April 10, 2006


Viktor Frankl at Ninety: An Interview (Matthew Scully, April 1995, First Things)

Frankel wrote Man's Search for Meaning in 1946, the year before The Diary of Anne Frank came out and three years before Orwell's 1984. Still entitled From Concentration Camp to Existentialism in German editions, it is as deeply somber a book as any to come from the era. It is a strangely hopeful book, still a staple on the self-help shelves, but inescapably a book about death.

Yet in Frankl's own case, fate took a different course. After the loss of his wife in the Holocaust he remarried, wrote another twenty-five books, founded a school of psychotherapy, built an institute bearing his name in Vienna, lectured around the world, and has lived to see Man's Search for Meaning reprinted in twenty-three languages and at least nine million copies.

Finding him at the University of Vienna, I realized, however, that the wistful retrospective I had in mind-Aging Lion Looks at Our Troubled World-would be not only trite but false. Dr. Frankl looks quite healthy. An assistant asked that students not take pictures because the flash hurts his failing eyes. But otherwise, approaching ninety, he sat in easy command-joking, pounding the table for emphasis, telling stories about Freud (whom he met in 1923 and worked with thereafter). Now and then he would dart to the blackboard to illustrate his idea of "dimensional ontology" or the "tragic triage" of life.

One story reflected Frankl's conviction that many psychotherapists are themselves mad. It was in the forties, he recalled, here in Vienna. He read a quotation from a noted modern philosopher and another from a schizophrenic patient, and asked his listeners to match quotation with author. Overwhelmingly, he said triumphantly (as though the results of the experiment had just come in), "the majority of listeners got it wrong!"

What philosopher and lunatic had in common, Frankl went on to explain, is the certainty that happiness can be attained by furious pursuit and a consequent rage at the unsatisfying results. His useful word for this is "hyperintention," a tendency that only inflames what is usually the real problem, our own self-centeredness. "Everything can be taken away from man but one thing-to choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." The sane are those who accept this charge and do not expect happiness by right. Thus Frankl's own "logotherapy," which views suffering not as an obstacle to happiness but often the necessary means to it, less a pathology than a path.

Logotherapy amounts in nearly all situations to the advice, "Get to work." Other psychologies begin by asking, "What do I want from life? Why am I unhappy?" Logotherapy asks, "What does life at this moment demand of me?" Happiness, runs a favored Frankl formulation, "ensues." "Happiness must happen." Life should find us out there in the world doing good things for their own sake. Even "if we strive for a good conscience, we are no longer justified in having it. The very fact has made us into Pharisees. And if we make health our main concern we have fallen ill. We have become hypochondriacs."

At the end of the day the difference between conservatism 9the Anglo-American model) and liberalism (the French model) might be summed up by reference to his insight: the former guarantees a regime of republican liberty within which to pursue happiness, while the latter demands that the regime supply happiness. Of course, the impossibility of satisfying that demand is what has rendered the Left increasingly psychotic as their experiment has been run and failed repeatedly since the French Revolution.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 10, 2006 9:40 AM

In my never-ending battle to bring such wisdom to my "Savaged" audience of angry conservatives (I replaced Savage on my station)...

I once again thank you for doing my show-prep for me.

Posted by: Bruno at April 10, 2006 10:21 AM


I remained puzzled on the decision to bring in Savage to the greater Chicago market (WIND 560) to replace Hugh Hewitt, who is/was my favorite talk radio host behind Michael Medved.

Where are you on the dial and do you reach downtown?

Posted by: Rick T. at April 10, 2006 10:48 AM


I won't reach downtown until I'm syndicated or WKRS starts streaming (or until WIND or WLS hires me).

I'm pursuing all fronts.

Re: Savage, there is nothing puzzling. The numbers say it all.

We tend to think alike, though I like Savage more than Hewitt, Medved is my favorite. Frankly NEITHER of them give liberal caller enough rope to hang themselves.

I do. (when I get one)

Posted by: Bruno at April 10, 2006 11:56 AM

Frankl's book is indispensable. I doubt that any of the media outlets put it on their list of the top 100 books of the 20th century, but it definitely belongs there. It had a great influence on the formation of my personal philosophy, which if I had to name it would be "existential stoicism".

Frankl's main point is that it is not happiness that all men need, but meaning. And like happiness, meaning cannot be given to someone, it must be found by the individual. The only way to survive suffering is to find meaning in it.

He also made the point that there is no meaning in suffering if the suffering is avoidable. Someone who puts up with avoidable suffering is a masochist. It is in dealing with unavoidable suffering that we are able to discover the meaning of our lives.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 10, 2006 12:26 PM

And like all decent existentialists -- Camus, for instance -- the meaning that he thinks everyone will find just happens to coincide completely with Judeo-Christianity. Odd that...

Posted by: oj at April 10, 2006 12:55 PM

The meaning that I find has nothing to do with the Trinity, or the need for human sacrifice on a cross, or passing a theology quiz to get into Heaven. Meaning comes from within, not from on high.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 10, 2006 1:16 PM


No, it comes from without and you accept it though you can't derive it. No shame in that. It makes you a good Christian by proxy.

Posted by: oj at April 10, 2006 1:21 PM

Robert - You have embraced Christ, you just haven't recognized it -- in the same way the people in Matthew 25 didn't recognize it. Since God is Love, as soon as you embrace love you have embraced Christ.

Posted by: pj at April 10, 2006 1:32 PM

Well, if you read Frankl's book you won't find him appealing to God or revelation to derive meaning. I don't know how religious he is personally, but very little of his philosophy for finding meaning involves religion. To Frankl finding meaning is a very individual, practical problem that each of us has to solve. If religion "works" for the individual, then it is good.

But Frankl warns that what works during normal life may not work when suffering becomes overwhelming, as it was for the people he lived with in the concentration camp. A religious meaning system can fail a person under such circumstances.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 10, 2006 1:32 PM

Yes, Frankl doesn't care how you (or he, for that matter) arrive at the same universal end. Existentialism always requires that bit of silliness.

Posted by: oj at April 10, 2006 1:36 PM

Robert Duquette:

I know a Jewish fellow who lived through Auschwitz. I'm not sure if he's an out-and-out nonbeliever, but he's an areligious man because he noticed that the religious folks were usually the first ones to be gassed. I don't attach too much theological meaning to that but, in his case, it illustrates how intense suffering can alter one's worldview.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 10, 2006 7:38 PM