In Dark Times, We Must Say Yes to Life
An excerpt from a lecture Viktor Frankl gave 11 months after liberation from a concentration camp
In 1945, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp. The next year, he would publish one of the most influential texts of all time, Man’s Search for Meaning, about purpose and suffering. Now, in the midst of another period of global suffering, a book Frankl wrote based on public lectures he gave in Vienna in 1946 is being published in English for the first time in a companion volume, Yes to Life. What follows is an excerpt from a lecture Frankl gave just 11 months after his release from Dachau. Frankl died in 1997 at the age of 92.
To speak about the meaning and value of life may seem more necessary today (1946) than ever; the question is only whether and how this is “possible.” In some respects it is easier today: We can now speak freely again about so many things — things that are inherently connected with the problem of the meaningfulness of human existence and its value, and with human dignity. However, in other respects, it has become more difficult to speak of meaning, value, and dignity. We must ask ourselves: Can we still use these words so easily today? Has not the very meaning of these words become somehow questionable? Have we not seen, in recent years, too much negative propaganda railing against everything they mean, or once meant?
The propaganda of these last years was a propaganda against all possible meaning and against the questionable value of existence itself! In fact, these years have sought to demonstrate the worthlessness of human life.
Since Kant, European thought has succeeded in making clear statements about the true dignity of human beings: Kant himself, in the second formulation of his categorical imperative, said that everything has its value, but man has his dignity — a human being should never become a means to an end. But already in the economic system of the last few decades, most working people had been turned into mere means, degraded to become mere tools for economic life. It was no longer work that was the means to an end, a means for life, or indeed a food for life — rather it was a man and his life, his vital energy, his “man power,” that became this means to an end.
And then came the war — the war in which the man and his life were now even made a means for death. And then there were the concentration camps. In the camps, even the life that was considered worthy only of death was fully exploited to its absolute limit. What a devaluation of life, what a debasement and degradation of humankind! Let us try to imagine — so that we can make a judgment — that a state intends somehow to make use of all the people it has condemned to death, to exploit their capacity for labor right up to the very last moment of their lives — perhaps considering that this would be more sensible than simply killing such people immediately, or even feeding them for the rest of their lives. And were we not told often enough in the concentration camps that we were “not worth the soup,” this soup that was doled out to us as the sole meal of the day, and the price of which we had to pay with the toil of digging through the earth? We unworthy wretches even had to accept this undeserved gift of grace in the required manner: As the soup was handed to him, each prisoner had to doff his cap. So, just as our lives were not worth a bowl of soup, our deaths were also of minimal value, not even worth a lead bullet, just some Zyklon B.
Finally, it came to the mass murders in mental institutions. Here, it became obvious that any person whose life was no longer “productive,” even if only in the most wretched manner, was literally declared to be “unworthy of life.”
But, as we said earlier, even “Non-Sense” was propagated at that time. What do we mean by this?
Today, our attitude to life hardly has any room for belief in meaning. We are living in a typical postwar period. Although I am using a somewhat journalistic phrase here, the state of mind and the spiritual condition of an average person today is most accurately described as “spiritually bombed out.” This alone would be bad enough, but it is made even worse by the fact that we are overwhelmingly dominated, at the same time, by the feeling that we are yet again living in a kind of prewar period. The invention of the atomic bomb is feeding the fear of a catastrophe on a global scale, and a kind of apocalyptic, “end of the world” mood has taken hold of the last part of the second millennium. We already know such apocalyptic moods from history. They existed at the beginning of the first millennium and at its end. And, famously, in the last century there was a fin de siècle feeling, and this was not the only one that was defeatist; at the root of all these moods lies fatalism.
However, we cannot move toward any spiritual reconstruction with a sense of fatalism such as this. We first have to overcome it. But in doing so, we ought to take into account that today we cannot, with blithe optimism, just consign to history everything these last years have brought with them. We have become pessimistic. We no longer believe in progress in itself, in the higher evolution of humanity as something that could succeed automatically. The blind belief in automatic progress has become a concern only affecting the self-satisfied stuffed shirts — today such a belief would be reactionary. Today we know what human beings are capable of. And if there is a fundamental difference between the way people perceived the world around them in the past and the way they perceive it at present, then it is perhaps best identified as follows: In the past, activism was coupled with optimism, while today activism requires pessimism. Because today every impulse for action is generated by the knowledge that there is no form of progress on which we can trustingly rely. If today we cannot sit idly by, it is precisely because each and every one of us determines what and how far something “progresses.” In this, we are aware that inner progress is only actually possible for each individual, while mass progress at most consists of technical progress, which only impresses us because we live in a technical age. Our actions can now only arise from our pessimism; we are still only able to seize the opportunities in life from a standpoint of skepticism, while the old optimism would just lull us into complacency and induce fatalism, albeit a rosy fatalism. Give me a sober activism anytime, rather than that rose-tinted fatalism!
