Victor Frankl’s classic work Man’s Search For Meaning is a rich source of psychological insight. Written based on first-hand observations of the lives of fellow inmates in Nazi concentration camps, the work succeeds in capturing key universal truths. The foremost of the book’s concerns is that of ‘meaning’ pertaining to human life. It talks about how humans miraculously manage to find meaning even in the most despairing, demeaning and de-humanizing of circumstances.
One of the insights into human personality traits offered by Frankl is the classification of humans into ‘decent’ and ‘indecent’ types. This dichotomy is not strictly applicable to camp inmates versus Nazi officers divide, for there were ‘decent officers’ and ‘indecent fellow inmates’ as well. Frankl reckons that this classification is at the core of human psychological makeup. He recounts how there were exemplar inmates who managed to keep their integrity intact even in the most testing of situations. The same applies to some Nazi officers who tried to dispense their duty as humanely as possible while still obeying orders from the High Command. One of the major goals of Frankl’s thought is
“to highlight the relationship between psychotherapy and philosophy. He reminds us that all psychotherapies, wittingly or unwittingly, are based on a theory of humanness, a philosophy of life. The question, states Frankl, is whether or not our “humanness” is preserved in the given philosophy and theory. This is where Frankl demonstrates his concern over the implications of the “nothing-butness” theory. This is where–as a psychiatrist and as a humanist–he takes a hard look and sees that in most current approaches the human quality is disregarded or neglected: our freedom of will is denied!” (Lowen, 2000, p. 55)
It is interesting to speculate how Frankl’s theories and personal experiences would have changed had his circumstances been a little different. Firstly, it is relevant to ask how Frankl would have acted if he was cognizant of his wife’s death. This relevance of this question comes from the fact that during the most depressing and desperate moments in his life in concentration camps, it was the image of his wife he brought to mind to rejuvenate his will to live. In the book, Frankl poetically recalls how, in the mind space of his reminiscence, he was able to picture his wife as the epitome of beauty, tenderness and love. Here, his wife appeared several times more luminous than that of the rising sun. In moments such as this he was able to understand for the first time what the poets have been in adoration for centuries past – namely the centrality of love in an individual’s life.
An interesting notion brought up by Frankl’s analysis of human psyche under severe distress is ‘will to meaning’. What this concept means is our obligation toward ourselves to find meaning to our suffering even when prospects for a future look bleak and hopeless. Frankl seems to suggest that adverse external circumstances should not have a significant bearing on the spirit of striving to live. Irrational as it might outwardly seem, Frankl says that suffering creates its own meaning and experience which will strengthen an individual’s hold onto his spiritual self. Hence, the concept of ‘will to meaning’ counsels us on how it is spiritual progress that is the ultimate meaning of life. Such being the case, harsh physical conditions can actually aide in this progress. Further, Frankl hypothesized that not only a repressed will to pleasure or power can lead to sickness, but