The Search for Meaning
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the most genuine, honest and moving works of philosophy of the twentieth century. In this classic text, Frankl portrays human survival in Auschwitz and other concentration camps and shines a spotlight on the individual’s inherent will to find meaning. Frankl’s message is directly relevant to Unexus: when people work towards future goals, they are more able to interpret meaning in the present.
Frankl’s main message is that human beings have an inherent will to find a purpose or meaning to their life. Meaning and purpose is conceived in the definition of future goals, and this conception helps give context to and transforms the present state of mind, unleashing the authentic power of an individual. Once authentic power has been unleashed, the individual’s past can be viewed as a tapestry where all experiences and events have converged to shape the present moment, and the present moment has meaning in the context of a future goal.
Frankl outlines the various psychological, sociological and environmental conditions shaping the life of an inmate in a concentration camp. His central message is that even despite these conditions, the individual has the freedom and choice to shape their attitude to their external circumstances, thereby preserving their independence of mind:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.”
To achieve this human freedom, Frankl encouraged inmates to conceptualise a future goal to which they could look forward. Through objectifying this future goal, the suffering of the present moment was given meaning. Frankl describes a particularly trying personal experience where, almost in tears from pain, he had to limp a few kilometres in cold and bitter winds. He was thinking of the endless little problems of his miserable life: What would there be to eat? Would he be subjected to the capriciousness of a violent prison guard? How would he be able to trade a cigarette for shoelaces? He became so disgusted with this state of affairs that he forced himself to conceptualise giving a lecture in the future on the psychology of the concentration camp. As Frankl says, both himself and his troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by himself. As Spinoza suggested in his Ethics, emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.
The prisoner who lost faith in their future was doomed to moral and spiritual decay, and ultimately to death in the camp. These were conditions that required a fundamental change of attitude towards life:
“We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”
Life, for Frankl, ultimately meant taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and fulfill the tasks that are continually set for each individual.
Moreover, these tasks differ between individuals, and therefore a general meaning of life cannot be posited:
“Life does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual.”
Sometimes it is our destiny to suffer, and the challenge is our own to find meaning in this suffering. At other times an alternative attitude will be appropriate. We are all unique individuals, and are accountable for shaping our attitudes to external circumstances. As Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
Frankl also launches critiques the idea that individuals are conditioned by the relations of society, without the capacity to take a stand towards any conditions whatsoever. “One of the main features of human existence,” argues Frankl, “is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.”
Frankl’s classic book is enormously important for Unexus, which aims to unlock human potential by providing the conditions for goal-oriented behaviour. Goals conceived outside of oneself give meaning to life, and information flows on the platform help the individual develop their own courses of action to achieve that goal. In the process of finding meaning and purpose through the identification of goals, one will be shaping a new attitude to their present circumstances.
- Making a Conscious Commitment to Positive Change
- Life Is About Change
- Realise Your Goals. Help Others Realise Theirs
Capitalist Tim Price on Viktor Frankl —
“Can an economy that has become dependent on lies, misrepresentation, ‘fudging’ of numbers, fraud, embezzlement and a multitude of skimming and scamming operations escape the moral and financial black hole it has created ? The self-evident answer is ‘no’.”
— Charles Hugh Smith, 28 August 2012, as quoted in Edelweiss Journal.
When the parent company of Universal Pictures bought the rights to Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park, by all accounts they insisted that the slated director, Steven Spielberg, make that film before the film he had earlier wanted to make, namely Schindler’s List. Anybody who has seen Schindler’s List, or for that matter anyone who is even loosely familiar with the Holocaust, will understand why.
We mention Schindler’s List because a broadly related piece by Simon London in the Financial Times from June 2005 asked:
What is your favourite business book?
