The Last of the Human Freedoms
On October 19, 1944 Viktor Frankl, at the age of 38, entered the Auschwitz concentration camp as a prisoner of the Nazi state. Over the course of the next year he worked at various other camps as either a physician or a slave laborer. His family wasn’t so lucky. All save his sister died. Upon gaining his freedom Frankl set to work chronicling his experiences in the concentration camps. The project was, in part, his attempt to answer the perennial question of how an individual can find meaning in a world filled with such grievous and constant suffering. Part of the answer to this question, published in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, is that “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.”
Pierre Bezukhov is, in a way, Frankl’s fictional analog. Pierre, too, suffers great loss and sorrow at the hands of a Western European tyrant with ambitions of global domination. Pierre, too, endures imprisonment and privation. And, like Frankl, Pierre emerges from it all with a radically different outlook and serene disposition.
Tolstoy describes Pierre’s new temperament as being one of “complete inalienable freedom.” By this he means that Pierre lives in an emotional and mental sphere independent of external circumstances. It’s this Franklian stoic approach, coupled with a secure belief in God, informed by sentiment rather than reason, that offers Pierre peace of mind. The fruits of this are that he is finally happy and unperturbed by all the problems that so plagued him previously.
What is most important to note about Pierre here is that he achieves all this by means of detachment. Detachment from all his old yearnings and desires. “All his life,” Tolstoy writes of Pierre, “he had looked over the heads of the men around him when he should have merely looked in front of him without straining his eyes.” Searching for a beautiful wife brought him the misery of his marriage. Thirsting after experience drowned him in desolation. Craving after knowledge corrupted his character.
So we see, perhaps, that one of Frankl’s freedoms might be the decision to choose between attachment or detachment. Pierre, moving forward, must always recall that detachment pacifies the world whereas attachment reels it roaring in.
Will you not cease to value many other things, too? Then you will neither be free, nor sufficient for your own happiness, nor without passion. For of necessity you must be envious, jealous, and suspicious of those who can take away those things, and plot against those who have that which is valued by you. Of necessity a man must be altogether in a state of perturbation who wants any of these things; and besides, he must often find fault with the gods. But to revere and honor your own mind will make you content with yourself, in harmony with society, and in agreement with the gods, praising all that they give and have ordered.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations