by Sam Buntz
[Note: if you haven’t seen the first Matrix movie – and you should only see the first one and should definitely ignore the sequels – you’ll probably be better off not reading this article, because it will completely ruin everything: it’s packed with spoilers. – Sam.]
“What makes us free is knowledge: knowledge of who we were, of what we have become, of where we were, of wherein we have been thrown, of whereto we are hastening, of what we are being freed, of what birth really is, of what rebirth really is.” – Gnostic credo of the Second Century, A.D.
“The Matrix cannot tell you who you are.” – Morpheus, The Matrix
It may seem redundant to write another philosophical investigation of The Matrix: far more ink has been spilled on this movie, comparing it to Plato’s allegory of the cave or to the simulacrum of the French theorist Jean Baudrillard (which the actors apparently had to read on set), than on most other blockbusters or pop-cultural phenomena. But, ever since I saw The Matrix, it seemed to me that its philosophical and spiritual framework was actually grounded in a worldview infrequently discussed in these writings: I mean that system of thought and practice known as Gnosticism – a religious movement that flourished during the first five hundred years of the first millennium, A.D. It was often but not always a renegade Christian movement: most Gnostic groups saw Christ as their redeemer, but some did not, such as the Mandaeans, who still exist in present day Iraq, and who consider John the Baptist a true redeemer and think Jesus a false prophet. I’m sure someone has compared The Matrix to Gnosticism, but I’ve avoided looking for any such studies, in order to give, what hopefully will seem to be, a few original insights and comments, rather than have my thinking swayed by someone else’s compelling arguments.
The Gnostic vision of the cosmos is strikingly akin to that of The Matrix: as in the film, the world we are living in is not the real world, and although evil computers and robots have enslaved humanity in The Matrix’s false reality, it is an equally malign cohort of satanic guardians or “Archons” – analogous to the “agents” in The Matrix – who fulfill the same role in Gnosticism. The Archons are presided over by the “Demiurge” (the Greek word for “creator”) – the false god of cruelty and cold justice who governs our world. (The latter-day Gnostic, William Blake, punningly called him “Nobodaddy”). Herman Melville was well-read in Gnosticism, and often used its worldview in his novels and stories: Captain Ahab, for example, is a kind of Gnostic, and his quest to kill the white whale bears a certain similarity to the main characters’ quest to take down the Matrix. Ahab sees this world as a delusion, hopelessly sunk in error, created by a malevolent or at least bungling creator, who has set the white whale – symbolizing the impersonal order of Nature – to tyrannize over us (as in The Book of Job). In order to reach reality, one must “strike through the mask” – strike through the delusive world of appearances – which, in Ahab’s cosmos, equates to killing the white whale. Once one has broken through to the other side, one sees the existential truth of the human condition: “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.” This is to say, one sees that, although aspects of “physical” life inside the Matrix appear to be blissful and enticing, the true mental reality of how the Matrix has been constructed is a nightmare, a delusion – Melville’s “invisible spheres” are the equivalent of the film’s “desert of the real.” It is the realm in which the evil mechanism of the Archon-computers grinds away, producing reality — it is the place where the cruel architecture of our world is continually manufactured, where “the dead are liquefied to feed the living.” Yet the Gnostics believed that our true home was a distant spiritual realm (far above yet also containing and interpenetrating our world of ignorance and fear), presided over by the True God of Love and Mercy – this spiritual world is equivalent to the city of Zion hidden deep in the center of the earth, “where it’s still warm,” as discussed in the movie.
Not only is the world unreal in The Matrix, but so are the personae of the deluded selves contained within that world – except for those who have woken up from the “unquiet dream” of life in this digitized universe. The “self” that exists in the Matrix is not one’s real self. As Morpheus tells Neo, the Matrix can tell you nothing about who you really are – it is simply a vehicle for the agents, the Archons, to perform their project of keeping humanity ignorant of its true nature. Any person who is still trapped in the Matrix can suddenly be possessed by the agents and become their surrogate: in the same way, the Gnostic teacher, Basilides, believed that what we traditionally think of as the human “self” – the mind, which the Gnostics (writing in Greek) called the psyche – was, in fact, a “den of demons,” a nest of mad impulses and desires, beyond one’s control, writhing over one another like vipers — but still under the power of the Archons. Against these internal demons, Basilides and the other Gnostics held that the pneuma – literally the breath or spirit – was the true self, continually at war with the false psyche. Both of these competing powers were couched within a body – called the hylic self (hyle is Greek for “matter”). Human beings could be conscious of their existence as any one of those three constitutive selves: those identifying entirely with the body were stuck in the emptiness of the physical world, being, functionally, mechanical beings. Those aware of themselves as psyche were at least redeemable, but only those who knew the spirit, the pneuma, were on the fast-track to “resurrection,” which was understood as a spiritual event occurring in this life. Basilides proposed a scheme of reincarnation to explain how everyone would eventually make it out of this mess and become aware of the true self (though other Gnostics had different ideas about how the process would eventually work out, some of them rather less humane, unfortunately – Jorge Luis Borges wrote a great essay on Basilides, which I would recommend, entitled, I believe, “A Defense of Basilides the False” — as the teacher had been christened by his orthodox opponents.)
