Every fall semester at St. John’s University, I have the students in my Honors Introduction to Philosophy class read, write about and discuss Viktor E. Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” (A Clarion Book Published by Simon and Schuster, 1959, Revised Edition, 1962, pp. 146).
If there is anyone reading this column who has not read Frankl’s book, I strongly encourage them to read it. When I discuss the book with my students, I marvel at Frankl’s insights. I learn with the students.
One reason that I make the book required reading is that I am trying to help the students become more aware how much they control what is going on in their lives at the present moment, and also how much and to what extent they have some control over their future.
Another reason is that I want the students to think seriously about the mystery of love, and to profit from Frankl’s insights into the mystery. The course leads up to a consideration of the mystery of love and I want them to seriously reflect on whether they agree or disagree with Frankl’s reflections on the mystery of love.
The first part of “Man’s Search for Meaning” is about Frankl’s experiences in a concentration camp during the Second World War. I know that there are several books about experiences in concentration camps. For people who are willing to think about what it means to be human, and for those who are ready to think seriously about what philosophy can tell us about ourselves, the book can be both illuminating and inspiring. I think that Frankl presents some profound truths about the mystery of being human, truths that can even deepen a person’s religious faith.
While in the camp, Frankl noticed that the prisoners who died had given up all hope, that they had no meaning in their lives that might help them stay alive. He found that those who survived had some meaning, some hope for the future and this enabled them to survive in spite of terrible suffering.
On this, Frankl writes the following:
“… any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psycho-hygienic efforts regarding prisoners….
“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 man, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us… Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and so fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” (pp. 76-77)
There are problems in everyone’s life, including those who are in their first year of college. I hope that when the students in my class see the problems and obstacles that Frankl and others experienced in a concentration camp, they will be motivated to be responsible and motivated to deal maturely with their own problems and projects.
Frankl writes the following about love:
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By the spiritual act of love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential to him; which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.” (pp. 113-114)
Though what can happen between the lover and the beloved is quite mysterious, I think that what Frankl has written is profoundly true. If I wish to know someone as deeply as possible, I must love that person. There is no other way to know someone as deeply as possible.
I think that loving liberates the lover to see what those who do not love do not see. Not only do those who are loved benefit from the gift of love, but also the person who makes the gift of love – the lover, benefits. Through loving, the lover fulfills his or her vocation, which is to be gift-giver. This is the basic vocation of every person.