Simon London went on to answer his own question, citing, for example, The Living Company by Arie de Geus (business strategy seen through the prism of Anglo-Dutch corporate giant Royal Dutch Shell), and Good to Great by Jim Collins (a snapshot of then successful US businesses that may or may not have possessed unique corporate DNA). But he went on to highlight a book that, despite being widely translated and an international bestseller, is (in the opinion of this writer) insufficiently well known to readers today.
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning is described as “the classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust”. As Simon London then observed, this description is “both true and insufficient”. As Simon London then wrote, we concur: if you have not read it yet, it cannot be recommended too highly.
Viktor Frankl was a graduate in medicine from the University of Vienna. He ended up imprisoned in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps. He survived against extraordinary odds and in the face of unimaginable physical and mental hardships, and went on to return after the war to the University of Vienna where he served as professor of neurology and psychiatry.
During his time in the concentration camps, Frankl observed, as Simon London writes, in the most extreme conditions, human beings at the very limit of what is imaginable and what can be suffered:
The chances of survival were negligible and the temptations to despair overwhelming.
But Viktor Frankl’s survival was not the most extraordinary thing about his experiences during one of humanity’s darkest periods. Rather,
Frankl, who died in 1997 at the fine old age of 92, was an optimist … but he was clear that you could not order or will yourself to be optimistic.
As London writes,
He noted, disapprovingly, the American idea of the pursuit of happiness. “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue… A human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy.
This may sound confusing. But Frankl’s philosophy could not have been clearer: how does one find reasons to be happy? By attempting to detect meaning in work and in life. An ongoing search for meaning is what makes us human, and happy. Simplistically, material goods and wealth may give us brief joy. Profound happiness might come from the search for what might make us happy, or alleviate our sadness, in the first place.
I found the following example from Frankl’s book especially insightful, and amongst the most moving things I have ever read:
Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how could I help him?
Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question:
What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?”
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!’
Whereupon I replied, ‘You see Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering – at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.’
He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.
Frankl’s philosophy is called logotherapy: the meaning of life, in other words, is to find the meaning in life.
From the sublime…
In the film ‘Jurassic Park’, Jeff Goldblum plays Dr. Ian Malcolm, someone proficient in so-called chaos theory. Simplistically, chaos theory deals with complexity in complex systems. Popular media tend to refer to chaos theory by way of the ‘butterfly effect’: a butterfly flaps its wings in Peking (or insert international city of choice), and New York gets rain instead of sunshine. Or a hurricane. According to the precepts of chaos theory, small initial changes within a non-linear system can give rise to dramatic changes in the same system later on.
Weather systems are complex. So are financial markets. So are economies. The pyrrhic victory of central planning throughout essentially bankrupt western economies has permitted central bankers to play with the dials and wheels of a delicate machine, in Keynes’ words, the working of which they simply do not understand.
Dr. Ian Malcolm, fictional though he may be, is a scientist. Science has testable theories. Karl Popper, yet another Austrian thinker – regular readers may identify a trend here – argued that no number of positive outcomes of experimental theories could confirm a theory: what is required is a single counter-example. When a theory is proven false, it is (or should be) wiped from the slate. Or as Max Planck apparently remarked: science advances one funeral at a time, as long-term adherents to a false premise die off and are replaced by something closer to objective truth.
The author of this commentary has been working in the financial markets for 21 years, for (variously and successively) investment banks, private banks and private partnerships. For more than half of that period, there was (or seemed) a sense that there was some vague order at least to the nature of the financial markets. For sure, markets are prone to overshoot and undershoot, because they are a literal reflection of the various oscillations of greed and fear in the human psyche.
But since the financial crisis of “2007” (we would blame a motley combination not restricted to but primarily comprising banks and western governments), the financial markets have been driven by state compulsion. The prices of residential property and commercial bank equity should be artificially supported? Print money and gift it to the banks. (If the populace really knew what sins were being committed in order to secure Nathaniel’s year-end bonus, there would undoubtedly be revolution.) But governments have overreached themselves. State benefits have been promised and must be delivered. So where will the revenues come from? In the words of Dylan Grice, again cited in the most recent Edelweiss Journal,
The 99% blame the 1%, the 1% blame the 47%, the private sector blames the public sector, the public sector returns the sentiment… the young blame the old, everyone blames the rich… yet few question the ideas behind government or central banks.