For the Gnostics, people could comprehend the possibility of salvation only if they had heard the “Call from Beyond” – the voice of the true God, echoing through the deepest chambers of the self. For Neo (Keanu Reeves), this call from the world beyond the Matrix manifests as a message on his computer – “follow the white rabbit” (a la Alice in Wonderland.) Shortly thereafter, he meets a woman with a white rabbit tattoo, and follows her and her friends to the club where he meets the crew-members and their captain, Morpheus, (Laurence Fishburne) who will, soon enough, wake him up from the Matrix. After being alerted to one’s true situation in the world, the next stage of the process for the Gnostic initiate, as for Neo in the movie, is to “know thyself” – to know the hidden spark of the pneuma, which comes from the True God. The Greek word gnosis, after all, simply means “knowledge.” Since the Gnostics saw our worldly Matrix-life as a kind of “death-in-life” (the Gnostic scriptures refer to it as kenoma or “emptiness”), Neo needs to go through a time of trial and testing before he can realize the divine nature of his own self – he has to struggle to break out of this unreal life. The Gnostics liked to say that Christ was actually resurrected before he was crucified, because, for them, the resurrection was not a physical, but (as mentioned) a spiritual event – the moment when the self came to know itself at the deepest level. And that, again, is the Oracle’s advice to Neo in the movie: “Know thyself.” It is this kind of self-knowledge, which allows him (after attaining a sort of resurrection, at the end) to gain complete freedom within the Matrix and to see it for the lie that it really is. When he has fully woken up, Neo sees everything around him as code, running through all things in the form of bright green digits.
There are yet more subtle clues to a greater Gnostic scheme in the Matrix – for instance, the name of the ship that Morpheus captains through “the desert of the real” is the “Nebuchadnezzar II” – named after the Babylonian king whose madness forced him to wander in the wilderness for years, as described in the Book of Daniel in the Bible (this sojourn in the wilderness being an analogy for the ship’s flight through “the desert of the real.”) In William Blake’s school of Biblical interpretation, the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity in the wilderness is the tale of fallen humanity’s exile in the world of delusion, attempting to find a way out. (Incidentally, the Buddhist term for our state of existence is samsara, which literally means “wandering”). The prophetic seer, Daniel, presents the possibility of escape – since his character is a form of the spiritual pneuma, or “divine imagination,” as Blake would have it, rather like Neo. Daniel alone, among the king’s counselors (all of whom, in Blake’s esoteric interpretation, actually dwell within the king’s/humanity’s self) can show the king his true nature and resurrect him into sanity. Thus, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar (though particularly, Neo and Morpheus) is like the “divine imagination” within the body of the deluded human race, as it sleep-walks through the world. Joe Pantoliano’s character is the nemesis within that form — like the psyche, the Archons’ servant — trying to derail the project of the rest of the crew. It is the crew’s job to make “mental war” (which in the film, is represented analogously by literal war) on the agents who have usurped control of the human race.
A more exhaustive investigation of Gnostic mythology and its relation to The Matrix is certainly possible – I wanted only to provide the end of a silver-thread that might, eventually, after being wound-up, lead to an exit from the labyrinth. Gnostic mythology is incredibly dense, and one might be able to identify different characters from The Matrix with specific figures from some of the various Gnostic myths. Neo is obviously both Christ, the redeemer, and every Gnostic (since every Gnostic has access to Christ, and is a potential Christ, through the power of the pneuma.) But The Oracle, for example, could be identified with the un-fallen form of the Sophia – or Wisdom of God – since she provides Neo with helpful hints in pursuing the self-knowledge and God-knowledge that he needs to attain salvation – for himself and for humanity. One could, no doubt, attempt a possibly arcane yet convincing demonstration of how the crew-members and other secondary characters all fit into a Gnostic pattern. I’m sure there’s an entire book’s worth of material contained in this subject.
Now, I don’t even know if the Wachowski siblings are familiar with Gnosticism – though I would strongly bet that they are. Yet, since, for the Gnostics, it is the inner pneuma that provides the knowledge one needs and not any external source (external sources can, at best, only inspire one to seek inner knowledge), to say that the Wachowkis have channeled an authentic Gnostic gospel onto the silver screen is, in my view, perfectly legitimate. No book-knowledge of Gnosticism is necessary. These ideas have been in the air in a less definite form, after all – the plays of Samuel Beckett depict our world as an illusory nightmare, akin to the Matrix (and Pozzo in Waiting for Godot is a perfect Archon or Demiurge), and the novels of Cormac McCarthy make strong allusions to Gnosticism (indicating that McCarthy is, practically, a Gnostic), while the “cyberpunk” genre of science fiction provides many of the tropes used by the Wachowskis in making their movie (the stories of Philip K. Dick are a good example). Our sense of the world as a void in which we nevertheless seem to perceive objects – as in a dream – can be found in all forms of pop-culture. And a computer hacker like Neo is, in many ways, a perfect analogy for the Gnostic – hungry for knowledge, the hacker competes against a vast and mysterious system, designed to frustrate his or her efforts, presided over by distant and possibly malign forces (like Mark Zuckerberg, I suppose).
Though the Gnostic worldview may seem peculiar to some – running entirely against the idea that the world is the creation of a benevolent deity, but also, equally, against the idea that there is no deity and no true purpose to life – its power has endured through the work of literary artists like Blake and Melville, and now, clearly, through the work of major movie directors like the Wachowskis. Among others, Quentin Tarantino praised The Matrix, saying that, if it wasn’t for the sequels, he would easily have called it his second favorite movie since 1992, the year when he first started directing (Tarantino’s discussion of Superman’s true identity in Kill Bill is an effective parable of the Gnostic self). The Matrix was so affecting and so influential, not just because it’s an intense action-heavy extravaganza with awesome special effects and slow-motion bullet-dodging (though it is that, too), but because it reverberated with audiences in some secret chamber of their imaginations, intimated that “call from Beyond,” which the Gnostics spoke of (at least, that’s what I think…) It will likely prove an enduring cinematic achievement, packed with genuine philosophical and spiritual value – and it might even inspire some people to investigate these issues more intensely, possibly even spark them to fulfill Captain Ahab’s Gnostic quest: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks… If man will strike, strike through the mask!”