George Orwell and Viktor Frankl on meaning and suffering

26 juni 2024 | Sid Lukkassen

The 20th century was an eventful one. With the rise of metropolitan lifestyles, people felt disconnected from community ties. They sought connection and meaning in political mass movements which emerged as totalitarian regimes. Then came the Spanish Civil War, the Holocaust, the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. Two authors lived through these horrors: they wrestled with the question of how life could keep meaning and significance in a world riddled with suffering, horror and powerlessness.

They are George Orwell, the famous author of 1984 and Animal Farm, and Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning. Orwell started out as a socialist and a journalist: he fought in the Spanish Civil War against fascism. He witnessed how his fellow fighters were suddenly renamed ideological enemies by the Soviets when it suited the Communists better. Truth and idealism turned out to be totally subordinate to power. Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna.  He had the possibility of fleeing to the US but stayed in Austria out of religious inspiration. Because of his Jewish origins, he was imprisoned in concentration camps by the Nazis. In this extreme circumstance, he explored how people find meaning and purpose in their existence.

Frankl: hope and love out of suffering

Man's Search For Meaning, published in 1946, is Frankl's tragic yet hopeful examination of meaning, drawn from his experiences in a concentration camp, where he and fellow prisoners carved a trench in the frozen ground:

“We were working in a trench. The dawn looming before us was grey, like the sky above us. I spoke silently to my wife, or perhaps I was wrestling with the reason for my suffering, my slow dying. With the last strength in my thought, I resisted the hopelessness of approaching death - I felt my spirit piercing the darkness. I was aware how my mind transcended that hopeless, meaningless world, and somewhere I heard a victorious 'Yes' in answer to my question about the existence of an ultimate destination."

Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, (London 2004) p.51

The hope, then, is that the sad state of being, the utter dejection and despair which Frankl faced, and which can be transcended in one bright moment of the mind, a beacon of light in a sea of darkness. The author means the latter literally, for as this inner certainty rose up within him, further down the road, the lights came on in a farmhouse - a warm glow dispelled the haze and gloom.

As the ultimate desperation loomed before Frankl and he threatened to sink into despair from which he would not recover, he thought of his wife. His wife was already dead at that point, murdered by the Germans, but he did not know that. He thought of her face, felt strengthened and encouraged by her look - his wife's face at that moment shone brighter than the rising sun. In that moment, he realised that the poets had been right all along: the highest attainable thing in life is love.

Those who have nothing at all left except love can still find resignation, even if only for a moment, by being aware of that love. "In a situation of complete devastation, where a man cannot express himself by taking action in a positive way; where the only thing left is to endure suffering, albeit in an honourable way; in that situation, through loving contemplation of the image he holds of his beloved, a man can find satisfaction. " Frankl links this to the biblical saying that angels lose themselves in contemplating eternal glory. In other words, love is for us something transcendent, something higher.

The book has two parts. In the first part, he describes his experiences in the concentration camps. The second part is more theoretical. It goes into the philosophical and psychological significance of his experiences and ties them together into a therapeutic framework. Frankl calls his finding 'logotherapy' and sets himself against mainstream 'psychotherapy'. Indeed, his approach does not only delve into the subject's emotions – “How do I make my client/patient feel better about himself?” - but is more about, “What is the world like and where does the client/patient find the place where he can come into his own?”

In this second part, Frankl reduces finding meaning in life to three dimensions. First, doing a significant job. Second, a bond with a special person - more or less love, as just described. Third, the attitude a person takes towards inevitable suffering. Frankl explicitly states that one should avoid unnecessary suffering wherever possible; at the same time, it is clear from his book that he finds the meaning of life most strongly where suffering is undergone with as much dignity as possible.

Orwell: despair and powerlessness out of suffering

George Orwell seems to reach a strongly related yet opposite conclusion in 1984. Whereas Frankl draws dignity, profundity and even hope from suffering, Orwell brings in suffering to make absolute helplessness and total hopelessness visible. It now comes down to the question, which of the two is more convincing.

The book is about Winston Smith, a subject of IngSoc, a totalitarian one-party state ruling a one-third of the world. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is power - those are the official slogans. Slowly, Winston explores his personal doubts about this regime, and his gaze crosses that of O'Brien. In that instant, O'Brien wins his trust: Winston feels they can count on each other. In the end, it turns out that O'Brien was a senior Party official all along, and that the maturation of Winston's inner resistance has been carefully monitored and even cultivated by the Party.

The story culminates in an ultimate dialogue in O'Brien's office in which both put their cards on the table. This dialogue is truly transformative - those who have read (or listened to) it once, and think through everything it says according to its logical and ultimate consequences, will not live life the same way again. Indeed, Orwell makes it clear that evil can win, backed by the right technology and sharply tuned methods.

