October 2013 Filed in: Films
Every once in a while, I watch something that blows my mind, but makes me feel like it’s blowing someone else’s mind even more. The Matrix Trilogy is one such work. It can be appreciated on many levels; and on each level, one can go as deep as one chooses.
There are gazillion books and websites delving deep into the ideas behind the Matrix. It makes for a great take-off point for all kinds of philosophizing. Before I read the Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy, I wanted to map out my own impressions of the trilogy. I see the first movie as being about reality, the second about choice, and the third about liberation through sacrifice.
A lot of religious and non-religious existentialist philosophy is about the discovery of reality. In eastern religious philosophy we are taught that the world around us is an illusion or Maya. It is through Maya that the universe becomes manifest. In truth, the self cannot be seen or heard, but known; and there is no reality outside of the self! At the end of each life, our body returns to the cosmos: our eyes to the sun, our flesh to earth, our fluids to water, our breath to air, and our mind to space; and they may join again and manifest themselves as other objects or beings! But when our soul is liberated, it merges into the transcendent Self (the divine)! The self therefore isn’t in the body or the mind. It can only be discovered through knowing. And by knowing the self, one knows its creator, and understands reality, and liberates oneself.
In the first movie, Neo begins his path of knowing. He learns that he and most other humans have been living in virtual reality, and are neurally connected to a computer-simulated world called Matrix created by the machines, where all their digital projections live in what they assume is the real world. You can say that the machines put all the humans in a dream state to use their bodies as energy sources for their needs. Guarding this simulated world are programs called Agents, who terminate humans who wake up to realize that they are living a false reality!
Descartes, the french philosopher, speaks of an evil demon whose whole purpose is to mislead humans. He creates a complete illusion of an external world, and makes us believe in falsehoods. But it is impossible for us to be certain that such a demon exists or that we aren’t dreaming because the demon is capable of manipulating logic.
But in the Matrix trilogy, some humans have managed to escape captivity, either through self-substantiation, or by being woken up by other free humans. They live in the hidden city of Zion far below Earth’s surface that the machines are trying to get to. In Judaism and other western religions, Zion or Jerusalem, is believed to be the seat of the Holy temple from where reality emerges.
Among these free humans, are some freedom-fighters who are looking to fight the machines and release all other humans from the Matrix; except not all humans are ready to leave the illusory world, and are happy to live in ignorance.
Buddhism teaches us that all things arise from dependence upon twelve conditions, which trap humans in a cycle of illusion. One condition is our craving for sensory experiences and the desires those experiences produce. The programs in the Matrix are designed to provide these sensory experiences. But, they will only work as long as humans believe what they perceive to be real as in fact real, and choose ignorance (Blue Pill) over enlightenment (Red Pill). If the human mind is freed, the programs illusory sensory experiences will have no effect on them. But the draw of samsara is so strong that even the enlightened sometimes are lured back into it. We see this happen in the story to Cypher and Mouse!
It is prophesied by the Oracle that Neo is “The One” who will release all humans from captivity. So he is woken up from the Matrix by Morpheus, the leader of the freedom-fighters and brought on Nebuchadnezzar, the hovercraft to learn his truth and train to fight the machines!
Neo is a reluctant hero. Even though everyone around him sees him as a savior, he behaves like the prisoner in Plato’s cave, who has lived all his life shackled facing the cave’s wall, not being able to recognize his own shadow. And when he is released from prison, he sees the world for the first time, and experiences denial and distress. The truth seems untrue, even though he recognizes the falsehood he has lived to be false. And then he comes to accept the truth of the real world, and the truth of the Matrix, and find his place in both with the help Morpheus and the Oracle.
The truth of the Matrix is one of Subjective Idealism; that all objects are ideas in the minds of its perceivers. One’s Reality is therefore dependent on one’s subjective perception of the world. One cannot change what does not exist, but can look in themselves and bring about change.
And as Neo accepts this truth, he frees his mind of the limitation of the self, and bends the rules of the Matrix. He becomes strong, agile, acquires many combat abilities and fighting styles, uses telekineses, and precognition.
Buddhism teaches us that a man’s emancipation depends on his own realization of the Truth. But while some bodhisattvas walk the path of enlightenment, some others postpose their enlightenment to liberate others through guidance. The Oracle and the freedom-fighters epitomize this compassion. Rather than remain outside the matrix, they choose to re-enter it as ambassadors of knowledge with the goal of freeing the minds of those who are trapped within it.
