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.
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]