The Matrix of Control: Why the Matrix Still Has Us – Part 2

Part 2 of the chapter from More Matrix and Philosophy: Revolutions and Reloaded Decoded, copyright Open Court Publishing.

An anomaly is possible, indeed inevitable, even within the super-control of the Matrix. A free choice remains ours.

Deciding to take the red pill is just the beginning of the adventure though. Many more choices and obstacles await. It is not just a matter of coming to know that there is a trap. One must understand the trap. As the Oracle says, “We can never see past the choices we don’t understand.” Denying real, genuine freedom, the Oracle tells Neo, “You’ve already made the choice, now you have to understand it.” But the Merovingian and the Oracle are wrong in believing that all the choices have been made, that all one can do is understand them. Perhaps as she believes she is destined to, the Oracle benevolently misleads Neo and Morpheus, to “unbalance the equation.” As she says, “We’re all here to do what we’re all here to do. I’m interested in one thing, Neo, the future. And believe me, I know—the only way to get there is together.”

Assuming we have free will, however—as the Matrix trilogy ultimately assumes—there is more to life than the therapy of the Oracle in which we come to understand the reasons for our actions. There is the confrontation with the Freudian-looking Architect, who sees that though Neo and we are pushed about by stormy forces inside and outside us, we can ultimately come to not just understand these forces but to act against them. As with the two-party system, so too with the Architect. To choose an alternative is to take a step to undermine the structure. Just because success remains a long shot does not mean that we are throwing away our vote.

Consider consumer culture and the “affluenza” virus it spreads. Affluenza, in case you’re not aware, is “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” Advertising is everywhere. The pressure is on to buy designer label clothes, even if they’re not any better quality than the no-name stuff. We fall into the trap of “conspicuous consumption,” as Thorsten Veblen called it. We keep up with the Joneses for the sake of letting the Joneses know we are keeping up. It’s the consumer culture that Jack (Edward Norton) has bought into, becoming the “Ikea boy” of Fight Club, leading a perfectly meaningless and empty life. As Tyler Durden tells him, “You are not your job. You are not the money in your bank account. You are not the car you drive. You are not how much money is in your wallet. You are not your ****ing khakis.” And as Trinity tells Neo, “The Matrix cannot tell you who you are.”

Affluenza is another structural trap without an architect. No vast capitalist conspiracy set it up. You are not what you buy. Worse, you buy what you are. Empty inside you buy objects outside to fill the internal void. You live in a consumer society and the pressure is put on you in any number of ways to conform, to be a “good citizen.” People judge you in terms of what you own and drive, where you live. To prove your worth you buy to display your ability to buy. You conspicuously consume. As Tyler Durden says, “The things you own end up owning you. “ Worst of all, you may not even have realized it. You may be one of the nearly 99% who accept the program. Contrary to Cypher, ignorance is not bliss; what you don’t know sure can hurt you.

After 9/11, there were exhortations to spend, to go to the mall, lest the terrorists should win. Such consumption may seem to benefit the producers we patronize and the larger economy, but such benefits lack real fecundity. They do not encourage producers to make better quality, more affordable products, but rather more expensive, more enticing, less necessary products. In the long run that serves no one well. “It was all another system of control.”

Free Your Mind

In the first film Neo tells Morpheus, “I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.” But it’s true that Neo cannot control his life, at least not what happens outside his own mind—though even there he has more power than most of us both inside and outside the Matrix. What Neo can control is his own mind, a lesson he begins to learn in the Dojo and which he more fully comes to believe as he sees through the code and opposes the Agents.

Even if it can’t bend spoons, how can your mind shape your perception of reality? What connections, if any, are there between your thoughts and your emotions? Can you control your thoughts? Can you control your emotions? According to the Merovingian, “Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely out of control.” That may often be true, but it doesn’t have to be.

Stoicism is the philosophy that counsels self-control, detachment, and acceptance of one’s fate. The two most important ancient stoics, a slave named Epictetus (50-130 A.D.) and the emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD), shared the insight that thoughts control emotions and thoughts are under our control. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius advises: “Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” Epictetus sums up stoicism when he says, “Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen and your life will be serene.” Bring your mind into conformity with reality and your mind will master reality.