O'Brien carefully sets out what the Party is up to. They pursue power as an end in itself, total control, dominating and humiliating critics. Even if the memory of those opponents is erased from history, torturing and humiliating - and eventually: converting - them is an absolute goal in itself in the present. The Church Inquisition and the Communists had tortures, pyres and show trials, but they murdered people who spread heresies, became martyrs, and died with hostile thoughts. The Party takes a different approach, O'Brien explained in total calm. Winston will be worked on for as long as necessary until he sees the light of his own accord and loves the Party. And then - just when his mind is clear - he himself will beg to be executed in the pure state of mind.

Winston rejects the Party's plans, saying hatred and control are not strong enough to carry a political system. "Do you believe some cosmic principle will oppose our objective?" asks O'Brien. “Some form of inspiration that humans cannot live without, something deep within? You are mistaken! For we have power and from that power we determine what man is.”

If living from hate proves more exhausting than living from love, O'Brien explains, even so, this is no objection to keeping the system running. The pace of life will be accelerated and, if necessary, people will be elderly at 30. The party decides who, where and when to procreate. No dissident thought escapes the Party and even orgasm will be abolished with neurological interventions. In no corner of his soul will the subject find joy or resignation beyond what the Party offers him.

Contrasting the two visions

Turning back to Frankl from this dialogue, we would relate to suffering completely differently. To begin with, Frankl says that the past is stronger than the present: he writes of "indelible footsteps in the path of time". Even if you perish in a concentration camp from hunger, thirst, disease and exhausting work - you can think back to your past, to the happiness you experienced there, and no one will ever be able to take this away from you. Purely because it has existed, the present would be stronger than the past: it cannot be erased. The memories of the past continue to inspire the present.

Orwell comes to just the opposite conclusion. "Whoever controls the past controls the future - whoever controls the present controls the past." The Party is constantly changing the past and rewriting entire archives. Even canonical books and classical literature are given new words and specific terms adapted to the emotional life of the totalitarian society. Winston is brainwashed so that he doubts his own memories. O'Brien makes a point of making Winston believe that two plus two can be five. Truth and falsehood turn out to be totally subordinate to power and powerlessness.

But even apart from this particular power relationship between Winston and O'Brien, the memories of the beautiful past can also make the present more difficult to bear. The beauty of the great relationship that is now over, or the great job you lost. And if this loss is self-inflicted, it can add guilt to the intolerability of the present.

The past can be used as a source by those in power to increase and intensify their power. In 1984, this is in the form of Emmanuel Goldstein - an intellectual who criticised IngSoc and the Party in the distant past. Goldstein's face is now used by the Party for ritual hate sessions, on which the subjects project all their aggression. Thus, the herd is driven together even more tightly: Goldstein's resistance has made the Party stronger, because the memory of it has been incorporated as a moral weapon.

This is what O'Brien literally says, when addressing Winston: “If you seek meaning in your suffering, know that what you are going through now will never stop. The treachery, spying, mental exhaustion and torture will be repeated every generation - all this will be perfected at most.”

Keep in mind that the Party makes sense of persecuting and torturing the dissident because of his dissident thought - this assumes that the dissident thought has arisen. It is similar to what Thierry Baudet said about the relationship between FvD and virtue hegemony under the party cartel. The system needs FvD. To be able to demonise FvDers, to show: this is how not to be, how not to be. In this capacity, FvD contributes to the discipline of power against which FvD stands. It leads to the inference: sometimes the only winning move is not to play.

Is there a 'winning move'?

At some point, Frankl found a respite.  In a quiet corner of the camp, he sat on a small chair and looked out over the barbed wire to the hills of Bavaria. There was a pile of corpses next to him, but he had driven that from his mind.  He threw small stones at the fence and stared at the rolling scenery. Apparently Frankl still found one bright spot in himself, one piece of his soul where he was still present himself. This sustained him to be able to endure the rest of the misery as well. In his book, he repeatedly states what those who have a 'why' to want to survive for can endure almost any 'how'.

Many prisoners lost the will to live and saw nothing to look forward to. They then said, "I have nothing more to look forward to in life" and soon afterwards they died, sometimes from illness and camp exhaustion, sometimes from suicide. It is at the heart of Frankl's logotherapy that he turns the question around. No longer, "What can I still expect from life?" but, "What does life expect from me?" If you are in a situation of total oppression and surveillance and have no way of expressing your individuality positively - like in a concentration camp - suffering with dignity is the highest achievable thing. This then is what life awaits from us.

However, that you still have something to prove to life, that your life wants to speak to you in this sense with your actions, presupposes that you still see life as an'equal interlocutor. Once you are sure that life is not going to offer anything more, you lose any sense of still having to show, explain, prove or justify anything to this life.

