Frankl, Jossl and Voltaire make the best of it.

I am reading Victor Frankl’s “Man’s search for meaning” (ebook). In the second part of the book (p. 101) appears Frankl’s “crashcourse” called “Logotherapy in a nutshell” (which Frankl translates as “meaning” therapy). This crash course is followed by a postscript “The case for a tragic optimism.”  I want to say something about Frankl’s advice “make the best of (it)” at the end of “The case for a tragic optimism.” But first I need to mention another “make the best of it.”

In my “Siblings” post, I mentioned an incident with my brother Jossl (Joe) when I visited Israel in 1997. I had visited Israel 25 years earlier. On this latest visit in 1997, I stayed at Joe’s flat on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. (He had settled in Israel a few years earlier). We were sitting in his lounge. I suggested we visit Haifa the following day. Was that movement of the head a yes or a no; or a yo? He said nothing and went to his bedroom. Were we going or were we not going to Haifa tomorrow? A few minutes later, I went to Joe’s room to clear up the matter. He was sitting on his bed wrapped in a large silky blue and white talit (prayer shawl).  It was Friday evening Shabbat (Sabbath). I asked Joe: “What do you think of it? I was referring to my suggestion to Joe of visiting Haifa the following day.  He didn’t answer. I returned to the lounge and sank back into my book. A page or two later,  Joe struts into the lounge sans talit. He explodes: “What do you mean ‘make the best of it’. I’m making the best of YOU here.

What Jossl meant, I think, was that although he found me unbearable, he was going to grin and bear it. Now, here is the passage from Frankl’s “The case for a tragic optimism”:

Let us 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,” as it is called in logotherapy, a triad which consists of those aspects of human existence which may be circumscribed by: (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death. This chapter, in fact, raises the question, How is it possible to say yes to life in spite of all that? How, to pose the question differently, can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects? After all, “saying yes to life in spite of everything,” to use the phrase in which the title of a German book of mine is couched, 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.” (My emphasis).

In my post “The Eternal, History, and Reform Judaism”, I mentioned Voltaire’s novel “Candide, or Optimism,” usually referred to by the shorter title “Candide”. I gave the full title because it links in with Frankl’s “optimism” (in his paragraph above). In “Candide”, the main characters experience all the great horrors of the few centuries of European history before 1759 (the date of publication of “Candide”). The final horror was the great earthquake and tsunami that devastated Lisbon in 1755; an event that shook the faith of many Christians, as the Holocaust shook the faith of many Jews about two centuries later. Today most Jews remain on shaky religious ground1 One compensation – many Jews would say a new start – is that they can now do their shaking on perhaps more solid ground – the Land of Israel.

Voltaire’s “Candide”, in contrast to Frankl’s book of hope, is a stinging satire. Candide concludes with this quietistic advice (quietism means “accept the world as it is”): “Work then without kicking against the pricks,” said Martin; “it’s the only way to make life bearable.”

If Voltaire lived after 1945, he would have included the Jewish Holocaust as one of these main horrors. Victor Frankl didn’t only live through the Holocaust, he was a prisoner in four concentration camps, and his family was killed in them. Where Voltaire is biting, Frankl is heartrending; where Voltaire is satirical, Frankl is (in his words above) “positive and constructive.”In the last few lines of “The case for tragic optimism” (p. 154), Frankl admonishes us once again to do our best:  “… the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.” That is the common thread running through all forms of Judaism and all kinds of Jews – and all mankind, “responsible” mankind, Frankl would say.

Later I’ll take a closer look at Logotherapy because – as I said in a comment to Tani Burton, a rabbi as well as a logotherapist, I am interested how he incorporates  Logotherapy principles into his Judaism. Sadly, we’ll never know how Frankl incorported his tragic optimism into his (secret) Judaism. Tani Burton relates:

“In 2003, Dr. Shimon Cown, a Lubavitch Australian expert on Frankl, went to visit his non-Jewish widow, Elenor, in Vienna. She took out a pair of tefillin and showed it to him. “My late husband would put these on each and every day,” she said to him. Then she took out a pair of tzitzis he made for himself to wear. At night in bed, Victor would recite the book of Tehilim (Psalms). You get it? On Yom Kippur nobody saw him in shul, but a day of tefilin he did not miss. When they asked in interviews whether he believed in G-d, he would usually not give a direct answer. But a day of tefilin he would not miss! What a Jew!”

If I read Tani Burton correctly, his reaction is the opposite of mine, which is: What, a Jew! By Jew, I mean – and I think Tani Burton means – a very religious Jew.


1For example, the Reform and Reconstuctionist Jews. See my Reform Judaism and my Reconstructionist Judaism posts, here and here

“… the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.” That is the common thread running through all forms of Judaism and all kinds of Jews – and all mankind, “responsible” mankind, Frankl would say.