Tragic Optimism in the Northern Existential Discussion Group

7th September 2011 saw the second meeting of the Northern Existential Discussion Group. This month our reading was a short essay by the existential psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, called The Case for Tragic Optimism. He wrote this in 1984 as a postscript to his classic book about his experiences of the holocaustMan’s Search for Meaning. The essay makes the case for finding meaning in life despite the inevitable tragedies which we will experience. Frankl is, perhaps, one of the most accessible existentialist writers to read, and the essay is very engaging and thought-provoking indeed.

Here I’ll say a bit more about the author, summarise his argument, and then give a flavour of our discussions: what we found inspiring about the essay, and where we felt it was limited or problematic.

Victor Frankl

Victor Frankl (1905-1997) was a professor of neurology and psychiatry who founded a type of therapy known aslogotherapy. This was the thrid type of therapy to come out of the University of Vienna Medical School (following Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology). However, it was a lot more existential in nature than these more psychodynamic approaches, and has gone on to have a significant influence on the field of existential psychotherapy more broadly.

Frankl spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau, and other concentration camps during World War II and these experiences had a marked impact on his philosophy and his therapy. They are movingly recounted in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Following the war, Frankl returned to Vienna where he practised, and wrote and published over thirty books. He was also a visiting professor at Harvard.

Tragic Optimism

The Case for Tragic Optimism basically advocates a certain way of living, that is saying ‘yes’ to life in the face of its tragic elements. Here is a quick summary of the argument:

Frankl states that life involves three inevitable kinds of tragedy, the ‘tragic triad’:

  1. Pain and suffering,
  2. Guilt, because we are free to make choices in our lives, and are responsible for the impact of those choices, and
  3. Death, and knowing that our life is transient.

He says that it is hard to find meaning in the face of such tragedy, but that if we do not, then our sense of meaninglessness lies behind our experiences of:

  1. Depression,
  2. Aggression, and
  3. Addiction.

He also argues that meaninglessness is a particular issue in current western societies (when he was writing in 1984) where the youth see themselves as having ‘no future’ and people ‘have enough to live by but nothing to live for’ (p.142).

Frankl then puts forward three ways in which we can find meaning in our lives:

  1. Through our work or deeds,
  2. Through experiences or encounters with other people (e.g. love), and
  3. Through rising above, and growing from, the inevitable suffering which we will experience.

So Frankl is advocating that we make meaning from all three kinds of tragedy:

  1. Pain and suffering – from learning from the experience and finding meaning in it,
  2. Guilt – by taking responsibility for our actions, and
  3. Death – by living our life as if it was for the second time, knowing how we got it wrong the first time.

Frankl says that it is easy, in the face of inevitable tragedy, to fall in to nihilsm or to chase after things like happiness, success or youth instead of seeking meaning, especially in a culture which seems to encourage such pursuits. However, he is clear that the quest for meaning is the only one which he considers worthwhile. He suggests that seeking happiness is a form of ‘hyperintention’: Like trying to get to sleep, or trying to have an orgasm, it is one of those things that if we try too hard to make it happen we will be even less likely to achieve it. For Frankl the only true way to happiness is through finding meaning.

Discussion of the Essay

The group found much to like in this essay, but we also had some serious reservations about some of the arguments. I’ll try to summarise, first of all, what we resonated with, and then some of our key concerns about Frankl’s philosophy.

The Potential of Tragic Optimism

First of all, I think we mostly agreed with the idea that life does contain a great deal of tragedy, and that it is useful to acknowledge this rather than denying it. We were interested that Frankl highlighted suffering and death as inevitable facts of life (in common with Buddhist, and other existential, philosophers), but that he also included guilt, which other writers rarely talk about. We wondered whether the experience of surviving the holocaust might have led him to reflect upon guilt more than most.

We also related very much to the pain of meaninglessness, and many of us agreed that our darkest and most troubling times were located in such experiences. We were struck that it is hard, or even impossible, to capture the feeling of meaninglessness in words, and that it is an experience which is kept private, and taboo, perhaps more than any other. We may express anger, sadness, joy, and fear, but the expression of meaninglessness is often shunned by other people, as if it were contagious. According to those who had experience of mental health systems it is also dealt with quite poorly there, perhaps because it requires an intuitive and nurturing response which isn’t what professionals tend to be trained in.

