“Malo periculosam
libertatem quam quietum servitum” – I prefer tumult of liberty to quiet of
servitude. If Mr. Raegan agreed with count Palatine of Posen, or further down
the line with ancient Greek philosophers, Kant, Existentialists, or even
Buddhists and Gnostics, he would most definitely not be so determined to reach
for the beauty of the oblivion. An hour and three minutes into the movie, the
camera rises from the plate with a steak to stop at Cypher’s face carefully
contemplating a piece of it on a fork. After nine years outside of the Matrix, the
Judas of Wachowskis’ sci-fi modern myth is eager and ready to leave the
“desert of the real”, and go back to pursuing the falsehood of his
mundane, corporeal pleasures to the fullest. Almost a decade of philosophical
quandary led him to become indifferent to the sin of self-deception1
and haughtily state how ignorance is a bliss. A big number of critics and movie
fans commented how choosing the blue pill is essentially what any sane,
ordinary man is most likely to choose. Was Cypher right then? To decode the
answer, we will need to examine the alleged blissfulness of ignorance, discussing
various philosophical and religious doctrines. They encompass centuries of
contemplations upon major existential questions of knowledge, truth,
self-identity and choice (blue or red pill, ignorance or knowledge, slavery or
freedom, appearance or reality?). These matters are tightly interwoven and
appear as major themes of the Matrix (1999).

                 “If reality is whatever’s
mutually agreed upon … does it make sense to then start talking about fake
realities and real ones? Why is a universe composed of software necessarily any
less real than one composed of matter?”2.
What Matrix offers is a world of steaks, women in red dresses and convenience
of an oblivious life at the peak of human civilisation, full of bliss and
colour. Awaken to the most dismal post-apocaliptic scenery of wasteland that
Earth was turned into, saturated in gloomy black and grey hues, Cypher
initially attempts adjusting to the brutal reality, but eventually comes to
realization that it is simply not worth it. Neither a hero nor spiritually
allevated, deeply selfish and possibly most painfully human from all the
characters, to him it is much easier to stay oblivious and neglect the ugliness
of existence. David Weberman takes an interesting stance justifying his
decision and our immediate scorn of it, stating:

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“The Matrix does not just
offer sensual pleasures. It really encompasses much more,
   in fact, it gives us just about
everything we could want from the shallowest to the
deepest of gratifications (…)  The
virtual world gives us the opportunity to visit museums
  and concerts, read Shakespeare and
Stephen King, fall in love, make love, raise children,
   form deepest friendships, and so on.
(…) The real world, on the other hand, is a wasteland.
The libraries and theatres have been destroyed and the skies are always gray.
(…)
 You are free in Matrix in every way
that you’re free now…”3

