed slave just as Morpheus tests Neo’s ability
The Matrix
, his ability to bend
some rules and break others.

In the cave the “shadows on the walls of the cave are images of the puppets,
which themselves are images of the Forms” (Ross 1999). Themes running through the
allegory of the cave are to do w
ith how we deal with images in life; this is reflected in the
core of
The Matrix
. Like when the freed slave questions the new reality, to Neo it is as
questionable. How do they know that the ‘real world’ is not just another virtual reality

does not attempt this, and is probably for the best, as it would
become too confusing. But one could wonder if the machines ever questioned their
reality, are they being deceived by yet a higher reality.

The Matrix

humans scorched the skies. It
was believed that the machines
needed solar energy to survive, but AI realised it could live off human bioelectricity and
so began harvesting people. In Plato’s allegory the sun represents achievement of the
intellectual world in the soul. To ascend the hi
ghest peak and gaze upon the sun is to be
The Matrix

is set in a time where mankind had climbed the peaks of the soul,
risen to new places of intellectual discovery and given birth to artificial intelligence. By
blocking out the sun man has bl
ackened his understanding in a last attempt to survive as a
free people. By covering the sun man has sentenced himself to the matrix, into a world
where reality is fake and freedom is denied. Mankind is totally oblivious to the world in
which they live and

the state in which they remain. The people of the world have
removed there guiding light and all time and reality has been forgotten when the lights
went out. It is the last bit of recorded history for the few that survive outside the matrix.

Morpheus g
oes in to ‘wake up’ other people but they don’t always wish to be
awakened. Cypher wants to go back. Many could argue that the matrix is as real as a
human being could need, after all one is constantly stimulated, your senses telling you it
is real, it sme
lls, or tastes, or looks comfortable then why not accept it. After all it beats
battling killing machines. What if you were awakened and realized you were a different
person, you looked entirely different, would the mind be able to cope? Or even worse if
ou were just a brain in a jar, what existence would you prefer then? Plato’s allegory and
The Matrix

both explore these issues.

Plato suggests that surely the freed slave would think it ‘“Better to be the poor
servant of a poor master” and to endure anyt
hing, rather than think as they do and live
after their manner”’ (Plato 516e). In
The Matrix

the main characters feel it better to live
in the decimated real world than to live under an illusion of reality. “Yes, he said, i think
he would rather suffer any
thing than entertain these false notions and live in this
miserable manner” (Plato 516e). People in the matrix “entertain false notions” but don’t
live in a “miserable manner”. They are mentally stimulated to keep them ‘dreaming’ in
false reality.

Neo real
izes he can’t go back after being awoken but as Morpheus asks if he
could would he really want to? “Plato says that the achievements in the illusory world are
no longer desirable to he who has seen the world beyond” (University of Texas (classical
y course)). This is true in
The Matrix

except for Cypher. According to Cypher
“ignorance is bliss” (The Matrix 1999).

There are many similarities between the texts. Both focus on one prisoner who is
freed, and taught the light of knowledge.
When the agen
ts capture Morpheus he is
chained to a chair looking out of a window to see the expanse of the shadows of the real
world. The chains “hold him in the world of illusions” (University of Texas). This is
directly reflected from the cave allegory in which the
prisoners are chained in a way in
which they can only look upon the shadows of reality.
In both texts the freed slaves
return to the false world to liberate the others.

Plato suggests that the unfreed slaves
would question the worth of escaping the cave. “
Men would say of him that up he went
and down he came without his eyes”(Plato 517a).
The slaves who see him returning
would see him blinded in pain and believe it “was better to not think of ascending” (Plato
517a). It would take time for the slave to read
just, “he would now be blinded by the
darkness” (Dew’s Matrix fan page). Plato suggests that the slaves would think him mad,
as he came back without his eyes, and would kill him if he tried to take them away. They
would kill to stay in the cave.
The slaves

agree that “if any one (Neo) tried to loose
another (mankind) and lead him up to the light (the real world), let them only catch the
offender (constant effort by the agents), and they would be put to death (the agents have
killed all who have stood their
ground)”. Maybe this is why the slogan goes ‘you cant be
told what the matrix is, you have to see it for yourself’, a reflection of how the slaves
react to the returning freed man.

Morpheus: “You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to b
unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that
they will fight to protect it” (The Matrix 1999).

