Literary Commentary, Philosophy, Psychology

Human Virtues and the Meaning of Life: Rousseau vs. Frankl

I’ve had “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau on my “currently reading” shelf for the longest time, and just a few weeks ago I had a little reading inspiration so I decided to finish it. Turns out I only had several pages to go anyway.

Then, I was recommended “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl to read, and I did, and I loved it. Since I happened to read both these rather philosophical and psychological books (I label them as both because it seems that they have a bit of both in them) back-to-back, I noticed that they both discuss very similar topics: human virtue, the arts and sciences, and the purpose of life. However, interestingly, Rousseau and Frankl contradict on some concepts, which I want to discuss today, while also attempting to organize some of my thoughts about each.

Discourse on the Arts and Sciences by Rousseau (first published 1762)

Rousseau’s main argument in this discourse is that the arts and sciences are detrimental to basic human virtues. He argues that:

“the main advantage of busying [ourselves] with the Muses, […] is to make men more sociable by inspiring in them the desire to please one another with works worthy of their mutual approbation.”

He further suggests that arts and sciences make us “fake”, making us create the appearance of things that aren’t there, and all the while pressuring us into putting on a spectacle for others wherein we are seeking to be labeled as civilized, respectable people as society commands. But, as a result, we are dishonorable and immoral.

The main idea, however, is that a culture of arts and sciences – as opposed to one focused on teaching virtues, creating warriors, and producing hardworkers – is one where the appearance of wisdom is laudable instead of the actual presence of quality attributes.

“Up to that time the Romans had been content to practise virtue; everything was lost when they began to study it.”

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (first published 1946)

This book is separated into two main sections. In the first, Frankl describes his experience between 1942 and 1945 as an inmate in four different concentration camps including Auschwitz. Frankl takes a very detached approach to the writing, tackling it mostly like a scientific analysis. He is the perfect person for it, too, having dedicated his life’s career (including before he was imprisoned – he was born 1905, FYI) to being a neurologist and psychotherapist. Yes, he was a psychotherapist who survived the Holocaust. What an interesting position from a scientific point of view – albeit a horrid one I would not wish on anyone. This fact and what came out of it is a message on its own – indeed, one that Frankl himself recognizes…

First: it proves that we can find meaning to our lives in even the most devastating of circumstances. And second, though arguable depending on your religious inclination: things happen for a reason. Had Frankl not been through this experience, he would not have had this knowledge nor been able to share it with us, and perhaps we would not have learned about these things to the extent that we were able to. In a twisted way, the Holocaust was perhaps the ultimate real-life experiment with masses of humans acting as rats in a laboratory.

So Frankl describes the stages that one goes through when subjected to miserable conditions, enormous physical work with the minimum amount of food possible, and fear of death at every corner – structured almost like a lottery system, and not to mention deceit, treachery, and the occasional kindness from strangers in the same conditions. From Wikipedia, the stages are:

“(1) shock during the initial admission phase to the camp, (2) apathy after becoming accustomed to camp existence, in which the inmate values only that which helps himself and his friends survive, and (3) reactions of depersonalization, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment if he survives and is liberated.”

Through it all, Frankl highlights some key lessons about the nature of life, relationships and identity:

Key things I learned from Man’s Search for Meaning

Life is a quest for meaning. This is Frankl’s central idea (duh). And he often quotes Nietzsche in saying:

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

The mind is central to our existence – not just emotionally but physically as well.

“Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.”

Success is a side-effect of one’s dedication. This particular point relates to Rousseau’s discourse as well. Frankl explains at some point in the book that he’d initially intended to publish the book anonymously, using only his prison number. His goal was to write about the experience of a camp inmate in the Holocaust. However, upon completion, he realized that “as an anonymous publication it would lose half of its value”. The arts and sciences are used to give one a meaning in life through being able to communicate something of importance; they are not always created with the end purpose of attaining fame or admiration. In fact, Frankl advises that success MUST be a side-effect of hard work, not an end goal.

Dreams are the actualization of our internal, subconscious desires. Dreams have fascinated me particularly since I attended Jordan Peterson’s lecture where he discussed them. Frankl notes:

“Several of my colleagues in camp who were trained in psychoanalysis often spoke of a “regression” in the camp inmate—a retreat to a more primitive form of mental life. His wishes and desires became obvious in his dreams.”

