Modern Day Interpretations of Plato's Allegory of the Cave
(more to come, currently only THE MATRIX)
Glossary of useful terms
- Epistemology - Based on the Greek words, episteme meaning knowledge and logos, meaning theory, epistemology is concerned with the definition of knowledge, the sources and criteria of knowledge, the kinds of knowledge possible, and the relation between the one who knows and the object known. It is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity.
I believe that knowledge exists independently of an individual; that it exists "out there" and the role of the educational practitioner is to guide individuals as they acquire knowledge.
I believe that knowledge is built by an individual, is internal to the individual and is affected by the social culture and experiences of the individual and that the role of the educational practitioner is to guide individuals as they individually construct their knowledge.
- Metaphysics the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value. A priori speculation upon questions that are unanswerable to scientific observation, analysis, or experiment.
- Solipsism From Latin solus, alone (sole), and ipse, self., solipsism is the belief that, in principle, existence means for me my existence and that of my mental states. If nothing further can be proven, then each of us is threatened with the possibility that I am the only thing that exists. Not entirely relevant to the present discussion, but interesting philosophical fodder.
- A priori From Latin, a literal translation is from what goes before. A proposition is known a priori if when judged true or false one does not refer to experience. The term a priori is distinguished from a posteriori, which means knowledge gained through the senses and experience. These are the two most common ways in which philosophers argue that humans acquire knowledge. A priori might be thought of as the starting point for deductive reasoning, made before or without examination and not supported by factual study.
I was sitting in class a few weeks ago, watching Leon fruitlessly endeavouring to get someone to do a tutorial presentation in the first week back after the holidays. Feeling empathetic, I raised my hand. Feeling stupid, I wondered what I could possibly do my presentation on. It was then that I had my epiphany, not unlike that of Platos liberated prisoner. A blinding flash of light and I suddenly realised that one of my favourite movies, The Matrix is in fact a retelling of Platos famous cave allegory.
I rushed to my preferred source of information, the Internet, to discover what information, if any, there might be on my apparently innovative perception. I discovered in fact that there are entire courses devoted to this topic and a plethora of web pages all concerning this idea. OK so I wasnt the first to think of it
However, it remains that there are many recent films that reference Platos allegory of the cave, which is interesting to note, since his philosophy was developed nearly 2500 years ago and theoretically should be out of date now, especially, if we believe in the notion that we are progressing towards an ultimate knowledge. Did someone say the end of history? Perhaps it is just Hollywood that is stuck in Greek era philosophy of 400 BC?
The three movies that I have decided to discuss today with reference to Platos allegory of the cave are The Matrix, The Truman Show and Ghost in the Shell. Due to lack of time, I am only going to discuss The Matrix in depth. I was also considering discussing Bladerunner, however I feel that this movie deals more with the issue of what makes humans human than what makes reality real.
For those who came in late, I will begin with a brief outline of Plato's life and ideas.
Plato, life and times
Plato was born around the year 428 BC into an established Athenian household with a rich history of political connections. In keeping with his family heritage, Plato was destined for the political life. But the Peloponnesian War, which began a couple of years before he was born and continued until well after he was twenty, led to the decline of the Athenian Empire. The war was followed by a rabid conservative religious movement that led to the execution of Platos mentor, Socrates. Together these events forever altered the course of Platos life.
Upon meeting Socrates, Plato directed his inquiries toward the question of virtue. The formation of a noble character was to be before all else. Indeed, it is a mark of Platos brilliance that he was to find in metaphysics and epistemology a host of moral and political implications. How we think and what we take to be real have an important role in how we act. Thus, Plato came to believe that a philosophical attitude toward life would lead one to being just and, ultimately, happy.
After Socrates death in 399 BC, Plato left Attica with other friends of Socrates and spent the next twelve years in travel and study. During this period, he sought out the philosophers of his day. He met with the wise-men, priests, and prophets of many different lands, and he apparently studied not only philosophy but also geometry, geology, astronomy, and religious matters. His exact itinerary is not known, but the earliest accounts report that Plato left Athens with Euclides and went to Megara from where he went to visit Theodorus in Cyrene. From there he went to Italy to study with the Pythagoreans, then onto Egypt.