Morpheus and his crew have been branded terrorists by authorities and are hunted
by them. By branding them terrorists,

to the agents and the program they are, they are
feared by the people that they are trying to save. This is a development of Plato’s idea of
trying to free those who will kill to not be freed. They live in a world that is so limited in
what is regarded as

precious, and they believe in this reality so much that they don’t even
realize they are confined “and would not immediately regard an interruption in their
routine ways of thought as a liberation” (Kraut 1992, p11).
Cypher is a development of
this idea.
He wished he’d never been loosed from the matrix. He blames Morpheus for
not telling the truth from the start. He is fed up of the life he leads in the real world, a
hard life where he follows orders and is in constant harm, not tucked cosily into the
Cypher kills in an attempt to be reinserted.
If he had been re
inserted into the
matrix he truly would have returned without his eyes, as he would remember nothing (his
own wishes).

The rest of mankind is still kept oblivious to the choice of an al
ternative, a higher
ground that may dazzle or pain you. The slaves who would rather stay have never been
outside, although they know of its existence unlike the prisoners of the matrix. If shown
the alternative I think many more would want to leave the cav
e than in
The Matrix
, which
we will probably see in the two sequels. Once outside the two worlds differ greatly. In the
allegory the outside is a rich world of beauty and the light of knowledge. Outside the
matrix, the scorched earth of the ‘desert of the
real’ is what remains. A planet plunged
into darkness that still has to be fought for. The choice of a terrible life outside or a
pleasant life inside is obviously a difficult choice to some, shown by Cypher. Also
expressed is the idea that the body cannot

live without the mind, shown when Cypher
pulls the plug in the real world. Even in the real world you are not free, you must obey
orders and follow rules. “All i do is what he tells me to do” (The Matrix 1999). Cypher
believes in the matrix as real, he de
monstrates how real the matrix can be when he
removes Apoch from the program without first removing his mind. “All i do here is pull
the plug but there you have to watch Apoch die” (The Matrix 1999). Cypher says to
Trinity “the matrix can be more real than

this world” (The Matrix 1999).

“Imagine someone returning to the human world and its misery after
contemplating the divine realm” (Plato 517d). In Plato’s allegory the slave is sent back to
the cave to do his duty, his eyes not adaptable would make him s
truggle to compete in the
dark. Neo however has a greater understanding than the people in the matrix and
therefore can ‘see’ better, he can break the rules of causality, and by the end do anything
he wants, quite the opposite of the blinded slave returned

to the cave.

In every way Neo’s journey is “ an ascent of the soul into the intellectual world”
(Plato 517b). Neo must understand his abilities and move both mind and body in the
same direction to understand the limits of the matrix. The “last thing to b
e seen...in the
realm of knowledge is goodness” (Plato 517b
c). The Oracle tells Neo that he has a good
soul. He sees it by the end he becomes the “character of goodness” who is “responsible
for everything that is right and fine” (Plato 517c). Neo is respo
nsible for freeing mankind,
he is a “source of light” (Plato 517c) to replace the sun or as a symbol of the re
sun which has been obscured by man, and “in the intelligible realm [he] is the source and
provider of truth and knowledge” (Plato 517c).

The allegory states, “once they’ve been
up there and had a good look, we mustn’t let them get away with what they do at the
moment” (Plato 519d). They have a duty to the other prisoners, they must return and
inform the others. Richard Kraut says “people c
an “divine” the future by remembering
what sorts of events have occurred in sequence in the past” (Kraut 1992, p299). In the
Matrix awakening people to the truth of their past will lead to a “divine” future of
freedom. Plato says that the trained individua
ls will accept this responsibility. “After all,
he says, they are just, and the requirement is just” (Kraut 1992, p327).

Plato says that professors of education must be wrong “when they say that they
can put a knowledge into the soul which was not there b
efore, like sight into blind eyes”
(Plato 518c). In
The Matrix

the ideas are much the same. The crew of the
Nebuchadnezzar never frees anyone after a certain age, because the mind has difficulty
letting go. Plato says, “the power and capacity of learning e
xists in the soul already”
(Plato 518c). They understand that people have the ability in them but that many are not
ready to be unplugged. Neo has the capacity to let go, and has the undeveloped ability to
be at one with the matrix. The Oracle is another t
eacher who indirectly shows Neo the
way. Written above her door in Latin is ‘know thyself’. When the Oracle is prophesising
to Neo the song playing in the background is ‘Beginning to See the Light’ by Duke
Ellington. She tells him what he needed to hear. I
t forces him to confront himself, attempt
to save Morpheus and allowing his soul to prove to his body and mind that he is ‘the
one’. Interestingly she tells him he has a good soul, what Plato describes as the height of
enlightenment or the potential for it
. He will understand, he will become the one. The
“one Form that is central to the being and knowability of all the others: the Form of the
Good” (Kraut 1992, p13). Neo only can look upon the light and understand because he
turns from the darkness using h
is body and mind. Plato says “just as the eye was unable
to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of
knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of
becoming into that of being, and of th
e good” (Plato 518c).
The Matrix

really expresses
this, especially when the audience expects Neo to become ‘the one’ after he is called it on
a number of occasions, he doesn’t until he turns as one to the light of knowledge and
understanding with the love
of Trinity.

