Books Nerdoms Nerdy Academia Uncategorized

The Matrix, C.S. Lewis, and The Allegory of the Cave

Smart philosophy people like to talk about the parallels between The Matrix and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In both instances, an individual is brought out of his lethargic ignorance to see the daunting truth of his reality. But if we go beyond the surface level, I argue that The Matrix and the Allegory of the Cave are really not that similar. The locus of the Allegory is that people are only seeing shadows of the true forms, and that philosophy will open their eyes to a higher and more enlightened reality. The cave is familiar and comfortable, but even though the light of the sun might be painful to the eyes at first, true reality is so much better. In The Matrix, on the other hand, people escape the deception of the matrix only to find that true reality is decrepit and fallen.

“Sorry Neo, it turns out that the real world kind of sucks.”

For Plato, getting out of the cave brings understanding and fulfillment. For those enslaved in the Matrix, there is no realm of the forms to escape to. Thus the motivation for escape is not fulfillment, but freedom. To be free you must accept the cold, hard reality of things – which of course is the opposite of the situation in the Allegory, where reality is truly good.

Now to get to the second part of the title. One has to think that when C.S. Lewis wrote The Silver Chair (the fourth book of his well-known Chronicles of Narnia series), he had the Allegory of the Cave somewhere in the back of his head. One of the most dramatic scenes in the book takes place deep under the earth, in the domain of the Lady of the Green Kirtle. The Green Lady engages the disoriented heroes of the story in conversation, attempting to convince them that the darkness of her underground realm is the only reality, and that they have simply imagined the world that exists on the surface. In the grips of the Lady’s persuasive efforts, the marshwiggle Puddleglum makes one final stirring counter-argument:

Puddleglum definitely read his Plato.

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world.

It makes you wonder. Haven’t the machines in the Matrix just done exactly what Puddleglum is saying? Couldn’t the “Real World” in The Matrix basically be described as a “black pit of a kingdom?” What happens when the truth and the best aren’t the same thing? What is the “freedom” that Neo and his compatriots pursue really worth? Might they have made the wrong choice?