Category Archives: Optimism

Summary of Victor Frankl on “Tragic Optimism”

Viktor Frankl2.jpg

Viktor Emil Frankl M.D., PhD. (1905 – 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy, a form of Existential Analysis, and the best-selling author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which has sold over 12 million copies. According to a survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, it is one of “the ten most influential books in America.” (I have taught out of the book in many universities classes, and it is one of my favorite books. I have summarized it here.)

The postscript to the book, “Tragic Optimism,” was added in 1984 and is based on a lecture Frankl presented at the Third World Congress of Logotherapy, Regensburg University, West Germany, June 1983. Here are its main ideas.

Frankl begins like this:

“Let us first ask ourselves what should be understood by “a tragic optimism.” In brief it means that one is, and remains, optimistic in spite of the “tragic triad,” … a triad which consists of … (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death. This … raises the question, How is it possible to say yes to life in spite of all that?  How … can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects? After all, “saying yes to life in spite of everything,” …presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable. And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive. In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation. … hence the reason I speak of a tragic optimism … an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.

Of course you can’t force someone to be optimistic, anymore than you can force them to be happy. Rather, you need a reason to be happy, just like you need a reason to laugh or smile. Give someone a reason to happy or laugh or smile and they will. Try to force them to and they will have fake happiness or forced laughter or an unnatural smile.

Real happiness comes when we find meaning in our lives—meaning provides the reason to be happy despite the tragic triad. Without meaning, we give up. And this meaninglessness often lies behind our experiences of: 1) depression; 2) aggression; and 3) addiction. Now we can trace many neurosis to biochemical conditions, but Frankl found that often their origins derive from a sense of meaninglessness.

As a therapist, Frankl was “concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout his or her life,” rather than trying to understand the meaning of a life as a whole. He was not suggesting there is no meaning to an entire human life, but that this final meaning depends “on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualized …” In other words: “the perception of meaning … boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or … becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.”

But how do we find meaning in our lives? Frankl reiterates that there are three main sources of meaning in life: 1) creating a work or doing a deed;  2) experiencing something or encountering someone (as in love);  and 3) transcending, learning, and finding meaning from the inevitable suffering which we will experience. Frankl also argues that we can find meaning despite the tragic triad of suffering, guilt, and death.

As for suffering, Frankl doesn’t claiming that we must suffer to discover meaning, but that meaning can be found despite, or even because of, suffering. Here he reminds me of the Stoics: “If it [suffering] is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is to remove its cause, for unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic. If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude.” We might not have chosen to break our necks, but we can choose to not let that experience break us. As for guilt, we overcome it primarily by taking responsibility for our actions, rising above guilt, and transforming ourselves for the better .

As for death, the ephemeral nature of life should remind us how we are dying every moment, and thus should make good use of our time. This leads to Frankl’s imperative: “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” In other words, live your life as if you were getting a second chance to correct all the mistakes you made in your first life. Frankl’s ruminations on the irreversibility of our lives always moves me deeply:

… as soon as we have used an opportunity and have actualized a potential meaning, we have done so once and for all. We have rescued it into the past wherein it has been safely delivered and deposited. In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.

Surprisingly these considerations lead him to this profound thought about aging:

From this one may see that there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past—the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized—and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.

Frankl says that society mistakenly adores achievement, success, happiness and youth. However, the quest for meaning is the most worthwhile pursuit, and the only way to true happiness. Life’s tragedies—pain, guilt, and death—may lead to meaninglessness, but they don’t have to. We can be optimistic. We can find meaning through our work, our relationships, and by nobly bearing our suffering.

In Defense of Optimism

The Australian philosophers Michael and Caldwell make a pragmatic case for optimism in, “The Consolations of Optimism.” (This relates to my last post, “Hope: A Defense.”)They argue that the optimist and pessimist may agree on the facts, but not on their attitude toward those facts: “optimism is an attitude, not a theoretical position.”[i] So optimism doesn’t assume any cluster of beliefs, and can’t be undermined for being irrational like a belief can.