The sort of person you are is “the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.”

“There are two races of men in this world, but only these two—the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.”

“The hardest part of being in the camps – besides the physical pain, of course – was the mental pain of not knowing how long you were there and the injustice of it all.” This lesson was interesting to me purely from a psychological perspective. After reading it, it made so much sense that this would be true. Even in every-day injustices, the unfairness is what hurts the most. I’ve even had a confrontation in the past, which I can remember vividly, in which I started tearing up unwillingly simply because of the unfairness of it and not AT ALL because of the actual consequences that the injustice would bring.

Man can only live by looking to the future. Frankl also had a big portion of his book in which he talked about logotherapy, which he founded. I think I’ll save that discussion for a later post, but I also felt that this was so true. Sadness, guilt, or depression is only made worse by over analyzing the past (which most therapies are focused on). Logotherapy, in very simple terms, suggests healing is accomplished by moving FORWARD not BACKWARD.

How to find the meaning of your life.

“Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the tasks it constantly sets for each individual. These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.”

Everyone’s life is important because everyone has a role to fulfill that only they can fulfill. If you don’t have one, you simply haven’t found it yet. In “Nation” by Terry Pratchett, Mau (it might have been Daphne, but I don’t quite remember) notes that:

“Even our fears make us feel important, because we fear that we might not be.”

And, in his book Frankl reinforces this same idea. Our fear of no longer existing is very deeply rooted in our desire to continue doing meaningful things with our lives, and the thought of what would be lost were we to cease to exist.

“When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.”

His response to the fear of dying:

“Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.”

On suffering:

He told his fellow inmates to “keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning.”

General quotes:

“A man who for years had thought he had reached the absolute limit of all possible suffering now found that suffering has no limits, and that he could suffer still more, and still more intensely.”

“We need a certain amount of turmoil to reach mental health.”

“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.”

Differing Perspectives

Rousseau and Frankl agreed that the arts and sciences are one mode of asserting meaning to our lives. However, the main difference I noticed was that Rousseau regarded the human as a moderately consistent person-to-person, at its core. And so, he suggested that the arts and sciences will always find a way to corrupt the desires of man and turn his quest to fame rather than the actual production of something useful for the general benefit of society. His belief was that humans, at their most virtuous, are warriors and hunters and farmers, because that is when they are satisfying their true meaning and not becoming corrupt by societal expectations to be “proper” or “civilized”.

Frankl, however, suggested that life is a quest for meaning. And there were three ways of of achieving this:

“in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.”

If producing something creative is something that we can do and no one else can, we must take it up. If anything, meaning gives us a chance to explore the extent of our hidden “virtues”. An artist who creates for money has found meaning in his life just as much as one who creates for charity, and it is not the title of artist that makes them less virtuous but their fundamental makeup. The idea is that it is OUR conscious decision how to react to environments we are placed in: and it is in the most difficult, most grueling ones, that the true makeup of a person’s morality and virtues are best revealed.

Frankl said:

[…]everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Or, in other words:

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insuffcient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.”

After reading both books, it seems to me that Rousseau’s picture of man is simplistic and does not penetrate the true desires of man. His general impression of man’s “drive” is to please his fellow man. Indeed, genius artists might “lower” themselves to contemporary styles and standards to as to achieve fame in their lifetime, as he suggested, but some of the most famous were in fact revolutionaries who CREATED change in their societies. One only has to look at Van Gogh, who died poor, Mozart, who died alone, and Picasso, who died unappreciated, to understand that the act of creating works of art can provide meaning on its own.

Furthermore, it is unfair to conclude that it is the arts and sciences that lead to a corruption of one’s virtues, because at our core, we are still very much OURSELVES. Our souls are programmed through years of experiences with the values that make up who we are, and, as Frankl’s experience in the concentration camps demonstrates, our outside conditions can permeate through our physical and perhaps mental wellbeing, but it is this central core that remains US through it all. If we consider the arts and sciences as what they are – merely abstractions – we cannot possibly say they “make us bad”, for if anything they would “reveal our bad”.


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