Book reviews

Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press, 2014; originally published 1946)

Frankl’s book counters today’s Nazi-like forces which promote abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

Decades ago, as a young activist in the pro-life movement, I remember reading that great respect is given to Frankl for his life-affirming ideas.  Now, I understand not only why he is so respected by the international pro-life community, but also how his ideas can combat the greatest threats to human life coming from the Democratic Party: abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and other medical killing.

Fortunately, Frankl’s book, written fresh after the ending of World War II, still teaches valuable lessons for civil rights/human rights/pro-life activists (same thing) in 2020.  What, exactly, can this book teach people who have not lived in concentration camps and have no idea what it was like to have their humanity stripped from them by Nazi racists, as the Jews were in Nazi Germany?

Specifically, while the book contains many general interest comments and profound philosophical statements, Frankl’s antidotes to the life-denying ideas of the Nazis (or today’s Democrats) are easy to summarize.

“The consciousness of one’s inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things” (59).  This is an important statement, especially for Americans who think that the meaning in one’s life is based on one’s usefulness, income, or work that can be performed instead of one’s inherent value as a human being.

What Frankl has to say about suffering is foundational to understand his opposition to suicide (and our contemporary euphemism “assisted suicide”), euthanasia, and other forms of medical killing:

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task: his single and unique task.  He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe.  No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place.  His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”  (73)

Americans can easily reconcile this statement about suffering with their individualism and, thus, not fear suffering, which is why some turn to assisted suicide, euthanasia or other forms of medical killing.

What’s a good antidote to suicide?  Frankl claims:

“This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love.  When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.  A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.”  (75)

The uniqueness of every human life is reiterated later in the work:

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.  Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.  Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”  (102)

The above are predicates for Frankl’s more life-affirming statements:

“An incurably psychotic individual may lose his usefulness but yet retain the dignity of a human being.  This is my psychiatric credo.  Without it I should not think it worthwhile to be a psychiatrist.  For whose sake?  Just for the sake of a damaged brain machine which cannot be repaired?  If the patient were not definitely more, euthanasia would be justified.”  (124)

Since human beings are more than “brain machines”, euthanasia is never justified.

Lastly, for this section of my review, a quote from the 1984 Postscript encapsulates Frankl’s opposition to euthanasia from the perspective of one who suffered in the Nazi concentration camps.  Speaking about the difference between having inherent value as a human being and being useful, Frankl writes:

“If one is not cognizant of this difference and holds that an individual’s value stems only from his present usefulness, then, believe me, one owes it only to personal inconsistency not to plead for euthanasia along the lines of Hitler’s program, that is to say, ‘mercy’ killing of all those who have lost their social usefulness, be it because of old age, incurable illness, mental deterioration, or whatever handicap they may suffer.”  (143)

Christian religious readers (especially Byzantine and Catholic Christians, perhaps more orthodox Protestant Christians also) may object to Frankl’s apparent subjectivity about the “meaning” of life.  He writes that “the meaning of life [differs] from man to man, and from moment to moment.  Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.  Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements” (72, an idea repeated on 101).  However, Frankl seems to redeem himself when he asserts in the 1984 Postscript that “I will not be elaborating here on the meaning of one’s life as a whole, although I do not deny that such a long-range meaning does exist” (135).

A glaring omission in the material is that the book says nothing about the historical fact of how Frankl and his first wife were forced by the Nazi regime to abort their unborn child.  That he says nothing about the death of this child speaks volumes, perhaps indicating that the sorrow over the loss of that child was more unspeakable than his life in concentration camps.  Imagine, then, how difficult it must be for today’s aborted mothers who suffer post-abortion syndrome (PAS) for their “legal, safe” abortions.

A final quote, this from one of the letters appended to main work, is important and can be prophetic for contemporary American readers, who suffer under a government which legalized abortion, the holocaust which kills unborn babies throughout the nine months of  pregnancy for any reason whatsoever and who have been exposed to the ideas of killing the handicapped newborn and the elderly or medically vulnerable: “every nation is in principle capable of a Holocaust!” (180).

Not only reading, but also implementing Frankl’s life-affirming ideas in our lives would do much to stop the nation’s acceptance of practices associated more with Nazi killers than Americans who believe in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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