Updated: Jul 30, 2019
A fellow philosophical counselor has been mentioning Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, to me for a while, so I finally decided to take check it out. Frankl was an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist considered to have developed a new school of psychotherapy – called the third Viennese school of psychotherapy - partly on the basis of his experiences as a prison inmate at various Nazi concentration and extermination camps between 1942 and 1945. Frankl names his therapeutic approach “logotherapy” - derived from the Greek word logos, that denotes “meaning”. His therapeutic approach emphasizes the individual's primary need for a sense of moral meaning or beauty. To be fulfilled, in other words, a person has to be able to transcend a limited focus on the self and aspire to a larger purpose. (Incidentally, Frankl’s school of therapy is vindicated by recent scientific findings that people who have strong sources of meaning, including religious faith, patriotism, or family or romantic commitments, are more likely to be healthy individuals; and that the pursuit of meaningful things is, perhaps paradoxically, more likely to lead to personal happiness and well-being than the direct, intentional pursuit of personal happiness and well-being is likely to do. These references are borrowed from Alexander Zubatov's article, "How Do We Save Our Souls From the Modern World?").
Frankl’s book is in some ways quite powerful, particularly in its argument that, even when one’s life seems most inescapably restricted to suffering and to the pursuit of only small, inconsequential joys (an extra piece of bread, a less grueling work assignment, a kind word), there is still the chance to assert one’s dignity as a person through the small moral choices one makes, and through the things one holds to as future goals or aspirations.
But two passages in particular stood out to me.
“…it seemed to me that I would die in the near future. In this critical situation, however, my concern was different from that of most of my comrades. Their question was, “Will we survive the camp? For, if not, all this suffering has no meaning.” The question which beset me was, “Has all this suffering, this dying around us, any meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance – as whether one escapes or not – ultimately would not be worth living at all” (p115).
This passage affected me more profoundly than any other passage in the book. It may be in some tension with the larger thesis of the book, which emphasizes the uplifting effect of having concrete goals and aspirations. This passage seems to question the very wholesomeness of hope as an attitude: hope implies that only some experiences and opportunities are valuable, whereas perhaps life is valuable regardless of which shape it is taking. Frankl's logic is transparent and convincing: that if the value of life truly depends on the securing of a particular worldly circumstance, and thus on the element of chance, then life cannot truly be said to have meaning. This is because meaning cannot be a conditional phenomenon; it cannot be at the mercy of either randomness or physical power. Meaning must be equally available in any situation, and consist partly in how one is related to that situation.
“...the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: 'If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us.'
“That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots…nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked up at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart – The salvation of man is through love and in love.” (p37).
This second passage struck me partly because here, as in other places in the book, Frankl describes himself imaginatively invoking the image of his beloved wife, and even conversing with her, as a substitute for real-life interaction with her. This reminds me of a story I discussed in a previous post, of an (American!) prison inmate, Anthony Ray Hinton, who used his imagination during 25 years on death-row to experience, among other things, a continuous loving relationship with someone -- and was able to find freedom and happiness in prison partly through this kind of exercise. This passage is beautiful because it suggests that love is an experience we can enter into wherever we are. As our highest human potentiality, the ability to connect with other souls must be forever available to us, and again, cannot be a conditional phenomenon, dependent on luck, situation, or power.