The Light shineth in the darkness, but did Viktor Frankl comprehend it?

In his essay on his personal philosophy, published in 1940, Havelock Ellis maintains that “personal relationships are despised today.” His “today” is the imminent disaster of World War II. He writes:

One must be fond of people and trust them if one isn’t to make a mess of life, and therefore it is essential that they shouldn’t let one down. They often do. The moral of which is that I must be as reliable as possible, and this I try to be….[Reliability on a personal level] is a matter for the heart, which signs no documents. In other words, reliability is impossible unless there is natural warmth. Most men possess this warmth, though they have often had bad luck and get chilled. Most of them, even when they are politicians, want to keep faith. And one can, at all events, show one’s own little light here, one’s own poor little trembling flame, with the knowledge that it is not the only light that is shining in the darkness, and not the only one that the darkness doesn’t comprehend” (p. 95-96, in “I believe: The personal philosophies of twenty-three eminent men and women of our time.” Fifth Impression 1952; originally published in 1940).

Havelock Ellis believed in the essential goodness of man, in the good will of man, which, if not for the “bad luck” of darkness would have made the world a much more enlightened and warmer place. One must not give up. Enlightened individuals can, and must, in their small way shine their light before men, dim as it may be, even if the darkness comprehends it not, in the hope that, by some stroke of luck, we may light up a corner of that darkness.

Havelock Ellis and Viktor Frankl share the belief that man can choose, can will, to dispel the darkness. What i would like to examine is Viktor Frankl’s understanding of  “the light shines in the darkness.”

“Dr Freudine,” takes on the persona of Victor Frankl (Freud’s altered ego?). She is in a counselling session with one of her patients. Here is the last bit of the session:

Patient:

Why should I live only to suffer in this world?

Dr Freudine:
Think of it this way, my young friend;
I survived three years of starvation and torture.
All I did was suffer a lot and…for what?
I didn’t think it likely I would survive until liberation.
But, my friend, life was still worth living.
I had nothing left except for my human dignity,
But that was enough to give meaning to life.
Why shouldn’t suffering be part of our humanity?

Patient:

Oh, I’m sure you mean well, Doc.
But your suffering was caused by outside agents
While mine comes from inside and..is caused by what?
Something must be terribly wrong with me, right?
And, Doc, don’t just say it’s my imagination.
I’d like to live if I only knew how.
So, tell me, is there a grand meaning of life for me?
Or am I destined to keep being a screw-up?

Dr Freudine

Listen, my friend, I know you’re hurting,
But man’s search for meaning is never finished.
Your life will change as will its meaning, that’s what.
Life is full of potential roads you can choose to travel;
look to your future, not to your past.
Either create, experience or change something through suffering;
meaning will then find you instead, okay?
You’ve got a conscience that shall guide you through life.

Has Dr Freudine captured the essence of Frankl? Is there more – besides all the philosophy and psychology – to Frankl than inner strength? After reading his inspiring and heartrending account of suffering, courage and hope, I have come to the sad conclusion that although he saw the light shining in the darkness, he didn’t comprehend it. The “bottom line” for Dr Freudine is that “Frankl’s religion was important to him, but he quoted existentialists and psychiatrists, not scripture; for example, Nietzsche: “If you know the why of life, you can bear any how of life.” Dr Freudine is right and she is wrong. Frankl did quote Nietzsche but he did quote scripture as well; the very Bible verse that seemed to indicate that he had discovered the “why” of life, and, therefore, was able to bear any “how” of life. “Et lux in tenebris lucet”and the light shineth in the darkness.

The Bible verse is very Judaean, but not from the Hebrew Bible. It is one of the profoundest verses of all scripture from one of the profoundest chapters of the whole Bible (Older and Newer Testament). Actually, the verse that Frankl quotes is only half the verse. It’s the second half of the verse, and its absence, that is telling. Here is the relevant passage from “Man’s search for meaning in which the fragment in question appears:

“Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. Et lux in tenebris lucet”and the light shineth in the darkness (pp. 51-52; Frankl’s italics, my emphasis).

