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Matrix, rewatched

The Matrix, and my subjective imagination

The Matrix is a 1999 movie, with two sequels that both came out in 2003, about a dystopian future in which machines have conquered the world and are growing human being to use as batteries to generate electricity. The human beings are kept content, and prevented from revolting, by providing them with a virtual world in which they believe they live full lives, even though in reality they are trapped in cocoons without moving their entire lives. Against this there is a resistance, led by the few human individuals who either escaped from the matrix, and ‘woke up’ their bodies, or who were born in Zion, the city deep underground where humans are still in control. The hero and main character in the film and the whole trilogy is Neo, who is a Christ-figure come to save the human beings from the machines. The crucial element, which he discovers in the first movie, is the realization that the matrix is not real, and therefore cannot harm us if we do not allow it to. Neo is shot, but the bullets do not harm him, because he knows that they are imaginary.

There is the objective movie, and then there is each of our subjective experiences of it. I watched it, then went to bed, but then I awoke in the middle of the night and thought about it. As I was lying awake in bed, my mind wondered from “The Matrix” to the novel “War and Peace”, which I read four years ago. I am 41-years-old, and since my early childhood I have been watching movies and reading books. Now, my imagination is full of many images, many stories, many characters: Neo, Pierre Bezukhov, Raskolnikov, Scarlet O’Hara, Jean Valjean, Rick from Casablanca, etc. etc…. These stories, these characters, fill my imagination and touch my heart. I not only imagine what they look like; I feel for them, they affect me emotionally, and yet they are not real. In so much as they form my imagination, and my imagination is part of me, they are part of me, and in so much as I love myself, I love them. Now that I have lived over forty years, I have many wonderful real friends; I love the real people I know more than I love the imaginary characters that have formed me, yet it is a case of more and less, not of either or. I love real people more than imaginary characters, not instead of imaginary characters; I love them both.

Now I think of the Middle Ages. Movies did not exist, and most people were illiterate, so they could not have had the images, nor the abundance of stories and characters, that I have. They did have images, though, and stories with characters. For them, Church was the source of such things. They could not watch movies, but their churches were decorated with statues and paintings, and monks occasionally performed plays for their entertainment and edification. They could not read, but others told them stories, most especially stories from The Bible. Though it is impossible to know with certainty, it is very probable that the average European, though illiterate, knew The Bible better than the average European today does. They also had the Saints, about whom there were many tales, some of which were historically accurate, others legendary, most probably a mixture of history and fantasy. Their imaginations were filled not with Neo and Jean Valjean, but with King David and Saint Bernard. They were not empty, and perhaps they were better off than today’s youth who do not read much and waste their time watching the Kardashians and other ilk that gives them characters lacking in virtue, which are not edifying and do not help to develop into good, mature adults. On the other hand, I think of myself. I know The Bible (I read it four times from cover-to-cover), the stories of Saints, and also movies and novels. I have it all, and I am grateful for all this good that I have received.

“The Matrix” is not merely the movie that happened to arouse such musings, as any other movie might have, because affects my imagination. It is especially relevant to this issue: the imagination and the real world. In the movie, people are trapped in a virtual world, which they believe to be the real world, and they never truly live, except for the few who are part of the rebellion and therefore live outside of the matrix. One of the characters in the movie is part of the rebellion, but chooses to return to the matrix and live as a slave, because his virtual life is more pleasant than his real one. He is a traitor to his fellow humans, and to himself. He chooses to live less, to become less, to stop developing in the real world, and instead live as a slave, nothing but a battery for machines, because that life is easier, more pleasant, less painful. Aristotle wrote that the living as a free man is more difficult than living as a slave; he was right, and during the Middle Ages the wise men knew the teachings of Aristotle. Slaves might have to work hard using their muscles, and they might fear beatings from their masters, but they have no real responsibility. They do not have to worry about making the right decisions, or about the consequences of making the wrong decisions. They do not have to motivate themselves to achieve, or behave contrary to their inclinations when their inclinations are harmful. Slaves just do what they are told when they are being watched, and when they are not being watched they can relax and do whatever they feel like doing. Free men must always think, always control themselves, always face the responsibility of making the right decisions and then acting accordingly. It is easier to live in a virtual world in which there are no real consequences to our actions, and therefore we can follow our inclinations wherever they take us without worrying about anything. The easiest life, however, is not the best one. Someone who loves himself will choose to live in the real world, and become the best himself that he can be. It is a lack of self-love that would cause someone to choose pleasure over substance. Though this choice between pleasure and substance, which is the choice between the virtual and the real, differs now in its modality from what it was in the Middle Ages, yet the fundamental choice is the same.

The fundamental choice is the same, and I wonder if perhaps people in the Middle Ages understood the choice set before them better than most post-moderns do. People in the Middle Ages, who benefited from the teachings of the Church, knew that there is something greater than our subjective feelings, and they knew that choosing to obey their feelings to the detriment of their selves and other people was sinful. Many folks today believe that there is nothing greater than their own subjective feelings, and therefore they deny the possibility of sin. Sin is choosing to act according to a lower (our feelings) instead of according to a higher (GOD, reality, etc.). If, as many today believe, there is nothing higher, then there can be nothing wrong with acting according to our feelings. This perverse attitude, founded upon a rejection of higher realities, is largely a reaction against the excesses of those who lacked the subtlety necessary to love everything in proper proportion. The imagination is not bad, nor are our feelings bad. They are part of us, and in so much as we love ourselves we should love our imaginations and our feelings, but not as much as we love substantial beings, by which I mean ourselves, other people, and GOD.