Viktor Frankl’s Exploration Of The Purpose Of Life

Gerald Lombardo
Sep 29, 2018 · 5 min read
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Viktor Frankl (Image Is From Unsplash)

The truth, wrote Viktor Frankl, is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? More people today than ever before have the means to live but no meaning to live for.

Frankl himself knew quite a lot about struggling to survive. During WWII he was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp — an experience which later became fodder for his masterwork “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

Frankl realized that although more and more Westerners were living in greater and greater material comfort, all too many of them were affected by a detrimental psychological state which he called the “existential vacuum.”

The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the 20th century. This is understandable; it may be due to a twofold loss which man has had to undergo since he became a truly human being. At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behavior is imbedded and by which it is secured. . .In addition to this, however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).

The mass of people living lives without meaning led to the rise of what Frankl called the mass neurotic triad — a term he coined to describe the three most common symptoms associated with lives lived in the existential vacuum, namely depression, aggression, and addiction.

To help counter the dire effects associated with living a life without meaning Frankl founded a school of psychiatry called Logotherapy which is unique in that it considers man as a being whose main concern consists of fulfilling a meaning and in actualizing values, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts.

A key tenet of Logotherapy is that the pursuit of meaning is the primary motivational factor in humans. This can be contrasted with other schools of psychiatry which maintain that the pursuit of pleasure (Freud) or the will to power (Adler and Nietzsche) are the primary factors.

According to Frankl, it is when individuals fail to find meaning in their lives that they turn to the dogged search for pleasure or the blind pursuit of power for they, falsely, believe that doing so will fill the void that an absence of meaning has left in them.

For those who decide to pursue a more meaningful existence, Frankl emphasized that doing so did not mean searching for the ultimate meaning of life, as he put it:

This ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man…What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms

While the ultimate meaning of life is unknowable, Frankl held that each person had the opportunity to realize meaning in their life at a personal level, and so doing would greatly improve the quality of their life.

It should be noted that Frankl did not believe that individuals created such meaning, rather he believed that it was discovered and was present in every living moment whether one was aware of it or not, as he put it:

I am convinced that in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning.

In order to discover and realize these personal seeds of meaning, Frankl suggested that for most people a change of attitude is required:

We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who [are] being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Frankl stressed that as unique individuals, meaning will present itself in different ways to each person. Each of us faces different situations in our lives, some of which are more, and some of which are less, under our control and influence. Frankl’s belief was that no matter what fate brought, if one took appropriate action and adopted the right attitude to the situation, a meaningful life could be realized. In a passage in Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl nicely distinguished how actualizing personal meaning differs from the search for abstract answers to life’s meaning:

To put the question [of the meaning of life] in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.

As Frankl notes often the best way to live a life rich with meaning is to find one’s unique vocation. Nothing contributes more to the feeling of a meaningless existence than boredom, and nothing counters feelings of boredom better than having a specific mission to carry out in one’s life. In this respect, Frankl was fond of quoting Nietzsche’s famous passage that “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Finding one’s ‘why’ was, according to Frankl, the best way to live a meaningful and therefore fulfilling life.

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