“Malo periculosamlibertatem quam quietum servitum” – I prefer tumult of liberty to quiet ofservitude.
If Mr. Raegan agreed with count Palatine of Posen, or further downthe line with ancient Greek philosophers, Kant, Existentialists, or evenBuddhists and Gnostics, he would most definitely not be so determined to reachfor the beauty of the oblivion. An hour and three minutes into the movie, thecamera rises from the plate with a steak to stop at Cypher’s face carefullycontemplating a piece of it on a fork. After nine years outside of the Matrix, theJudas 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 hismundane, corporeal pleasures to the fullest. Almost a decade of philosophicalquandary led him to become indifferent to the sin of self-deception1and haughtily state how ignorance is a bliss. A big number of critics and moviefans commented how choosing the blue pill is essentially what any sane,ordinary man is most likely to choose. Was Cypher right then? To decode theanswer, we will need to examine the alleged blissfulness of ignorance, discussingvarious philosophical and religious doctrines.
They encompass centuries ofcontemplations upon major existential questions of knowledge, truth,self-identity and choice (blue or red pill, ignorance or knowledge, slavery orfreedom, appearance or reality?). These matters are tightly interwoven andappear as major themes of the Matrix (1999). “If reality is whatever’smutually agreed upon … does it make sense to then start talking about fakerealities and real ones? Why is a universe composed of software necessarily anyless real than one composed of matter?”2.What Matrix offers is a world of steaks, women in red dresses and convenienceof an oblivious life at the peak of human civilisation, full of bliss andcolour.
Awaken to the most dismal post-apocaliptic scenery of wasteland thatEarth was turned into, saturated in gloomy black and grey hues, Cypherinitially attempts adjusting to the brutal reality, but eventually comes torealization that it is simply not worth it. Neither a hero nor spirituallyallevated, deeply selfish and possibly most painfully human from all thecharacters, to him it is much easier to stay oblivious and neglect the uglinessof existence. David Weberman takes an interesting stance justifying hisdecision and our immediate scorn of it, stating:”The Matrix does not justoffer sensual pleasures. It really encompasses much more, in fact, it gives us just abouteverything we could want from the shallowest to the deepest of gratifications (…) Thevirtual world gives us the opportunity to visit museums and concerts, read Shakespeare andStephen 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 waythat you’re free now…”3Imagine being awaken fromyour life and being told and proven how everything you experienced from themoment of your birth was fake – one would become a bigger skeptic thanDescartes himself. Taught to doubt all his empirical beliefs and being unableto 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 realnessof the desolate havoc in 2199 (to be proven right in the first sequel), apossibility of simulation within a simulation, so why not then pick a blissfullife, even if fantasy? At least if feels painfully real. “I don’t want toremember nothing. Nothing.
Do youunderstand? And I want to be rich. You know…someone important, like anactor.” Delicious savors of food, commodities of fame and wealth, and asignificant role in society all seem to imply happiness.
He is a genuinehedonist who is unwilling to put up with some higher goals for no personalprofit, eating the same gag-enticing goop every day, surviving with no hope ofbetter tomorrow and “other idealist crap”.4In grips of these arguments, we might be induced to justify his choice andconclude that this would most likely be a decision of majority of ordinarypeople. However, Erion and Smith explain how “in choosing to lead his lifefor pleasure alone, he presupposes that pleasure is the only thing that couldmake his life worth living.”5The whole situation is very reminiscent of Nozick’s Experience Machine, athought experiment composed to refute ethical hedonism arguing we want to docertain things, not only experience them; be a certain kind of person, not justa “indeterminate blob” floating in the tank; and finally how thislimits us to a man-made reality, to what we can make, because there is noactual contact with any deeper reality, even if it can be simulated.6 Moreover, the questionof the true nature of happiness is imposed. Naturally, a snug life replete withwealth and fame is surely to make one feel contented and at ease, but wouldthat genuinely make Cypher happy? He might be quick to answer yes, but neither CharlesL. Griswold nor Aristotle would agree. There are “various kinds ofself-delusion on which an erroneous sense of happiness may be built on.
“7The former argues how there is essentialy a major difference betweencontentment and happiness, where the discrepancy is consisted in our subjectivesense of well-being and our actual knowledge of reality. “Contentment andunreflectiveness are natural allies. The content are (…) tranquillized. I havein mind the figure of the contented slave; someone resigned to the limitationsof life, someone for whom the link between the subjective feeling and anassessment of the worthiness of his life is broken.”8.Contentment comprises fleeting moments of joy and feeling good, but it is not along-term feeling.
