by Stephen Faller
Talking about the Dialectic was a dangerous move. It ’s always a risk to introduce a new philosophical apparatus into a self-contained system of thought. Such an instrument is like a scalpel, that can cure or kill. And the Dialectic is sharper than Occam’s Razor. There’s no mention of the term in any of the movies, but I feel that the movies are deeply enmeshed in Western Philosophy enough such that the Dialectic is fair game.
I may have lost some readers so let me review and make sure we’re on more or less the same page. The Dialectic is not simply “rational thought” or the scientific-method; the fault for any misunderstanding is mine. Like “dialogue” suggests, the “dialectic” refers to the relationship between two points of view. Things are said to be in “dialectical tension” usually when you have competing truths. It’s not logic itself, but one of the basic elemental atoms of logic.
There are many examples of this kind of tension throughout the trilogy. Is it Neo or Mr. Anderson? The Architect or the Oracle? Choice or purpose? Lock or Morpheus? Smith or Neo? Neo or Bane? Red or blue pill? Causality or choice? Humans or machines? Reality or illusion? And there are a dozen more.
To sum up the last article, the major fork in the plot of Reloaded is how the war will end. There are other, smaller forks. But as Reloaded ends, the primary question is who is going to win the war? Can the humans win with Neo, or will the machines overtake Zion? By using the Super Burly Brawl to end the war, the Wachowskis say something about peace and the nature of philosophy itself. Through intense choice and passion and living, we can overcome the limits of human existence and logic. Don’t try to pick that apart too hard. The argument is not that logic doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s not that this is the only true statement we can make about peace. But by establishing this particular war as the fundamental paradox, and then by using Neo to overcome that paradox, we see how embodied choice can trump even the most limiting dialectical tension.
Now that we have the dialectic in our arsenal, there’s one specific dialectic we need to understand the Passion of Neo: the dialectic between Smith and Neo. The Oracle tells us they are linked, so let’s look at the link. We need to examine that tension and how they are opposites. And in order to do that we have to look at the Evolution of Revolutions — we need to look at the evolution of Smith’s philosophical position.
In the original Matrix, we get Smith’s soliloquy at the interrogation of Morpheus. Here we start with a pure philosophy of evolution. Smith talks about the domination of one species over another, like the humans against the dinosaurs. In this view, humans are the disease and machines are the cure. It is important to note that this evolutionary thought is simply Hegel’s dialectic as applied to the laws of biology and nature. Darwin gets the credit for this. But soon after Darwin came social Darwinism, which was the cut-throat application of evolution to human survival and the social survival of the fittest (and this is related to why the Agents are all cast as white, male yuppies). The idea has even been applied to psychology, which is probably why the Brothers required Keanu to read about evolutionary psychology before playing Neo.
Before we shift to Smith’s evolution in Reloaded, it is important to notice how imprisoned Smith is by this evolutionary philosophy. He’s miserable. He hates everything about his existence, especially the smell, and he wants to only escape the Matrix. Did you notice that even when he escapes the Matrix in Reloaded he’s still miserable? That’s because he takes his world view with him. He creates his own miserable reality with him wherever he goes. He creates his own Matrix. He is determined, philosophically and otherwise, that his glass shall be eternally half-empty.
In Reloaded we see Smith persist as a tortured soul, and it is no wonder that he find satisfaction in self-mutilation. The dominant theme in this movie is how his narcissism festers and becomes infected. “Oh God,” cries Bane. Smith will suffice because he is his own god, and has become completely self-absorbed. Most miserable people are narcissistic because they believe if they can just make themselves good enough, they will no longer hate themselves. So they are always looking at themselves in the mirror, trying to be pretty while feeling ugly. They add to themselves. They try to get other people to be like them, and narcissists see themselves in everyone. So it’s quite appropriate that Smith takes so much delight in his new weapon of cloning himself. It’s a very satanic weapon. Satan’s influence grows as more and more people conform to that image. And all they can think of is, “More!”
By Revolutions, Smith can now articulate his position as full-blown nihilism. We saw hints of this in Reloaded when his only purpose is to try to rob Neo of Neo’s sense of purpose. It is a type of extreme jealousy. But by Revolutions, Smith is no longer satisfied with Neo’s purpose. He now threatens to be the destroyer of everything (perhaps as suggested by the Bible verse on his car). He now sees death as the “inevitable” culmination of everything. The purpose of all life is to end.
We also see that his is absolutely mired in speculation and conjecture. His life force is stuck in logical paradoxes that prevent him from action and movement. When he confronts the Oracle, he gets stuck in the philosophy of predestination in a humorous bit with the cookies. She practically has to coach him through the violence against her.
This all leads to the choice that he cannot see beyond. Once he overtakes the Oracle, he has her power and is able to see the end of the movie. This is why he laughs. But he doesn’t see the whole thing because he can’t see beyond Neo’s choice. How do I know that? Because he continually asks Neo to explain himself. “Why?! Why?!” For Smith, because life is ultimately mortal, nothing matters. Life, freedom, and especially love (there’s the Trinity-factor) are meaningless illusions created through the needs of evolutionary psychology to try to invent some purpose for life. Any of these sums are swallowed up into nothingness when divided by the eternity and infinity of death. At least for Smith, anyway.
What is Neo’s choice that he doesn’t understand? What is it that Neo chooses to do? Neo becomes and commits to being Choice itself. Where Smith gets paralyzed by all of his cogitations, Neo becomes the essence of action and commitment and choice. And the only way to have that much commitment is to stake your life on it. The only way to be infinitely alive is to risk the eternity of death for it. You can begin to see the Christian overtones. It is possible to be so alive that one never dies.
And for the first time, Smith calls Neo by the right name (maybe with a little help from the Oracle). And Neo sees. And Neo realizes and remembers. And he chooses to die. This, of course, terrifies Smith because it is completely outside of his thought. Surrender never occurs to him. He can’t conceive of it, because he is driven by the need for control. It doesn’t mesh with his philosophy.
To be sure, questions remain. What about Neo’s death? What about the fragile peace? What about everybody else in the Matrix? To be sure, resolutions will follow