The dramatic and divine irony of it! Frankl is quoting the first chapter of John’s Gospel, which is the chapter of the “divine Logos.” John’s Gospel was originally written in Greek. The word logos appears many times in the first few verses. The Latin quote is from the Vulgate, and the English quote is from the King James Version. Here is the context of “and the light shineth in the darkness” :

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2The same was in the beginning with God.

3All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

As I wrote in God in Frankl’s Logotherapy and “Teffilin: the Seal as strong as Love and Death”, Frankl did bring religious ritual into his secular philosophy – reading the Psalms and putting on Tefillin (phylacteries); but he did this in the darkness; in the privacy of his own home. Perhaps, he really believed the Teffilin and the Psalms brought him closer to the God of the Torah. If so, he was, it seems to me, leading a double life – a duplicitous life – believing one thing, namely, that God is the Supreme Logos (Meaning, Mind, Word) – divine therapy – while making a living by pushing the Supreme Logos, not only to the side, but out of the window, and placing man’s “will to meaning”centre stage. Here is Frankl on the “will to meaning”:

“Let me explain why I have employed the term “logotherapy” as the name for my theory. Logos is a Greek word which denotes “meaning.” Logotherapy, or, as it has been called by some authors, “The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy,” focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centred as well as in contrast to the will to power on which Adlerian psychology, using the term “striving for superiority,” is focused” (Fankl’s italics).

Logotherapy also teaches that all things work for good; there is, however, no outside Force (personal or impersonal) that is pulling at one’s heartstrings. In logotherapy, we pull our own strings and pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. There is no meaning – ethical, epistemological or ontological, or religious meaning – outside man.

Bulka, in his “Logotherapy and Talmudic Judaism”argues that logotherapy straddles religion and medicine: “Any attempt (he says in his Abstract) to correlate logotherapy with some religious group or set of religious ideals is fraught with difficulty, mainly because of the dimensional gap that indicates that logotherapy, as a psychology, and religion work from incommensurate frameworks. Frankl’s rightful; insistence that logotherapy is a secular theory and practice only accentuates the problem. Nevertheless, because logotherapy straddles the border between medicine and religion, it has attracted the theological attention of many religious groups.”

“Logotherapy (says Bulka) begins with the basic notion that ‘the striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.’ This notion is complemented with the philosophical proposition pervading Frankl’s writings to the effect that life itself possesses unconditional meaningfulness in all situations” (Bulka, p. 277; he is quoting Frankl’s “Logotherapy in a Nutshell“ in Man’s search for meaning,” 1992, p. 104)

First to Bulka’s Abstract. He says that Frankl rightfully insisted that logotherapy is secular in theory and in practice, yet because logotherapy straddles medicine and religion, it appeals to religious groups. In spite of the fact (insisted upon by someone with the most authority to do so; Frankl, himself) that logotherapy has nothing to do with religion, and “rightly” so (Bulka’s word in his Abstract above), Bulka insists that logotherapy (which is Frankl’s logotherapy) has religious overtones. There’s more. Owing to Bulka’s “fact” that logotherapy strays into religion, religious groups have transplanted it into their systems, and are making hay of it – and out of it.

Religion, of course, involves man, but so do medicine, the human sciences (for example, psychology, sociology, anthropology) and the humanities (for example, history, philosophy, literature). What makes religion different to the human sciences and humanities is that religion involves the vertical dimension of “God.” In logotherapy you are responsible only to yourself and to others. In logotherapy, freedom is, like the air we breath, a given; given by nature, not God. But to make right use of it, we have to work at it, and when we do freedom becomes more than a “given”; it becomes a “taken”. We’re not, as in the Freudian system, a victim of drives, or a victim of circumstances.

The only “religion” that I observe in logotherapy is a modicum of religious imagery (for example, “the light shines in the darkness”) and religious terminology (for example, “saint”), and a reference to the Lord’s prayer (“Our Father who art in heaven) – all Christian references (perhaps the Catholicism of his second wife was an influence). Jews and Christians may object that I underestimate logotherapy and them; there is far more, they may argue, to logotherapy than Frankl’s rare forays into religious symbolism. “What makes logotherapy so interesting to us,” religious people may say, “is that it shares with religion notions such as the will to mean, selflessness, responsibility and the “courage to be” (the title of a book by Paul Tillich). These notions, I would counter, are what makes us human, not what makes us religious.

Frankl speaks of “spiritual life.” ThIn spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom . This has nothing to do with the supernatural. Here is how he uses the term:

“In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom” (p. 47 of “Man’s search for meaning” ).

The “spiritual life”, for Frankl, is the ability to retreat from the pain and feed off their inner riches. God has nothing to do with it.

For the religious Jew (not as common a breed as non-Jews think), the overarching precept is Kiddush Hashem קידוש השם, the sanctification of the Name. This is done by becoming holy as God is Holy. In the sense of Kiddush Hashem religion there is no religion in logotherapy. There might be some religion in neo-logotherapy, if such an aberration exists, but not in Frankl’s logotherapy. This is what I think attracts religious people to Frankl (logotherapy): “He’s deep; mainly because he’s suffered more than any of the religious people who read him. Beauty is truth and truth is beauty, rhapsodises Keats. What is truth? Suffering is truth. (I’m speaking as an imaginary religious admirer of Frankl). In Frankl, suffering is truth and truth is suffering. The more you suffer, the truer you are. Truth comes through suffering, through grief, through affliction, through sorrow (Yiddish tsores) Aren’t these major biblical themes? Therefore, when we think Frankl, we think tsores, much tsores, and when we  think much tsores, we think truth.

Christians make the link between the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of Frankl. Who, in Christian eyes, has the greatest claim to truth, the most right to say “I am the way and the truth and the life”? Christians will say, Jesus. Was it because He suffered more than any human being could suffer? No, that is not the main reason. The main reason is because it was Truth, itself, Himself, that suffered. What makes Jesus’s suffering so unique was not the degree of suffering, but the kind of suffering, that only the True Son of God could seal: “The seal of G-d is Truth.” – Rabbi Hanina, Babylonian Talmud.

Religion, of course, involves man, but so do medicine, the human sciences (for example, psychology, sociology, anthropology) and the humanities (for example, history, philosophy, literature). What makes religion different to the human sciences and humanities is that religion involves the vertical dimension of God. In logotherapy you are responsible only to yourself and to others. In logotherapy, freedom is, like the air we breath; a given. We’re not, as in the Freudian system, a victim of our drives, or, a victim of circumstances, as in a stimulus-response behaviourism (Thordike). We have the potential (freedom), as Frankl says, to become a swine or a saint. The use of religious terms such as “saint” in Frankl are deceiving. “Saint” is one of many religious terms and quotations that have been secularised into quips, as we do with Shakespeare, who, himself, drew on biblical language. Frankl’s use of “and the light shineth in the darkness” – profound as it may be to Frankl – is one example. I say this because, by quoting only half the verse, he has missed its point, and mutilated its tragic import.

Did Frankl deliberately omit the second part – the clincher – of John 1:5, “and the darkness did not comprehend it?” I doubt whether he knew it existed, for if he had known, it’s hardly likely that he would have used “and the light shines in the darkness” to describe his profound discovery of the meaning of life, the greatest discovery of his life as well as the most moving paragraph in “Man’s search for meaning”; that he comprehended the “why” of the darkness, and “how” to find the light. I repeat Frankl:

“In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. Et lux in tenebris lucet”and the light shineth in the darkness (pp. 51-52).

And Frankl comprehended it not.

In Psalm 22, darkness comes over the land. The crucified Messiah turns “the shining of His face away.”

“May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us” (Psalm 67:1).

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3 thoughts on “The Light shineth in the darkness, but did Viktor Frankl comprehend it?