After the direct source of the satisfaction and pleasure isremoved, we are inevitably left with an empty sense of unfulfillment and voidwithin. No steaks, red wines or women in red dresses can complement thatever-concomitant lack. Aristotle, on the otherhand, suggests that acquisition of riches, pursuit of honour or bodilypleasures are deficient of the greatest good, which must be somethingconsistent with maximisation of our faculties as human beings. Aristotle’svirtuous man, much like Neo, can satisfy both his propensities and his rationaldesires because in him, these two things are alligned. He wants to do right anddoes it, ultimately deriving pleasure from his good behaviour.9Person 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’sactive decision making and discovery of truth about self and world”.10 Another philosophical lens thatwe can use in other to scrutinize this argument is existentialist. Both Neo andCypher have a choice to make, a choice most literally embodied in blue and redpill. You are offered both, so do you pick blue or red, do you pick fanstasy orreality, illusion or truth, ignorance or enlightenment, slavery or freedom?Different phrasing, and you would be speaking of Camus’, Heidegger’s orSartre’s choice between authenticity and inauthenticity. As existentialistssee it, authenticity is a state of being in which an individual acknowledgesthe 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 toaccepting that “world has no intrinsic order or purpose, but also that weare fragile creatures who bear complete responsibility for ourselves and themeanings we create.” It requires us, in order to achieve genuine serenityand soberness (which implies freedom in a sense), to disperse the falseappearances that comfort us and attain an understanding of the world that is mostlikely to be at odds with majority. Inauthenticity is the norm, thus thestruggle for authenticity is a path paved with discomfort, responsibility, painand coping with the truth that is “hard to stomach”. One might be quick to denyits preference and point out the utmost repulsiveness of such condition, which impliesthat ignorance perhaps is a bliss after all. Life faces us with too many thingswe would rather refute, predicaments that we cannot cope with and occuranceswhich drown us in grief and sorrow, but we are unable to affect. However, asMcMahon points out, inauthenticity does not eradicate anxiety, it simplymitigates it.
It also has a consequence of limiting our freedom and”covering over the true cause of one’s ontological insecurity andattributing thing feeling instead to some mundane cause.” Furthermore,living in constant denial of the true nature of the world, one begins pullingthis curtain of oblivion over the image of one’s self. This alters theperception of one’s ability to choose, one’s responsibility for those choicesand consequently of results. Albeit one might feel relieved, he “does soat the expense of individual autonomy.”12 Cypher, therefore, is not onlyinauthentic 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 toever let those sensations go – fulfilling exactly what the Matrix is designedto do. “…mostof 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 protectit.” Cypher’s character proves that freedom is at times more of aninternal origin, rather than external. Even though he escapes the grips of theMatrix, he is thoroughly enslaved by his own mind and senses.
Escape from theMatrix is more than just a physical liberation, it requires desposing of allthe 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, neitherwas 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 iswhat Morpheus tells me to do. If I had to choose between that and Matrix, Ichoose the Matrix.” He is, after nine years, still fully dependent on theinteraction with the Matrix programme.
Morpheus oncedescribed the Matrix as the prison for our minds, made to prevent us from seeingthe truth and making us thoroughly dependent on it. This construct isreminiscent of a Buddhist concept of Samsara, a conviction that our reality isbased merely upon sensory experiences produced from the illusion, strengthened byour strong desires. One of our major desires, of course, is to staunchlybelieve that our reality is true reality. When these projections and ourdesires interact with our ignorance of the cycle, it keeps us locked in anexistential deceit, fully reliant on it, until we are able to recognize thefalse reality and abandon our mistaken sense of identity.
For Cypher, thefalsehood of Matrix (in analogy, of Samsara), overwhelming with its’ alluringoffers, is preferrable to Enlightenment. Even though awaken to a certainextent, he consciously decides to go back in the Matrix because his desire tobelieve the fantasy overcomes him. He blames Morpheus for tricking him intotaking the red pill and not familiarizing him with all the facts. But theMatrix, through Neo at least, attempts to point out that the enlightenmentand awakening is up to the individual himself. Moreover, Theravada Buddhistssuggest 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 yourmind, Neo.
But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walkthrough it.” Going through Nag Hammadilibrary of the Gnostic Christians, one would read about their belief thatrather than through blind faith, ceaseless pursuit for knowledge liberatesindividuals and helps them break the shackles of their natural state of bondageto the world. Ignorance, thus, is not a bliss, merely a perpetuation offundamental problems of humanity such as self-deception and neglecting facts ofexistence. Even though it offers a temporal sense of relief with ourexistential struggles, it is exactly that – temporal.
And it only satisfies uson a primitive, shallow level. Thus, another issue is raised; the question ofself-identity and relationship between our subjective image of self (as free,happy, content) and the reality of undergoing experiences; and furthermore, howit is in a direct contact with one’s freedom. Cypher and Socratesboth claimed ignorance, only in two utterly different manners. Unlike Cypherwho was offered the truth, but willingly decided to close his eyes to it, thebasis of Socratic wisdom is recognizing one’s limits and working towardsbreaking them.