This is as close to chaos as makes no odds, socially and financially. What we urgently need is a return to something even approaching sound money. The very concept of savings – the lifeblood of a healthy economy – is being destroyed by central planners who do not even have a plan, but feel obligated to do something – anything. What we are getting from clueless monetary authorities in thrall to a craven, morally bankrupt and literally bankrupt banking class is anything but sound money. Absent some form of political reset, all we can do is seek shelter for our savings and investments in objectively safe havens (as opposed to the conventional, but inappropriate ones). We have been writing about such investments for at least the past five years, so for regular readers they shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
Our great economists and commentators advocate more of the same failed and discredited policy. QE not working to inspire growth? (Strange that printing more money simply devalues everyone’s existing pile and destroys, rather than creates, wealth.) If it doesn’t work, well, the beatings will continue until morale improves. And we have reached an eerie impasse. A synchronised global economic slowdown points to more monetary madness ahead. Markets are temporarily at ease but will not be fooled forever. During this temporary period of calm, only Imelda Marcos during an earthquake can have waited for more shoes to drop.
“Central theme of existentialism: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” Gordon W. Allport
“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”
“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” Nietzsche
“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”
“…there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest courage, the courage to suffer.”
Quoting a poet, “’what you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.’ Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered.”
“[a] commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”
For anything besides neurosis people used to see their religious leaders, now they see another form of professional for lots of other reasons.
**An ape doesn’t get the meaning of why its being poked and tested. Maybe we don’t understand why we are going through uncomfortable things, but on a higher level there is meaning, just like the ape is being tested for things like medical research to cure human illness.
Frankl found that with phobia’s there was a cyclical aspect. Someone who had the fear of sweating would worry about sweating and thus sweat even more. He challenged them to tell people how much he could sweat and the sweating actually subsided, reversing his attitude decreased his anxiety. He referred to this as paradoxical intention…the fear of something often brings about that which is feared.
“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.”
I appreciated the story of a depressed Dr. because he was suffering the loss of his wife. Frankl helped him change his attitude an d find meaning in his suffering by asking what would his wife be feeling if he had died first. By realizing that she would be suffering and that now there was a PURPOSE to his suffering (to spare her) he felt better.
“[Edith Weisskopf-Joelson…expressed the hope that logotherapy] ‘may help counteract certin unhealthy trends in the present-day culture of the United States, where the incurable sufferer is given very little opportunity to be proud of his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading [so that] he is not only unhappy, but also ashamed of being unhappy.’”
Logotherapy’s tragic triad includes, pain, guilt and death. Human potential or having optimism during tragedy can be viewed as, “(1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.”
I liked the insight of the concentration camp prisoners who noticed that when a man would not get out of bed in the morning and took out his last cigarette to smoke he had given up. “Meaning orientation had subsided, and consequently the seeking of immediate pleasure had taken over.” Teenagers may experience something similar, not seeing meaning in their future and so turning to the immediate pleasures of drugs and alcohol.
**“…mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension of between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one ought to become… we should not, then, be hesitant about challenging a man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together. So if therapists wish to foster their patients’ mental health, they should not be afraid to create a sound amount of tension through a reorientation toward the meaning of one’s life.”
The unhappiness of unemployment may be understood because, “being jobless was equated with being useless, and being useless was equated with having a meaningless life.” Frankl found though that by giving these individuals even something like volunteering, their depression subsided.
On the meaning of life, “[a movie] consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn’t it the same with life? Doesn’t the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its end.”
“As logotherapy teaches, there are three main avenues on which on arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or by doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in word but also in love…the third avenue…even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise about himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”