Readers of my novel AETHYR surely noticed a number of references to the film THE MATRIX. Fair to say I dig that movie. I was sixteen when it hit theaters back in 1999, and it knocked my socks off: exciting, visually stunning, and intellectually stimulating all at once. It’s one of the few movies I still revisit regularly.
But as I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve noticed a change in how I experience the film. More and more, I find myself sympathizing with Cypher—not the part where he kills his friends, betrays Morpheus, and gropes Trinity while she’s plugged in, of course, but his desire to go back into the Matrix, to choose ignorance over knowledge when knowledge is suffering and ignorance is bliss.
And I wonder how many viewers, who’d just spent the better part of two hours watching Neo kicking Agent Smith’s ass in reality-bending ways, wouldn’t come to the same conclusion with the application of a little critical thinking.
In THE MATRIX, Neo plays the role of the Gnostic messiah, finding hidden knowledge buried in his own mind, then using that gnosis to awaken a sleepwalking humanity to the lie it’s living and to the malevolent, errant gods that manipulate it. Cypher, on the other hand, is the Judas to Neo’s Christ—not the Judas of Gnosticism, who’s something of a tragic hero, but the wretched, greedy Iscariot from the Bible that most of us know, the wage of whose sins is indeed his death.
Fiction is propaganda, regardless of whether its creators intend it to be. By making Cypher a villain, the Wachowskis are preaching to the audience that knowledge is universally good, that those who do not seek it are lesser people and need to be saved from their comfortable delusions. But I ask the question: is it? Do we truly believe that knowledge, particularly of the arcane variety, is inviolably good? Or do we merely tell ourselves that in an attempt to rationalize our innate tendency toward curiosity, much the same as we ennoble suffering not because we truly believe that it is good or desirable, but because we believe that it is inevitable, and thus reason that it must serve a higher purpose?
The irony here is that THE MATRIX is a Gnostic allegory, and yet, in Gnostic theology, it’s the curiosity of Sophia, hypostasis of Wisdom and a constituent aeon of the unknown God, that leads to the birth of the Demiurge, the errant being that creates the material universe and all the suffering in it. The misguided pursuit of knowledge led to the birth of ignorance.
The thing about THE MATRIX is that the propaganda fails when one strips away the varnish. The Machines aren’t evil; imperfect, but in many ways benevolent masters, and their war against Zion isn’t about destroying the last bastion of unplugged humans just because they hate humans but an existential struggle against an adversary hellbent on their utter destruction. The film is simply trying to vilify those hideous mechanical archons beyond the audience’s inherent anthropocentric bias. The movie needs us to hate the Machines. Let us consider:
In the beginning, when Morpheus is explaining the origins of the Matrix, he tells Neo that humans scorched the sky to deprive the Machines of the sun’s warmth, which they needed to function. If we assume that the Machines are sentient, at least semi-conscious beings at this stage in their evolution, as the evidence would seem to suggest, this amounts to an act of attempted genocide by the humans.
Rather than eradicating the humans in retaliation, as the humans tried to do to them, the Machines instead enter into a symbiotic relationship with their adversaries—one born entirely out of need, granted, and one that wholly favors the Machines, but one in which humans are allowed to maintain the illusion of reality, and more importantly, their individualism and free will, leastwise within the parameters of the synthetic reality they inhabit. Sure, it’s all an illusion, but in the human experience, perception is reality.
Agent Smith even tells Morpheus that the original Matrix was a place of bliss, free from conflict and suffering, but the vagaries of human nature prohibited synthesis with that reality. Essentially, the Machines tried to create a Paradise for the people who tried to exterminate them, but, through no fault of their own, were unable. From this, we can conclude that the Machines are morally superior to the humans, who mostly sit around Zion all day plotting to fulfill their forebears’ quest to annihilate the Machines.
The question that THE MATRIX inadvertently forces us to ask is whether we want to know the truth about ourselves—if that “truth” indeed exists. We’re told that knowledge is power, and that the higher knowledge of our own mind is a route to ultimate freedom. But freedom from what? From the comforts of ignorance? The catharsis of humility? The simple pleasures of one who has come to peace with one’s own insignificance in the grand scheme of things?
I do not write this to be a knee-jerk contrarian or to argue that the pursuit of knowledge is pointless, undesirable, or in any way a bad thing. It is not. Humanity wouldn’t be humanity without its curiosity. But that sword cuts two ways. I do not view curiosity as a virtue or a vice; rather, I view it as a sort of intellectual hunger, a thing that motivates one to satisfy a necessity. Knowledge is merely the fruit that satiates that hunger; it is not inherently good or bad. But even the healthiest sustenance can be harmful if consumed in too great a quantity or without care.
So we must ask ourselves: what is the purpose of that esoteric knowledge? Will it make us better people? Will our virtues be enhanced and our vices eradicated? Will our suffering be alleviated? Or will we just go around spewing sophistic word vomit that’s supposed to pass for profound wisdom? Will we become like those self-proclaimed “goddesses” on Instagram, for whom “enlightenment” is a prop to get rich selling overpriced essential oils and gluten-free dog food?
Furthermore, do we really want to know the truth of our reality? If the mystics are correct, and the human spirit is part of a universal collective—a hive mind—in which individuality is illusory, in which we’re all just cogs in a cosmic machine like the ones THE MATRIX tries so hard to vilify, where none of us has any autonomy, any agency, and most importantly, any free will, wouldn’t you rather delude yourself into believing the lie? Wouldn’t you rather believe that your choices matter, that you are the architect of your own fate, even if it isn’t true? Would you rather wake from a blissful dream into a living nightmare?
If knowing ourselves gives us the means to reinvent our nature, to transcend the boundaries of suffering and conflict, to move beyond human, then yes, let us seek that knowledge. But if it simply means waking up in a rusty, dingy Zion full of rebels locked in a Sisyphean struggle for a nebulous freedom, then, to quote my dude Cypher, I choose the Matrix.