Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) is famous as the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which consists of two parts: The first part is a short autobiographical account of his years spent in German concentration camps during World War II, while the second part is a short explanation of a theory of therapy centering on human meaning that Frankl developed in part as a response to his concentration camp experiences. This essay focuses on the second part of Frankl’s book.
First, I will sum up the conclusions Frankl reached as a result of his concentration camp experiences. Most importantly, Frankl concluded that we are free — even if we are in a concentration camp. Frankl believes that we are free within a situation. We are always free to choose our attitude toward the situation we are in. Even if we are in front of a firing squad, we can choose our attitude: We can say, “I’m guilty; I deserve to die,” or we can scream, “You dirty sons of bitches! I damn you to hell!”
Frankl reached the conclusion that we are free after observing the actions of his fellow prisoners in the concentration camps. Some people acted like swine, while other people acted like saints. Some people became brutal camp guards, while other people gave away their last crust of bread and comforted other prisoners.
Frankl pointed out that even in the concentration camp, there were always choices to make. For example, an important choice Frankl and the other prisoners were confronted with was whether to commit suicide. An electric fence ran around the concentration camps and one could commit suicide by running into the electric fence.
In addition, Frankl learned how important it is to have meaning in your life. Those people who lost hope in the future soon died. But those who had something to look forward to (a child waiting for them outside the concentration camp, or scientific work which could be done only by the prisoner) were able — in many cases — to survive the concentration camp.
The Will to Meaning
In his logotherapy, Frankl concentrates on the Will to Meaning. We are free, and we have goals and ideals. These goals and ideals do not fit the deterministic model of If A, then B. (Determinism is a philosophical theory that we never act freely — whatever we do has been determined by forces beyond our control.) Instead, these goals and ideals are future possibilities that we can decide to strive to make actual. Frankl believes that we are “pulled” by our goals and ideals — not pushed from behind as in the deterministic model. According to Frankl, “Man is never driven to moral behavior; in each instance he decides to behave morally.” In other words, moral behavior is an act of freedom.
Existential Frustration and Noögenic Neurosis
Frankl believes that if one’s will to meaning is frustrated, the result can be noögenic neurosis. A neurosis is “a functional disorder of the mind or emotions with no obvious physical cause.” Noös refers to mind or spirit, and so a noögenic neurosis is a neurosis of the mind or spirit arising from existential frustration.
For example, a high-ranking American official began seeing a psychotherapist; later he came to Frankl. Frankl discovered that the official with very unhappy with American foreign policy, and that this was frustrating the official’s will to meaning. Therefore, Frankl suggested that the official find another job — the official did so, and his problems cleared up immediately.
According to Frankl, a certain amount of tension in one’s life is normal. There should be a tension between what one has already achieved and what one has left to achieve, and a tension between what one already is and what one should become. Life in the land of the lotus-eaters is not a life for a human being, according to Frankl.
The Existential Vacuum
As a result of several surveys, Frankl has discovered that an existential vacuum exists in the lives of many people. For many people, life has no meaning. As long as they are busy, they do not recognize the lack of meaning in their lives, but when Sunday comes, they suddenly have nothing to do and recognize that their life consists of busywork. According to Frankl, “The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.”
The Meaning of Life
However, one can discover a meaning (or meanings) in one’s life, and Frankl gives several suggestions for finding this meaning. But first, he states that the meaning of life always changes. There is no one meaning to life. Asking someone for the meaning to life is like asking a chess grandmaster what is the best move in chess. The best move depends on the situation, and so does the meaning one finds in life.
However, Frankl gives us three ways to discover the meaning that one’s life holds (or can hold) for one. First, one can find meaning in life by doing a deed. A career can have meaning. One can start a homeless shelter, or write a book, or graduate from college, etc.
Second, one can find meaning in life by experiencing a value. The value can be experiencing a work of art or culture. Some people devote themselves to the study of Shakespeare. Others find meaning in life through travel. Another way to find meaning in life by experiencing a value is by experiencing someone — that is, being in love. One’s devotion to a spouse can bring meaning to one’s life.
Third, one can find meaning in life by suffering. This shows the influence of Frankl’s concentration camp experience upon his logotherapy. If one is faced with unavoidable suffering, one can respond bravely to the suffering. (Of course, if the suffering is avoidable, then one ought to avoid it.) Someone who has incurable cancer can respond bravely to the cancer.
An example of finding meaning by suffering is that of a man whose wife had died. He had loved her very much, and he suffered very much after her death. Frankl asked the man what would have happened if the man had died first instead of his wife. The man responded that his wife would have suffered very much. The man then realized that by surviving his wife he had spared her the tremendous suffering that he was now experiencing. This gave his suffering a meaning.
Modern Collective Neurosis: Nihilism
Frankl also addresses what he calls the modern collective neurosis — that is, nihilism, or the idea that life has no meaning. Everywhere it seems that scientists and other people are trying to deny Humankind’s freedom. Many people seem to believe that Humankind is “nothing but” a body that responds to physical laws the same way that a rock or a planet does. Many people seem to believe that Humankind is no more free than a rock or a planet.
However, Frankl believes that Humankind is free, even though Humankind’s freedom is restricted. We are free within a situation, according to Frankl — that is, we are restricted by conditions. However, we are still free to choose our own stand toward the conditions. And we are free to choose to be a swine or to be a saint — to join the race of decent human beings or the race of indecent human beings.
As an example of Humankind’s freedom, Frankl tells us about Dr. J. This man was known as “the mass murderer of Steinhof” because he was so diligent in sending psychotic individuals to their deaths during the Nazi reign. When the war ended, Dr. J was captured by the Soviets; however, one day the door to his cell stood open and so Frankl thought that he had escaped and gone to South America.
Many years later, Frankl discovered the truth. Dr. J had been taken to a Soviet prison camp, where he had died of cancer. However, a man who had been in prison with Dr. J testified of Dr. J’s remarkable character. According to this man, Dr. J was the best friend it was possible to have and he had the highest possible moral character. So here is a man who changed himself from a swine into a saint. Therefore, Frankl asks, how can anyone doubt that Humankind “is ultimately self-determining”?
We are free.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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