In terms of Frankl’s suggestions for finding meaning, we could relate to the ideas he put forward. For example, I reflected on my experience of writing and trying to get published this year. First of all I certainly found meaning in thedeed of writing the book. When it wasn’t immediately taken up by a publisher, I found that another way to meaning through it was in giving it to a few people to read and sharing an encounter with them through that. Finally, I found that it was useful to move away from a focus on striving for the accomplishment of publishing, to a decision to find meaning through the process of learning about how to get published, and through finding that I could deal with the inevitable pain of rejection that is part of this process. It seemed that perhaps cultivating all three paths to meaning (particularly the last one, as a fall back option) was a good way of ensuring a sense of meaning and fulfilment in life.

Problems with Tragic Optimism

One problem we had with Frankl’s ideas was with the contradiction between the suggestion that it is good to pursue meaning, but not to pursue other things (e.g. happiness, success, etc.) We wondered why meaning was a special case of something that it was okay to pursue. Perhaps, just like pursuing sleep or happiness too vigorously, seeking meaning too desperately would also inevitably prevent us from finding it.

I reflected that my own way of dealing with meaninglessness in life, as well as employing many of Frankl’s suggestions, has also been to embrace it as an inevitable part of life which will happen with some regularity. There will be times – perhaps quite frequently – when we feel that our projects are pointless in the grand scheme of things, or when the world feels an overwhelming and cold place to live in, or when disconnections and conflicts with others feel unbearable and we feel utterly broken by life. If we see such times as evidence that we are ‘getting it wrong’ and try desperately to find some meaning quickly, we are – perhaps – likely to spiral even further into hopelessness. Some of us in the group said that, when we had such moments, we instead found it useful to focus on the very basic mundane activities of life (walking the dog, making our breakfast, having a shower), getting on with it until it passed. And sometimes we just have to be with the horror of the meaninglessness while it is there without trying to change it, and without being able to do anything whilst it is happening.

We also thought that Frankl implied that meaning was ‘out there’ (or ‘in us’) somewhere to be found if we searched for it, and that disagreeing with this was a form of nihilism. We didn’t all agree with this and many of us were more in line with philosophers such as Sartre and de Beauvoir who hold that we create our own meanings but that there is no intrinsic meaning in life. In fact, perhaps facing this fact is also a vital part of finding meaning (recognising that we create our own meanings and could create them differently).

Finally, we had a big problem with how individualistic Frankl’s philosophy seemed to us. The focus appeared to be very much on each person finding their own meaning, rather than any collective meaning-making (although, you could argue, that both guilt and death are very relational experiences as one is all about the impact we have on others, and the other is only something we understand through seeing others die).

Frankl seems to see the ultimate in meaning as being the person who can ‘hold their head high’ in the face of suffering: for example, the people he saw who found meaning even in the hell of the concentration camps, or a person rendered paraplegic who insisted that ‘I broke my neck, it didn’t break me.’ Whilst such examples are incredibly inspiring, we thought there was a real neglect of the different circumstances of people’s lives here. Surely it is far more easy for some, than others, to find meaning: for example, for those in a position of relative privilege, and who have resources and lots of support, compared to those who are oppressed, marginalised and alienated in various ways. Frankl’s philosophy could lead to a dangerous kind of victim blame where we judge people for not being able to make meaning from their suffering.

Also, he seemed to argue that it was never okay for somebody to choose death over life, and we felt that such a choice could be considered meaningful (and who is anybody else to judge this anyway?) We thought there were resonances of Frankl in recent political speeches and journalism about the UK ‘riots‘: the focus on the individuals involved and the need for them to take more responsibility, rather than any consideration of the wider socioeconomic context in which these occurred.

Questions to Consider

  • Is life inevitably tragic?
  • Are pain, guilt and death the only, and inevitable, tragedies we will experience?
  • Do you agree with Frankl that we can’t force ourselves to be optimistic, or happy?
  • Do you agree that meaning is the thing we should strive for in life?
  • Is meaninglessness the root of all depression, aggression and addiction?
  • Is meaningless a particular issue in contemporary society? Do Frankl’s comments on youth, and on having nothing to live for, ring true at the moment?
  • Are the three paths to meaning work, encounters and growing through suffering?
  • How does the world we live in now encourage, or discourage, the kind of philosophy which Frankl was advocating?
  • Is our sense of meaning something that we can find (as Frankl seems to imply) or is it something which we create (in a world where there is no given meaning)?
  • In our search for meaning should we be looking for a great purpose or project (the meaning of life) or seek meaning in the more mundane, everydayness of life?

Find Our More

You can read another summary of The Case for Tragic Optimismhere.

You can list to an audio version of the essay here.

The essay is also included at the end of Frankl’s famous book about his experience of the holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, which you can find here, and summarised here.

There are several clips of Frankl himself talking on YouTube here.


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