The reason for preferring optimism has nothing to do with how the world is—optimism isn’t a description of reality. Instead, optimism is reasonable because it helps us live well. To better understand this reasonable optimism, the authors turn to the Stoics. We often characterize the Stoics as emotionless and indifferent; individuals who put up with their fate, accept life’s shortcomings, and live without hope. Such resignation toward the life is cynical and pessimistic. But the authors interpret stoicism differently. Stoics, they say, advocate embracing what we cannot change rather than fighting against it. Thus Stoicism is realistic, not cynical.

And a stoical attitude doesn’t mean not caring or being indifferent to unpleasant things, rather it doesn’t add lamenting to one’s caring. (This caring is like my hoping or wishing.) Stoics don’t deny that pain and suffering exist—because that is to deny reality—but accept such evils without resenting them. The Stoics reject responding to situations with strong, irrational emotions that would cloud judgment, counseling instead to remain calm and optimistic.“This way of experiencing pains without losing equanimity is the key to stoical optimism.”[ii] Optimism leads to happiness and is therefore reasonable.

The pessimist demands things from reality and resents that reality does not provide them. Optimists are typically more accepting of the world’s limitations. Of course optimists may lose their optimism when bad fortune strikes, but they are generally happier than pessimistics—this is the rational ground for optimism. Yet optimism is not wishful thinking. Wishful thinking involves beliefs that are false, whereas optimism is an attitude that does not necessarily involve beliefs.

Furthermore, optimism has other positive results, as the case of Hume’s attitude toward his impending death reveals. Diagnosed with a fatal disease, Hume began his ruminations on his situation thus: “I was ever more disposed to see the favorable than unfavorable side of things: a turn of mind which it is more happy to possess, than to be born to an estate of ten thousand a year… It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at the present.”[iii] While many fear death or react variously in ways that disturb tranquility “Hume’s calm and sanguine resignation stands like a beacon of reasonableness, calling out for emulation.”[iv]

To summarize, optimism is a reasonable response to life because we are happier, and our lives go better, when we are optimists-–although we know that our efforts may be in vain.

Optimism Reconsidered

Saul Alinsky also made the case for optimism:

My personal philosophy is anchored in optimism. It must be, for optimism brings with it hope, a future with a purpose, and therefore, a will to fight for a better world. The question arises: Why the struggle, the conflict, the heartbreak, the danger, the sacrifice? Why the constant climb? Our answer is the same as that which a mountain climber gives when he is asked why he does what he does: “Because it is there.” Because life is there ahead of you and either one tests oneself in its challenges or huddles in the valleys in a dreamless day-to-day existence whose only purpose is the preservation of an illusory security and safety.

My friend and graduate school mentor Richard Blackwell conveyed a similar theme in a hand-written letter to me more than twenty years ago:

As to your “what does it all mean” questions, you do not really think that I have strong clear replies when no one else since Plato has had much success! It may be more fruitful to ask about what degree of confidence one can expect from attempted answers, since too high expectations are bound to be dashed. It’s a case of Aristotle’s advice not to look for more confidence than the subject matter permits. At any rate, if I am right about there being a strong volitional factor here, why not favor an optimistic over a pessimistic attitude, which is something one can control to some degree? This is not an answer, but a way to live.

To summarize, all of the above writers agree; optimism is beneficial. In my next posts, I’ll discuss other supporters of hope; Victor Frankl on tragic optimism; and consider critics of hope including Kazantzakis, Nietzsche, and the Stoics.


[i] Michaelis Michael & Peter Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” (2004) in Life, death, and meaning, ed. David Benatar, (Lanham MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 383.
[ii] Michael & Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” 386.
[iii] Michael & Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” 389.
[iv] Michael & Caldwell, “The Consolations of Optimism,” 390.