How steadfast would a person’s belief in the meaningfulness of life have to be so as not to be shattered by such skepticism? How unconditionally do we have to believe in the meaning and value of human existence if this belief is able to take up and bear this skepticism and pessimism? And just at a time when all idealism has been so disappointed and all enthusiasm so abused, but when we cannot do other than appeal to idealism or enthusiasm. But the present generation, the youth of today — and it is in the younger generation that we would most likely find idealism and enthusiasm — no longer has any role models. Too many upheavals had to be witnessed by this one generation, too many external — and in their consequences, internal — breakdowns; far too many for a single generation for us to count on them so unquestioningly to maintain their idealism and enthusiasm.
The past few years have certainly disenchanted us, but they have also shown us that what is human is still valid.
All the programs, all the slogans and principles have been utterly discredited as a result of these last few years. Nothing was able to survive, so it should not be a surprise if contemporary philosophy perceives the world as though it has no substance. But through this nihilism, through the pessimism and skepticism, through the soberness of a “new objectivity” that is no longer that “new” but has grown old, we must strive toward a new humanity. The past few years have certainly disenchanted us, but they have also shown us that what is human is still valid; they have taught us that it is all a question of the individual human being. After all, in the end, what was left was the human being! Because it was the human being that survived amid all the filth of the recent past. And equally it was the human being that was left in the experiences of the concentration camps. (There was an example of this somewhere in Bavaria in which the camp commander, an SS man, secretly spent money from his own pocket to regularly buy medicines for “his” prisoners from the pharmacy in the nearby Bavarian market town, while in the same camp, the senior camp warden, so himself a prisoner, mistreated the camp inmates in the most appalling way: It all came down to the individual human being!)
What remained was the individual person, the human being — and nothing else. Everything had fallen away from him during those years: money, power, fame. Nothing was certain for him anymore: not life, not health, not happiness. All had been called into question for him: vanity, ambition, relationships. Everything was reduced to bare existence. Burnt through with pain, everything that was not essential was melted down — the human being reduced to what he was in the last analysis: either a member of the masses, therefore no one real, so really no one — the anonymous one, a nameless thing(!), that “he” had now become, just a prisoner number, or else he melted right down to his essential self. So, in the end, was there something like a decision that needed to be made? It does not surprise us, because “existence” — to the nakedness and rawness of which the human being was returned — is nothing other than a decision.
However, help was at hand for the human being in making this decision; the critical factor was the existence of others, the being of others, specifically their being role models. This was more fruitful than all that talk and all that writing. Because the fact of being is always more pivotal than the word. And it was necessary, and will always remain so, to ask oneself whether this fact is not far more important than writing books or giving lectures: that each of us actualizes the content in our own act of being. That which is actualized is also much more effective. Words alone are not enough. I was once called upon to attend a woman who had committed suicide. On the wall above her couch, neatly framed, a saying hung on the wall: “Even more powerful than fate is the courage that bears it steadfastly.” And this fellow human being had taken her own life right under this motto. Certainly, those exemplary people who can and ought to be effective simply by being are in the minority. Our pessimism knows this, but that is precisely why the concurrent activism matters, that is precisely what constitutes the tremendous responsibility of the few. An ancient myth tells us that the existence of the world is based on 36 truly just people being present in it at all times. Only 36! An infinitesimal minority. And yet they guarantee the continuing moral existence of the whole world. But this story continues: As soon as one of these just individuals is recognized as such and is, so to speak, unmasked by his surroundings, by his fellow human beings, he disappears, he is “withdrawn,” and then dies instantly. What is meant by that? We will not be far off the mark if we express it like this: As soon as we notice any pedagogical tendency in a role model, we become resentful; we human beings do not like to be lectured to like children.
What does all this prove? What has come through to us from the past? Two things: Everything depends on the individual human being, regardless of how small a number of like-minded people there is, and everything depends on each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being. Therefore, we must counter the negative propaganda of recent times, the propaganda of “Non-Sense,” of “Non-Meaning,” with another propaganda that must be, firstly, individual and, secondly, active. Only then can it be positive.
Excerpted from Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything by Viktor Frankl. Copyright 2020. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.