Cypher is lulling himself into the cocoon of illusion, whileSocrates claimed ignorance only as a realization of the boundaries that he wassubjected to, and an intention of overcoming them. “Know thyself” – bothhim and the Oracle knew that self knowledge is the key, without which we cannotunlock no other one worth having.13In order to set ourselves free, we can conclude from Gnostics and Socrates, weneed 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 knowhimself, does not attempt an introspective examination and hence commits amajor error. But socratic intellectualism explains that one does wrong becausehe does not know what is right.
One does so due to his ignorance of virtue andof the right thing, much like Cypher who fails to recognize that the value oftruth far exceeds the petty comforts of his virtual reality. A parable thatencompasses 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 thatfreedom, happiness and reflection of self and the objective world all depend onthe knowledge of what is real.
Thus, it unqestionably denies Cypher’s claimthat ignorance is a bliss. We are reluctant and unwilling to do what it takesto set us free, and it becomes especially hard when you realize that you arebound mentally, and not physically. The Matrix adapts Plato’s cave, andin both the humans are chained to the massive wall, experiencing a dellusionallife from the moment of birth onwards.
So, when one of them is set free, hemust experience a shocking and inconceivable evidence that our senses aredeficient and incompetent. Socratic and Platonic teachings convey theimportance of intellectual comprehension over understanding of the worldthrough senses. They are unreliable and deceive us into a realm of shadows andappearances. “Why do my eyes hurt?” – “Because you’ve never usedthem before.” Similair to Neo’s eyes requiring an adjustment to the realworld, one’s intellect needs to adapt as well. Coming to know the truth is arough 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 hiscondition, and picks to go along the line of least resistance. He concludesthat 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 isa fool, though. Similair to the overall conclusion of the movie, he believesthat we, as slaves, can only be truly free if we free ourselves. If freedomfrom shackles is handed to us without our own efforts, we will fall back toservitude as quickly as Cypher decides he is unable to cope with appaling lifeon Nebuchadnezzar.
As Slavoj Žižek suggested, the Matrix is a sort of a Rorschach test forphilosophy – see what you want, whatever ism you like. Scepticism, hedonism,existentialism, Buddhism, Marxism,14it is all there, repacked. When it came out in 1999, the movie was a major hitand resonated deeply with its’ audiences, tapping deeply into society’sdiscomfort and collective anxieties of the new millenia.
But if one scratchesdeeper from the danger of Artificial Intelligence’s ominous capabilities,really cool outfits and brilliant visual effects, he will come across muchmore. It is a well-taylored piece of cinematography which stimulatesphilosophical inquires and cloaks them up in the attire of pop-culture, whichexplains its’ universal appeal. It provokes us to project the movie onourselves 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 theDesert of the Real (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2002), 234. 2 Sam Kriss, ‘Tech Billionaires Want to Destroy theUniverse’, The Atlantic,
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, org/wiki/Experience_machine> (accessed 5thJan 2018)7 Charles L. Griswold, Jr., ‘Happinessand Cypher’s Choice: Is Ignorance Bliss?’ in ed. Irwin (2002), 133. 8 Griswold, Jr. in ed. Irwin (2002),130-13.9 Wireless Philosophy, ‘The GoodLife: Aristotle’, Youtube, 10 Griswold, Jr. in ed. Irwin (2002),136.11 Jennifer L. McMahon, ‘ExistentialAuthenticity in The Matrix and Nausea’ in ed. Irwin (2002), 169.12 McMahon in ed. Irwin (2002), 173-176. 13 William Irwin, ‘Computers, Cavesand Oracles: Neo and Socrates’, in ed. Irwin (2002), 10. 14 Irwin, ‘Introduction: Meditationson The Matrix’, in ed. Irwin, (2002), 1.
org/wiki/Experience_machine> (accessed 5thJan 2018)7 Charles L. Griswold, Jr., ‘Happinessand Cypher’s Choice: Is Ignorance Bliss?’ in ed.
Irwin (2002), 133. 8 Griswold, Jr. in ed. Irwin (2002),130-13.9 Wireless Philosophy, ‘The GoodLife: Aristotle’, Youtube,
10 Griswold, Jr. in ed. Irwin (2002),136.11 Jennifer L. McMahon, ‘ExistentialAuthenticity in The Matrix and Nausea’ in ed. Irwin (2002), 169.12 McMahon in ed. Irwin (2002), 173-176.
13 William Irwin, ‘Computers, Cavesand Oracles: Neo and Socrates’, in ed. Irwin (2002), 10. 14 Irwin, ‘Introduction: Meditationson The Matrix’, in ed. Irwin, (2002), 1.