Kind correspondent Lila Das Gupta Fenton recently sent me a copy of Viktor E. Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning. It begins with a thoughtful and heart-wrenching story of survival during the Nazi holocaust. Stoic philosophy is central throughout, as in the perfectly expressed:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the 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.
Unfortunately for today's reader, onto Part One of this book are grafted two rather disorganized essays that have the sad feel of self-promotional material for Viktor Frankl's own school of psychiatry. (In particular, notes on the application of "logotheraphy" to problems of excessive sweating and sexual dysfunction are distracting in the context of death camp survival.) Some delightful nuggets of wisdom do appear, as in:
I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the qustion in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?" There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one's oppoment. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.
On the whole, the first section of Man's Search for Meaning more than redeems the later digressions and product placements. In "Experiences in a Concentration Camp" Viktor Frankl tells of the extraordinary torments that he and his fellow prisioners faced, and how they in turn discovered wellsprings of inner strength. He writes, after quoting Nietzsche's "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how":
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
And shortly thereafter Frankl explains how he and some of his fellow prisoners discovered meaning in their own situation:
When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be of help to us. They kept us from despair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive. Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naïve query which understands life is the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.
Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp's tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, "Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!" (How much suffering there is to get through!) ...
Although the translation into English feels stilted, at times a poetic image shines:
As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor—or maybe because of it—we were carried away by nature's beauty, which we had missed for so long.
In camp, too, a man might draw the attention of a comrade working next to him to a nice view of the setting sun shining through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods (as in the famous water color by Dürer), the same woods in which we had built an enormous, hidden munitions plant. One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate gray mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, "How beautiful the world could be!"
Viktor Frankl quotes in passing words attributed to Bismarck, "Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already." But as Frankl inverts and interprets the aphorism, until one's final moment the real opportunities of life are never over; in every situation there is always the potential to triumph ... within.
(Excerpts from Part One of Man's Search for Meaning are from the translation by Ilse Lasch; cf. BennettOnStoicism (29 Apr 1999), FoamOnTheOcean (23 Jul 2000), InsideTheInnerCitadel (15 Oct 2002), StoicStruggles (22 Dec 2002), InSearchOfTheFulcrum (19 Mar 2004), LongWalk (31 May 2004), EatTheOrange (28 Nov 2004), WhereWeAre (24 Apr 2005), SeizeTheCarp (2 Jul 2005), EmpireOfTheSun (8 Aug 2005), ...)