Imagine being awaken from
your life and being told and proven how everything you experienced from the
moment of your birth was fake – one would become a bigger skeptic than
Descartes himself. Taught to doubt all his empirical beliefs and being unable
to rely on his own senses, Cypher could not be blamed entirely for chosing the (apparently)
lesser of two evils. There was nothing stopping him from doubting the realness
of the desolate havoc in 2199 (to be proven right in the first sequel), a
possibility of simulation within a simulation, so why not then pick a blissful
life, even if fantasy? At least if feels painfully real.
            “I don’t want to
remember nothing. Nothing. Do you
understand? And I want to be rich. You know…someone important, like an
actor.” Delicious savors of food, commodities of fame and wealth, and a
significant role in society all seem to imply happiness. He is a genuine
hedonist who is unwilling to put up with some higher goals for no personal
profit, eating the same gag-enticing goop every day, surviving with no hope of
better tomorrow and “other idealist crap”.4
In grips of these arguments, we might be induced to justify his choice and
conclude that this would most likely be a decision of majority of ordinary
people. However, Erion and Smith explain how “in choosing to lead his life
for pleasure alone, he presupposes that pleasure is the only thing that could
make his life worth living.”5
The whole situation is very reminiscent of Nozick’s Experience Machine, a
thought experiment composed to refute ethical hedonism arguing we want to do
certain things, not only experience them; be a certain kind of person, not just
a “indeterminate blob” floating in the tank; and finally how this
limits us to a man-made reality, to what we can make, because there is no
actual contact with any deeper reality, even if it can be simulated.6
                 Moreover, the question
of the true nature of happiness is imposed. Naturally, a snug life replete with
wealth and fame is surely to make one feel contented and at ease, but would
that genuinely make Cypher happy? He might be quick to answer yes, but neither Charles
L. Griswold nor Aristotle would agree. There are “various kinds of
self-delusion on which an erroneous sense of happiness may be built on.”7
The former argues how there is essentialy a major difference between
contentment and happiness, where the discrepancy is consisted in our subjective
sense of well-being and our actual knowledge of reality. “Contentment and
unreflectiveness are natural allies. The content are (…) tranquillized. I have
in mind the figure of the contented slave; someone resigned to the limitations
of life, someone for whom the link between the subjective feeling and an
assessment of the worthiness of his life is broken.”8.
Contentment comprises fleeting moments of joy and feeling good, but it is not a
long-term feeling. After the direct source of the satisfaction and pleasure is
removed, we are inevitably left with an empty sense of unfulfillment and void
within. No steaks, red wines or women in red dresses can complement that
ever-concomitant lack.
                  Aristotle, on the other
hand, suggests that acquisition of riches, pursuit of honour or bodily
pleasures are deficient of the greatest good, which must be something
consistent with maximisation of our faculties as human beings. Aristotle’s
virtuous man, much like Neo, can satisfy both his propensities and his rational
desires because in him, these two things are alligned. He wants to do right and
does it, ultimately deriving pleasure from his good behaviour.9
Person who lives a good life is always acquiring intellectual virtues,
contemplating and learning, developing the appropriate state of character.
Unlike Cypher who gives up for the pleasures of lower quality and passivity,
Aristotle equalizes happiness (Eudaimonia) with the activity of the soul,
energy and efforts in bettering one’s life as a whole, much like “Neo’s
active decision making and discovery of truth about self and world”.10
          Another philosophical lens that
we can use in other to scrutinize this argument is existentialist. Both Neo and
Cypher have a choice to make, a choice most literally embodied in blue and red
pill. You are offered both, so do you pick blue or red, do you pick fanstasy or
reality, illusion or truth, ignorance or enlightenment, slavery or freedom?
Different phrasing, and you would be speaking of Camus’, Heidegger’s or
Sartre’s choice between authenticity and inauthenticity. As existentialists
see it, authenticity is a state of being in which an individual acknowledges
the true disposition of existence, sees human condition without illusions,
experiencing mental and physical anguish, almost a “cognitive shock”11.
The sense of anxiety, alienation and even madness is unavoidably present due to
accepting that “world has no intrinsic order or purpose, but also that we
are fragile creatures who bear complete responsibility for ourselves and the
meanings we create.” It requires us, in order to achieve genuine serenity
and soberness (which implies freedom in a sense), to disperse the false
appearances that comfort us and attain an understanding of the world that is most
likely to be at odds with majority. Inauthenticity is the norm, thus the
struggle for authenticity is a path paved with discomfort, responsibility, pain
and coping with the truth that is “hard to stomach”.
            One might be quick to deny
its preference and point out the utmost repulsiveness of such condition, which implies
that ignorance perhaps is a bliss after all. Life faces us with too many things
we would rather refute, predicaments that we cannot cope with and occurances
which drown us in grief and sorrow, but we are unable to affect. However, as
McMahon points out, inauthenticity does not eradicate anxiety, it simply
mitigates it. It also has a consequence of limiting our freedom and
“covering over the true cause of one’s ontological insecurity and
attributing thing feeling instead to some mundane cause.” Furthermore,
living in constant denial of the true nature of the world, one begins pulling
this curtain of oblivion over the image of one’s self. This alters the
perception of one’s ability to choose, one’s responsibility for those choices
and consequently of results. Albeit one might feel relieved, he “does so
at the expense of individual autonomy.”12

