What does it mean to be “good?”
That’s the central question of NBC’s The Good Place, a show that has consistently tackled (at the same time) both the here-and-now of life on earth as well as what might wait for us all after death. At times, it seems to be spiritual but not religious, religious but not spiritual, both, and neither. Much of what’s discussed, however, as the 4 main characters try to figure out what’s going on, seems framed around the question of “what we owe to each other,” referencing the book by Prof. T.M. Scanlon.
But there’s another interesting sub-text too – one that we can understand a bit better with help from the intellectual world of the European Middle Ages.
[BE WARNED – Spoilers Ahead]
Season 3 of the show, which just started, finds the main characters back on Earth. With help, the 4 humans have gotten out of the afterlife for a kind of “do-over” – saved from death to try again, to become better people and earn their way into “the Good Place.”
It’s not going well so far.
In fairness, one of the reasons it isn’t going well is not the humans’ fault. The first 2 episodes of Season 3 has ”Trevor” (a demon) show up on Earth, weaseling his way into the group, trying to break them up by tempting them with their old habits. Anxiety, alcohol, narcissism, etc. By the end of episode 2 of this season, it’s almost worked. But other immortal beings are there helping Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason (the humans), calling them back to their better selves, reminding them of what they owe to each other.
Angels and demons, here on Earth, battling for souls by whispering in people’s ears; this is a drama right out of the European Middle Ages.
Beginning in the 4th century CE, some Christians tried to flee from the world. Christianity was, at the time, a predominantly urban religion, so these men and women fled to the “desert” of Egypt and Roman Palestine to escape the temptations of the world and concentrate on things spiritual. This was the beginning of monasticism. These were the first monks.
Later in the 4th century, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote a biography (technically a “hagiography” – from the Greek, meaning “a writing about a holy one”) of one of the earliest of these monks - a figure we know as St. Antony, who lived in the deserts of Egypt.
Basically, as Athanasius presented him, Antony denied the body so that the soul could flourish. He fled from the comforts of society, abstained from food, refused sex, etc. But pursuing this path had its dangers. Pursuing purity in the wilds attracted demons. They inhabited those lands and tried to lure Anthony into sin, tempting him with riches, naked women, rest from his worldly denials, and raw flattery. Anthony, the hermit, resisted every one by himself.
But the saints could also have some help. Sometimes in these later hagiographies, the path towards “the Good Place” was harder for these saints to walk. One way to get help was celestial – angels or even other saints could appear to battle those demons who tried to lead the saint astray.
For example, the 8th-century Life of Guthlac told of one instance in which the saint was being physically carried off by demons to the mouth of Hell. They were tired of his purity. Just at the last minute though, St. Bartholomew appeared to Guthlac and rescued him by giving Guthlac a flail to fight the demons off. The fight for souls, in other words, could be very real in the Middle Ages.
The other way that monks could have help as they tried to be good was to be with other monks. Antony and Guthlac were hermits but most medieval monks weren’t. They lived in monasteries, communities of like-minded people who were yes trying to care for their own souls, but who were also committed to looking after their fellow travelers.
Sure, that wasn’t always the case. There were extraordinary cases of corruption in some of these monasteries. But across the whole of the Middle Ages – East and West – male and female monks worked, cared for the poor and sick in the surrounding region, and thought deeply about how to improve themselves and help others. A core element of monasticism was reading and copying classical and earlier medieval works, as well as composing their own.
In other words, medieval monks may have idealized escaping the world but they recognized that that really wasn’t possible. The world was much more complex.
Only the saints could do it on their own or rely in specific interventions by saints or angels. The vast majority of monks, like the humans on the show The Good Place, understood that in order to understand what it means to be “good,” they needed to understand – and act on – what they owed to each other.