Man's Search for Meaning

War and Peace is haunting me. I have begun to see it everywhere I look. Tolstoy said that history – the phenomenon that is conjured between the poles of freedom and necessity – was entirely mysterious. It surpassed understanding, in fact, and as a result, meant that we couldn’t really be sure of the motives behind anything a man did.

Viktor E. Frankl was a Viennese Jew who was interred in a series of four concentration camps. He went on to become a highly influential psychiatrist, publishing over 30 books about theoretical and clinical psychology. He even founded his own school called Logotherapy, a system by which one seeks to ‘cure the soul by helping it to find meaning in life’. Frankl even goes so far as to brandish that old chestnut, Nietzche; ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any old how.’

Essentially, Frankl’s book focuses on what happens within that margin of decision- making that is at the nucleus of freedom. You can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you feel about it, and how you respond. Oddly, there is something about this in Greg David Robert’s Shantaram:

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make but the heart of it came to me in an instant, when I was chained to a wall being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility.”  


Frankl is a pretty remarkable guy. The concentration camp is the ultimate in awful, degrading experiences. It seems to have forced Frankl to regard his existence once infinitesimal event at a time, and decide how to feel about each thing. Each choice was an expression of freedom, and the power to choose one thing over another a reassertion of the will to live.

“And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.”


Frankl says that people died in Auschwitz because they gave up when they felt there was nothing to live for. He decided to look at things a little bit differently.

“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. We needed 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… life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

– p. 77

Man’s Search for Meaning is something, I believe, all high-school kids should read. Ennui is not the result of having too little; it comes from having too much and too little necessity pressing in upon you. Pierre discovers this for himself while living like a crazy person in Moscow after the French successfully invade.

“The absence of suffering, and the satisfaction of one’s needs, and the resulting freedom to choose one’s occupation, now seemed to Pierre the highest and most unquestionable human happiness. Here, only now, did Pierre truly appreciate for the first time the enjoyment of food when he wanted to eat, of drink when he wanted to drink, of sleep when he wanted to sleep, of warmth when he was cold, of talking to someone when he wanted to talk and to hear a human voice, The satisfaction of his needs – for good food, cleanliness, freedom – now he was deprived of them all, seemed perfect happiness to Pierre, and the choice of an occupation, that is, of a life, now, when that choice was so limited, seemed to him such an easy matter that he fogot that a superfluity of life’s comforts destroys all the happiness of the satisfaction of one’s needs…”

– p.1013  

Interestingly, when the book was published, Frankl talked about ennui as a specifically post-war affliction. In Europe, 25% of people suffered from it. In the US, it was about 60% (p.106).

I wonder what percentage suffer from it now? How many ‘afflictions’ can be traced back to it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: