Book review by Peter Byrne, Region 5
The question of how we best process the challenges of life is nothing new to philosophers and intellectuals. From the times of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, philosophers have attempted to make sense of the seemingly arbitrary nature of misfortune and tribulation, and the self-awareness of our own mortality.
These philosophers ultimately even created their own ‘school’ or branch of philosophy, known as ‘stoicism’. Stoicism teaches that we have little control over the adversities which life presents us, but only control over how we choose to react to those adversities.
This stoic philosophy is further elaborated on in Victor Frankl’s excellent book; ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, which was first published in 1946. The author, Victor Frankl, was an Austrian jew who was sent to various concentration camps, including the notorious Auschwitz, and Dachau, during the second World War.
Frankl was a psychologist, which gave him a unique perspective and analytical understanding of the nature of the hardships and suffering which he, and other prisoners, were forced to endure. After the war, having survived the camps, he published this, his most prolific book. The book is divided up into two parts, the first part of which begins with his account of existence in the concentration camp, and touches on the insights he gained under this inhumane and extreme environment.
The second part of the book, expands on these insights, which he developed as a form of psychotherapy, known as ‘logotheraphy’. Frankl argues in the book that the best way to approach life, including the bad things such as human suffering, is to find or ascribe a subjective meaning to it.
He quotes Nietzsche, who stated that “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How”. Frankl posits that man is not a creature that is driven primarily in a quest for pleasure or power, but rather for meaning. Extrapolating on this hypothesis, and drawing on his personal experiences, Frankl discusses how the circumstances of life can strip away all things from a person, apart from their freedom to choose how they respond to these external occurrences.
To choose one’s own attitude in the direst of circumstances and in doing so, to an extent, to choose one’s own way. The inner courage and hope maintained in the face of the grim reality of the concentration camps could become the meaning of the life of that person at that particular time. Frankl describes that those prisoners who had hope and some meaning ascribed to their situation, fared better and survived longer than those who gave up all hope and meaning to their being.
Apart from the meaning which one can ascribe to their suffering, Frankl also suggests that there are two other great sources of finding meaning in life. The first is finding meaning through work, and the second is through love. Frankl expands on the strength of finding meaning from these sources, and again uses the backdrop of the concentration camps to validate his assertions.
The personal example he gives in relation to work, was that his development of his philosophy and method of psychotherapy, and the hopes that he would someday have them published and shared with the world gave him a subjective personal meaning and a reason to continue. The love for his wife, and the hope that they could be together again, was also discussed by Frankl as a source of meaning for him, unfortunately and unknown to Frankl, however, his wife was to die at another camp.
Another interesting aspect of the book, is when Frankl states that all times or ages have a collective neurosis, and that the current collective neurosis is nihilism. Post-modern nihilism is a belief that nothing we do ultimately has any meaning, and I find this book and it’s optimistic stoicism to be an effective counter-argument to this way of thinking. As such, I would say that the reader stands to gain a good coping mechanism, or at least a stronger way of approaching the challenges and suffering which is a part of all of our lives, and which as police officers we often come into contact with, and can be influenced by.
Overall, the book is very well written, and insightful. It is easy to read, and contains a lot of wisdom and a practical philosophy which can be a help to those struggling with difficult times, or who are seeking more meaning in life. The quality of the book, and it’s insights is such that before it was finished, I was already planning to read it again, and I would have no hesitation in recommending it to colleagues in the IPA.