HOW THE ONE IS A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY
The Matrix is a classic cyberpunk action film, yet for how groundbreaking it truly was with its revolutionary special effects and mind-bending story when it was first released back in 1999, there is something fundamentally ancient about the film?s narrative.
For being such a modern and technical marvel about hackers trying to free humanity from a simulated world run by malevolent machines, the Matrix follows a very, very old story structure when it came to the character arc of its main protagonist, Neo.
In 1949 Joseph Campbell famously coined the term the hero?s journey ? or the monomyth ? in his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Campbell summarized the concept of the monomyth by writing, ?A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.?
Campbell?s main contention was that almost all myths of ancient civilizations followed this basic, yet powerful narrative. Even modern storytellers such as George Lucas famously drew direct inspiration from the monomyth when crafting the original Star Wars trilogy.
One of the common elements within many of these mythic and modern stories is the prophecy of the savior who will save humanity from the forces of darkness.
Nothing sets the Matrix apart as a monomyth story more than the prophecy of the One who will have the power to break free from the boundaries of the simulated Matrix program to save the city of Zion and its inhabitants.
Although we don?t know where the prophecy of the One originated from within the context of the first Matrix film ? though it is presumed that the Oracle was the author of it ? there seems to be no question that the characters of the Matrix believe wholeheartedly in the prophecy. Even Cypher, the Judas of the story, doesn?t seem to disbelieve it.
But no one believes in the prophecy more than Morpheus, the noble commander of the Nebuchadnezzar. ?You?re the One, Neo,? he says. ?You see, you may have spent the last few years looking for me, but I?ve spent most of my life looking for you.?
And yet, for all of this fervent belief surrounding the prophecy and Morpheus?s constant assurance that Neo is the One, Neo himself is doubtful. Once again, he doesn?t seem doubtful about the prophecy?s veracity, but about its subject.
He?s doubtful about himself, and why shouldn?t he be?
How can this nobody of a cyber-hacker become the messiah, a savior with unlimited power? Aside from his sense that the world feels wrong, there seems to be nothing special about Neo. He is painfully?ordinary.
This doubt is cemented when Morpheus takes Neo to see the Oracle, a mysterious and powerful seer. The visit is a test of sorts; an audition. Morpheus believes that the Oracle has the power to discern whether or not Neo is in fact the prophecied One.
As such, it comes as a shock when Neo leaves the meeting with the firm belief that he is?not the One.
And yet, for anyone who has seen the Matrix, we know the truth. Neo most certainly was the subject of the prophecy, just as Morpheus so fervently believed, even though Neo?s visit with the Oracle led him to believe otherwise.
So, if Neo truly was the One, then why didn?t the Oracle just say so?
To help answer that question we have to ask, did the Oracle ever explicitly tell Neo that he was not the One? In other words, did she lie to Neo?
Most of the Matrix?s writing is extremely blunt, but the Oracle scene is fascinatingly subtle. The truth is, it wasn?t the Oracle that suggested that Neo was not the One, but Neo insinuated it himself.
After grabbing Neo?s hands and inspecting them like a palm reader, the Oracle says, ?OK, now I?m supposed to say, ?Hmm, that?s interesting, but?? then you say??
??but what?? Neo asks.
The Oracle looks up at Neo and says, ?But?you already know what I?m going to tell you.?
?I?m not the One,? Neo says definitively.
?Sorry, kid,? she replies, confirming Neo?s suspicions.
Why didn?t she just say, ?Neo, you may not feel like the One right now, but you?ll get there someday, because I?m never wrong.?
Well, in her own way, she says exactly that when she continues by saying, ?You got the gift, but it looks like you?re waiting for something.?
Although I?ve seen The Matrix dozens of times, it wasn?t until recently that I picked up on what the Oracle was getting at. She doesn?t say he?s lacking something, but that he?s waiting for something. What this leads us to believe is that being the One is a process, not a default position or birthright.
So, what was Neo waiting for exactly?
Well, he had to decide to become the One.
If he didn?t believe that he was the One, then he literally couldn?t be the One. Neo could have been the most gifted hacker the world had ever seen, and yet he wouldn?t have been able to become anything without a sense of belief and purpose.
Which presents its own quandary. If you aren?t something, then how can you believe that you are that something? This condition is called Imposter Syndrome which is a very real phenomenon that plagues many people in their everyday lives. Have you ever started a new career and couldn?t help but feel that you were overwhelmingly unqualified; that you were only pretending to be something you inherently weren?t?