Most scholars agree that shortly after 399 BC, Plato began to write extensively. Although the order in which his dialogues were written is a matter of strong debate, there is some consensus about how the Platonic corpus evolved. This consensus divides Platos writings into three broad groups. The first group, generally known as the Socratic dialogues, was probably written between the years 399 and 387. These texts are called Socratic because here Plato appears to remain relatively close to what the historical Socrates advocated and taught. One of these, the Apology, was probably written shortly after the death of Socrates. The Crito, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Euthyphro, Hippias Minor and Major, Protagoras, Gorgias and Ion, were probably written throughout this twelve year period as well, some of them, like the Protagoras and Gorgias, most likely at its end.
Plato was forty, the first time he visited Italy. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Athens and founded the Academy, located nearly a mile outside the city walls and named after the Attic hero Academus. Platos Academy was famed for its moderate eating and talk as well as all the appropriate sacrifices and religious observances. Overshadowing all of that was, of course, its philosophical activity.
It seems that over the next twenty-six years Platos philosophical speculation became more profound and his dramatic talents more refined. During this period, what is sometimes called Platos middle or transitional period, Plato could have written the Meno, Euthydemus, Menexenus, Cratylus, Republic, Phaedrus, Symposium and Phaedo. These texts differ from the earlier in that they tend toward the grand metaphysical speculation that provides us with many hallmarks of Platonism, such as the method of hypothesis, the recollection theory and, of course, the theory of ideas, or forms, as they are sometimes called.
Between 367-361, Plato spent some fruitless years attempting to tutor young Dionysus II of Syracuse. In 365, Syracuse entered into war, and Plato returned to Athens. (Around the same time, Platos most famous pupil, Aristotle, entered the Academy.)
We know little of the remaining thirteen years in Plato's life. Probably sick of his wanderings and misfortunes in Sicily, Plato returned to the philosophical life of the Academy and, most likely, lived out his days conversing and writing. During this period, Plato could have written the so-called later dialogues, the Parmenides, Theatetus, Sophist, Statesman, Timaeus, Critias, Philebus and Laws, in which Socrates plays a relatively minor role and the metaphysical speculation of the middle dialogues is meticulously scrutinized.
Plato died in 347, leaving the Academy to Speusippus, his sisters son. The Academy served as the model for institutions of higher learning until it was closed by the Emperor Justinian in 529 CE, almost one thousand years later.
So how does all this old Greek philosophical stuff relate to modern Hollywood movies, and if it does, what does this mean has happened to modern philosophical thought? Are we still stuck in BC? What would Mr Hegel and Mr Fukuyama have to say about this lack of progression?!?
The many facets of The Matrix
The Matrix is actually a complete mix of references from a myriad of sources: religion, mythology, literature and philosophy to name three.
A brief look at the religious references includes:
- The character of Trinity: the father, son and the Holy Ghost.
- The ship Nebuchadnezzar, who was the king of the Chaldean (also known as the Neo-Babylonian) Empire. He was the most powerful monarch of his dynasty, and is best known for the magnificence of his capital, Babylon. God, through Nebuchadnezzar, destroyed Jerusalem and the people of Judah in order to make them realize, in no uncertain terms, that they had turned their backs on Him.
- The home of the real humans is called Zion, which is the traditional home of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.
- There is also the fact that Buddhism has also observed the temporal and illusory nature of reality. There is no Spoon says a small bald and buddhist-esque child. A point to note is that Buddhism arose in India around the 6th century BC, a few hundred years before Plato coincidence or logical progression evolution perhaps?
A brief look at the mythological references includes:
- Neo Greek for new
- Morpheus Greek God of sleep and dreams (his name actually refers to the fact that dreams change you)
- The Oracle The Delphic Oracle is the most famous Greek oracle. Above The Matrix Oracles kitchen door is inscribed Temet Noscoe which is a translation from the Greek Gnothi Seauton which was inscribed on the wall at the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Oracle prophesises that Neo is not the one, but also tells him to know yourself, a loose translation from the Latin and Greek
A brief look at the literature references includes:
- A feminist revision of the Snow White / Sleeping Beauty image when Neo is awoken by Trinitys kiss.
- Alice in Wonderland is referenced by the advice given to Neo to follow the white rabbit. Morpheus also tells Neo You stay in Wonderland and Ill show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. There are also many mirrors and reflections, a theme not limited solely to Alice, but overtly alluded to by the fact that Alice goes through the looking glass into a dreamlike world. There is also the pill choosing.