  1. Pingback: Logotherapy, Torah Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism: God, man and God-man « OneDaringJew
  2. There is so much to comment on here that it deserves an entire essay, which I’m not going to write at the moment. I will only say this: Your remark: “In logotherapy you are responsible only to yourself and to others” is incorrect. In Unconscious God and The Doctor and the Soul Frankl speaks about the unconscious relation to God. Thus, not everyone is aware of this relationship but Frankl asserts its existence. You are responsible to God. I want to invite you to meet the religious Jews who are becoming logotherapists today and find out what caused a shift in their thinking, even though some started out thinking like yourself. Logotherapy is too precious as a practical and effective approach to healing that is needed in a the world today, to throw it out because of some nitpicking over its philosophy, that no other system is held to. Feel free to write me at batya.yaniger@gmail.com

    • Thank you Batya for taking the time to comment. Re your “In logotherapy you are responsible only to yourself and to others” is incorrect. In Unconscious God and The Doctor and the Soul Frankl speaks about the unconscious relation to God. Thus, not everyone is aware of this relationship but Frankl asserts its existence. You are responsible to God.”

      For Frankl, “God” is anyone or anyTHING that grips you and makes you a more loving person.

      Here are a few excerpts from my https://onedaringjew.wordpress.com/2010/07/06/god-in-viktor-frankls-logotherapy/

      Did Viktor Frankl believe in God? Many progressive Jews (Reform, Reconstructionist, and of course, the myriad of agnostic and “ignostic”1 Jews) believe in a “force” deeper than themselves. Whether the force is within or without, they can’t be sure. The force is like the wind, but more primordial than the wind, because the force is everywhere and in everything; all the time. In a nutshell, the “force” is pandemic. Pan never takes a Nap. What is Frankl’s “God” like
      Frankl ‘s Ph.D. Dissertation (1948) was entitled “The Unconscious God”, which examined the relation between psychology and religion. One immediately thinks of William James’ “Varieties of religious experience that Frankl must have admired (Frankl probably says as much somewhere). The emphasis in Frankel and James is not what (the unconscious?) God can do for us, but what the conscious me can do for myself and others– a very Jewish – modern Jewish – idea. For both Frankl and James, the best thing you can do for yourself – and only you can do it is find meaning in your life and develop a positive attitude to the circumstances in which you find yourself. How do you find meaning? You will it; you will the courage to rise above your suffering, which Frankl considers to be the most noble thing you can do – the only thing you can do to cope with suffering. But is this what the Torah teaches?

      In the privacy of his own home, Frankl (his wife relates) read the Tehilim (Psalms) every night and put on his tefillin (phylacteries) every day. It reminds me of Moses Mendelssohn’s catchphrase ‘be a Jew at home, outside be like everybody else.’

      And from: https://onedaringjew.wordpress.com/2010/07/22/logotherapy-torah-judaism-and-reconstructionist-judaism-god-man-and-god-man/
      In “God in Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy” and other posts on Frankl, I argued that Viktor Frankl did not only disbelieve in the Torah, he didn’t believe in God as a Being who is distinct from man (his books seem to be at odds with his private life). His view of “God” can be summed up in his own words – from his “Man’s search for ultimate meaning,” which is a later edition of his“Man’s search for meaning.” I quote from Frankl’s “Man’s search for ultimate meaning” because Tani Burton also does so. But first, here are two quotes from Frankl (which Tani Burton does not quote):

      “… God, is not one thing among others but being itself or Being (capitalized by Martin Heidegger). (P. 147).

      But didn’t I just say that Frankl “didn’t believe in God as a Being distinct from man?” Here is Frankl again:

      “… whenever you are talking to yourself in utmost sincerity and ultimate solitude — he to whom you are addressing yourself may justifiably be called God” (p. 151).

      So, God is, ultimately, me – and you, and Frankl, and Tani Burton and Moses, and all those disillusioned Jews that Tani Burton is trying to exhort, encourage and comfort. Tani Burton tells his disillusioned readers that they should have the courage to mean, should have the “will to mean” (a key concept in Logotherapy). Also, they should realize that they are a “piece of G-d above.”

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