Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Russell Brand, Plato, The Matrix and the illusion of enlightenment

  • The famous allegory of the cave is really about the impossibility of escape, and there is no red pill, only the blue one

Someone sent me a clip of comedian and pundit Russell Brand’s highly popular podcast yesterday and it made me think.

He was referencing The Matrix, the first of the film franchise, in his introduction. “Hello there, you 6 million awakening wonders for joining me … Like you, I want to be free as an individual. I don’t want to be told what to do. I want to make up my own mind, to live a moral, ethical and spiritual life, not hurting others, and of use to others wherever possible, and not having my energy and time on this earth turned into little blobs of batteries that the centralised system can suck up, monitor my reaction and transaction and guiding them when necessary.”

A worthy goal? Don’t trust the system. Think for yourself. Think critically. Well, who can argue with that? But how do you escape the system? Can you ever get out?

In the cult sci-fi film, people are stored in bioengineered cocoons their entire life as batteries to generate energy to run a centralised system called the Matrix. To stop them from going insane and self-destruct, the system generates for them an alternative reality that is like a human world so they think they are leading normal lives.

In a crucial scene, the hero is offered the choice of a red or blue pill. The red pill will wake him up and bring him to the real world, the other lets him continue to sleep in blissful ignorance. The hero, of course, takes the red pill.

Brand obviously thinks he has taken the red pill and wants everyone to take after him. With 6 million-plus fans subscribed to his channel, he has a real shot at influencing a massive audience, for better or worse. I used to think education, journalism and life’s purpose itself was to take the red pill. Now, I don’t think there is a red pill. Any pill you end up taking is blue, no matter what colour you think you see. What if Neo, the hero in the film, is just programmed by the system to think he is fighting the system to make his life bearable?

Free speech is relative, depending on where you are in the world

In many university philosophy classes, the Matrix is often compared with the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic. As a teaching assistant in graduate school, I had to conduct seminars on the book for two years. Practically every undergraduate student in my class thought the allegory meant we should all escape from the shadows projected on the walls of the cave and into the sunlight outside.

In my younger days, I thought that too. But for a long time now, I am pretty sure Plato thinks the vast majority of people should just stay chained where they are, and look and be forever mesmerised by the images, shades and shadows projected before them for their entertainment and stimulation. Is it so bad? Just think of the ASMR clips you listen to at night to fall asleep, but it’s ASMR for life.

And speaking of that, the other day, I found on YouTube a lady who reads philosophy texts such as Aristotle’s Physics and logical proofs in ASMR mode to help you sleep. It worked for me like a charm. Just look up Moss & Mushroom ASMR on YouTube. I am glad she finds use for her philosophy degree.

You can’t escape the cave. Even if you get out of one, you just end up in another. And every cave will convince you that it is the best and only true cave. And you won’t know the difference: how do you know if it’s not just a cave within a cave? You didn’t escape; you just went deeper inside.

As I get older and older, I think less and less of Neo. I think Cypher, the villain and traitor in the film, is the real Platonic hero.

“You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist,” he said. “I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realise? Ignorance is bliss.”