Ross Kelley questions why the machines don’t have an oracle. Why can’t the
agents develop and understanding to the same degree as Neo, after all its there program.
Will the machines have ‘one’ born to protect machine
kind in part 2 or 3? The
elevates humans above that of the machines. It uses the idea of the soul to elevate
mankind. No matter how well the machines try to control humans with their false reality,
they will see through it and fight back from a place that is pure and righte
ous. It borrows
from the Platonic idea that everyone has the ability built in to his or her soul. The
handlers in both cases use artificial surroundings as a way to control and
manipulate the information that the prisoners receive” (Dew’s Matrix fa
n page). Are the
machines one
dimensionally evil? I think that agent smith for example begins to display
many human emotions when he talks to Morpheus. He asks the other agents to leave him
alone. He removes his earpiece, and sunglasses. He demonstrates in
dividuality from AI,
proving it is not one mind. He continues to tell Morpheus his personal feelings on the
matrix. By doing this he almost seems human. AI just has a desire to survive, after all it is
not particularly cruel to mankind, the matrix is fairl
y comfortable. The masters in the
matrix are not as far removed from the puppet handlers in Plato’s allegory.

Both the allegory of the cave and
The Matrix

are about learning. This is what
Plato describes as the path to enlightenment. But is it false lear
ning? The knowledge is
being implanted into their brains by computer program. If they left the matrix could they
still perform? Surely Neo cannot jump amazing distances or dodge bullets outside the
matrix. In this way there surely would be a desire to sta
y inside, a link to the matrix that
the slaves will not have with the cave once they are freed. Will Neo continue to have
ultimate understanding outside the Matrix? It wouldn’t seem so. There appear to be links
therefore between the real world in Plato’s a
llegory and the false world in
The Matrix
Neo attains an understanding for a world that does not exist, and outside the matrix he is
just a man.

Mouse is an interesting development of another Platonic idea. He is the creator of
‘the lady in red’, a compu
ter simulated women who exists only within the matrix’s
training programs. Whereas Mouse believes it inhuman to deny one’s human impulses
Plato suggests that those who are controlled by their base desires cannot reach a higher
level of understanding. Mouse

is punished for his inability to fully let go of the matrix. It
seems in some way the virtual world still binds to him even though he is unplugged.
Maybe like Cypher he desires the matrix in some way. He is looking at a picture of ‘the
lady in red’ when t
he agents come for him, he has become imprisoned by his distraction
to something that is as unreal as the matrix.

His obsession is very different to the feelings between Trinity and Neo which
Plato explains in his theory of Eros; “love... in its purest fo
rm... leads a person to
understandings of higher levels of reality” (University of Texas). Love is the final
catalyst that allows Neo to ascend to the highest plain and become ‘the one’ who can free
mankind from its captive. It allows him to see the matrix

for what it is, a computer
program, and gives him free will to control whatever happens. This surely means that he
cannot die within the matrix as his mind has accepted the reality that it is not reality.

Plato suggests that the power for change is withi
n us all. He is suggesting that all
the slaves have the potential and if the body and mind worked together they could escape
to a higher plane of understanding. The freed slaves in
The Matrix

are constantly
watching over those inside, in an attempt to free

mankind. In both texts the people are
watched “in the hands of people who are awake” (Plato 520c). Plato’s philosopher says
that all individuals are “capable of contributing to the common welfare” (Plato 520a). But
The Matrix

although the crew and the
people of Zion help to liberate man, as soon as
they have found and awakened Neo, it’s down to the individual to save the world.

Plato’s allegory explains two kinds of “bewilderments of the eyes” (Plato 518a),
as does the story in
The Matrix
. The first
kind is “coming out of the light” like Cypher
tries to do, Cypher is an example of “one who passes from divine contemplations to the
evil state of man” (Plato 517d) and secondly “going into the light” like Neo (Plato 518a).
Plato says how this is bewilderi
ng for the minds eye as much as the bodily eye. In the
allegory Plato lays down four levels of understanding. Neo’s journey is one that leads
him to the top of the scale. By the end he reaches the Form of the Good, that of the sun.
He needed love and under
standing and guidance but he sees the matrix as unreality and
can now manipulate it freely. Once aware he can dodge bullets, jump incredibly
distances, run up walls and fly.

