Many precedents exist for the idea that the real world is an illusion, and the Matrix trilogy is riddled with specific references to philosophers who have entertained this idea. Although the films are meant to stand on their own and create their own set of philosophical questions, the Wachowskis pay homage to these precedents through both obvious and subtle references. Four of the most striking philosophical precedents for the Matrix trilogy are Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, Plato’s allegory of the cave, Socrates’ visit to the Oracle of Delphi, and the work of Descartes. The films refer to all four of these at various points.
One of the most overt philosophical references occurs near the beginning of The Matrix when Neo stashes his illegal software inside a hollowed-out copy of a book by French postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard entitled Simulacra and Simulation. Originally published in 1981, Baudrillard’s book argues that late-twentieth-century consumer culture is a world in which simulations or imitations of reality have become more real than reality itself, a condition he describes as the “hyper-real.” For example, walking and running are not nearly as important as they were in premodern societies, but jogging is a recreational pastime, replete with special shoes, clothes, books, and other gear. To take another example, we no longer live in communities where food is produced locally and whole grains are a necessary dietary staple, but we have health food that enables us to replicate the experience of a peasant’s diet. (Admittedly, terms such as “jogging” and “health food” show that the book is somewhat dated, but the point still holds.)
Baudrillard argues that consumer culture has evolved from a state in which we are surrounded by representations or imitations of things that really exist, toward a state in which our lives are filled with simulations, objects that look as if they represent something else but have really created the reality they seem to refer to. In such a situation, the world of simulations increasingly takes on a life of its own, and reality itself erodes to the point that it becomes a desert. Morpheus introduces Neo to the real world by welcoming him to “the desert of the real,” a phrase taken from the first page of Simulacra and Simulation. Thus, the entire concept of the Matrix films can be interpreted as a criticism of the unreal consumer culture we live in, a culture that may be distracting us from the reality that we are being exploited by someone or something, just as the machines exploit the humans in the Matrix for bioelectricity.
Baudrillard’s greatest philosophical influence is Karl Marx, and while the Matrix films do not refer to Marx explicitly, the fact that the inhabitants of the Matrix are exploited by means of an illusion that they all inhabit renders the films closer in spirit to Marx than to any other philosopher. Marx argued that the working class is exploited by the ruling classes, but the working class’s exploitation is only possible because it does not perceive itself as being exploited. The working class misunderstands its own position because it is confused and distracted by social messages that give workers a distorted explanation of how they fit into the world—for example, religion, school, and ideologies such as nationalism and patriotism. (According to Baudrillard, consumer culture is what misleads us.) Marx’s partner, Friedrich Engels, coined the term false consciousness to describe the working class’s ignorance. Of course, the argument that average people are ignorant of their own best interests and exploited by rulers who create and capitalize on that ignorance is still common today. The documentary films of Michael Moore, for example, have sought to demonstrate that politicians and the news media exploit Americans’ fears of violence and terrorism to distract us from our true economic and political best interests. Nevertheless, the original source of all such “false consciousness” arguments, including that of the Matrix trilogy, is Marx.
Plato explores the idea that the real world is an illusion in the allegory of the cave in The Republic. Plato imagines a cave in which people have been kept prisoner since birth. These people are bound in such a way that they can look only straight ahead, not behind them or to the side. On the wall in front of them, they can see flickering shadows in the shape of people, trees, and animals. Because these images are all they’ve ever seen, they believe these images constitute the real world. One day, a prisoner escapes his bonds. He looks behind him and sees that what he thought was the real world is actually an elaborate set of shadows, which free people create with statues and the light from a fire. The statues, he decides, are actually the real world, not the shadows. Then he is freed from the cave altogether, and sees the actual world for the first time. He has a difficult time adjusting his eyes to the bright light of the sun, but eventually he does. Fully aware of true reality, he must return to the cave and try to teach others what he knows. The experience of this prisoner is a metaphor for the process by which rare human beings free themselves from the world of appearances and, with the help of philosophy, perceive the world truly.
Neo is pulled from a kind of cave in the first Matrix film, when he sees the real world for the first time. Everything he thought was real is only an illusion—much like the shadows on the cave walls and the statues that made the shadows were only copies of things in the real world. Plato insists that those who free themselves and come to perceive reality have a duty to return and teach others, and this holds true in the Matrix films as well, as Neo takes it upon himself to save humanity from widespread ignorance and acceptance of a false reality.
Yet another philosophical precedent for the Matrix films is the work of René Descartes, the man responsible for Cartesian coordinates and the phrase “I think, therefore I am.” In his 1641 book Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes poses the question of how he can know with certainty that the world he experiences is not an illusion being forced upon him by an evil demon. He reasons since he believes in what he sees and feels while dreaming, he cannot trust his senses to tell him that he is not still dreaming. His senses cannot provide him with proof that the world even exists. He concludes that he cannot rely on his senses, and that for all he knows, he and the rest of the world might all be under the control of an evil demon.
Descartes’ evil demon is vividly realized in the Matrix films as the artificial intelligence that forces a virtual reality on humans. Just as Descartes realized that the sensations in his dreams were vivid enough to convince him the dreams were real, the humans who are plugged into the Matrix have no idea that their sensations are false, created artificially instead of arising from actual experiences. Until Neo is yanked from the Matrix, he, too, has no idea that his life is a virtual reality. Like Descartes, Neo eventually knows to take nothing at face value, and to question the existence of even those things, such as chairs, that seem most real.
Ancient Greeks considered Delphi to be the center of the world and revered the wisdom of the Oracle who resided there, in the Temple of Apollo. This Oracle’s prophecies were always cryptic. When Socrates visited the Oracle, he claimed that he knew nothing, and the Oracle replied that he was the wisest man on earth. Socrates disagreed, but he eventually discovered her ironic meaning. By claiming to know nothing, Socrates truly was the wisest because all others were under the false impression that they knew more than they actually knew. The phrase “Know Thyself” was inscribed on the walls of the Oracle’s temple, suggesting that true wisdom lies in recognizing one’s own ignorance. Neo, like Socrates, is willing to admit to his own ignorance, and the Oracle in the Matrix films maintains her confidence in him and his abilities despite his often visible confusion and doubt.