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Man's Search for Meaning

by Viktor Emil Frankl
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Postscript: “The Case for a Tragic Optimism” Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 791

In this postscript added in 1984, based on a lecture given at the Third World Congress of Logotherapy in 1983, Frankl explores the question of how to remain optimistic about life in spite of its negative aspects, or what he calls the “tragic triad”: pain, guilt, and death. With his belief that human beings are capable of making something positive out of even the worst circumstances, Frankl suggests that each aspect of the tragic triad can be made meaningful: pain and suffering can be turned into an accomplishment if the right attitude is taken toward them; guilt can offer an opportunity for positive personal change; and the transitory nature of life can inspire people to take responsible action. Frankl is careful, however, to distinguish tragic optimism from the imperative to “be happy” that he sees as characterizing American culture. According to logotherapy, it is a reason to be happy that people ought to strive for rather than happiness itself. Happiness occurs as a side effect of actualizing potential meaning.

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While happiness is the outcome of a successful search for meaning, existential despair—what Frankl calls the “existential vacuum”—is the result when the search is unsuccessful. Frankl characterizes the existential vacuum as a mass phenomenon, a kind of collective syndrome. This sense of life’s emptiness and meaninglessness afflicts not only patients receiving therapy or treatment for drug and alcohol addiction but young people and students, the elderly, the unemployed, and people in industrialized societies across the world, just as it affected POWs during the Vietnam War and prisoners in concentration camps during World War II. Frankl believes that the addiction, aggression, and depression he sees as symptoms of a neurotic disorder afflicting the young generation of his time can all be traced back to the existential vacuum, and he argues that orienting people toward a sense of meaning in their lives is a necessary part of suicide prevention.

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Logotherapy’s solution to the problem of existential despair is, as Frankl emphasizes throughout Man’s Search for Meaning, finding and actualizing the potential meaning in each situation in one’s life. He returns here to many of the same ideas that comprise “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” in particular the three main methods by which people can find meaning: by creating or achieving something (work), by experiencing or encountering someone (love), and, most importantly, by turning the tragedy of unavoidable pain and suffering—the first aspect of the tragic triad—into a triumph. One example Frankl cites of this “tragic optimism” in the face of suffering is a study of American POWs who described their imprisonment in Vietnam as a personal growth experience. Another is the story of Jerry Long, a quadriplegic college student who wrote to Frankl of how he looks at the suffering he has endured since his accident as responsible for the growth he has achieved and the meaning he has found in his life. In his discussion of the second aspect of the tragic triad, guilt, Frankl writes of the importance of holding people responsible for their behavior and encouraging them, like the prisoners he once addressed in San Quentin, to now use their inner freedom to change for the better. He criticizes the concept of “collective guilt” that emerged after World War II, emphasizing that each individual is responsible for his or her actions.

Lastly, Frankl discusses how to find meaning in the third aspect of the tragic triad: death, or more broadly, the transitory nature of life. Frankl sees this transitoriness as a reminder to make the most of each passing moment of our lives, to actualize the meaning in each situation while we have the chance. Once we have done so, these personal achievements are safely stored in the past, where we can continue to draw on them. These opportunities to find and fulfill meaning can be found no matter the circumstances of a person’s life. To the logotherapist, life is unconditionally meaningful, and human life is unconditionally valuable. This contrasts with the feeling of being “useless” that Frankl sees as leading many people to believe their lives are meaningless. He argues that the value of a person’s life is not contingent upon his or her usefulness to society and cautions against confusing perceived personal usefulness with innate human dignity. Frankl also criticizes the nihilism, or belief that everything is meaningless, that he sees as becoming widespread not just in society at large but even in psychoanalysis. He hopes those who take up the torch of logotherapy will be innovators rather than imitators of his own ideas, but also that they will remain committed to the tragic optimism—the belief in the unconditional meaningfulness of life in spite of everything—that is its central tenet.

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Part II, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell” Summary