“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” (Victor Frankl).
As a Jewish psychiatrist who lived for years in Nazi Germany’s notoriously horrific concentration camp — Auschwitz — Victor Frankl knows better than most of the depths of human suffering. After enduring Auschwitz, Frankl went on to write the influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, describing his time in Auschwitz and putting forward his thesis on how to bear terrible suffering. Frankl invented an offshoot of psychotherapy where the clinician helps the patient find meaning in life; he called this logotherapy.
Frankl asserts that meaning in life is the fundamental good, believing that the external circumstances in life don’t matter as much as the attitude given to those circumstances. If meaning is the ultimate good, then it’s better to be a prisoner in Auschwitz with meaning than to be free without meaning. Influenced by existentialism, Frankl held that life is inherently characterized by suffering. Most people don’t want easy lives devoid of any responsibility; people crave a meaning to suffer for. Above all others, we praise martyrs who suffer dreadfully for a greater cause. The foundational narrative of Christianity portrays precisely this: a noble and divine figure unfairly crucified for the sake of transcendent meaning.
Critics of Frankl’s work claim that meaning, which to Frankl is the same as responsibility, was necessary to contend with the horrors of Nazi Germany but isn’t fundamental to a good life. Despite the relative comfort of contemporary society, people yearn for genuine meaning above all else. Further, the meaning and responsibility of individual sovereign citizens are essential for the success of a free democracy — a claim defended in this article. Therefore, by understanding and adopting Frankl’s theory on meaning, we can strengthen individuals and social institutions.
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence” (Frankl).
Meaning, as a term, is abstract and can mean several different things. Frankl uses “meaning” as a translation of the Greek logos, often translated as the word, reason, or method. The meaning of a word is what the word refers or points to. Meaning, as Frankl uses it, refers to a deep reason or justification for actions. We say that when we don’t understand something, we opt to discover the meaning of it. Frankl’s meaning can be understood as a justification for certain actions; when the actions are undergone for the sake of something greater. Frankl frequently cites Nietzsche, writing, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” If you ask a religious person about meaning, they will tell you that God gives their lives meaning: that the meaning of their life is to love God and to be virtuous, thus attaining salvation. But Frankl tells us not to look to God alone for meaning, but specifically to ourselves. We must recognize that we must answer the question of meaning for ourselves. But how can we hope to answer such a question?
Interestingly, Frankl says meaning is attained by being responsible. He says that every life has exactly one meaning and one meaning alone: taking full responsibility of all the circumstances in your life. Whatever shortcomings you have, injuries you have incurred, or oppressions you have felt, by taking responsibility for them all, maximal meaning will be found. This seems extreme and ludicrous if you consider that Frankl himself was a victim of the most horrendous crimes against humanity. This means that Frankl took responsibility for the suffering and cruelty of Auschwitz and did his best to take these problems upon himself.
We must understand that no matter what situation we are in, Auschwitz or upper-middle class suburbia, we will encounter some suffering. There is no escaping it. Horrible things happen all the time, and if they haven’t yet, they will at some point. This presents us with an intractable problem: the tragedy of human experience. Theologians and philosophers have wrestled with this problem forever. Albert Camus said that the only real question of any importance in philosophy was whether you should live on or commit suicide, and people have and do opt for the latter. Frankl’s assertion is profound because his solution to life’s suffering — meaning found in responsibility — works in the worst of all situations. If that’s true, this means that in any situation, no matter how horrible, you have the capacity to overcome it — you just need to find a reason.
Contemporary society grants us with more freedom than ever. Technology offers us expedient pleasure and distraction, yet many feel there is something lacking to life. We embellish the nobility of heroes in our movies and TV shows; we long for a life that’s deeper and more fulfilling, even if it is less comfortable. Perhaps meaning is precisely what we are lacking. When everything comes easy, we lose the drive to work towards something greater. Today’s society is marked by epidemics in obesity, anxiety and depression, addictions, and loneliness. These forms of suffering are in some ways worse than that of our ancestors because they aren’t accompanied by a reason or purpose to justify them. What, then, can we do to find meaning? Frankl advises us to take full voluntary responsibility of our lives and the lives of those around us. Many find meaning in a political cause, in their relationships, or in their careers. But all of these were available in the past and are available today; why then do we feel we lack meaning? Meaning only comes from things that are difficult. We might wear a T-shirt that expresses affiliation with a political stance, but this is neither difficult nor particularly helpful. We might find comfort in relationships but remain unwilling to work through childhood traumas that keep us disconnected and afraid. We might foster career goals that look good on paper and please our parents but lack the profound calling that motivates us to press on when things get tough — because we feel it is our responsibility to do so.
Ultimately, the question of meaning is as pertinent now as it was in the mid-20th century. As scientific progress moves our society forward, our values become unstable, and people turn to escapism in drugs, in validation from relationships, or perhaps in radical political ideology. There is a growing and increasingly divisive debate over how the world’s free democracies will progress. Different values butt heads as our political institutions fail us. Disillusioned and angry, people often become cynical about society or even life itself. Perhaps if in our lives we could foster more meaning by taking responsibility for what’s around us, we could bear our circumstances and perhaps make them better. If enough of us commit to this, maybe we could improve our social and political institutions. If those institutions are improved enough, then we might have less of a cynical attitude towards our own lives, towards each other, and towards life.
Our political discourse is as divisive as ever. On either side of the political spectrum, we assume the worst in and unfairly condemn the other side. The right thinks the left is full of overly-sympathetic, idealists, bent on the return of the Soviet Union; the left portrays the right as evil capitalists, sitting on a horde of cash while the poor go hungry. The enmities between the right and the left are perhaps justified, and there is plenty of blame on both sides. However, taking responsibility in the face of such turmoil might be a more productive solution. Despite who is to blame for a certain situation, whether it be foreign policy, health care, or border security, we ought to take responsibility for the situation we are in and strive to make it better. Compromise, even when we’re sure we’re right, might be better than political battling over every issue. This attitude toward responsibility and compromise must begin at the level of the individual. To defend this thesis that the responsibility of the sovereign individual is imperative to a free and stable republic, I’ll turn to two great political philosophers: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Niccolò Machiavelli.
Many great political philosophers held that the responsibility of the people — the responsibility of individuals — was essential to a free republic. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau held that humans feel that we must justify our existence by becoming virtuous, responsible citizens. Rousseau thought that essential to freedom was the ability to expand our capacities and continuously grow — an abundant source of meaning. Thus, acting as responsible citizens was essential to the social contract — essential to the stability of a free society. What more could be asked of a virtuous citizen than to take responsibility of their life and of others? Niccolò Machiavelli, in Discourses on Livy, held that it was the responsibility of the people which protected the state against tyranny. He said that religion was fundamental to a free republic mostly because it gave the people a deep sense of meaning to their lives. He thought this meaning was necessary to animate the citizens, which was essential to the prevention of tyranny. Further, he held that strength of character and willingness to nobly contend with the aristocracy and the leaders of government was essential. The pursuit of a noble and strong character in the face of oppressive forces is a meaningful pursuit.
Meaning, according to these great thinkers, is not only necessary for a functional life, but also for a functional society. The question of what should and will constitute this meaning is perhaps a question that each of us must endeavor to answer for ourselves. Though a daunting task, it ought to invigorate us to know that the fate of republican liberty rests on the answering of this question.
“Although seemingly paradoxical,
The person who takes upon himself,
The people’s humiliation,
Is fit to rule;
And he is fit to lead,
Who takes the country’s disasters upon himself” (Lao-Tzu).