Both Morpheus and the Oracle tell Neo that they can only show him the door, but he has to see the Matrix, recognize the truth for himself, and choose to walk the path. There is a difference in knowing the path and walking it.
In eastern philosophy, we learn that humans see themselves as one unit, one being, because of their ego. But in reality, we are millions of cells each as alive and responsive as the whole that it helps create. But, if each cell grows an independent sense of self, it would threaten the symbiotic framework that allows for it to join other cells in the creation of one human.
But perhaps the illusion is that one need cells to come together to create a human. When in fact, Programs have no cells, but still are complex and autonomous and practically indistinguishable from humans; and in a sense free from the illusory constraints that have humans trapped in the Matrix. They are like Simulacrum.
There are two kinds of Simulacrum in art. One kind attempts faithful duplication of the original, and the other kind creates a distortion with the intention of making it appear faithful to the original. The machines and Agents are the latter type of Simulacrum. They are the humans without their fatal flaws (even though they are seen to exhibit some qualities such as anger, resentment, fear of death or deletion).
Humans created sentient machines, but failed to acknowledge that they too have their ‘truth’, or allow symbiotic bond of mutual advantage. Instead, humans chose to destroy the machines all together. But, in a turn of fate, the machines won the war and humans ended up having to live a perverse, pretentious reality, a simulacrum of the real world, controlled by the machines! It is a case of Simulacra challenging the privileged position of the original and winning; and reversing the roles of the creator and the creation.
By the end of the film, Neo fights the Agents, and is defeated by them only to be resurrected, as is unsurprising for a ‘savior’. The Oracle had foretold the return of The One who has the ability to manipulate the Matrix. As Morpheus explains, the return of this man "would hail the destruction of the matrix, end the war, bring freedom to our people. That is why there are those of us who have spent our entire lives searching the Matrix, looking for him." Both the Oracle and Morpheus believe that Neo is a reincarnation of that man.
But, the Oracle only tells people what they want to believe. She is aware that the choices they make based on that belief will lead to the future she foresees. All she needs to do is set them up to make those choices, by planting a thought in their minds, or giving them cookies of information that push them in the right direction and provide them with an impetus to follow the path to the future she foresees. She helps Neo realize that he is The One by allowing him to believe he is not. In the process he follows a path of sacrifice essential to the success of her plan.
In the second movie, the machines have located the hidden city of Zion, and are coming in full force to attack it. We learn that the Oracle is part of the Matrix, and in fact instrumental in creating this version of the matrix, which adds a new layer of suspicion. She primes Neo to find an exiled Keymaker who will take him to the Architect of the Matrix.
The Keymaker makes keys used by all the programs in the Matrix, and knows every backdoor and hidden place, including the location of the Architect. One may see his purpose is as providing keys that activate higher consciousness. Higher Consciousness as a spiritual philosophy refers to the knowledge of the Ultimate Reality or a union with the maker. But, when the Keymaker outlived his purpose in the Matrix, he was ordered to be terminated. Instead, he chose to live in exile protected by The Merovingian, also known as The Frenchman.
A background. When the Source first designed the Matrix, he created Utopia, a perfect world where humans knew no suffering. The world was akin to Hesiod, the Greek poet’s description of the Golden Age. Hesiod shared that prior to our present era, there were four Ages of Man, each more perfect than the one before. The oldest of them was the Golden Age, when men lived like Gods, free from toil and grief, and everything was in abundance, and peace and harmony prevailed. Also in Hinduism, the First and Perfect Age was Krita Yuga, when humans had no worldly desires and lived without hate, fear, sorrow or disease. But, humans in the Matrix could not accept such a world, and many died.
In the second version of the Matrix, The Source created an imperfect world full of evil and suffering. He introduced The Merovingian, a powerful program to rein humans in, by making them slaves to causality. Every human was just another link in the chain. All their actions were predetermined like automated puppets in a toy world. Humans could not handle this unfree world and rejected it. This Matrix was shelved, but the Merovingian did not have to face deletion. He continues to thrive and run an underworld mafia that traffics information and protects obsolete programs from deletion.
The current, and most successful iteration of the Matrix was created to rectify the second by adding the illusion of choice, so that humans can feel like they are driving their actions, even though the truth is far from it. The Oracle designed it with a keen understanding of the human psyche.
Most of the Matrix trilogy exemplifies how reality plays out as three philosophies try to pull ahead of each other. It is a tug-of-war between Merovingian’s Causality and the Oracle’s Choice; The Source’s purpose of balancing equations and the Oracle’s purpose of unbalancing them; and The Merovingian wanting to see the future and the Source wanting to control it.
The Merovingian is disillusioned by the idea of choice amongst humans, and demonstrates that it is not choice but causality that is the true nature of existence. ‘Why’ is the only real source of power. ‘Why’ is also the Aristotelian way of gaining knowledge.
The Merovingian is an adherent of Karma, whereas the Oracle is the advocate of Free Will; but in fact both Karma and Free Will are two sides of the same coin. At one point, the Oracle even tells Neo that he is not here to make a choice, but to understand why he made it.
The Keymaker shows Neo the path to the Architect. On meeting the Architect, Neo learns that he carries the source code because of which, he is able to bend the Matrix. If he does not return to the Source to reboot the Matrix, the Matrix will crash and kill the humans connected to it. This choice was presented to five Neos before, and they all chose to save humanity! Whereas the current Neo chooses to remain outside and save his lover Trinity instead, and changes the way the Matrix works!
This is a change brought in by the Oracle, who in her long study of the human psyche understands that falling in love is what drives the actions of humans; who in guarding the interest of one are capable of forging all of humanity on a new path.
When the Architect’s prediction about Neo turns out to be false, the Oracle explains that he cannot see past any choices. To him everything is a variable in an equation and that must be balanced on both sides; just the same as the Oracle’s purpose is to unbalance them. She does this by allowing The Anomaly (name given to Neo by the machines) to grow. The counters Neo with his opposite, Agent Smith.
In the third movie, Neo learns the lesson that liberty comes through sacrifice. Oracle sacrifices herself to Smith. Neo sacrifices himself to Smith. And all the women sacrifice or risk themselves for all the men! By now, the war isn't between those humans and machines, but between those who are preoccupied with what Smith calls the ‘vagaries of perception’, such as love, empathy and sacrifice, and those who are not.
The Oracle herself seems to have adopted love and empathy. Not love as a human emotion, but as a profound connection, as exemplified by Rama-kandra and Kamala for Sati. The Oracle agrees to trade her shell to the Merovingian in exchange for letting Sati go free. But in fact, it was also her choice to save humanity, that costed her Merovingian’s revenge, for leading Neo to the Keymaker.
It was empathy that changed the Oracle’s purpose to ending the war. The path she sends Neo on, helps him appreciate the sentience of machines, therefore aligning his purpose with hers.
Love is also the fuel that makes the freedom-fighters risk their lives for another, thereby putting events into action. It is love that makes Neo and Trinity save each other’s lives, that makes Niobe help Morpheus and Zee help Link, and that inspires The Merovingian’s wife Persephone to help Neo.
When Smith is destroyed by Neo, he becomes disconnected from the system and is able to defy programming and remain free. But, he feels like a victim of purpose and wants to destroy everything: the Humans, the Machines, and the Matrix. ‘Purpose’ is the final of the four Aristotelean causes. Aristotle believed that it is a cause that ties all beings, not just humans, and is without any form of deliberation, consciousness or intelligence. For instance, animals make choices by a different kind of deliberating agent or faculty than humans, which he calls ‘purpose’. Likewise, the final cause of a seed is the adult plant that it wants to become. And it is this final cause of becoming a plant that brings the seed about.
Smith’s final cause is to fight purpose, which he has always felt a victim of. It is this cause that brings about his invicible avatar, where he copies himself into others and acquires their abilities and ultimately takes over the Matrix with the intention of destroying it . All his actions there on are formal causes that help fulfill the final cause.
Neo convinces Deus Ex Machina, the central interface in the Machine City, to stop the sentinels from destroying the humans on Zion and to help him destroy Smith because he is about to destroy everything, which is a problem for both humans and machines. So the machines apply the ‘lesser evil’ principle and jack Neo in to face Smith. A wicked fight ensues between Neo and Smith.
Just as Smith sees the end, he also sees Neo not relenting. He asks Neo “Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you're fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can't win. It's pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?” And Neo says “Because I choose to.”
It all comes down to choice. Well, in fact, it all comes down to the Oracle’s choice. She played everyone with her cookies. Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, The Merovingian and The Architect.
The Closing credits is a mantra from the Upanishads.
Asato Maa Sad-Gamaya |
Tamaso Maa Jyotir-Gamaya |
Mrtyor-Maa Amrtam Gamaya |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||
Lead us from Unreality to the Reality
Lead us from the Darkness to the Light,
Lead us from the Fear of Death to the Knowledge of Immortality.
Peace, Peace, Peace.
That about covers one level!