Victor Frankl Man's Search for Meaning

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 22 'The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.'3 minute read

Today’s pages (113-119) begin boldly, with the sub-heading The Meaning of Life. But of course, Frankl has no catechistic answer.

For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.

He likens it to a chess move: ‘There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game’.

Indeed, the very search for an abstract meaning of life is futile: ‘everyone’s task is as unique as his specific opportunity to implement it’.

Instead, Frankl flips the question on its head:

[M]an should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked.

Thus logotherapy is a therapy of responsibility: we are each responsible for choosing our own (moment-by-moment) meaning(s) and acting accordingly.

We reach now the not-nearly-famous-enough ‘categorical imperative’ of logotherapy:

Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!

I’ve already mentioned this mind-bender (and its carpe diem power) elsewhere on the blog, but essentially Frankl is asking you to imagine that the present is past, but that you have this one opportunity to change the past.

Now: what do you decide to do?

Frankl’s categorical imperative confronts us with the truth that life is finite, and that our choices are final.

So we’d better do ourselves justice and take full responsibility for the actions of our short life.

Logotherapy stresses 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’.

This makes logotherapy a therapy of self-transcendence.

The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is.

Frankl outlines the three ways in which we can transcend ourselves and I quote in full:

1) by creating a work or doing a deed;
2) by experiencing something or encountering someone;
and 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

The first of these paths, Frankl declares, is obvious. The second, to find meaning in the experience of ‘goodness, truth and beauty … nature and culture or … another human being’ is to find the meaning of love.

Although Frankl mentions many forms of love, he concentrates on the love of another human being.

For Frankl, love is ‘the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality’.

At its finest, love also enables the beloved to actualise potentialities that are seen only in the starry-eyed gaze of the lover.

The third way we find meaning is through suffering.

When we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves.

Frankl’s logotherapy does not see man’s ‘main concern’ as seeking out pleasure and avoiding pain, but ‘to see meaning in his life’.

That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.

Of course, suffering is not necessary to find meaning, and should be avoided if possible, but importantly suffering does not rule out a meaningful life – or death.

The acceptance that meaning can be found even in suffering is the key to understanding the power of logotherapy, and the foundation from which Frankl’s worldview is built.

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