The science fiction film The Matrix sparks conversation about reality and the role technology has in society, but humanistic concepts illuminate the (post) industrial characteristics.
Note: This essay was influenced by “The Self Before Selfies” and was written for a science fiction course taught by Ryan Leach at UCSB.
“To Err is Human”
“The goal of education should be action, not contemplation”(Bouley). This was a belief of civic humanists, and it remains prevalent. Humanism was a movement during the Renaissance that emphasized the study of human arts with the belief that knowledge could be gained by going ad fontes, or to the ancient world. It required recovery and reintegration of lost culture. The Matrix, debuting in 1999, tackles the absorption of technology at the turn of the century with a statement on how an individual’s reality may shift with the times and technology, but the cores of the individual remain intact. The filmreinforces the legacy of humanism because it challenges institutional authorityand preaches the importance of self-awareness.
An important component of humanism was that it challenged the church, rendering humanist thought revolutionary. At the time, the church was the most powerful institution because people needed it to secure a place in heaven. Those who did not complete the sacraments were not blessed in the afterlife. With humanism, an individual could achieve excellence through the study of humanities, making the church’s purpose obsolete. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was a humanist writer during the fifteenth century who published “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” a work that was burned and banned for threatening the church. The piece expresses mankind’s excellence for its ability to transcend, claiming that people were greater than the seraphim because they possess free will. This repurposed the chain of being, the hierarchy of all creatures who have a fixed status in the eyes of God. In The Matrix, there are several parallels to this concept. Morpheus, captain of the Nebuchadnezzar, provides a portal to reality, going against the institution. Morpheus aims to save mankind from being batteries, and this can only be done if they “free [their] mind[s],” which means straying from what is accepted as the truth (Wachowski). Agent Smith recognizes that his existence will be invaluable if Neo is successful, and he confides in Morpheus that he and others are “so hopelessly dependent on the system they will fight to protect it” (Wachowski).
Resistance is an inevitable component to the film, since Neo is even told by his boss that he has an issue with authority. When he is interrogated by agents, Neo gives Agent Smith the finger, a clear indicator that he will rebel and take life into his own hands. At the end of the film, Neo sends a message to the matrix’s operators, sharing his intentions. He could not share “how [it] was going to end. [He went] to tell… how [it was] going to begin… [Neo was] going to show [the] people what [the matrix] does not want them to see… a world without [the matrix], a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible” (Wachowski). This removal of institution is liberating, and it expresses how the goal of knowledge should be action, not contemplation.
The film takes this a step further by reconceptualizing Christian elements, a true aspect of humanism. Since della Mirandola repurposed the chain of being, it is evident through this lens that the characters in the film revamp some figures in the Bible. Neo resembles Jesus Christ because of his purpose, sacrifice, and resurrection. When Neo meets the Oracle, she prophesizes that either Morpheus or Neo will die, and the choice will be up to Neo. Neo rescues Morpheus and is later killed by an agent; however, just like Christ, he comes back to life stronger than ever. He is even told by a client of his that he was “[his] savior, [his] personal Jesus Christ” (Wachowski). Additionally, Neo means new or revived, and Neo is the revival of humanity. Similarly, Morpheus acts as John the Baptist, the one who announces the coming of Christ just as Morpheus is insistent that Neo is the One. John also guides Jesus, and Morpheus guides Neo in the matrix and reality. He possesses an “ethical call for justice,” but in both cases, Morpheus and John cannot act as the redeemer (Strugnell). It must be enacted by the One. They “can only show [Neo] the door. [He is] the one that has to walk through it” (Wachowski).
Furthermore, elements of humanism emerge with the notion that to be self-aware is to be on the path to prosperity. Those who are self-aware and living in reality practice the concept of going ad fontes because they retreat to Zion for the sake of humanity. In order to preserve what is left of mankind, they need to cleanse from technology and revert to the ancient ways of life. Self-awareness was prevalent in humanism and the Renaissance. Those who were self-aware were considered furbo, or the clever one, and those who were not were labeled fesso, or the foolish one (Bouley). The latter’s literal translation means to be on the receiving end of sex, so to be cognizant and mindful meant to be dominant and in power. At first, Neo displays the characteristics of the foolish one because he struggles to fully accept the concept of life outside of the matrix. He fails to jump from rooftops and experiences injuries from training because he is not yet self-aware. Eventually, he overcomes this.
The Matrix also utilizes becoming self-aware through the symbol of sunglasses. Each member of the Nebuchadnezzar crew wears sunglasses while inside the matrix, everyone except Neo. In fact, when Neo is reborn and on the ship, he asks Morpheus why his eyes hurt to which Morpheus replies he “never used them before” (Wachowski). Even after most of his training Neo still does not wear sunglasses in the simulator, which is where Morpheus explains that in that place they appear as a “residual self-image, or the projection of the self” (Wachowski). Neo’s path to consciousness is portrayed through the sunglasses. Neo is fesso and without sunglasses, until he becomes conscious of how Morpheus is so willing to die for a cause he believes in. When Neo recognizes his purpose as the One, only then does he see the circumstances through a new lens: his sunglasses. Neo then transcends this and embodies being furbo after his resurrection when he can see through the matrix with only his eyes.
Similarly, self-awareness is exhibited when Neo visits the Oracle. He has just scratched the surface of his character development and is astonished by the children in the room. When he speaks to the Oracle, she directs him to a sign hanging above the door that reads “temet nosce,” meaning know thyself. Not only does this reiterate what it means to go ad fontes as Socratesspoke these words, it expresses the importance of being self-aware.
When Morpheus and Neo first meet face to face, Morpheus asks Neo if he believes in fate. Neo reveals that he does not like it, since he wishes to be in control of his own life. The Oracle’s prophecy rattles Neo as he does not know who he is. This is a recurring theme as the focal point is whether Neo is the One, and through it all, the most important takeaway is that knowing thyself comes from thyself. Trinity points out that “the Matrix cannot tell [one] who [they] are” (Wachowski). Neo finally recognizes this and firmly declares that he knows himself. While fighting the agent in the train station, he corrects the sentinel and says “[his] name… is Neo” (Wachowski). Even though Neo has not reached his full potential in this scene, it is the beginning of his journey to self-awareness, and it empowers him to be the first to survive a fight with an agent.
Ultimately, The Matrix maintains the themes of humanism through its commentary on the individual. Despite the movement occurring centuries apart from the film’s debut, it upholds the notionthat society’s struggles associated with technology do not necessarily point at machinery as the sole evildoer. Instead, it reveals that it is a symptom of a greater cause: to err is human.
Bouley, Brad. “Early Renaissance Florence.” 07 August 2019, Phelps Hall, Goleta, CA. Lecture.
Strugnell, John. “St. John the Baptist.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-John-the-Baptist.
Wachowski, Lilly and Lana Wachowski, directors. The Matrix. 1999.