Comments by Bob Corbett
It’s been many years since I last read this work. However, back in the 1960s and perhaps even into the 1970s, I taught this book at times in this or that philosophy course I taught at Webster University.
I have been deeply influenced by this work and just came across it a few days ago in my own library and decided to read it once again, after at least 30, perhaps even 40 years.
The Preface to this edition is written by Gordon W. Alport. In it he claims that one must:
“. . . make larger sense out of his (Frankl’s) apparently senseless suffering. It is here that we encounter the central theme of existentialism: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in suffering.”
Alas, I can’t find that notion of Existentialism as satisfactory to me. Certainly I think Viktor Frankl writes from an Existentialism perspective, but I just don’t accept Alport’s definition of what that means. I’ll talk about this issue later on along the way in my comments on Frankl’s text, but here I would just suggest that not all of existence concerns suffering. Certainly some of it does, and that place of suffering would seem to me to differ for every individual.
Alport says of the purpose of life:
“Each must find out for himself and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes.”
I would definitely agree with him on that point, however, I would suggest that what that responsibility one finds is may well be significantly different from person to person.
He also claims that one can have:
“. . . the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”
And he suggests that is the ultimate notion of freedom.
I think Alport is right about this; however, the answers to that question may radically differ from person to person.
Alport’s introduction also does suggest that Frankl should be seen as the “third” important writer on this topic in Vienna of that period. First there was Freud, then Adler and finally Frankl. I think Alport is correct in his assessment, however, it also seems honest and important to note that very few scholars tend to place Frankl quite in the same realm as Freud and Adler. I would hope that in the future scholars would indeed elevate Frankl’s position in the history of 20th century psychology.
Frankl’s book is divided into two sections. The first section concerns his experiences in a German concentration camp in WWII. The second section is a brief and basic introduction to his notion of logotherapy. This logotherapy of Frankl’s has become quite well-known.
Viktor Frankl was a well-known scholar as World War II was about to break out. He had the opportunity to leave Austria and to go to the United States. However, he chose to stay in Austria to aid his own parents and other relatives and other people. Thus this first section, which was the real birth of his view of modern psychology, begins in the concentration camp where he and his parents were taken.
The central question for him after the war was to reflect back on the question:
“How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”
The largest bulk of people he was imprisoned with were Jews, as was the Frankl family. He points out that the bulk of the camp guards were German non-Jews and all the SS soldiers and officers were non-Jews. However, the direct and immediate contacts for the prisoners were the Capos (who were cooperating prisoners) and many of them were themselves Jews, who cooperated with the Nazis in order to save their own lives or advance their own position.
For this first half the book Frankl intents to comment mainly on his own experiences and not theorize about what it all means. That will come in the second half of the book. However, for this section he cautions:
“I shall leave it to other to distill the contents of this book into dry theories. These might become a contribution to the psychology of prison life, which was investigated after the First World War, and which acquainted us with the syndrome of ‘barbed wire sickness.’ We are indebted to the Second World War for enriching our knowledge of the ‘psychopathology of the masses.’ (It may be a variation of the well-known phrase and title a book by LeBon), for the war gave us the war of nerves and it gave us the concentration camp.”
Frankl points out there were three phases of prison life which most experienced:
This section of his book tends to focus primarily on the second period. He says of it:
“Apathy, the main symptom of the second phase, was a necessary mechanism of self-defense.”
He claims that the central reason that even many more didn’t die was the need for slave labor, thus the Germans kept them alive to work on projects they needed.
Another “tool” of survival was:
“. . . intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence.”
This first section is an extremely powerful and enlightening description of what life was really like on a day to day basis in the prison camps. It is very difficult to read, but, if one just sticks with it, it is also quite informative and gives one a felt sense of the prison camp life.
Frankl makes a very powerful argument that even with the horrors of prison life some chose not to give up or retreat into hopelessness, but to struggle to regain some measure of human dignity to the very end:
“. . . in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person one became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influence alone.”
“Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with when such a man rejected all encouraging argument was, ‘I have nothing to expect from life anymore.’ What sort of answer can one give to this?”
While Frankl’s argument that one must be aware of one’s circumstances and embrace any circumstances as one own (yet he doesn’t deny action to change it) he has a curious notion of “embracing.” As an older man now I do think of coming times for me which are likely to include sickness, pain, suffering beyond cure. Yet Frankl argues:
“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe.”
Here I must part company with Frankl. I love life very much and do in fact find meaning even in my simple life in these later years. Yet I see chosen death – voluntary suicide – as a welcomed RIGHT for my own days and would even suspect that there is a strong possibility that when my own death comes it will be of my own choice and doing.
Frankl see his prison experience as being:
“. . the tender beginnings of a psychotherapy or psycho-hygiene . . .”
The final section of this first part of the book concerns the liberation which is quite short but illuminating.
“Everything appeared unreal, unlikely, as in a dream. We could not believe it was true.”
I was also fairly surprised that in his description, once the liberation came many of the prisoners who were capable of walking just walked off from the camp and made their own way. He never really talks of any specifics.
A sizeable portion of the freed prisoners reacted negatively to the outside world tending to blame all non-prisoners for their own suffering.
However, Frankl believes that the bulk of freed prisoners eventually made their way back as normal citizens of the post-war world.
In sum some 11 million people died in the camps, including 6 million Jews and 1.1 million children. Frankly points out that there were 280 million persons put into these terrible camps. Thus some 269 million did survive.
This essay was added in the 1962 edition. After the 1959 first part of this work was published he received many calls for a fuller explanation of his psychological theory.
He first wrote the essay “From Death Camp to Existentialism” and then, this expanded essay became part of the 1962 republication of that work.
I found a very useful few sentences near the beginning of this essay:
“Logotherapy deviates from psychoanalysis insofar as it considers man a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfactions of drives and instincts, or in merely reconciling the conflicting claims of id, ego and superego, or in the mere adaptation and adjustment to society and environment.”
Frankl, in this essay is seeking the meaning for one’s own life, not freedom from neuroses. He begins with a description of what he terms as “The Existential Vacuum”;
“. . . (it is) the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves…”
For “the meaning of life” there is no general answer like asking for the best of all chess moves. It always depends on the full context of one’s life.
“Logotherapy is neither teaching nor preaching. It is as far removed from logical reasoning as it is from moral exhortation. To put it figuratively, the role played by a logotherapist is that of an eye specialist rather than that of a painter. A painter tries to convey to us a picture of the world as he sees it; an ophthalmologist tries to enable us to see the world as it really is. The logotherapist’s role consists of widening and broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.”
Frankl argues that self-transcendence is a necessary part of actualization.
Again, I’m not totally convinced of this, yet at the same time life without my partner, Sally, seems really impossible, yet either one of us might, even soon, experience this!
“In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end. In other words, life’s meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of unavoidable suffering.”
Eventually he turns to the “super-meaning” for many situations, even appealing to an after-life and God to make sense of his view. It makes me think that the radical outcome of this version of Logotherapy seems to require a God.
This section is an attack on “giving-up-itis.” He argues very unconvincingly to me that there is (even should be) a path to optimism in all situations.
This just makes no sense to me as a universal claim. As a general good idea, and useful pose, I can accept the idea. However, beyond that it can seem often to be rather wishful thinking without much relation to reality.
The notion of “meaninglessness” is reasonable to mistrust, as Frankl suggests, but not all coming death is the same.
Despite having some differences with Victor Frankl on the meaning of human life, I believe his concept of the meaning of human existence is powerful and challenging. Further, his notion of exploring one’s own life to discover its meaning and purpose is a powerful and useful tool in understanding one’s self and often in giving further meaning to one’s own life than one might otherwise have. Frankl’s work is well worth exploring.
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com