Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book Review: Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl


Questions about life’s meaning and suffering which were formerly handled by priests or rabbis are now increasingly confronted by psychiatrists and doctors. In his bestseller Man's Search for Meaning, Dr Victor Frankl highlighted the distinctive of logotherapy, also known as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy”, as the idea that “the striving to find a meaning in one's life is the primary motivational force in man”. Therefore, for logotheraphy, the focus is on the will to meaning in contrast to the will to pleasure of Freudian psychoanalysis and the will to power stressed by Adlerian psychology. While Freud and Adler tried to discover primal drives latent in the past, Frankl focuses rather on the meanings one is called to fulfill in the future. In his moving autobiographical account of experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, he observed how prisoners who lost hope in the future would be subject to mental and physical decay.

According to Frankl, man’s search for meaning is not a derived projection from more basic instinctual drives or sublimations. Otherwise it would lose its ability to challenge or summon him to live or even die for these values. Unlike Sartre’s axiom that existence precedes essence, Frankl’s existentialism asserts that the meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves but rather we discover it as ‘something confronting existence’. Those who lack a meaning worth living for and find an inner void within their hearts experience ‘existential vacuum’. This is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century due to the loss of traditional values and rampant industrialization, manifesting itself in boredom, addiction, the will to money, apathy or unbridled sexual libido.

As a Christian, I applaud Frankl’s critique of the determinism prevailing in much of psychoanalysis that reduced man to nothing but a victim of hereditary or environmental conditions. We share the hope that a ‘rehumanized psychiatry’ would replace the tendency to treat human minds as machines and focus on mere techniques. Indeed, Frankl’s view of man is biblical in the sense that man has both the potentials of behaving like a swine or a saint. Man’s dignity lies in him being created in the image of God and yet marred by the depravity of sin. However, Frankl has an overly optimistic view of human freedom in which even the most evil persons are ultimately self-determining. Through restricted by conditions, they are free to change their own destiny. In the Christian perspective, fallen man is in need of divine rescue and inner liberation before such a change is possible. As long as his basic orientation is self-centered, the outward change merely vacillates between hedonism and legalism. ‘Existential vacuum’ (and its symptoms) express in modern terms Augustine’s ancient prayer that our hearts are restless until they find fulfillment or satisfaction in God.

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