By Michael Burns
Spoiler Warning: The Good Place Season 1–4.
There is a widely overused quote from Samuel Beckett, from a story that nobody has ever read (“Westward Ho”), that goes: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
While The Good Place creator Michael Schur has yet to reference the Irish author when discussing the show’s inspirations, this quote sums up what seems to be its unifying theme as it nears its final episodes.
For the uninitiated, The Good Place is a half-hour comedy that explores what happens when an oddball group of strangers wakes up in what seems like heaven, which later turns out to be a hell designed specifically to torture them. After figuring this out a few million times, they bond with the demon who created the whole thing and try to prove to the legislative forces that heaven’s admission standards are too strict. Oh, and one of the main characters is a moral philosophy professor. Naturally, they end up starting their own little graduate seminar in hell.
But while the show is often described as being about philosophy, it could be better said that the show instead explores the discipline’s limits. More specifically, the show highlights philosophy’s failure as a tool for understanding the world or for being good.
Socrates famously claimed that his wisdom was grounded in acknowledging his own ignorance, and Aristotle later said that philosophy begins in wonder, but in The Good Place’s first few seasons, Chidi (the philosopher-in-residence) tries to use philosophy as panacea. In both his death and life, we see Chidi continually treat both philosophy and life like a complex math problem that could be solved if he only had the right equation
For Chidi, philosophy isn’t primarily about a sense of wonder and curiosity towards existence. Rather, it’s a scientific approach to understanding ethical and moral existence. His dream philosopher seems to be a version of Immanuel Kant but with an advanced degree in computer programming. Thankfully, his students are much better at connecting with the actual spirit of philosophy, and Eleanor and Michael use these lessons to become better humans. Or, in Michael’s case, a more-human demon.
But in a flashback in the half-season finale, ‘The Answer’, we witness a series of escalating philosophical and personal failures in Chidi’s life on and off earth. At the end of this flashback, right before Janet wipes his brain clean, Chidi hands her a note for his future self. It reads, “there is no ‘answer’” and affirms his love for Eleanor.
Through a failed life on earth and a series of continued failures in the afterlife, Chidi has arrived at a philosophical insight with more existential value than his thousand-page dissertation on moral philosophy. Which brings us back to Samuel Beckett and his “Fail Again. Fail better.” This quote gets at the paradoxical connection between hope and failure, a connection that seems to be at the heart of the show’s own philosophy on what it means to be human, which could be called a hopeful humanism of failure.
Now, this reading is slightly at odds with Schur’s own description of the show’s philosophy, which he describes as exploring the question, “What do we owe to each other?” Schur has described how reading T. M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other (1998) helped him make sense of many of the themes he wanted to explore in the show. And while Scanlon’s own theory of contractualism — a philosophy which, as his book title suggests, is about what we owe other humans — goes well with Chidi’s desire for a mathematical morality, it doesn’t have much to say about some of the larger existential themes at play as the series comes to a close.
If Scanlon serves as the inspiration for both Chidi’s intellectual neuroses and the show’s overall themes, someone like Jean-Paul Sartre is a more useful tool for understanding the hopeful humanism of failure in the show’s most recent episodes. Now, the connection between Sartre and The Good Place isn’t new, as the show cribbed its initial premise from Sartre’s 1944 play, No Exit, which gave us the famous line, “Hell is other people.” But it’s not Sartre the playwright, but Sartre the philosopher who can help us better articulate the type of humanism at play in the show.
In his 1946 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre mounts a defense of his atheist existentialism from those claiming that it leads to a moral nihilism that’s fundamentally anti-humanist. Against this, Sartre shows how an existentialist approach leads to a form of humanism disconnected from the religious baggage often associated with the term:
“But there is another sense of the word, of which the fundamental meaning is this: Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist […] There is no universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man with subjectivity — it is this that we call existential humanism. This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself.” (Sartre, 1946)
For Sartre, neither traditional religion nor mathematical moralism can tell us how we should live; instead, we are responsible for creating ourselves with every decision that we make. To say that there is no legislator for the human but herself is to say that there is no answer that comes from outside, whether from God or from a neurotic philosophy professor. While, for some, this type of humanism is lacking, for an existentialist, this is what makes the human condition fundamentally hopeful. Because we are responsible for ourselves, we can always ask better questions and find better answers and become better people. As long as we can try and fail and try again, we are able to hope that both ourselves and our societies can be a little better than they were the day before.
And the show itself provides evidence for this reading in a line Michael shares with Bad Janet in the sixth episode of the current season:
“What matters isn’t whether people are good or bad, what matters is whether they’re trying to be better today than they were yesterday. You ask me where my hope comes from, that’s your answer.”
Here, Michael avoids the false dichotomy at the heart of the afterlife, namely, that there are only two types of people: good and bad. Time and time again the show has shown the failures of this logic, and Chidi’s note and Michael’s response to Janet exhibit that it’s the messiness of human nature that creates the conditions for hope even in the middle of inevitable failure.
More than being a show about ethics, this makes The Good Place a show about hope, and in particular, the hope inherent to the human condition. While some of us are born into wealthy British families, some into unstable homes in Arizona, and in the worst possible scenario, some as fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars, what makes us human is our ability to hope for something better. And unlike the religious hope that tells us to wait for help from somewhere else, this humanist hope can fuel our attempts to make things better right now, even if we’re already dead.