Those who use their brains and look beyond emotions see the Netherlands turning into a densely populated colony of the elderly, with a disproportionately large part of the youth population made up of immigrants who are difficult to integrate. To bear all this economically, it is necessary to make the earning potential of the Netherlands an absolute priority, but it is precisely business that is being crippled with climate restrictions, nitrogen limitations and unaffordable energy prices.

Putting the facts in order, it turns out that there was more hope for Viktor Frankl than for us. After all, the military collapse of Nazi Germany was inevitable - for him it was a matter of stalling for time to survive the concentration camp. However, any time we stretch is to our disadvantage because the Netherlands is embedded in a constellation of countries and international policy structures that are sick in the same bed.

Unlike the Nazi regime, which was under international siege, our current power structure will not come to an end anytime soon. The control of our lives and thoughts is increasingly digital in nature and carried out by artificial intelligence. The invention and formation of thoughts is determined by a digital communicative structure - Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls this 'psychopower'. Cybernetic implants can read our minds. Through medication, Big Pharma permeates our emotions and thoughts: limbic capitalism. And as the power of the West crumbles, China steps into that vacuum. Moreover, the demographic make-up is changing so much that even if the Dutch people wish to choose a different system, the question of who or what this Dutch people is is unanswerable and even taboo.

Who has the last word?

In Orwell's book, Winston Smith experiences that he cannot commit suicide. An escape into death is possible only when he has internalised the Party's ideas. He tries to make a separate box in his soul where he hides all his hatred of the system. And then, at the very last moment - when he is about to be shot - "the batteries of his hatred will explode". This is the only "freedom" that system has left: dying with a thought that is its own product and not supplied by the Party. However, this ultimately fails: when Winston dies, he finds that he loves the Party, and has "won a victory over himself".

Suicide as an escape from suffering, subterfuge from a totalitarian order, is given a positive appreciation with Orwell, as a final act of sovereign will, whether it succeeds or not. Frankl, on the other hand, seems to conceive of suicide as a decision born of weak will and lack of heroism. He gives the example of a monkey receiving injections as part of scientific studies. The monkey cannot grasp the meaning of this suffering. And similarly, human beings cannot rule out the possibility that there is another higher dimension - unperceivable to present-day humans - that gives meaning to our suffering. This perspective extends to us the choice before life as a groundless decision of will: “There is no practical evidence that suffering has meaning, but I believe it theoretically.”

The meaning of suffering

Every person sits in the cockpit of his own life. The information you get, the experiences that force themselves on you, even the contemplation of what is coming in the future. All this forces itself on you and you have to deal with it. Whether you want to or not, you will undergo the effects of all this on your mind. This can sometimes be unbearable, and can even create situations where the net value of life becomes negative. Where it would literally be better if you were no longer there.

Frankl then says that you have to suffer this suffering with dignity: you have to find a meaning in it and, if necessary, create in it. Something bigger, something higher, something external imposes this, and if you can find this, it pulls you through the experience of suffering. This can be done even by imagining yourself as a laboratory monkey, unable to understand the higher purpose of torture.

However, this assumes that the last word does not lie with the suffering subject, and there is something problematic in that. After all, the suffering subject is the only one who really knows how hard the suffering is for him and therefore the only one who can make trade-offs about what life still has to offer and what the chances are of getting better.

Logotherapy presupposes that in the most unbearable state, one retains an internal will that, either through projection or contemplation, can produce something meaningful for that individual. That valuable thing cannot remove the extreme suffering but it does have its own raison d'être - it offers something to hold oneself to. This right to exist remains intact even in situations where the individual has to conclude that the net value of his existence is negative. However, Orwell shows that this internal will is not sovereign and can be usurped by the ruler in a situation of powerlessness - indeed, with O'Brien, this is the goal of the Party and of all power structures.

Just as well, the ruler can torture and brainwash you. He can literally tear you apart and stitch you back together in a form that pleases the Party. After that torture, you will wish for death as an afterthought; you will become a vapour merging into the atmosphere. Even your birth records will be erased - it will be as if you never existed.


Reading 1984 makes clear the importance of acquiring power. Those who are powerless can be subjected to torture and in the end, even thoughts are not safe. The ruler can create a world in which freedom never returns.

For those who are powerless, generously undergoing suffering may be the heroic choice. Often, the only net result is that you grant the power-holder longer the sadistic pleasure of torture and allow yourself a longer and more intense course of suffering.

In life, the writer Theo Kars always maintained that committing suicide could still be done tomorrow. This is a pragmatic attitude, stemming from Stoic wisdom. Look at the situation from day to day instead of assuming a great tragic fate which is more sovereign than you and which orders you to suffer. Hold ultimate self-determination over your life in your own hands - because the only one who can determine the value and meaning of your life is you.


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