Frankl defines tragic optimism as optimism in the face of “pain, guilt, and death,” or “saying yes to life in spite of everything.” This kind of optimist believes that man can make suffering meaningful, use guilt as motivation to improve oneself, and interpret the “transitoriness” of life as a reason to find responsibility and meaning.
In his postscript, Frankl explicitly states that his philosophy is an optimistic one. This type of optimism does not hold that everything will always turn out well. Instead, “tragic optimists” believe that life is worth living no matter what, and that one can find meaning even in suffering.
Optimism cannot be commanded because the counterparts to pain, guilt, and death—hope, faith, and love—cannot be commanded. Instead, optimism must appear naturally. And just as one cannot pursue optimism, one also should not pursue happiness because when one strives for happiness, one will not find it. Frankl says that this is similar to the hyper-intention that occurs in sexual neuroses. For example, when one focuses on finding pleasure during sex instead of giving it, that pleasure will not come. Frankl calls this “the pleasure principle.”
One cannot decide to become an optimist—like success, happiness, and self-transcendence, optimism must ensue as a result of finding the meaning in one’s life. By pursuing these goals specifically, we often prevent ourselves from achieving them because we become overly focused on ourselves. Only when we stop trying to become successful or optimistic can we truly be successful or optimistic.
When one finds meaning in one’s life, one is naturally happy. However, when one has lost the will to meaning, one turns to pleasure to fill the void. In the concentration camps, it was clear that a prisoner had given up on life when he smoked the cigarette he had been carefully saving. Frankl suspects that the recent rise in drug usage is an indication that more and more people believe that life is meaningless and are turning to pleasure for fulfillment.
Frankl disagrees with Freud’s idea that man is driven by his will to pleasure, but he does believe that man uses pleasure as a distraction from a frustrated will to meaning. Frankl attributes the drug problems that increased over the course of the twentieth century to man’s desire for relief from his existential frustration.
Man can come to believe that life is meaningless through several different paths. Unemployment, in particular, makes man feel useless, which in turn makes him feel that there is nothing for which to live. Depression can trigger a similar feeling.
Frankl lays out two specific twentieth-century phenomena that contribute to existential frustration and despair. Man must feel useful in order to thrive.
According to Frankl, there is an over-arching meaning to each man’s specific life, but that meaning only becomes clear after the man’s death. Thus, it is not useful for man to concern himself with this meaning. The type of meaning in which Frankl is interested is the meaning that can be found on a day to day level.
Frankl argues that man must not spend his time trying to figure out the super-meaning of life, because doing so is pointless. We cannot understand that meaning (as a monkey cannot presumably understand the “meaning” we might find in our individual lives), so we must focus on only finding meanings that we can comprehend and apply to ourselves.
In addition to the paths to meaning set out in previous sections of the book, Frankl says that one can also study the biographies of those who have lead meaningful lives. Still, suffering is the most valuable path to meaning because man can change himself by choosing to rise above his situation. Indeed, many people who endure immense suffering say that they are grateful for that suffering because they learned a great deal by going through it.
While suffering should never be sought out, Frankl does believe that it is the most productive path to a meaningful life. While love and work can also make man’s life meaningful, only suffering forces man to change himself and his attitude toward his situation.
Frankl says that the best case for tragic optimism can be made by “the defiant power of the human spirit.” He cites as evidence a case in which a paralyzed man willed himself able to attend college and told Frankl that he actually considered his disability an asset because it helped him understand how to help others. Frankl says that if possible, we should do everything we can to avoid suffering. But in the case that we must suffer, we need to learn how to endure our suffering and make it meaningful.
Human beings’ ability to persevere makes tragic optimism possible. Even in the face of terrible odds, it is possible to choose one’s own path and carve out a meaningful life for oneself. A person with a strong will to meaning can withstand even terrible treatment and torture.
Frankl then shifts his focus away from optimism in the face of pain and toward optimism in the face of guilt. He refers to a theological concept, mysterium iniquitatis, which holds that a crime can never truly be explained because if it were, it would take away the criminal’s guilt. Indeed, an explanation would mean that the person was driven to commit a crime by biological or social factors rather than his own free will. With the freedom to commit a crime comes the responsibility to feel guilt over it.
Frankl believes that guilt comes from the fact that we are responsible for our actions. For example, if we could fully explain why we committed a crime based on social and biological factors, we would not need to feel guilty—because it would not be our fault that we committed that crime. Guilt is indicative of the fact that man has the power to control his life, however limited that power may be.
While Frankl sees value in individual guilt, he believes that it is not just to hold one person responsible for the actions of a group or collective. When people asked him how he could continue to write books in German after all of his experiences, he replied that people did not stop using knives simply because murderers also used them.
Frankl again demonstrates a remarkable capacity for forgiveness. While he holds specific people responsible for the suffering he was made to endure, he certainly does not blame all Germans or likely even all Nazis for his experiences.
While life is meaningful because of the possibilities it holds in the future, people are valuable because of the things that they have accomplished in the past. By valuing youth and success, today’s society emphasizes the wrong things. Instead, we should value the elderly because of the number of possibilities they have turned into realities. Frankl is very clear that a man’s value should not be determined based on his present usefulness.
Frankl gets more vague and scattered with his arguments here, claiming that society is incorrect to value youth, because the young have yet to achieve their potential and convert their possibilities into past realities. Those who have more experience fulfilling their responsibilities, on the other hand, should be revered. Frankl seems to suggest that man’s value is based on the sum of his purposes in life rather than his purpose at any given moment.
Frankl writes that, in contrast to Freud, he believes that each person should be considered as an individual with a unique responsibility to the world. Frankl is sure of this because his experience in concentration camps helped him understand that no man’s path is predetermined, and anyone can change from good to bad, or vice versa, in only a moment.
Frankl values each person’s individuality because he knows what it is like to live in an environment in which that individuality is stripped away. We must feel that we have a unique purpose in life and that we are responsible for accomplishing that goal.
Frankl challenges his readers to try to be good. This is extremely important because the world will become even worse if people do not strive to become better. He says, “So let us be alert—alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima what know what is at stake.”
Deciding how to live does not only affect the individual. Instead, each individual’s actions combine to bring about events. The horrors of WWII (namely the genocide of the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) prove how necessary it is to choose to live a good and meaningful life.