How misguided and misdirected most of us are in our attempts at control. As Marcus Aurelius says, “Our anger and annoyance are more detrimental to us than the things themselves which anger or annoy us” (Book XI §18). We foolishly break ourselves against the rocks and let potentially strong muscles atrophy. Better to wear down rocks passing over and to the side like gentle stream water. Nothing outside my mind is under my complete control. Things outside my mind, especially people, are, at most, subject to my influence. And exerting my influence comes always at a price, a trade-off. Learning to control the mind is not easy. Still, I can control what I see by closing my eyes or averting my glance, and with effort and practice I can control what I think and hence what I feel. I can learn the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius that “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it” (Book VIII §47). The message is to stop seeking control of what is beyond your control. Instead, get in control of your thoughts. Build your mental muscles through repetition, through practice.

The master is the one who is master of himself. It is not commanding armies, like Lock, or fortunes, like the Merovingian, that makes one a master. Such things are never fully commanded or controlled; they cannot be. And if one’s inner weather changes as they change, one is not the master but a slave. The master, like Neo, is not cold, insensitive, indifferent. He is compassionate, though he controls his emotional temperature.

So what can I control concerning the Matrix of consumer culture and the virus of affluenza? East and West agree, you can and should control and resist the creation of desire and the illusion of need. The second Noble Truth of Buddhism tells us that suffering is ultimately caused by desire (trsna). Marcus Aurelius cautions, “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not” (Book VII §27). You truly need very little if you are unconcerned with impressing others with what you have. In the Tao te Ching Lao Tzu offers the wisdom that “He who knows he has enough is rich.”

Become conscious of living in a consumer society. Realize the vested interest that companies have in getting you to buy their products. Companies do this by getting you to desire and, in some cases, believe you need their product. Resisting on your own is difficult when those around you are still plugged in to the Matrix. They do not resist, often not realizing there is anything to resist. They become walking advertisements and agents of coercion, more difficult to resist than the ads. But the habits and pressures of others are no excuse. Why not take some satisfaction in refusing to conform, in refusing to be like those you don’t even like? As Marcus Aurelius says, “To refrain from imitation is the best revenge” (Book VI §6).

“Free your mind.” It’s yours to control.

Cast off the Fruit of Action

Stoicism does not tell us to just give up, to do nothing. Rather it tells us to realize that our attempts at influencing the world through our actions always come at a price and the results are far from guaranteed. Neo does not cease action. In Revolutions he comes to know what he must do, go to the machine city and attempt to save Zion. Neo is a reluctant warrior. Much as he does not relish the task, it is his duty as the One. Worse, there is no certainty in the outcome. He must simply do it because it is his duty, the right thing to do.

Here stoicism finds an Eastern cousin in the Bhagavad-Gita, the story of another reluctant warrior, Arjuna. The god Krishna tells Arjuna that he must perform his sacred duty as a warrior, that “The wise who have obtained devotion cast off the fruit of action.” The Bhagavad-Gita’s message is subtle and steers the course between obstacles, like Niobe through the support line. Yes, identify the right action and visualize doing it well, as that will likely bring good results. But the results, “the fruit of action,” are ultimately not under your control and in some way not even your business. What impact you have on the world outside your own mind is not for you to determine. Neo in this way acts on his duty. The results are good—Zion is saved—but not ideal—many millions will remain connected to the Matrix. Consider too Hamann, who with stoical serenity allows Morpheus to take the Nebuchadnezzar despite Lock’s insistence that he needs every ship available. Hamann didn’t know Neo would ultimately succeed, but he made a decision and let the outcome unfold. Finally, consider what the Oracle reveals at the end of Revolutions. Seraph asks, “Did you always know?” She responds, “Oh no. No, I didn’t. But I believed. I believed.”

What does this tell us concerning action in response to consumer culture? Be a 1-percenter. You don’t have to “accept the program.” Downshift your consumption and voluntarily simplify your life. If your credit cards are a problem cut them up. Steal this book or borrow it from the library. Resist the car, clothes, and jewelry. Live below your means and be frugal. Caught in the trap of conspicuous consumption too many people drive—and otherwise wastefully display—their wealth. If you’re fortunate enough to have money, drive a car of less value and prestige than what the consumer culture might expect a person in your line of work and making your money to drive. Same too with your house. Live in a nice, clean, safe neighborhood among people who generally make less money than you do. Do not spend great amounts on clothes, shoes, and jewelry. Buy nice items, but not impressive ones.

A need to impress belies an inner bankruptcy. If you don’t have much money, don’t buy the lie that you need it to be rich. To know you have enough is to be rich. Get right with yourself on the inside; it’s a lot cheaper than covering up on the outside. Neo will not bail you out of debt; you have to “save yourself.” In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (Mr. Anderson’s namesake evangelist), Jesus says, “Rather the Kingdom is inside you and outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are poverty” (v. 4).