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Book ReviewsThe Meaning of Life

Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy

by Viktor E. Frankl (Washington Square Press, 1984 ed.), $6.99 at Amazon.com.

First published in German (Austria, 1946) as Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager and in English (Beacon Press, Boston, 1959) as From Death-Camp to Existentialism  

 

I remember one late-night college dorm discussion about the meaning of life. After listening to several political science and philosophy types drone on for an hour or so, my neighbor from down the hall, a budding technocrat, could stand it no longer. “The problem,” he interrupted scathingly, “is one of semantics. You’re using the word ‘meaning’ to mean two different things. This can all be resolved by using subscripts. Let’s say ‘meaning1’ [i.e., “meaning-sub-one”] means ‘ultimate meaning’ and ‘meaning2’ means ‘the ordinary meaning of words.’ Then we can simply say that meaning1 has no meaning2.” And with that, having definitively brushed aside all the doubts and wonderings of human history, he pushed his horn-rimmed glasses back up over the ridge of his nose, turned and strode off confidently into the dark, meaningless, but quite neatly-packaged materialist night.

 

Perhaps unknowingly, my college chum was pushing a philosophy known as existentialism. I first ran into existentialism in the 10th grade, when my English teacher assigned the class to read a novel, The Plague, by the French author, Albert Camus. The Plague is about the suffering and death a French physician encounters during an outbreak of plague in French Algeria. The main character comes to the conclusion that suffering is random and without purpose or plan and that all we can do about it is to live as best we can, taking responsibility for our lives through the decisions we make until we pass into the void, the final nothingness that makes a mockery of our having lived. In short, meaning1 has no meaning2.

 

Granting that it is a gross simplification, existentialism can be summed up into these two main points: 1) that there are only material causes; nothing spiritual exists; man and the universe are the product of random chance and mean nothing in themselves; and 2) we create our own meanings out of a meaningless universe by making our own choices and taking responsibility for them, seeing them through, and living with the consequences.

 

Existentialism’s stress on personal responsibility makes it sound quite noble, at least to 10th graders. But its nobility results from an intellectual misdirection, a philosophical sleight-of-hand, a moral shell-game. Personal responsibility is the selling point, but the pig in this poke is point #1, meaninglessness. If our starting point and ending point are both meaningless, then all the points in between, no matter how nobly or even heroically faced, are equally meaningless. Our feeble, interim choices amount to no more than whistling in the dark, to no more than kidding ourselves. Sooner or later, the existential hero must ask himself, “What’s the sense?” and then it’s “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” You cannot build a human life or, much less, a human civilization, on the nothingness that underlies existentialism.

 

But, unfortunately, building castles on the existential air has become the signature project of our modern society. Existentialism lurks behind our culture’s devotion to “choice” and its puzzling unconcern with whether we choose well or not. To an existentialist, what you choose does not matter, because everything is random and comes equally to nothing in the end; that you choose is everything. Thus, Camus, when pressed, could give no reason why a man should not choose to become one of the Nazis whom he, himself, detested. Consistent with his philosophy, he could have no reason for detesting them except that he “chose” to do so. Other men could make other, equally valid because equally meaningless choices.

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Existentialism’s doctrine of “choice” stands behind some of the most destructive attitudes of our time. For example, literary deconstructionism, a school of interpretation which teaches that words – for example, the words of the Constitution – have no meaning in and of themselves, but only the meaning that readers choose to read into them. Feminists take existential “choice” so far that they believe all social differentiation between men and women is the product of choices, and that actual, physical differences between the sexes have no significance. Taken to this logical extreme, our choices actually create the reality in which we live.

 

The corrective to all this nonsense is a little book written by Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), an Austrian-Jewish psychiatrist who spent three years in Auschwitz and several other Nazi concentration camps. Entitled Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, the book draws upon the author’s harrowing experiences in the very pit of 20th Century evil to describe the evolution of his own theory of the human being and his own school of psychotherapy, which he called logotherapy.

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The Greek word logos means “meaning.” Logotherapy is based upon Frankl’s perception that man’s deepest desire is to find the meaning of his life. Time and again, in the despair of the death camps, Frankl observed that the inmates who perceived the meaning of their lives – to live for a loved one, to complete some unfinished work, or merely “to be worthy of their suffering” – had the best chance of survival. Accordingly, logotherapy recognizes that “this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.”

 

That is why I [Frankl] speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the will to power on which Adlerian psychology, using the term “striving for superiority,” is focused.  [p. 104]

 

Many time during his long pontificate, John Paul II stressed that many of the problems of the modern age stemmed from its “false anthropology,” its misunderstanding of the true nature of man. Frankl, in the depth of the worst environment conceivable by human hatred, saw that man is not simply an assembly of physical urges and instinctive drives:

 

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The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. *** [There were] men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. *** Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him - mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. [pp. 74-75]

 

Frankl constructs a humanized existentialism in which a man’s free choices do not determine his reality, but do determine himself; in which choices give real meaning to life rather than conceal its meaninglessness. The vital difference is that Frankl’s logotherapy calls on man to look outside of himself:

 

By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence. [p. 115]

 

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C.S. Lewis, in writing his Narnia stories, wanted to create, for modern men so alienated from the story of the Gospels, a precursor – or perhaps a template – that would prepare in them the mental attitudes and concepts they would need to perceive and understand the Gospels. Frankl, through his construction of logotherapy, created precisely that sort of precursor in the field of psychotherapy. He created a psychological understanding of man as a free being, capable of determining his own, unique response to the real world in which he lives, and open to real meanings beyond himself. His is a “true anthropology.”

 

And, in that light, it is perhaps no coincidence that logos, in Greek, has another, perhaps more basic meaning. As used by St. John in the prologue to his Gospel, it means the “Word,” the word from which all meanings derive.

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