By Ken Niemann
Nihilism is the logical ends of a universe devoid of an objective, transcendent, immaterial Good that placed a value on human beings.
Viennese Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl brilliantly understood the necessity of meaning and value in one’s life for mental health but was largely confused over how that might be grounded. He states:
“Under the influence of a world which no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity which had robbed a man of his will and made him an object to be exterminated….under this influence the personal ego finally suffered a loss of values. If the man in the concentration camp did not struggle against this in a last effort to save his self-respect, he lost the feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind, with inner freedom and personal value…..his existence descended to the level of animal life.”1
“As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners….Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man who rejected all encouraging arguments was ‘I have nothing to expect from life any more.’ What sort of answer can one give to that?”2
Frankl’s response to this condition is Logotherapy, an existential analysis generally regarded to be the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. The name of the technique is derived from the Greek word “logos” which Frankl identifies as “meaning”. Properly understood, the term “Logotherapy” is, however, antithetical to the core beliefs of Frankl himself when examined closely.
The word Logos has a very rich philosophical tradition and first appears in writing in the works of Heraclitus. It was a term to describe a pantheistically conceived Rationality that permeated the universe. It was a claim that order, design, and meaning were part of the fabric of the universe. The idea was promulgated by Plato, the Stoics, and Philo, a contemporary of Jesus who attempted to harmonize Greek Philosophy and Hebrew Thought. The term was introduced to Christian writings when John opened his Gospel with “In the beginning was the Logic and the Logic was with God, and the Logic was God”. John (and the writer of Hebrews) was asserting that the Logos was not an impersonal force as was understood by the Alexandrian Platonists and Gnostics, but indeed a Person. In the 9th verse of the same chapter, John goes further to say the Logos (The Logic) is not only the cosmological Logos, but the epistemological Logos as well. (Epistemology is the study knowledge.) In stating that the Logos is “the Light that enlightens every man”, John is making the claim that there exists a fount of knowledge, reason, wisdom, morality, and beauty. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are intimately bound together with a Rationality that has an existence outside of ourselves.3
From any historical angle, the Logos was not to be understood as divorced from rationality. Yet, Frankl states: “Logotherapy is neither teaching nor preaching. It is as far removed from logical reasoning as it is from moral exhortation.” 4 In a 1997 interview with First Things, he further adds:
“If you call ’religious’ a man who believes in what I call a Supermeaning, a meaning so comprehensive that you can no longer grasp it, get hold of it in rational intellectual terminology, then one should feel free to call me religious, really. And actually, I have come to define religion as an expression, a manifestation, of not only man’s will to meaning, but of man’s longing for an ultimate meaning, that is to say a meaning that is so comprehensive that it is no longer comprehensible. . . But it becomes a matter of believing rather than thinking, of faith rather than intellect.” 5
Thus, my first criticism of Frankl, and I don’t believe it to be trivial, is that he urges us to embrace the good, the true, and the beautiful but denies that rational content and logical distinctions are necessary to identify their constitution. One cannot “not use logic”. Assuming the undeniability of logic is essential to have any intelligible discussion, thought, feeling, or meaning. For example, while in the camps Frankl had to make often very sophisticated rational distinctions between Nazi and not-Nazi, despair and hope, love and not love, etc. Whatever is good cannot be divorced from rationality. One cannot truly know the difference between good and not good without using the laws of logic. How, if we are to embrace Frankl’s writings, does one know whether one has arrived at the correct meaning if he or she is so willing to surrender rational thought? Why the sacrificium intellectus? Frankl seems far too willing to “pooh pooh” epistemic virtues- roughly, the idea that we have a moral burden to have true beliefs.
Faith without or despite reason (fideism) is, as Harvard Theologian Harold O.J. Brown puts it, “a violent affront to the integrity of one’s soul”.6 Conversely, when one is engaged in rational thought, he or she is as much participating in the character of God as any other divine grace such as acts of service.
Persons (like Frankl) rejecting the nature and necessity of logic can still be good or find meaning- that is not the problem. The problem is that they have no objective grounds to pursue the good or even be able to say for sure what it is. “Meaning” can mean anything at all. (In fairness to Frankl, he does believe that an objective good exists, it’s just that it is not subject to rational assessment.) Ironically, it was this same Anti-Rationalism that made Nazism possible. Frankl became of a victim of one aspect of his core philosophy.