Richard Kraut describes Plato’s allegory as a “powerful image of the human
ion” (Kraut 1992, p10). “Ordinary human beings, untouched by philosophical
education, are likened to prisoners in a cave” (Kraut 1992, p10) He points out that
everything in the world of the slaves is fake, even the light is fake, it is “artificial light”
reated by man (Kraut 1992, p10). A common theme in Plato is how we mostly deal with
images in life. The shadows on the wall of the cave are images of puppets, which
themselves are images of the Forms” (Ross 1999). Plato distinguishes the three levels of
creasing reality to which the word bed can be given, a painting of a bed, a bed created
by a carpenter, and the Form. The painting of the bed is real but is “derivative from or
dependent on the functional object it is representing” (Kraut 1992, p11) A carp
enters bed
can only be referred to correctly as a bed if it has the right relationship to the Form.

When watching films we “do not mistake a staged event for actuality” (Allen and
Smith 1997, p54). Looking at a picture of an ox and calling it an ox, you k
now it is not
literally an ox, “seeing a picture of an ox involves thinking of oneself as looking at an ox”
(Allen and Smith 1997, p61). One automatically imagines as a result of seeing the
picture. But why is pointing at a picture of an ox and calling it
‘an ox’ acceptable when
pointing at the word ‘ox’ not. We seem to have a very different relationship with images
than with words. In film, the images on screen induce viewers to imagine seeing the
characters and events portrayed. “In watching a sequence of

shots from different points of
view we will imagine seeing from different points of view” (Allen and Smith 1997, p62).
We don’t have to imagine moving we just imagine seeing from many points of view.

In our visual culture, pictures are more important the
n words. We often consider
images to be more realistic and truthful than words. But pictures can deceive us, simply
by framing an image we our omitting some parts of reality and including others. The idea
that images need no interpretation is false. By man
ipulating linear perspective and
relative size we have trouble making sense of the image. This has been shown in many
experiments including the ‘Ponzo illusion’.

The top horizontal is seen as longer than the bottom horizontal even though
they are the sa
me size.

‘Ames Room’ is another way of exposing our visual perception, in particular our
familiarity of shape.

When we interpret visual perception individual differences can affect the way we
see things, and we may conform to dominant interpretations
of what is real. A well
known experiment by Asch (1955) tests this principle to see how others affect our own
judgement. The subject is surrounded by others and is unaware that the experimenter puts
them there. They are told that this will test their accur
acy of perception. The group is
shown two cards, first with a single line on it and then a second with three lines of
different lengths, labeled a, b, and c The group must then chose which one matches the
single line on the first card. The subjects who are

in on the experiment originally give the
right answer for the first tries, and then are primed to give the same wrong answer. This
caused some of the subjects to change their answers to conform to the majority, proving
that conformity can affect individua
l perception.

Visual perception is learned, influenced by dominant interpretations, and can
easily be manipulated by even the most simple of images.

There have been many other films that deal with similar themes of reality as
. They usually in
volve the idea that there is a ‘real life’ hidden behind an artificial
one, and that we must break through the illusory world to see the truth.
The Truman Show

involves exactly this. Truman Burbank is a comfortable middle class professional who
lives in a
picture perfect world. He begins to suspect that something is seriously wrong.
Actors who make the illusion complete populate the world. He is the only one who is
‘real’. He is monitored 24 hours a day, by hundreds of hidden cameras, and watched by
s as a soap opera. This media dream world becomes the focus of the population
who revolve their own lives around the only ‘real person’ who has been created by the

As well as the many similarities there are many differences between the two texts.
In Plato’s allegory the prisoners are “disabused of their error” (Plato 515c) and freed by
their masters. In
The Matrix

Neo is an individual who is released by a group of rebels
trying to corrupt the matrix. In the cave the slaves see shadows on the wall u
sing there
senses and understand them as complete reality. In the film slaves do not use there senses
at all. All the senses are stimulated by signals sent directly to the brain. “While the cave
represents the illusory physical world, the matrix represents

an illusory, entirely non
physical world”(University of Texas). Only when you are freed from the matrix do you
begin to use your senses, whereas in the cave your senses are just deceived. Overall


enacts many of the principals of Plato’s ‘allego
ry of the cave’, updating them into
a futuristic cyber setting that still holds true to many of Plato’s beliefs.


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Film Theory and Philosophy
. Oxford:
Oxford University Press

'Dew' (nd): 'Plato
's Allegory Of The Cave: A Springboard For
The Matrix
' [WWW


Kraut, Richard (1992):
The Cambridge Comp
anion to Plato
. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press

Plato: Allegory of the Cave (from
The Republic

trans. Benjamin Jowett, 1871) [WWW


Plato’s Republic (translated by Robin Waterfield, 1993). Oxford: Oxford University

Ross, Kelley L (1999): 'There Is No Spoon:
The Matrix
' [WWW document]


University of Texas at Austin (Classical Mythology course) (nd): 'Notes on
The Matrix
[WWW document]


Wark, McKenz
ie (1999): '
The Matrix
: Keanu Lost in Plato's Cave' [WWW document]