- A perhaps stretched reference to a Woody Allen quote: He believed that reality was thin, but it was the only place you could get a good steak when Cypher, the traitor dines with a nasty agent. He says that he knows the steak isnt real, but it tastes so good.
A detailed look at the philosophical references:
To begin with, lets have a quick look at the section of Platos cave that is of concern to us today. As we know, Plato used a dialectic style to explore and elucidate his ideas. The bolded sections are when Plato speaks:
29. The Allegory of the Cave
And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: -- Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
As we all know, we are the people in the cave watching the shadows, which we perceive as reality. The next event is when someone gets up and perceives the truth of the situation. She (or he) tries to go back and tell the others, but they refuse to believe her (him) and call her (him) a mad person.
The Essence of the allegory
The essence of the allegory is that we are not able to see the unreality of our reality. We cannot perceive the fact that what we recognise as reality is in fact just a simulacra of reality. There are multiple references within the Matrix that allude to this fact. In fact, it is almost too jam-packed full to describe them all. The first and most obvious is when Neo takes a book off his shelf entitled Simulacra and Simulation, by Jean Baudrillard. Although it is an old leather bound book in the movie, it is interesting to note that this book was only published in 1981. The opening quote provides an interesting excerpt from this book:
The simulacrum is never what hides the truth - it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The Simulacrum is true Ecclesiastes
This is a quote that is attributed to Ecclesiastes and thereby crossreferences back from philosophy to theology. It also relates to what Morpheus says later in the movie:
The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. Morpheus
There are some essential differences between these two statements that can probably best be summed up by the little boys assertion:
Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon boy: Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
Ecclesiastes is saying that the spoon is real, but there is no truth to the reality. Plato doesnt say there is no spoon, but says we arent perceiving the real spoon. Morpheus, like Plato says that the world is really a creation that blinds us from reality.
These are important theological / philosophical differences that are even confused within the movie. For instance, according to Jean Baudrillard, a simulacrum is a copy WITHOUT an original. On face value, this does not match up to the ideas of The Matrix or Plato, where the originals are merely hidden from view. Baudrillard is referring to the simulacrum becoming the reality within itself, a hyperreality. Thus the reference to his book is a confusion that I will not talk about any more.
With regards to The Matrix, the creation of reality by an other is an important aspect as it is also referenced in Platos cave. So called puppet masters that create the reality that we perceive. Perhaps not totally explicit in Platos allegory, it is at least hinted at with the reference to:
the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. From Plato's Allegory of the Cave.
René Descartes and The Problem of Knowledge
Commonly regarded as the father of modern philosophy, a guy called René Descartes ran with this theme in the seventeenth century. As any good philosopher does, Descartes raised questions that still havent been answered. For instance he posed the Problem of Knowledge and the Mind-Body problem (the Mind-Body problem evolved from the conclusions of the Problem of Knowledge and leads to a conclusion that perhaps I am the only one here and you are all a construct of my mind my existence can be proven, but I cant even prove my own body is real).
The Problem of Knowledge is more important to this present discussion because it relates to the question: How can we have knowledge through perception of external objects? This resulted from Descartes problem with causality.
The problem is that the relation between cause and effect is not symmetrical. Given a cause, there will be one effect. But given an effect, there could have been many causes able to produce the same effect. And even if we can't predict the effect from the cause, we can always wait around to see what it is. But if we can't determine the cause from the effect, time forever conceals it from us. With Descartes, this uneasiness about causality becomes a terror in relation to knowledge: for, in perception, what is the relation of the objects of knowledge to our knowledge of them? Cause to effect. Thus what we possess, our perceptions, are the effects of external causes; and in thinking that we know external objects, we are reasoning backwards from effect to cause. Trouble. Why couldn't our perceptions have been caused by something else? Indeed, in ordinary life we know that they can be. There are hallucinations. Hallucinations can be caused by a lot of things: fever, insanity, sensory deprivation, drugs, trauma, etc. Descartes wonders what he can really know about a piece of matter like a lump of wax. He wonders if he might actually be dreaming instead of sitting in front of the computer. Ultimately he wonders if the God he has always believed in might actually be a malevolent Demon capable of using his omnipotence to deceive us even about our own thoughts or our own existence. Thus, there is nothing in all his experience and knowledge that Descartes cannot call into doubt.
