Today’s pages (p149-154) commence with the second aspect of Viktor Frankl’s ‘tragic triad’: guilt.
How can we find meaning in our lives in spite of the presence of guilt?
For Frankl, no crime is fully explicable. No crime can be ‘fully traced back to biological, psychological and/or sociological factors’, he writes.
Totally explaining one’s crime would be tantamount to explaining away his or her guilt and to seeing in him or her not a free and responsible human being but a machine to be repaired.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 28 ‘Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.’
Today’s pages (p145-149) address the question of the meaning of life itself. Finally – the promised land!
But rather than The Meaning Of Life As A Whole, Viktor Frankl has a smaller target in mind, at least at first:
[T]he logotherapist is concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout his or her life.
Frankl doesn’t deny that The Meaning Of Life As A Whole does exist, but that we can only fully understand it after having understood the meaning of each of the smaller moments leading up to the final moment of our death. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 27 ‘Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change … may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.’
Today’s pages (p139-144) open the final part of Man’s Search for Meaning, written as a postscript to the book in 1984: ‘The Case for Tragic Optimism’.
An attitude of ‘tragic optimism’ means to remain optimistic in spite of life’s ‘tragic triad’ of pain, guilt and death. Or, alternatively:
How … can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects?
Frankl’s answer is hidden in the etymology of the word ‘optimism’, which is derived from the Latin ‘optimum’ meaning ‘the best’.
To be optimistic, therefore, is not to be deliriously blind to one’s circumstances, but rather to make ‘the best’ one can of any given situation. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 26 ‘Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to “be happy”. Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically.’
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.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 25 ‘Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.’
Today’s pages (p125-131) address the logotherapeutic treatment of anticipatory anxiety, the excessive anxiety we all sometimes feel in anticipation of a particular event or circumstance.
Viktor Frankl observes that ‘anticipatory anxiety … produces precisely that of which the patient is afraid’.
When one is particularly anxious about blushing when faced with a large crowd, one is more prone to blushing in that situation. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 24 ‘The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure.’
Today’s pages (p119-125) begin, strangely enough, with something of a lament for the loss of clergymen as a professional resource for treating a loss of meaning in life.
Today, instead, people turn to psychiatrists (and are frequently mistreated for neurosis, is Viktor Frankl’s implication).
After making the point that life’s duration has no bearing on its relative meaning, Viktor Frankl turns to the troublesome (for a scientific mind) metaphysics of what he calls ‘super-meaning’. He begins by posing a reasonable question:
Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos?
Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 23 ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered.’
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. Continue reading 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.’
Today’s pages are some of my favourite in the whole of Man’s Search for Meaning. I say that not lightly.
First, a (re-)definition of Frankl’s logotherapy:
[Logotherapy] considers man a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts.
This search for meaning, however, creates an inner tension on which good mental health is based.
This goes against what Frankl calls the ‘dangerous misconception’ of many psychologists that a state of mental equilibrium is desirable. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 21 ‘What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.’
Today’s pages (p103-108) mark the beginning of the second part of Man’s Search for Meaning: Logotherapy in a nutshell.
After some apologies for the inevitable failures for compressing into a few pages that which ‘required twenty volumes in German’, Viktor Frankl sets about explaining his therapy.
Logotherapy (as its etymology indicates) attempts to confront the patient with and reorient him towards the meaning of his life.
Frankl is very insistent that this ‘will to meaning’ is the overriding motivation for human beings: we live and die for our meanings and values, he points out.
This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 20 ‘A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress, but by no means a mental disease.’
Today’s excerpt is a little shorter (p96-100), as we reach the end of Part 1 of Man’s Search for Meaning.
These are the final pages of Frankl’s description of the psychology of the concentration camp inmate.
Even after liberation, the former-prisoner is not out of psychological danger. For Frankl, progress from inmate to human being seems to have been slow and steady.
But for others, liberation was not so easy. Frankl describes the sudden release of mental pressure that occurred at the end of their imprisonment as similar to the bends.
Just as the physical health of the caisson worker would be endangered if he left his diver’s chamber suddenly […], so the man who has suddenly been liberated from mental pressure can suffer damage to his moral and spiritual health.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 19
Today’s pages (p91-96) address the psychology of the camp guard, and the psychology of the prisoner after his liberation from a concentration camp.
With regards to the guards, Frankl makes four observations:
- Some of the guards were pure sadists.
- These sadists were always chosen when severe treatment was ordered.
- The majority of guards were ‘morally and mentally hardened men’ who refused to take active part in sadistic torture, but did not prevent others from such behaviour.
- There were some guards who took pity on the prisoners and took active steps to ameliorate conditions for them. ‘Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.’
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 18 ‘Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.’
Today’s pages (p88-91, a wee bit shorter) are recollections of a speech that Viktor Frankl gave to his fellow prisoners at the end of a particularly hard day.
The prisoners had chosen to go without food rather than give up one of their number to the guards, and so were particularly hungry, tired, cold and irritable.
Frankl was called upon to give some words of encouragement, and he began with a very Stoic observation, that ‘our situation was not the most terrible we could think of’.
Losses of health, family, happiness and fortune were all replaceable in the future.
He quotes again from Nietzsche: ‘That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.’ Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 17 ‘Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.’
In today’s pages (p84-88), Frankl addresses head on the question of the meaning of life.
The search for this meaning is in itself a matter of life and death – for the deterioration of a man’s courage and hope bears a direct correlation to the deterioration of his physical strength.
Quite simply, those prisoners who hoped the war would end by Christmas were very likely to die by New Year.
The only cure for this malaise was to follow Nietzsche’s advice: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 16 ‘Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs.’
In today’s pages (p78-83), Viktor Frankl addresses the dangers of the past, the sufferings of the present and the promise of the future.
For concentration camp prisoners, the ‘most depressing influence’ on their psychology was the fact that no one knew how long they would remain imprisoned for.
This created, in the words of one unnamed research psychologist, a ‘provisional existence’, to which Frankl adds ‘of unknown limit’. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 15 ‘With the end of uncertainty there came the uncertainty of the end.’
In today’s pages (p74-78), Viktor Frankl sets out the first principles of his theory of logotherapy: addressing directly the question of man’s search for meaning.
Following his description of the psychological trials of the camp inmate, Frankl asks whether or not the ‘human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings’.
Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? …
[D]o the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings?
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 14 ‘If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.’
Today’s pages (p70-74) bring us to the end of the Nazi rule of the concentration camp where Viktor Frankl was kept prisoner.
But not without one last twist of fate.
Frankl’s celebrations at the coming of the Red Cross delegate was short-lived. The SS arrived that night and ordered the camp to be cleared, and the prisoners taken to another camp where they would be transferred to Switzerland.
But after a mistake by the Chief Doctor, Frankl was not put on any of the trucks which understandably left him ‘[s]urprised, very annoyed and disappointed’. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 13 ‘There they were locked in the huts and burned to death.’
Today’s pages (p64-70) concern Viktor Frankl’s attitude to fate.
Frankl believed that destiny will run its own course, and his only responsibility was to his own conscience.
One day, Viktor Frankl’s name (or number!) appeared on the list for transportation to a ‘rest camp’.
The other prisoners were all convinced that this was nothing more than a euphemism for ‘gas chamber’, but Frankl did nothing to get his name crossed off the list – even when the camp’s chief doctor told him he only had to ask.
I told him that this was not my way; that I had learned to let fate take its course. … He shook my hand silently, as though it were a farewell, not for life, but from life.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 12 ‘They tried to save themselves, but they only sealed their own fates.’
Today’s pages (p60-64) start with the observation that, in the desperate fight for survival, the inmates could easily lose the feeling of being an individual with ‘inner freedom and personal value’.
He thought of himself then as only a part of an enormous mass of people; his existence descended to the level of animal life.
Viktor Frankl notices that the inmates started to behave like sheep, when herded from one place to another by the guards.
[W]e, the sheep, thought of two things only – how to evade the bad dogs and how to get a little food. Just like sheep that crowd timidly into the centre of a herd, each of us tried to get into the middle of our formations.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 11 ‘One literally became a number: dead or alive – that was unimportant; the life of a “number” was completely irrelevant.’
Today’s pages (p55-60) start with what must be one of the most shockingly apposite analogies in literature.
[A] man’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber.
Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.
The choice to use ‘gas’ for the metaphor is both macabre and entirely fitting. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 10 ‘Suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little.’
The prisoners’ inner life was so important to their survival, whether it was the mundane nostalgic memory of catching the bus or answering telephone, or the sublime sight of the setting sun through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods.
After admiring such a sunset, one prisoner said to another: ‘How beautiful the world could be.’ Continue reading Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 9 ‘I bit my lips till they hurt in order to keep from laughing at one of his love poems, and very likely that saved my life.’
Today’s pages (p45-51) are some of the most touching in the whole book.
Viktor Frankl begins by describing, almost light-heartedly, the ‘cultural hibernation’ that took place in the concentration camps.
