Plato's Cave and The Matrix

Imagine a dark, subterranean prison in which humans are bound by their necks to a single place from infancy. Elaborate steps are taken by unseen forces to supply and manipulate the content of the prisoner’s visual experience. This is so effective that the prisoners do not recognize their imprisonment and are satisfied to live their lives in this way. Moreover, the cumulative effects of this imprisonment are so thorough that if freed, the prisoners would be virtually helpless. They could not stand up on their own, their eyes would be overloaded initially with sensory information, and even their minds would refuse to accept what the senses eventually presented them. It is not unreasonable to expect that some prisoners would wish to remain imprisoned even after their minds grasped the horror of their condition. But if a prisoner was dragged out and compelled to understand the relationship between the prison and outside, matters would be different. In time the prisoner would come to have genuine knowledge superior to the succession of representations that made up the whole of experience before. This freed prisoner would understand those representations as imperfect—like pale copies of the full reality now grasped in the mind. Yet if returned to the prison, the freed prisoner would be the object of ridicule, disbelief, and hostility.

I. Introduction

Viewers of The Matrix remember the moment in the film when Neo is released from his prison and made to grasp the truth of his life and the world. The account above roughly captures that turning point in the 1999 film, and yet it is drawn from an image crafted almost twenty-four hundred years ago by the Greek philosopher, Plato (427-347 B.C.E.). Today the Republic is the most influential work by Plato, and the allegory of the Cave the most famous part of the Republic. If you know that Socrates was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock, or that Socrates thought that the unexamined life is not worth living, you may also know that Socrates in the Republic likened the human condition to the state of prisoners bound in a cave seeing only shadows projected on the wall in front of them. Transcending this state is the aim of genuine education, conceived as a release from imprisonment, a turning or reorientation of one’s whole life, an upward journey from darkness into light:

The release from the bonds, the turning around from shadows to statues and the light of the fire and, then, the way up out of the cave to the sunlight…: [education] has the power to awaken the best part of the soul and lead it upward to the study of the best among the things that are.3

The allegory of the Cave gives literary shape to Socrates’ most fundamental concern, namely that our souls be in the best condition possible (Plato, Apology 30a7-b4). Socrates also believed he was commanded by the god Apollo to practice philosophy; it both animated and cost him his life. Yet it is not obvious how philosophical investigation improves the condition of the soul—still less how the Socratic method in particular does so, consisting as it does in testing the consistency of a person’s beliefs through a series of questions Socrates asks.

The allegory of the Cave is a strange image, as one of Socrates’ friends says (515a4), while Socrates himself confesses that the Cave is not exact (504b5; cf. 435c9-d2).5 Rereading the Cave after a recent viewing of the film shows that these are not throwaway remarks. The Matrix likewise privileges the work that strangeness and calculated vagueness do; Morpheus, after all, cannot show Neo what he most needs to see, but must get him to see for himself something that is difficult to recognize. In this way, The Matrix and Plato’s Cave are faithful to a central tenet in Socrates’ philosophical examinations: that proper teaching only occurs when students are prepared to make discoveries for themselves. Furthermore, the discovery that is most crucial is the discovery of oneself. Readiness for self-examination is, after all, what makes "care of the soul" possible.

II. Plato’s Cave

If Plato’s Republic has a single unifying theme, it is to show that the life of the just person is intrinsically preferable to any other life. In order to prove this, Socrates is made to investigate the concept of "justice." After an elaborate effort that spans three of the ten books of the Republic, Socrates and his two interlocutors discover what justice is. Justice is shown to be a property of a soul in which its three parts do their proper work and refrain from doing the job of another part. Specifically, reason must rule the other parts of the soul. Only under the rule of reason is the soul’s harmonious arrangement secured and preserved. Plato glosses this idea memorably by calling such a soul healthy. Just persons have psychic health; their personality is integrated in the proper way.

Most fundamentally, the film and the allegory share a pedagogical conceit. Both hold that in teaching the most basic truths, there is an important role for a strategic strangeness and the confusion it produces. The allegory of the Cave puzzles Socrates’ audience, yet as it hooks them, the Cave provides only the outline for solving the puzzle. Might Morpheus be doing the same? Might Morpheus, like the allegory, act as a kind of Socratic teacher, urging Neo toward self-understanding and care for his soul?

IV. Socratic Education in the Cave and The Matrix

What are we to say about The Matrix? On the surface, it appears the The Matrix departs from the allegory. First of all, it gives answers to the question above, for it is Morpheus who frees Neo, and Morpheus chooses to free him because there is something particular about Neo that recommends his release. Yet, on closer inspection, Neo’s early encounters with Morpheus produce the same kind of confusion that Socrates produces in his interlocutors. Neo receives strange communications via computer ("wake up, Neo,"16) to follow the white rabbit he soon sees on a tattooed shoulder. These odd messages disrupt Neo’s expectations of the world, especially his need for control over his life and his facility with computers. Another disruption comes when Neo swallows the red pill. This drug quickly begins to alter his perception of the stability of the world inside the Matrix.17 Taken together, the computer messages uncannily anticipate what is about to happen, while the pill calls into question his grasp of what is now happening. This surely prepares Neo to accept the truth that everything that has already happened is an illusion.

If we suppose that Morpheus asks the right questions, and supplies the right drugs, it is still the case that Neo has to recognize the questions and accept the drugs. Neo proves to be a particularly apt pupil. Indeed, there are features of Neo’s life that might explain how he begins to see the falsity of the world inside the Matrix. Neo is an accomplished hacker who would have the best chance of anyone to discover that the whole of his experience is itself nothing more than highly-sophisticated computer code. He is also living a double life. He works as a software engineer perhaps to maintain a steady income, perhaps as cover for his underground activities. Maybe playing the role of an office worker affords him a sense of the absurd that makes it easier to believe that his life is hollow. Insomnia might work for this purpose as well. Besides, who hasn’t had the gut feeling Neo has that "there is something wrong with the world"?

In this way, Morpheus can be seen as a Socratic gadfly, stinging Neo to take the first steps he needs in order to discover the truth on his own. Similarly, Plato’s sketch of the role played by the form of the good only points the way to the complete answer that Plato would have us seek out. In this way, Plato draws the reader to think for him or herself in the same way that Socrates wished his interlocutors to feel the sting of the realization of their ignorance as a motivation to join him in inquiry and care of the soul.

The allegory of the Cave issues a pointed challenge: in what way are we living lives of diminished prospect, resting content with our knowledge, failing even to ask the right questions? These are precisely the questions Morpheus puts to Neo. And like Morpheus, Plato’s pessimism about the human condition gives way to an optimistic view of the power of education to liberate anyone:

Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes . . . Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately. (518b7-c2, d5-7)


John Partridge