Movie critics and philosophers alike agree that the movie “The Matrix” is indeed based upon certain Platonic themes from Book VII of The Republic. In this story entitled “The Allegory of the Cave,” he describes a dark underground cave where a group of people are sitting in one long row with their backs to the cave’s entrance. Chained to their chairs from an early age, all the humans can see is the distant cave wall in from of them. The shadows of statues held by unseen puppet handlers’ reflect on the walls from the light of a fire that is also out of sight of those in the cave. The theme of the allegory is that their reality is a poor copy of the real world. According to Plato, our world is nothing but shadows, imperfect manifestations of the forms. Similar to the prisoners of the cave, the humans trapped in the matrix (the cave) only see what the machines (the modern day puppet-handlers) want them to see. They are tricked into believing that what they hear in the cave and see before them is the true reality that exists. Furthermore, they accept what their senses are telling them and they believe that what they are experiencing is all that really exists–nothing more. The movie not only incorporates these same ideas, the story line of the movie parallels that of the allegory.
The most important character is who Plato calls the “Philosopher” or the “Intellectual.” In the allegory, Plato hypothesizes that one of the prisoners eventually be released or escape from his chains and flee the cave. The philosopher/intellectual would then be able to see the real objects as well as the puppet-handlers who are holding these objects. In the movie, “The Matrix” this scene directly parallels with Neo’s scene in the matrix pod. Looking around in shock, Neo sees, for the first time, his true surroundings. He is actually living in a human factory. At first, Plato says that the Freed Prisoner would be confused at what he saw. As for Neo, when he is finally confronted with the truth surrounding the matrix, he is in a state of confusion and denial. In fact, he is so overwhelmed that he throws up and passes out. Plato wrote that the Freed Man might even feel that what he was seeing now was the illusion and the shadows on the wall were actually more real. There is a line in the movie where Cypher tells Trinity, “I think the matrix can be more real than this world.”
Plato also goes on to suggest that the freed prisoner would not only be shock over the realization of his true existence, but that he would suffer physical pain. Like Neo, who says “I can’t go back, can I?” the freed prisoner’s first reaction would be to return to false reality because it is less painful and more familiar to him.
Plato wrote that the Philosopher must have started to question what he saw in front of him and wondered about the origin of the shadows and if there was anything else beyond the cave wall that he saw before him. The only way that a prisoner is able to escape is because he made a choice, wanting to learn the truth. This appears in the movie when Morpheus tells Neo, “You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but its there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me.”
According to Plato, enlightenment would come to one from being taken out of the cave, and thrust into the light of the real world. He writes that this would not be an easy transition and that the bright and good light of the Sun would seem blinding at first. When Neo first awakes and escapes from the slime pod, he asks why his eyes are sore and is told that he has never really used them before, meaning he has never seen reality. Once he was made aware of the real world, he would be uninterested in the shadows of the cave. He would return to the cave to try to free others. However, he would have no desire to go back to his life in the cave. Eventually though, his desire to help his fellow prisoners would win out. Neo discovers that what he has been presented with his entire life is only reflections, or merely shadows of the truth. Perhaps this theme is emphasized through the repeated use of mirrors and reflections.
In the allegory, there are other characters who also appear in the movie. Plato calls the ones holding those in the cave captive the puppet handlers. They represent the influential, powerful members of society. In “The Matrix,” the puppet-handlers are the machines spawned from AI (Artificial Intelligence.) Basically, the puppet-handlers in both cases use artificial surroundings as a way to control and manipulate the information that the prisoners receive. The prisoners that we speak of are all the citizens of this society whose minds have not yet been freed. Thomas Anderson was a prisoner in the cave before he became Neo.
The movie “The Matrix” is not the first to have toyed with the idea of a person not being able to distinguish between a dream and reality. Many modern films have relied on this theme; however, this movie most accurately reproduces the storyline of Plato’s allegory. “The Matrix” brings Plato’s tale up-to-date by using a “virtual world” within cyberspace. “The Matrix” has probably had as much exposure to today’s audiences as The Republic did in its day, inviting people to question what they consider to be a familiar reality and to strive to be a freed intellectual.