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He believed strongly in the government's protection of civil rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens. If a government failed to do so, he called for civil disobedience. King (1986) stated that freedom must be taken from the oppressors (p. 292). His concept of meaning was formulated in the crucible of unjust laws and centered on the notion of social justice. This meant attaining freedom, dignity, and social equality for all, not just for the privileged. His advocacy of non-violent protest aligned him with Socrates, as did his subversive speech. He felt strongly that it was every person's ethical duty to stand up peacefully but powerfully against all forms of oppression, and like Socrates he was willing to face death bravely for his cause. As opposed to Aristotle and close to Socrates, he affirmed that one must work to change the material conditions of life as well as social consciousness, rather than stress endurance through hardship. Any form of injustice within society that prevented freedom, imposed inequality, or humiliated personal dignity was an obstruction to life's meaning. As King said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" (p. 290).
Viktor Frankl's views on meaning developed in the extreme conditions of Nazi concentration camp. He affirmed that, despite all the physical and mental stress and suffering of such conditions, a human can -- in fact must -- chose a future- and goal-oriented attitude toward life in order to find meaning. Suffering, he believed, is not necessary for meaning, but it is an opportunity to emphasize the notion that dignity, worth, and inner freedom can be achieved and held through refusal to submit to oppressive forces. Frankl (1984) writes, "It is this spiritual freedom -- which cannot be taken away -- that makes life meaningful and purposeful" (pp. 75-76). His view is close to Aristotle and Socrates, but veers from King in that it does not assert strongly that unjust conditions must end. Rather, Frankl thought that they were a test through which could come a higher meaning. (Although he does say that one can influence destiny.)
Goals key this existential freedom to decide to rise above fate, and they are unique to each individual. There is no abstract and universal meaning here, but only personal, specific, and concrete aims that only the individual can determine. Each must find and give themselves their own reason or purpose for living (a future expectation). Frankl's existentialism seems the most diffuse concept of meaning among those discussed here. He refuses to say what the meaning of life is -- he does not say it is happiness (Aristotle), the good life (Socrates), or achieving liberation/equality for others (King). While his view of meaning is concrete as in the others, he writes, "This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning" (p. 105). He puts his formula in terms of life questioning the person: "Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked" (p. 113). This notion of answering for one's own life -- discovering potential and becoming responsible for oneself -- resonates with Socrates.
Meaning for Frankl requires tension. "What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task" (p. 110). As soon as one has given up a goal or lost faith in the future, one will lapse into meaninglessness, hopelessness, and "existential frustration," just as many did in the prison camps (p. 108). There is no longer anything to accomplish. This means succumbing to indignity, losing spiritual freedom, and failing to fulfill one's meaning.
Aristotle. (2004). Nicomachean Ethics. (F. H. Peters, Trans). 5th Ed. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble. (Originally published in 1893).
Frankl, Viktor E. (1984). Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. (Ilse Lasch, Trans.) 3rd Ed. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. (Reprinted from Death-Camp to Existentialism, 1963, Boston: Beacon).
King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1986). "Letter from Birmingham Jail." In James Melvin Washington (Ed.), a Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.…[continue]
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