Shippensburg University philosopher C. George Boeree rightfully reminds us that while Frankl’s brand of Existentialism is not entirely like those of traditional Existentialists:
“Here we see Frankl’s religious bent: Suprameaning is the idea that there is, in fact, ultimate meaning in life, meaning that is not dependent on others, on our projects, or even on our dignity. It is a reference to God and spiritual meaning. This sets Frankl’s existentialism apart from the existentialism of someone like Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre and other atheistic existentialists suggest that life is ultimately meaningless, and we must find the courage to face that meaninglessness. Sartre says we must learn to endure ultimate meaninglessness; Frankl instead says that we need to learn to endure our inability to fully comprehend ultimate meaningfulness, for “Logos is deeper than logic.” 7
It still succumbs to the harsh criticism so easily leveled against fideism:
“For all my admiration of Frankl and his theory, I also have some strong reservations. Frankl attempts to re-insert religion into psychology, and does so in a particularly subtle and seductive manner. It is difficult to argue with someone who has been through what Frankl has been through, and seen what he has seen. And yet, suffering is no automatic guarantee of truth! By couching religion in the most tolerant and liberal language, he nevertheless is asking us to base our understanding of human existence on faith, on a blind acceptance of the existence of ultimate truth, without evidence other than the “feelings” and intuitions and anecdotes of those who already believe. This is, in fact, a dangerous precedent, and there is much “pop psychology” based on these ideas. The same tendency applies to the quasi-religious theories of Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow….. And yet faith, which asks one to surrender one’s skepticism to a God or other universal principle, is intrinsically at odds with the most basic concepts of existentialism. Religion – even liberal religion – always posits essences at the root of human existence. Existentialism does not.” 8
Boeree’s criticisms are not easily dismissed. However, they must be offered with the recognition that Philosophical Naturalism (the belief that only the material world exists and all phenomenons can be explained in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology) leaves us in the same place- no meaning. In a purely materialistic world, there is no such thing as the quality of “goodness” or “oughtness”. Things just are. Value and meaning have no real existence- they cannot be measured or weighed. It’s also an ethical vacuum. Evolutionary ethics, for example, may attempt to explain why we act the way we do, but it remains descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, it can’t tell us why we shouldn’t kick grandma down the steps tomorrow.
For the intellectually honest philosophical naturalist, complete nihilism follows. Existentialism responds to Nihilism with the recognition that while no objective meaning exists, the individual is free to make up meaning for himself – a window dressing on Nihilism. Under these three philosophies, people have no objective value, “goodness” and “oughtness” are completely subjective like a preference for chocolate over vanilla, and no objective meaning exists. It’s a recipe for Nazism. Herman Hess had this understanding in mind when he stated “National Socialism [Nazism] is nothing more than applied biology”. Nazism is logically consistent with the naturalist Weltanschauung (worldview). That is to say, the naturalist does not have to be a Nazi, but there is also no reason to not be one! Neither the naturalist, nor the existentialist can argue that one person’s meaning is any better than another’s. For example, existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre wrote in Being and Nothingness “it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations”9.
Despite the inability of these worldviews to defend the proposition “People have an intrinsic, objective value and possess Natural Rights”, Philosophical Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, and Moral Relativism are the prevailing worldviews in our culture. How could this not affect attempts at staying sober? If we cannot say for sure that torturing babies for the fun of it is objectively wrong, not just “true for me” but for everyone, then why bother with anything as silly as the 12 Steps?
In many regards, I think we are often sending the wrong messages to those in early recovery. Often, our sloganeering seems to denigrate the role of reasoning, good reasoning, in the recovery process. There seems to exist an anti-rationalism undercurrent when we say things like “my best thinking got me here”. Maybe it was our worst thinking, actually, that took us to this level of shame and guilt. We become a cult when we no longer value the intellect. A robust program for recovery, on the other hand, will nurture the life of the mind and stress critical thinking. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, feelings alone are not reliable indicators of what is good, just, or true. It commits the psychogenetic fallacy to assert that beliefs are true or false depending on the emotions behind them. A mother’s beliefs about her child playing in traffic, for example, may be based in fear yet wholly rational and true.
Perhaps a return to deontological ( rule based) ethics and natural law will help us make more sense of the world and more fruitful attempts at recovery.
1. Frankl, Victor, Man’s Search For Meaning,(Boston: Beacon Press, 2006) p50
2. Ibid. p76
3. Nash, Ronald H., The Word of God and the Mind of Man (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1982)
4. Frankl, Victor, Man’s Search For Meaning,(Boston: Beacon Press, 2006) p110
5. Scully, Matthew, Viktor Frankl At Ninety: An Interview, First Things (1995)
6. Brown, Harold O. J., Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody: Hendrickson, Publishers, 2000) p 152
7. Boeree, C. George, Viktor Frankl, 2006, http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/frankl.html
9. Sartre, Jean Paul, Being and Nothingness (New York: Washington Square Press, 1992) p797