Recently, the term "red pilling" has been popping up all over social media. It refers to someone taking the same pill Neo did in The Matrix, the one that wakes him up to the damaged world around him. Of course, this term was co-opted by white supremacists and then, somehow, by Kanye West. If you like to scroll on sites like Reddit, you'll see popular memes like "There is no spoon," and "I know Kung-fu," and I still pretend to dodge things in bullet-time.
But the fact remains the same, The Matrix has had an amazing effect on society and internet culture since its release in 1999. I can't name a modern movie that had such an effect on culture. But the most interesting thing about this effect is that it's based on centuries-old philosophy.
Today, I wanted to go over the philosophy of The Matrix and take a look at what went into the Wachowskis' incredible writing inside the series.
Breaking Down the Philosophy of TheMatrix Trilogy
When looking at a trilogy of movies, I thought it would be more helpful to break down the most prominent philosophical points or personas that the movies borrow from, and then give you their general application.
I do not think this is a comprehensive list. There are entire books on the subject. But I think it gives you a jumping-off point to then look deeper into these philosophers and their influences as well.
So let's take a look at what I came up with and talk about The Matrix.
We have covered Plato's cave on this site before, but let me give you a refresher.
First, I'll have you imagine a cave. The people inside the cave were born there and spent their entire lives inside the cave. They have no idea there is an outside world or that anything in that world exists. They are chained so they can only see the cave wall in front of them.
A fire burns behind them, providing the light for shadows. Between the fire and the prisoners, there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers use puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave.
No prisoner can see a puppet or puppeteer, only the shadows. And they can only hear the echoes cast by objects that they do not see.
Therefore, the prisoners, with no other knowledge, think the shadows they see are actually reality. But it's not reality, only the appearance of reality.
In that sense, the Wachowskis ask the same question Plato does with this allegory: “How do we know what our reality really is?”
In the movie, Neo and other humans are chained in a cave themselves, plugged in and given a reality by the machines. They have no idea that the shadows on the wall are not real until they "red pill" out of them.
'The Matrix'Credit: Warner Bros.
The Oracle of Delphi
There are oracles all over Greek and Roman legend, but none as famous as the Oracle of Delphi. She was known to give cryptic messages to people who sought her out, ones you would have to interpret to know your fate.
In a direct correlation to this, we see Neo visiting the Oracle in The Matrix, and then see her again in subsequent films. The original Oracle at Delphi had a plate in her temple that said, “Know Thyself,” which is the quest of the oracle in the movies. Only when Neo can overcome his ignorance can he gain true knowledge of who he is and what he's meant to do.
Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation
This philosophical reference is actually tangible in the Matrix universe. Neo actually stashes his illegal computer programs inside a hollowed-out copy of philosopher Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation.
It's a book about consumer culture. It talks about how simulations or imitations of reality have actually become more real than reality itself, a condition described as the “hyper-real.”
This, in addition to Plato's Cave, provides the basis for what we feel and see inside The Matrix. We are in a reality that feels more real than the one presented in Zion or the tunnels.
Yes, at the heart of the Matrix is a great Marxist allegory. As you may know, Karl Marx argued that the working class is exploited by the ruling classes. Or the ruling machines in this case. Marx said that the working class’s exploitation was only possible because it does not perceive itself as being exploited.
Do humans in The Matrix know they are part of a huge battery field? Definitely not. So they are controlled without knowing said control exists.
These Marxist tendencies do not stop there. We can see the destruction of the globe and the takeover of machines into authoritarian rule as the effect of capitalism on society. We can see the uprising of humanity as a worker revolution to overturn capitalism in favor of communism. We see echoes of communism inside Zion, where everyone shares in one goal and shares in all the resources as well.
'The Matrix'Credit: Warner Bros.
The Work of René Descartes
Most famous for the saying, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes published the book Meditations on First Philosophy, in which he poses the question of how he can know with certainty that the world is not an illusion being forced upon him by an evil demon.
Again, this echoes the idea of a simulated world or the one inside a cave. The evil demon in Descartes was concerned with changing our dreams, and with Neo inside the Matrix dreaming, there's the direct manipulation of that space he enters, knowing he has control there as well.
There are lots of religious influences inside the movie, from Buddhism and Judaism to some tenements of lots of different and obscure world religions. I chose the big one, because—well, "the One." Christianity is the belief that the savior of humanity, Jesus, came to fulfill the prophets of old and be "the one" to save us from the devil.
You also have names like Trinity, Zion, and an argument between fate and free will. Some people think the movie is actually a metaphorical retelling of the Gospels. With Morpheous as the Old Testament God, Trinity as the Holy Spirit, and Neo as Jesus.
The religious implications inside The Matrix are complicated, since the simulation in which these people live is populated with the religions and philosophy the movie encapsulates. A real mind twister!
In The Matrix, Morpheus is waiting on a savior who will be the one taken from the Matrix to rise up and actually save humanity from the machines. Neo's evolution as a Christ-like figure in the movies shows us that he is not just a powerful prophet, but someone with actual powers. He's even crucified by the machines in a final scene, with them twisting out of his hands and side, mimicking Christ's wounds on the cross while splaying him out in a Jesus-like pose.
There are some arguments between Christianity and Gnostic Christianity that modern religious figures have debated in correlation with the film, but I'll leave that argument for them. The point is, The Matrix borrows a lot of Christian imagery and words to tell the story of a savior rising to defeat the machines.
Summing Up the Philosophy of The Matrix
As you can see, the trilogy of Matrix movies takes on lots of different world teachings and digs deep into how these perspectives can be made into fiction. With a fourth Matrix movie coming soon, it will be interesting to see how these ideas are expanded upon within the world. Will we add more philosophy or will we stick to the pillars created in the original films?
Time will tell.
Let us know your predictions and reactions in the comments.