How can you become something if you don?t feel that you are that particular thing?
Brett McKay of the Art of Manliness explained it perfectly when he wrote, ?Unlike some Greek philosophers who believed that virtuous living came only from pondering upon the virtues, Aristotle believed that understanding wasn?t enough. To become virtuous, you had to act virtuous.
?But the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g., men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.?
?Virtues don?t come through simply thinking about them. You have to ?exercise them.? Aristotle?s promise is this: if you want a virtue, act as if you already have it and then it will be yours. Change comes through action. Act first, then become.?
In other words, the more that you do, the more you believe. Only then do you start to become.
As such, the prophecy isn?t an overriding power that strips away free will.
It?s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It doesn?t dictate destiny, it sets forth a path.
Even though it?s clearly obvious that Neo is the One ? since his very name is an anagram for the One ? he isn?t the One automatically. It was not enough to be told incessantly that he was the One. Neo had to act like the One. He had to stand and fight when others ran. He had to make the hard choices that others couldn?t or refused to make.
As such, the Oracle emphatically told the truth during her iconic scene. When Neo walked into her kitchen, Neo was in fact not the One?at that point in time. It was only by doing that his underlying power began to be evident.
Neo is a fictional character, but in the real world, every human soul has the power to increase their capabilities and potential. In that way, all of us are the One, or at least, we can be.
Just like Neo, we don?t and can?t understand our full potential; we can?t comprehend it because we?ve never seen it before! Potential is something that should always be yearned for, even if it?s never achievable to its fullest.
And yet, even though Morpheus?s firm belief didn?t make Neo the One, it doesn?t mean that he didn?t play a role in Neo?s development and journey of self-discovery. Sometimes other people see things inside of us that we can?t see ourselves. Sometimes we become something we never thought possible because someone else had faith in us when we had none for ourselves.
?Do you believe it now, Trinity?? Morpheus asks after Neo and Trinity rescue him from seemingly impossible odds.
?Morpheus,? Neo says, ?the Oracle? she told me ??
?She told you exactly what you needed to hear,? Morpheus replies. ?That?s all. Sooner or later, Neo, you?re going to realize just like I did the difference between knowing a path and walking a path.?
The Oracle?s role was not to tell Neo that he was the One, but to set him on the right journey. She had to set him on an adventure of self-discovery.
One final point to make comes right after the Oracle tells Neo that he?s waiting for something. Neo asks, ?What??
?Your next life, maybe,? the Oracle replies. ?Who knows? That?s the way these things go.?
When she mentions Neo?s next life, I always thought that she was talking about the concept of reincarnation, but it recently dawned on me that in the first Matrix film, Neo literally died at the hands of Agent Smith and was subsequently resurrected after the prophecy came to its full fruition.
Neo had to die and be brought back before he could become the One in its entirety.
In many ways, we all have to be reborn throughout the course of our lives. Whether it?s a symbolic ritual like a religious baptism, or moving to a new city for a fresh start, we all go through deaths and rebirths in our lives as we grow and begin to become.
It has recently been suggested that the Matrix is a male power fantasy that has dated badly according to Nicholas Barber at BBC.
I strongly disagree with that sentiment.
As I said before, the character of Neo seems so ordinary, and that?s not by chance. Neo is a character, yes, but he is also all of us.
Monomyth stories are not eternally enduring for no reason. Epic stories ? whether it?s the Odyssey or the Matrix ? help give structure to our everyday lives because they offer meaning. They encourage us to step outside of our known world to experience life to its fullest.
That is what stories such as the Matrix teach us. Clinical Psychologist, Jordan Peterson, teaches that these ancient archetypes are built into our biology in such a way that they seem ?more real than real.? Essentially they help us look at the world through a lens that helps to provide meaning and understanding. As such, stories such as the Matrix are essential tools to help us achieve personal transformations.
As I?ve written before, conflict will never cease to exist. No matter how streamlined or mundane our lives may become, conflict will always be a factor that we will have to grapple with every hour of every day. We may not have to literally fight in a war or fight off menacing machines hell-bent on humanities destruction, but we do have to fight.
Just like the Oracle implies, we are not born with our full potential in plain sight. It is something that we have to strive for and choose to embrace. Sometimes we might even have to die and be reborn, metaphorically speaking. As such, the Oracle never lied. Neo tried lying to himself, but when that didn?t work, he had to face the truth.
He was the One.