Hope, Despair, and the General Election

Viktor Frankl | Image Source

13th December 2019: According to the concentration camp survivor and philosopher, Viktor Frankl,1 those who went to the concentration camps are divided, not between those who survived the camps and those who died, but between those who allowed their suffering to make them meaner, more selfish, and more cruel, and those who forced their suffering to make them kinder and nobler. While some of the prisoners turned to thieving, taking other prisoners’ rations to eke out their own starvation for a few more days or weeks, or accepted the petty offices of the kapo or the prison police, others comforted their fellow prisoners and gave away their own bread, and these are described by the humanist and existentialist Frankl in almost religious terms, as ‘martyrs.’ These martyrs, even those that died, possessed the true gift of life, because their fear of suffering and death could not destroy their hope.

For the existentialist theologian, Paul Tillich,2 our hope of pleasant times, of effortless social progress, of easy victories over nastiness and stupidity, of a life whose value and meaning are affirmed by external events, are distractions from the courage to live and the faith that life is worth living. For Paul Tillich, like Viktor Frankl, those who affirm the value of life, even though it contains suffering and ends in death, possess ‘absolute faith,’ and this absolute faith is a better thing even than the religious belief that the self will be perpetuated beyond the grave. We are capable of fear, death and despair, says Tillich, but only while we are alive, and this shows that life, and the courage to live, are more real than the fear or despair which erode them, or the death which will end them, and more meaningful.

I write this after the re-election of a government whose ‘punitive, mean-spirited and often callous‘ austerity policies have inflicted ‘great misery’ upon the poor,3 and have contributed to the deaths of 130,000 people,4 and who will use this victory to pursue an unpopular isolationist policy which they know will cause more suffering to their people. After such a defeat, and to such heartless and morally worthless opponents, it becomes vital that we take heart. Hope says ‘I am going to carry on living’ and ‘I am going to carry on fighting.’ It does not need any outcome but that.

  1. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust. Harmondsworth: Rider, 2004. 

  2. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be. London: Fontana, 1962. 

  3. Philip Alston, ‘Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.’ United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner, 16th November 2018. 

  4. Toby Helm, ‘Austerity to blame for 130,000 “preventable” UK deaths – report.’ The Observer, 1st June 2019. 

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