                 Cypher, therefore, is not only
inauthentic in his living, but also never stopped being a slave to the Matrix.
Regardless of being plugged out, he was happier inside and was reluctant to
ever let those sensations go – fulfilling exactly what the Matrix is designed
to do. “…most
of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured,
so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect
it.” Cypher’s character proves that freedom is at times more of an
internal origin, rather than external. Even though he escapes the grips of the
Matrix, he is thoroughly enslaved by his own mind and senses. Escape from the
Matrix is more than just a physical liberation, it requires desposing of all
the mental attachments and all the illusions that one used to firmly grip to.
Cypher never truly attained awareness or was ever ready to let it go, neither
was he prepared for the “desert of the real”. Freedom comes with its’
price, and he was absolutely not ready to pay it.  “Free? You call this free? All I do is
what Morpheus tells me to do. If I had to choose between that and Matrix, I
choose the Matrix.” He is, after nine years, still fully dependent on the
interaction with the Matrix programme.
                   Morpheus once
described the Matrix as the prison for our minds, made to prevent us from seeing
the truth and making us thoroughly dependent on it. This construct is
reminiscent of a Buddhist concept of Samsara, a conviction that our reality is
based merely upon sensory experiences produced from the illusion, strengthened by
our strong desires. One of our major desires, of course, is to staunchly
believe that our reality is true reality. When these projections and our
desires interact with our ignorance of the cycle, it keeps us locked in an
existential deceit, fully reliant on it, until we are able to recognize the
false reality and abandon our mistaken sense of identity. For Cypher, the
falsehood of Matrix (in analogy, of Samsara), overwhelming with its’ alluring
offers, is preferrable to Enlightenment. Even though awaken to a certain
extent, he consciously decides to go back in the Matrix because his desire to
believe the fantasy overcomes him. He blames Morpheus for tricking him into
taking the red pill and not familiarizing him with all the facts. But the
Matrix, through Neo at least, attempts to point out that the enlightenment
and awakening is up to the individual himself. Moreover, Theravada Buddhists
suggest that man’s emancipation depends on his own acknowledgment of the Truth,
not upon some divine or external force or figure. “I’m trying to free your
mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk
through it.”
          Going through Nag Hammadi
library of the Gnostic Christians, one would read about their belief that
rather than through blind faith, ceaseless pursuit for knowledge liberates
individuals and helps them break the shackles of their natural state of bondage
to the world. Ignorance, thus, is not a bliss, merely a perpetuation of
fundamental problems of humanity such as self-deception and neglecting facts of
existence. Even though it offers a temporal sense of relief with our
existential struggles, it is exactly that – temporal. And it only satisfies us
on a primitive, shallow level. Thus, another issue is raised; the question of
self-identity and relationship between our subjective image of self (as free,
happy, content) and the reality of undergoing experiences; and furthermore, how
it is in a direct contact with one’s freedom.
                      Cypher and Socrates
both claimed ignorance, only in two utterly different manners. Unlike Cypher
who was offered the truth, but willingly decided to close his eyes to it, the
basis of Socratic wisdom is recognizing one’s limits and working towards
breaking them. Cypher is lulling himself into the cocoon of illusion, while
Socrates claimed ignorance only as a realization of the boundaries that he was
subjected to, and an intention of overcoming them. “Know thyself” – both
him and the Oracle knew that self knowledge is the key, without which we cannot
unlock no other one worth having.13
In order to set ourselves free, we can conclude from Gnostics and Socrates, we
need to know ourselves first and come to understanding how we have been bound.
As he said, the unexamined life is not worth living. Cypher does not know
himself, does not attempt an introspective examination and hence commits a
major error. But socratic intellectualism explains that one does wrong because
he does not know what is right. One does so due to his ignorance of virtue and
of the right thing, much like Cypher who fails to recognize that the value of
truth far exceeds the petty comforts of his virtual reality.
                      A parable that
encompasses all the points discussed throughout this essay, including doubt,
illusion, self-identity and choice of truth, is a well-known Simile of the Cave,
spoken of in the Book VII of Plato’s Republic. Platonic thesis argues that
freedom, happiness and reflection of self and the objective world all depend on
the knowledge of what is real. Thus, it unqestionably denies Cypher’s claim
that ignorance is a bliss. We are reluctant and unwilling to do what it takes
to set us free, and it becomes especially hard when you realize that you are
bound mentally, and not physically. The Matrix adapts Plato’s cave, and
in both the humans are chained to the massive wall, experiencing a dellusional
life from the moment of birth onwards. So, when one of them is set free, he
must experience a shocking and inconceivable evidence that our senses are
deficient and incompetent. Socratic and Platonic teachings convey the
importance of intellectual comprehension over understanding of the world
through senses. They are unreliable and deceive us into a realm of shadows and
appearances. “Why do my eyes hurt?” – “Because you’ve never used
them before.” Similair to Neo’s eyes requiring an adjustment to the real
world, one’s intellect needs to adapt as well. Coming to know the truth is a
rough transformation of the soul which demands honesty to one’s self,
renouncing ignorance and facing the painful process which enlightenment is.
Knowledge is power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

               
Cypher chooses to believe that there is nothing he can do to improve his
condition, and picks to go along the line of least resistance. He concludes
that he is a slave regardless, either under the agitating command of Morpheus,
or of blissful oblivion within the Matrix. Kant would probably argue that he is
a fool, though. Similair to the overall conclusion of the movie, he believes
that we, as slaves, can only be truly free if we free ourselves. If freedom
from shackles is handed to us without our own efforts, we will fall back to
servitude as quickly as Cypher decides he is unable to cope with appaling life
on Nebuchadnezzar.
As Slavoj Žižek suggested, the Matrix is a sort of a Rorschach test for
philosophy – see what you want, whatever ism you like. Scepticism, hedonism,
existentialism, Buddhism, Marxism,14
it is all there, repacked. When it came out in 1999, the movie was a major hit
and resonated deeply with its’ audiences, tapping deeply into society’s
discomfort and collective anxieties of the new millenia. But if one scratches
deeper from the danger of Artificial Intelligence’s ominous capabilities,
really cool outfits and brilliant visual effects, he will come across much
more. It is a well-taylored piece of cinematography which stimulates
philosophical inquires and cloaks them up in the attire of pop-culture, which
explains its’ universal appeal. It provokes us to project the movie on
ourselves and finish up contemplating whether ignorance really is a bliss.
Would you take the blue or the red pill? It is the question that drives us.

1 William Irwin, ed., The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the
Desert of the Real (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2002), 234.

2 Sam Kriss, ‘Tech Billionaires Want to Destroy the
Universe’, The Atlantic,

(accessed 3rd January 2018)

 

3 David Weberman, ‘The Matrix:
Simulation and the Postmodern Age’, in Matrix
and Philosophy, ed. Irwin (2002), 234.

4 Weberman, in ed. Irwin (2002),
234.

5 Gerald J. Erion and Barry Smith,
‘Skepticism, Morality and the Matrix’ in ed. Irwin (2002), 24.

6 ‘Experience Machine’, Wikipedia,
(accessed 5th
Jan 2018)

7 Charles L. Griswold, Jr., ‘Happiness
and Cypher’s Choice: Is Ignorance Bliss?’ in ed. Irwin (2002), 133.

8 Griswold, Jr. in ed. Irwin (2002),
130-13.

9 Wireless Philosophy, ‘The Good
Life: Aristotle’, Youtube,
(accessed 15th Jan 2018).

10 Griswold, Jr. in ed. Irwin (2002),
136.

11 Jennifer L. McMahon, ‘Existential
Authenticity in The Matrix and Nausea’ in ed. Irwin (2002), 169.

12 McMahon in ed. Irwin (2002), 173-176.

13 William Irwin, ‘Computers, Caves
and Oracles: Neo and Socrates’, in ed. Irwin (2002), 10.

14 Irwin, ‘Introduction: Meditations
on The Matrix’, in ed. Irwin, (2002), 1.

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