Two exceptions to the absence of interest in art and intellect were ‘almost continuous’ discussions of politics and religion:
The depth and vigour of religious belief often surprised and moved a new arrival.
This deepening of spiritual life is Frankl’s explanation of why ‘some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature’. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 8 ‘The salvation of man is through love and in love.’
Today’s pages (p41-45) are largely concerned with food, notable for its paucity in concentration camps such as Auschwitz.
Viktor Frankl recounts the daily menu:
[T]he daily ration consisted of very watery soup given out once daily, and the usual small bread ration.
In addition to that, there was the so-called “extra allowance,” consisting of three-fourths of an ounce of margarine, or of a slice of poor quality sausage, or of a little piece of cheese, or a bit of synthetic honey, or a spoonful of watery jam, varying daily.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 7 ‘In those ghastly minutes, I found a little bit of comfort; a small piece of bread.’
In today’s pages (p37-41), Viktor Frankl describes how even the most hardened concentration camp prisoner can be roused through insult to rash – and potentially suicidal – indignation.
The beating Frankl received after defending his honour as a doctor against the insults of a particularly repugnant foreman was only relieved by the favour of the Capo in his work party.
How had Frankl won the good favour of this Capo? By lending a sympathetic ear to the Capo’s tales of matrimonial strife! Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 6 ‘No dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us.’
In this section (p31-37), Viktor Frankl moves onto the second phase of the psychological response to incarceration: apathy, a ‘kind of emotional death’.
As he says, such an ‘abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour’.
This ‘mortification of normal reactions was hastened’ by the punishments meted out by the camp officials:
It was a favourite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage.
If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished with a blow from a Capo.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 5 ‘Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator could not really feel any more.’
Today’s pages mark Viktor Frankl’s transition from naive optimism to the moment he ‘struck out’ the whole of his former life and started his bare fight for survival from Auschwitz.
Those who had survived the initial cull were stripped of all their belongings and shaved bare with not a hair left on their bodies.
While we were waiting for the shower, our nakedness was brought home to us: we really had nothing now except our bare bodies: all we possessed, literally, was our naked existence’.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Cult: Day 4 ‘A man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.’
These five pages (p22-26 in my 2004 Rider edition) begin with the first phase of the inmates mental reactions to life in a concentration camp. Unsurprisingly, the dominant symptom on admission to Auschwitz was shock.
There are three passages in today’s reading that stand out for me. The first is Viktor Frankl’s observation of the ‘delusion of reprieve’:
The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Cult: Day 3 ‘The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.’
These first pages (p17-21 in my 2004 Rider edition) of Part 1: Experiences in a Concentration Camp contain the most chilling passage I think I have ever read in a work of non-fiction.
After describing how desperate was the fight for survival in the concentration camps of World War Two, Viktor Frankl matter-of-factly states:
On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves.
We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 2 ‘We know: the best of us did not return.’
Gordon W Allport opens his preface to Man’s Search for Meaning with an anecdote about Viennese psychiatrist-author Victor Frankl. Apparently he used to ask all his patients one question: ‘Why do you not commit suicide?’ Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 1 ‘A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to.’
In the preface to my edition of Man’s Search for Meaning, Gordon W Allport tells us that Viktor Frankl used to ask his psychotherapy clients what it was that stopped them from committing suicide.
It’s a question that existential philosopher and bon vivant Albert Camus considered the only serious question in philosophy. Continue reading The Only Serious Question of Philosophy The lesson from history is that humans are infinitely adaptable, and the most adaptable are those who are able to see the potential for growth among abject suffering.
I read a lot of books. Not a ridiculous quantity, like my sister, but a lot. I also make a lot of spreadsheets. Not a ridiculous quantity, like my dad, but a lot. Putting those two aspects of my nature together, I can tell you things like:
- I read an average of 32.7 books a year.
- About a quarter of those will be fiction.
- I also give up on an average of 6.9 books every year.
- In the last 5 years, I have given 45 books a rating of 5 out of 5. That’s 27% of all the books I’ve read.
- Only 1 book in 202 has scored 1 out of 5. Most of the books in this category I don’t finish, and therefore don’t score. This one I finished, and it was irritatingly bad. It was by Jeffrey Archer.
Every now and again I read a book that defies my rating scheme. If I was a different sort of person, a more devil-may-care sort of person, then I’d break my 5-point rating for books like this.
This week I read such a book, after finding out that Alastair Humphreys reads it every year: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Continue reading Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning