This essay, on Viktor Frankl’s existentialism,, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on deserving and undeserving migrants.) It was published on 24 May 2020, under the headline ‘What the lessons from Auschwitz teach us about the choices we make’.
‘To speak about the meaning and value of life may seem more necessary today than ever.’ It’s a quote that might have been plucked from any number of op-eds over the past couple of months. It’s in fact the opening sentence of a 1946 lecture by psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.
The previous year, Frankl had still been incarcerated in Auschwitz. Now he was giving a series of talks in Vienna about what his experience of Nazi death camps had taught him about the human condition. Those lectures have just been published in English for the first time as Yes to Life in Spite of Everything. Frankl’s is a voice that seems as necessary now as it was in the shadow of the Holocaust.
Shortly after the lectures, Frankl published the book for which he has become celebrated – Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, he argues that in order to survive the concentration camps one had to be able – even in the most degrading of circumstances – to find meaning in life. ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,’ Frankl wrote, ‘the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’
Frankl’s stress on the importance of one’s attitude, whatever the circumstances, has turned him into a guru of positivity and self-help. At the heart of his philosophy, however, was not mindless optimism but responsibility. ‘Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is,’ Frankl wrote, ‘but rather must recognise that it is he who is asked.’
Frankl was born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1905. It was a city of intellectual and political ferment, graced by such towering figures as Freud and Wittgenstein, Popper and Schoenberg, Carnap and Klimt.
The city was also deeply polarised, a seedbed for fascism and communism. In 1934, the far right seized control of Austria, shutting down parliament and banning the social democrats, of whom Frankl was one. Four years later came Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria. In 1942, Frankl’s entire family was transported to concentration camps. His parents, wife and brother all perished in the Holocaust.
Frankl’s philosophy was shaped by what came to be called ‘existentialism’. For existentialists, humans do not possess an unchanging essence from which our capacities, personalities and values derive. Rather, humans create themselves, and their nature, by acting upon the world. Humans, the French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, are ‘condemned to be free’; condemned because we have no choice but to make choices.
Frankl’s experience of the death camps reinforced his existentialist views. It was here, he insisted, when almost everything worthwhile had been torn from people, and everything done to dehumanise them, that it was most important to find value and meaning in life. Those who survived were the ones best able to do so.
The significance of Frankl’s work lies not in his positivity or optimism but in his insistence that it is humans, and humans alone, who imbue the world with meaning. There is no external authority to whom we can turn to help us decide notions of right and wrong, good and bad. We can rely only on ourselves.
Yet, if existentialism’s strength lies in its insistence on the importance of freedom and responsibility – and on the necessity of making choices – its weakness stems from its difficulties in relating individual agency to our existence as social beings. We all live as part of communities and societies. It is through the social bonds we make with others that our individuality emerges.
Meaning, too, is social as much as it is individual; the very ideas of ‘freedom’, ‘responsibility’ or ‘the individual’ make sense only in specific social contexts. Existential arguments often seem as if individual choice and responsibility have been unstitched from the rest of the architecture of our lives. It leaves them open to be purloined by both libertarian ideas of the market and psychologies that obsesses with the self.
Difficulties in understanding the relationship between the individual and the social is an issue not just for existentialists. It is one of the key problems facing western societies today. Whether immigration or free speech, the pressing questions of recent years have been fundamentally about how individual rights and social needs can be reconciled. So, too, have many of the controversies over coronavirus policy, from the debate over lockdown to the question of when schools should reopen. It’s a good time to engage with both the strengths and weaknesses of Frankl’s existentialism and to rescue it from those who can see the individual but not the social.
The image is Leo Haas’s lithograph of prisoners in a concentration camp waiting for roll call (via the US Holocaust Memorial Museum).