The theodicy of Dark

Dark fulfils the theodicy expressed by Dostoevsky: Evil exists because of the lies of Man, and all the suffering of innocents is preventable, but at the end “there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all human hearts”.

How much unjustifiable cruelty is the world’s salvation worth? This is the question that Ivan Karamazov poses to his monastic brother Alexei in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. If God plans for the salvation of mankind, then how can innocents like children be tortured and tormented? How can a good God allow for unjustifiable suffering? What theodicy—what reason for the suffering—could we possibly give?

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? (p.245)[1]

The Brothers Karamazov understands that this is not a question that is answerable in a rational way. One can either accept the whole wretched injustice of the world, or one can (as Ivan does) “most respectfully return [to God] the ticket” (p.245).

Adam, the arch-villain of Dark, who wants to “most respectfully return [to God] the ticket”

This acceptance of being unable to rationally answer this question is mirrored by Netflix’s time-travel drama Dark (huge spoilers to follow). Through seasons one and two, it is revealed that the ostensible hero Jonas in fact will inevitably become the arch-villain Adam. Having discovered that his soulmate Martha is in fact his aunt, having realised that he inadvertently triggers his father’s suicide by going back in time to save him, having watched his aunt-soulmate Martha be killed by his older self, and having at every turn been thwarted by his attempts to set the world right, Jonas—as do Ivan and contemporary thinkers like David Benetar[2]—eventually concludes that the wretched mess of the world would be better off never having existed. Accordingly, Adam does unforgivable things to bring about his ultimately compassionate goal of euthanising the world.

One parallel universe over, Jonas never existed, and Martha assumes the hero role that had been held in Jonas’s universe by Jonas. Eventually, Martha too falls from innocence—she conceives a child with Jonas, and after being forced by her older self to kill Jonas, her heart hardens and she becomes “Eve”. Unlike Jonas/Adam, Martha/Eve answers the unanswerable question in the affirmative: existence—in the form of her child—is worth it, so she will do unspeakable things not for the compassionate goal of ending existence, but for the compassionate goal of preserving it.

Martha/Eve as a teen, adult, and old woman.

In this way, Jonas/Adam and Martha/Eve represent the two options that seem available to us (and to Ivan) in the face of the ineradicable and inexcusable misery of the world. We can sell our soul by admitting Evil as part of God’s plan, or we can sell our soul by rejecting God’s creation. Both options are borne of compassion, and both options end in apocalypse.

The beginning of the apocalypse.

Of course, in our world, in The Brothers Karamazov, and in Dark, Evil is simultaneously a cosmic force and a conscious choice that we freely make. Jonas/Adam and Martha/Eve certainly conspire to ensure that the free choices of individuals lead to their ruinous ends, but they often rely on individuals’ cowardice and deceit to do so. In neither world would the apocalypse have taken place if not for Alexander’s succumbing to Hannah’s blackmailing, or the four families’ refusal to convey information to one another during the earlier seasons, or Ulrich’s (many) affairs. As Katherina notes, the entire city is “like an ulcer, and we are all a part of it”; as Franziska notes, “that’s exactly what’s ruined everything—all your fucking secrets”. The causal chain runs inexorably back and forth through time to ensure that precisely the miseries that have happened will happen again, but the causal chain is only inexorable because nobody chooses to stop it by telling the truth.

Franziska confronts her parents over their repeated deceit.

In this sense, too, Dark fulfils the theodicy expressed by Dostoevsky:

There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it really is so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God. (p.320)

But Dark does not end with an admonition towards responsibility. In Dark’s finale, it is revealed that the entire wretched knot of causal connections that has caused such unjustifiable and heinous suffering all stems from father’s grief over a car accident that killed his son (Marek), daughter-in-law (Sonja), and granddaughter in the “overworld”. Hubristically trying to reverse time and bring his family back, the father accidentally split the overworld reality in two and created the two ulcerous worlds that cause such misery both for themselves and for one another. A not-yet-fallen Martha and Jonas venture to the overworld and impede the son’s passage, thereby preventing the car accident. But in their interaction, Martha and Jonas see their souls reflected in Marek and Sonja respectively[3]. There are reflections of the ulcer in the overworld, but the reflections are not yet distorted and twisted. We see the world before the unjustifiable suffering has ever occurred.

