When evil abounds and challenges to the individual are at their utmost, is it possible to still find meaning in life and is it even a time to consider such a question? For Buber, Levinas, Wiesel and Frankl, this question was not only a reality but also the precise place where the answer can and would be found. After World War II and specifically after the Holocaust, Jewish philosophers had a new framework to work within. Questions of God, man and humanity as a whole cannot help but come to the forefront of the mind after such events. For these men, there was a need to look for some sort of answer and meaning within the answer to the questions that arose after having seen, and for some lived, through such horror.
In a time when the question of God’s covenant relationship to the individual as well as humanity as a whole was necessary for those with faith, particularly the Jewish faith, Buber saw a specific need; the need to rediscover this relationship. In his view, there was only one place where this rediscovery and reawakening could take place, in the center of the relationship itself. In Buber’s teachings in I and Thou, it is only in the midst of such a relationship between two persons or one person and nature, that the depth of experiencing meaning is possible.
Emmanuel Levinas, a Russian born philosopher, taught that one’s responsibility is not solely in the midst of relationship but that which precedes the relationship as well. He believed that meaning was not found in the way of the hero or self knowledge but within the love that exists between people. Within this mutual love relationship one can find true wisdom, as opposed to the wisdom of the heroic tradition, which centers on the self. For Levinas, it is the responsibility that we have toward one another that precedes the relationship and it is at this point where meaning can be found. In Buber’s view it is within the relationship that meaning is found, within the dialogue and communication that takes place therein. In Levinas’s view, such meaning does not need the face to face encounter that Buber’s view requires.
Elie Wiesel, having survived the Holocaust in a concentration camp, raised the question of God’s covenant relationship with the Jewish people. It is certainly understandable that such questioning would take place when God’s chosen people were so violently and inexplicably being exterminated as if they were nothing. When Elie first arrived in the camp, his own mother and sister were immediately shipped off to die while he and his father were permitted to live. This type of trauma, along with the countless other atrocities that took place within the camp, helped shape Wiesel’s viewpoint on the nature of the covenant relationship that he had been taught he and his people had with God. The very questioning of where God was when a young boy was left hanging, unable to die quickly because of his light weight, was raised by another in the camp. The only response was that He was hanging there with the boy, which begs the further inquiry of whether or not there is a God at all and if so, where is the responsibility being lived up to that such a relationship inherently brings with it. It is within this second follow-up question that Wiesel rejects the notion of the I and thou dialog with God. Wiesel therefore, according to Professor Ambrosio, began his quest to find a more humanly proportioned responsibility than the total responsibility that Levinas found to be necessary in his teachings about the search for meaning.
Viktor Frankl, in his search for meaning, which would become one of the most important books in modern times, Man’s Search for Meaning, takes into account three elements: freedom, responsibility and suffering. For Frankl, as opposed to Buber, Levinas and Wiesel, who believed that meaning was found in relationship, freedom is where meaning is found. Each person, despite their circumstances, always has at least some form of freedom. Frankl, like Wiesel, survived a concentration camp. However, Frankl found that within the confines of such a terrible situation, he still had freedom enough to determine how he would react to the situation at hand. His reaction, whether negative or ultimately positive, depended largely upon himself, as it does for all people in whatever situation they find themselves. One’s values and who the person decides to be in the midst of their struggle is a decision made by the individual. Within this type of freedom is where the real responsibility and its function exist. For each individual, the suffering or struggle that the person faces is unique and cannot be replicated because each individual and their reactions to their given situation are also unique. For Frankl, the individual is responsible for finding their suffering, also spoken of as passion, and to make what they will of it. It is within this suffering and finding personal meaning as such that man has the opportunity to find meaning at all.
Looking at the experiences of Frankl and Wiesel, it is hard to imagine what they not only faced but lived through. It is in these experiences that the depth of who they were when they came out the other side, resonates deeply within their teachings. For the individual who faces their suffering in such a way that they find meaning in asking whether or not there can be meaning found in such awful circumstances, there is a strength to the argument that may not be as easily found in those who have not faced such a direct challenge to who they are and their beliefs.
Ambrosio, F. Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series). Lecture 27.
Ambrosio, F. Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series). Lecture 29.