(this last paragraph is mostly sourced from http://www.friesian.com/descartes)
Thus the idea of an evil force working against us and deceiving us is developed further from Platos marionette players. Combined with Platos cave, we now have a definite force working against our perception of reality, and this perception is a simulation. We are in The Matrix.
Open your eyes Neo...
When I initially viewed The Matrix way back in 1999, I remember coming out of the cinema thinking that the actual physics of farming babies for energy doesnt really work out. We arent plants and dont get free energy from the sun (the sun is blocked out anyway in the world of The Matrix) so there is really no way to get more energy out of us than the AI puts in. However, since this is a discussion of philosophical aspects of The Matrix I digress
When Neo is saved and has his eyes opened to reality by Morpheus, he squints because his eyes havent been used before. Just as the freed person in Platos cave is blinded by the sunlight, Neo is blinded by the light of reality. Continuing this theme, it is said that the humans actually scorched the sky, blotting out the sun. Carrying this thought through to Platos allegory, if the humans are the source of their own ignorance (the sunlight being the representation of reality) and their own downfall, doesnt this mean that we are like the three monkeys covering our senses? It could be surmised that this represents the bulk of humanity in Platos cave. Those that escape are blinded by the light, but it isnt Platos sunlight. Even those that escape cant see that. Does this mean that the new reality is a façade too? The sequels will let us know.
An overarching reference to light is also made by the use of green light to subtly colour all the scenes that are within The Matrix in relation to the real world.
Another reference to light occurs when Neo is visiting the Oracle. A song by Duke Ellington called Beginning to see the Light is playing in the background.
Finally, the notion of seeing is observed by Morpheus who says: Unfortunately, no-one can be told what the matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. And Platos freed person cant explain reality to those who have only ever seen unreality. Morpheus goes on to say: You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged and many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependant on the system that they will fight to protect it.
Breaking the bonds that hold us
There are many instances when the characters break free from the bonds that hold them to the unreality of the matrix. There are instances when the characters physically break free, such as Neos birth and uncoupling from the cables that hold him in the AI pods. Morpheus also breaks free from the chains of the agents, a task that takes both physical and psychological powers. He has to realise that there is no spoon, which is something he can only do to a certain extent. This concept is brought to full realisation when Neo is able to see the matrix.
His ability to see the unreality has grown to such an extent that he may be said to have broken the Buddhist Samsara cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth and reached Nirvana. However, this analogy is imperfect, as the Matrix isnt really heaven. In fact, it might be hell! A more perfect analogy might be that Morpheus and the rest of the crew only made it as far as the fire, and at the Neo is able to step into the sunlight.
It's not quite right...
This brings about some of the other inconsistencies between The Matrix and Platos cave. Plato notes that someone, once freed will never be able to return to the cave life, but this is exactly what Cypher attempts to do. He has seen reality, but prefers unreality. Plato notes that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner
This is an essential difference between the Platonic allegory and The Matrix. The Matrix is actually quite attractive, while the cave is rather two dimensional and dull. Platos outside world, once observed, is infinitely more beautiful than the unreal world of cave walls and shadows, but the Matrix is infinitely more beautiful than the real world of scorched skies and pods. Thus the actions of the freed person are understandable in both instances.
Conclusions?? No, just more questions
Obviously there are many similarities between The Matrix and Platos cave. Broadly speaking it might be referred to as a modern day retelling of the allegory. But what does this mean for modern philosophy?
It would be tempting to conclude that our philosophical thinking hasnt really progressed past the 6th century BC. However, I would like to put forward the conclusion that our thinking probably hasnt progressed past the 66th century BC.
People keep coming back to the same ideas and the same thoughts and similar conclusions. Whether we are in a simulacra, Samsara or surreptitiously being tricked by some malevolent devil, how will we ever really know the truth? It is because of the inability to realise these questions that we keep returning to them and it is in this essence that the modern notions of postmodernism and subjective thought are based.
Maybe Hegel and Fukuyama would roll their eyes at this laymans philosophy, but we really dont seem to be progressing towards any sort of ultimate knowledge, let alone an ultimate historical state. We are simply rehashing the old questions in new ways. Do we exist? God knows. All these a priori, metaphysical questions will just keep us guessing, and I have not even scratched the surface.