Comparison of Plato's Allegory of the Cave and 'The Matrix'
A turtle and a salmon are swimming together. While swimming, the turtle asks the fish: “How does the water taste today”. After thinking about it for a couple of seconds, the salmon responds: “What’s water?”.
The 2001 film ‘The Matrix’, directed by the Wachowski brothers is a science fiction homage to Plato’s allegory of the cave. Both stories tell of men living in delusional dream states who are inadvertently exposed to the truth of the real outside world. Neo discovers that all of humanity exists inside a simulation created by robots. The man in the cave from Plato’s famous allegory has his narrow vision of the world smashed when the shadowy figures he sees and echoes he hears turn out to be people made of flesh and bone. Neo is faced with a choice: to return to the comforts and safety of his previous delusional life, or to step out into the real world and confront the truth; take the blue pill or the red pill. However, the prisoner in the allegory is forced out of the cave by a higher power.
Plato’s allegory has multiple stages: the enslavement of the prisoner, being forced to leave the cave, acceptance of the ‘true world’, and going back to show others the way. The prisoner begins locked in place staring at a wall, seeing shadows and hearing echoes. This is the world he has always lived in and he believes the shadows to be the reality, because he has never encountered anything different. In the second stage, the prisoner is freed from his bondage and is forced to leave the cave. In the beginning, he resists and attempts to go back to the comforts of his previous life. He is forced to leave the cave and after leaving it, he begins to understand that the shadows he saw earlier are a lesser version of the real objects he is able to see now. Gradually, the prisoner is able to adjust to the real world and infer knowledge himself. The final stage of the allegory is when the prisoner returns to the cave. When he shares his discovery, the other prisoners violently reject his theory. Plato’s point is that most people are blissfully ignorant with their naive view of the world and are hostile to ideas that may shake up their views and beliefs (ironically, similar to the freed man who tries to enlighten the other prisoners, Plato’s teacher Socrates was killed for his views and for ‘disrupting social order’).
Many of these stages are mirrored in ‘The Matrix’. The first stage, where the prisoner is only able to see shadows is extremely similar to the dream-like state that Neo and fellow human beings are living in, best explained by Morpheus: “It is a world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. A truth, that you are a slave. Like everyone else, you were into bondage… a prison for your mind”. He explains to Neo that similar to the prisoners in the cave, he was living in a world that was a shell of the real world. Another similarity is that both the prisoner and Neo are controlled by a higher power. In Neo’s case, the Matrix is the higher power controlling his previous world and in the prisoner’s case, he is controlled by hidden higher powers. A significant difference is that in Neo’s case, he has a choice, assisted by Morpheus who is appropriately named after the Greek God of dreams. In Plato’s allegory, the prisoner has no choice and resists leaving the cave, but is ultimately forced to leave it by a higher power. In the end, they both get exposed to a ‘more real’ version of reality. The time when the prisoner leaves the cave and is forced to accept the truth, even though it is not convenient to him, mirrors the moment when Neo is forced to accept that the new world that he is shown is indeed the reality and his whole life before that was a lie. Once he accepts that truth, both he and the prisoner are able to move on and acquire a deeper knowledge of the real world. In both cases, they accept the challenge and are able to grow and understand the real world. Another notable similarity is that they are both hurt when they are first exposed to the truth, the prisoner from the bright light that the sun gives off, and Neo when his eyes and muscles hurt because he had never used them before. “‘This is real?’, Neo asks. ‘How do you define real?’, Morpheus responds. ‘What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel what you can smell and what you can taste and see, then real is just electrical signals interpreted by your brain…. You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo, this is the world as it exists today’”. One of the clear connections between the movie and the allegory is, as Morpheus explains to Neo, that real is subjective and if reality is just ‘electrical signals interpreted by your brain’, then the Matrix is also real. Similarly, in the allegory of the cave, the prisoner never doubted that the world he had known from the cave was authentic. It was only after he was exposed to the outside world that he could realize that his previous beliefs were but a shadow of reality. The last stage, however, is almost totally different because in Plato’s allegory of the cave, when the freed prisoner returns to explain the real world to the prisoners who are still being held captive, the prisoners vigorously oppose him. In ‘The Matrix’, however, they decide that people are not ready to be ‘unplugged’. Therefore, the two conclusions are totally different. Even though in both cases the prisoners in the cave and in the Matrix are not able to handle the truth, Plato explores what happens after they are told about the alternative reality while ‘The Matrix’ just assumes that the prisoners are not ready to be exposed to the truth. “You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged, and many of them are so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it”. Like Plato’s subjects, Morpheus assumes that the people in the Matrix will fight to protect the reality that they believe in rather than get exposed to the true world.
Both the film and the allegory address the issue of the limitations of human knowledge. Plato talks about how the prisoner’s mind is limited to what he sees directly in front of him, which is the shadows and echoes. The prisoner’s mind expands when he is forced out into the real world, but he only begins to understand that the real world is more significant than the impressions from the cave after being forced into it. When he returns to enlighten his fellow captives, he is violently opposed. Plato shows us that humans can only believe in something if it is shown to them. However, the new ‘real world’ (as seen in ‘The Matrix’) could also just be the shadows of another, even larger reality. The people in the Matrix only have a certain very limited view of the world and they are not even able to comprehend the idea of an alternative reality (as addressed in the previous paragraph).
Plato’s allegory of the cave clearly provided the inspiration for ‘The Matrix’. Both explore the issue of the limitations of human knowledge and our ability to examine the world and determine what the truth is. Both show that knowledge based on our imperfect grasp of reality can be warped and our faith misplaced. In both cases, the protagonists’ lives are turned upside down and their beliefs profoundly challenged. However, in both stories, the prisoner and Neo grow from the knowledge they gain as they rebuild their shattered faith with their new knowledge.
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