Martha and Jonas (left) save Sonja and Marek (right).

Indeed, the salvation of Marek and his family in the overworld fulfils all the empty vacuous promises in the ulcerous worlds. The henchman Noah becomes correct when he promises that God has a plan for each of them, Adam becomes correct when he promises deliverance into paradise, and Jonas is finally vindicated in his belief that he and Martha are soulmates. In one of the most touching scenes of the series, Adam reveals to Eve that they can both finally lay down their swords. He reveals that Jonas and Martha have been sent to the overworld and ulcer will finally be lanced: he will win, in that their worlds will be no more, and she will win, in that a world will remain. They have fought the good fight, they have finished the race, and they have kept the faith.

Adam and Eve reconcile before they cease to be.

Following her and Jonas’s saving of Marek and his family but before the ulcer ceases to exist, Martha hauntingly asks “will anything of us remain?”. But this is perhaps asks the wrong question. Had she asked instead whether anything of the misery and suffering of their worlds could be justified, she could have answered as Ivan had wanted to:

… I have a childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concoction of man’s Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all human hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed: it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but to justify all that has happened with men.  (p.235–236)

“Wir passen perfekt zusammen. Glaub nie etwas anderes.”

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”


[1] All page numbers cited are in reference to: Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1992. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin Random House.

[2] See, for instance, his book Better Never to Have Been (Wikipedia page here).

[3] For more on this specific plot interpretation, see here or archived version here.

What equality of opportunity are you owed?

Society does not owe me a fair opportunity to become the next Brad Pitt. And society does not owe any of us a fair opportunity to become a lawyer, doctor, or academic.

I will never be the next Brad Pitt. Even if I had the talent for acting (I do not), at 23 I would likely be starting too late. In any event, becoming an actor requires a huge degree of luck and perseverance, and I am unwilling to endure the years of working three side-gigs to make ends meet until I am noticed and land my first big show. Being an actor is a luxury job, a “status” job, a lifestyle job, just like being an artist or a supermodel or a politician. We all understand that you need to be a very specific kind of person to even compete to be the next Brad Pitt, and even then it remains a pipe dream. As we all know, “sensible people” do jobs like teaching or accounting or plumbing—jobs that most people can do with sufficient tenacity. So if we acknowledge that individuals are not owed an opportunity to become the next Brad Pitt, why do we think individuals are owed opportunities to become lawyers, or academics, or doctors, or any other high-status career?

Brad Pitt, 25 April 2020 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A traditional argument for equality of opportunity might go as follows. Citizens should not, by circumstances of their birth, be forced into poverty or social degradation. Society should therefore care deeply about improving the opportunities that those at the bottom of the social ladder have to climb it.[1] At a minimum, this means that every industrious citizen should have access to the education and resources to become (for instance) a teacher or an accountant or a plumber.

A broader conception[2] of opportunity might surpass mere material adequacy and argue that individuals should have a fair opportunity to access a life and career that is valuable to them. This argument is an important corrective: if an individual would be much happier as an accountant than as a plumber, then we should not be comfortable with that individual’s being denied access to the required education to tabulate expenses on the basis that they could reach material adequacy by installing sinks. But this broader conception runs quickly against constraints—unless I am willing to take on substantial risk and effort, I will never be the next Brad Pitt, even if that would grant me inordinately more meaning than any other career.

To spell this out explicitly: we do not consistently value equality of opportunity, and with good reason. What we appear to value is equality of opportunity for a life that is good enough. When someone has access to a career that is good enough and then instead chooses a life of precarity and risk to attempt a high-status, well-paid career like Hollywood acting, we note that they consciously made the decision to accept that risk and hardship and adjust our sympathy accordingly.

It is worth noting, then, how far above “good enough” the conditions of those in elite careers are. The life of a senior lawyer will often consist of intellectually stimulating work remunerated in the six figures and is a career that everyone acknowledges as prestigious and desirable (hence the popularity of shows like Suits and How To Get Away With Murder). Academics spend most of their career reading and thinking about interesting problems, again at salaries in the six figures and again with a high social status (who wouldn’t want to be Stellan Skarsgård from Good Will Hunting?). It is not at all surprising that there is intense competition for these roles—as with acting in Hollywood, once you’re “in”, it’s one of the best careers. Further, applicants to these careers would all have been able to access less competitive opportunities that offer stable and relatively interesting work from early in one’s career. Prospective lawyers could easily have become comfortably paid bureaucrats in the public service or the corporate world, prospective academics could easily have become high-school teachers, and prospective doctors could easily have become nurses.

As such, the complaints about poor conditions at the start of one’s career begin to ring slightly hollow. The conditions are so poor precisely because the end-conditions are so good for those who make it through (the starting salary is roughly AU$100,000 for academics[3] and doctors[4]), and the applicants choose to endure those risks and the hardships of the training because the end result is so good. If I were to read the complaint uncharitably, the complains seems to be “it’s unfair that I should have to endure hardship to obtain a job well above the average salary where I do work inordinately more interesting and high-status than I would be able to do anywhere else”.

It’s possible that you think my argument up till now is heartless and ignores people’s suffering on the basis that they opted into it. That is a fair criticism. But it is nonetheless clear that the equivalation between lack of fair opportunity for elite and low-skill occupations is not legitimate. Take this gem:

The fact that many of those [academic casual staff] are underpaid for the work they do only reinforces the extent to which our universities are now dependent on the same kind of exploitative labour practices that blight our economy more broadly, but especially in the hospitality industry.

Colin Long, the 2018 Victorian secretary of the (Australian) National Tertiary Education Union

Casualisation of supermarket or hospitality employment is wholly different to the casualisation of academic (or legal, or medical) work. We are concerned when hospitality or retail workers are placed in insecure employment because there may well not have been alternative options: we as a society may well be denying citizens the opportunity for a life that is good enough. But academics (or lawyers, or doctors) always had a safe and comfortable opportunity available. They simply chose not to exercise it in favour of a riskier but more promising option.

None of this is to say the system is fine as it is: I lament the overpaid executives in universities and law firms and hospitals; I wish that less of our taxpayer money funded bureaucratic bloat in these institutions. But, critically, even if we dislike aspects of the current system, that does not mean society owes anyone a comfortable road to an elite career[5], at least not in the way that we owe all citizens a good high school education or a comfortable road to material sufficiency. So, when the arguments for increasing the ease of obtaining these jobs involves an increase to taxpayer expenditure (e.g. increased funding for universities), we should be rightly sceptical. Society does not owe me a fair opportunity to become the next Brad Pitt. And society does not owe any of us a fair opportunity to become a lawyer, doctor, or academic.

To end, an appropriate Existential Comic:

Source: Existential Comics

This is a substantially edited version of the original piece, which was published under the title “People seem very confused about the merits of equality of opportunity”.


[1] I want to point out that I am only considering arguments here for equality of opportunity, not arguments for ensuring the fundamental dignity of every human life. This is not really intended as a policy post in any event, but as an aside, I’m really comfortable with unemployment insurance, public (i.e. single-payer) free healthcare, state-run disability insurance, and so on. But these are not broadly relevant to equality of opportunity so much as to ensuring the dignity of all human beings, and that’s a separate concern.

[2] Say, Sen’s capabilities approach.

[3] Link provided for the University of Melbourne. See p.41 for salary table and p.58 for the description of “Level B”.

[4] See Part 4, clause 16(h). When I say “starting”, I mean “beginning as a specialist”.

[5] There are obviously instrumental reasons to support offering access to high-status careers for certain individuals. We might, for instance, want to ensure affirmative action for women in a political party to signal that women (as a class) are politically equal to men. Or, alternately, we wish to ensure a minimum number of women on a corporate board to decrease the likelihood that the company would overlook concerns relevant to women (e.g. maternity leave policies). I accept that there are good reasons to believe any of these instrumental reasons. Critically, however, the instrumental concerns can be met with instrumental solutions: we need not necessarily care that Jane is denied the corporate board position if it is given instead to Jenny, since either will mean more female representation on the board. It does not appear that the lack of fair opportunity per se should be what bothers us.

Why conservatives should listen to Max Richter

Let’s say you’re a conservative who has begun to worry that he or she might be in an echo chamber. All your friends post about how lefties are just SJWs, and you’re getting worried they might be simplifying things. So you want to listen to some opposing voices: where should you start? I argue: composer Max Richter.

I wrote a thread about this on Twitter, but I purge my Twitter pretty regularly and wanted a more stable version stored somewhere.

Let’s say you’re a conservative who has begun to worry that he or she might be in an echo chamber. All your friends post about how lefties are just SJWs, and you’re getting worried they might be simplifying things. So you want to listen to some opposing voices: where should you start?

Source: Bruno Bollaert, Flickr, link

I think it would be a mistake to follow left-wing politicians as your first point of call, or to follow left-wing media. Just like right-wing politicians and media, they preach to the choir, so you’ll see the obvious flaws in their arguments (c.f. do they know that governments aren’t always beneficent?) and feel like they’re misrepresenting you [a conservative] in about three seconds. There are some excellent left-wing commentators whom I follow and whom I would recommend, but unless you understand where they’re coming from, they too can seem like they just “don’t get it”.

One fairly apolitical starting point I’d recommend would be Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which explores the underlying psychology of political thinking (and why we’re all more biased and less reasonable than we think). But today I want to recommend someone different, someone more overtly political: composer Max Richter.

Richter himself seems quite firmly on the left, and it’s reflected in the political nature of much of his work. The Blue Notebooks, his second album, was a protest album against the Iraq War; VOICES, his latest, is an exaltation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But Richter’s work is rare among contemporary classical music (and among contemporary art more generally) inasmuch as it is overtly political while also being genuinely sympathetic and uncynical. The Blue Notebooks may have been a protest album, but it has none of the angry hubris one can easily associate with protest. It’s an expression of sympathetic and uncynical sorrow—sorrow that things clearly aren’t as they were meant to be. That grief against a fallen world—not a patriarchal world, or a capitalist world, or a racist world, but a fallen world—is something most conservatives can easily relate to.

“On the Nature of Daylight”, the most famous piece from The Blue Notebooks.

Unlike so much contemporary art, Richter’s aim is explicitly to take you with him. Richter is not an elitist, and unlike much of the commentariat, he wants his messages to be open to everyone. As such, his music is transparently beautiful. To be clear, it’s technically proficient and he is situated in an esteemed musical tradition, exhibiting influences from Pärt, Bach, Glass, and many others. But you don’t need to know that, or them, to love Richter. His beauty stands on its own.

Songs from Before is, in my view, Richter’s most beautiful album, and “Sunlight” is one of its most beautiful songs.

In a move conservatives would approve of, Richter unabashedly reaches backwards just as he reaches forwards. He does not seek clean breaks with the past, nor a complete reinvention of musical forms. Instead, he seeks to synthesise modernity and history in a way that brings out the beauty in both. A Burkean composer for our age!

Richter’s Vivaldi Recomposed retains the original’s Baroque character while integrating it with contemporary musical traditions.

Richter’s political vision is also not frantic or ecstatic. He composed Sleep, an eight-hour long orchestral composition that lends to its listener a surreal and almost dreamlike mood, in good part as a reaction against the aggression and intensity of modernity. He sees what we have lost in the march of progress, and he looks to restore it.

On a day when you don’t really have to speak to anyone, it’s worth listening to Sleep the whole way through. It really does feel like you’ve stepped outside modernity for a day and into ataraxia.

Many conservatives, myself included, are somewhat tired of the way many left-wing politicians talk about human rights. There are ever more commissions enforcing ever narrower understandings of The Good on ever broader segments of society. So it can be tempting to write off human rights as a “left-wing” concept. Richter reminds you of why that is impermissible: he reminds you that human rights are based in the fundamental respect for the dignity and divinity of all human beings, and that only our cynicism and anger could have let us forget that.

VOICES has individuals worldwide read sections from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is worth listening to Richter first, so as to understand the sentiment driving him, and then reading his views on politics. If you start with Richter’s music, it is easier to understand that his politics, too, are uncynical and in that sense innocent. His politics know sorrow, understand fallenness, and do not offer cheap slogan-based solutions. But nonetheless they maintain their utopian hope in a better world. If there is something conservatives forget too easily, it is this: while traditions serve us well and progressives are too rash to upend the foundations of society, this world is not as it should be, and it never has been. The utopianism that we reject is often dangerous and hubristic and sectarian, but if we reject utopianism completely and reject the possibility of mending this broken world, we harden our hearts. Understanding that is, I think, key to understanding the best parts of the left, and Richter provides the return to innocence needed to entertain that worldview. “And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

“Mercy”, the first piece composed for VOICES, was originally written against the activities in Guantanamo Bay.