Today’s pages (p131-136) conclude the second part of Man’s Search for Meaning, ‘Logotherapy in a Nutshell’.
Viktor Frankl writes that ‘[e]very age has its own collective neurosis’ and believes that the mass neurosis of the present time is ‘a private and personal form of nihilism’.
Frankl warns against the danger of teaching that man is ‘nothing but’ the result of his biological and social conditions.
As a professor in two fields, neurology and psychiatry, I am fully aware of the extent to which man is subject to biological, psychological and sociological conditions. But in addition to being a professor in two fields I am a survivor of four camps … and as such I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable.
The power of such testimony is hard to contend with. Frankl believes that man is ‘ultimately self-determining’.
Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. … Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.
To illustrate his argument, Frankl tells a short anecdote about the ‘satanic’ Dr. J., ‘the mass murderer of Steinhof’ who later, imprisoned in Russia, proved himself to be ‘the best comrade you can imagine’, who ‘lived up to the highest conceivable moral standard’. As Frankl writes, ‘How can we dare to predict the behaviour of man?’
However, for Frankl, such self-determinative freedom is only part of the story – and, indeed, the lesser part.
Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.
It is our responsibility, ‘within the limits of endowment and environment’, to take free decisions and make of our lives what we will.
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.