Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Publisher's Letter: Old School TruthPublisher's Letter: Old School Truth

Publisher's Letter: Old School Truth

There is no lower we can go than crushing interior freedom by denying the truth of the spiritual life.

Peter Stockland
3 minute read

in 1946, Victor Frankl published the following:

1946, Victor Frankl published the following: "Everything that was not connected with the immediate task of keeping oneself and one's closest friends alive lost its value. Everything was sacrificed to this end. A man's character became involved to the point that he was caught in a mental turmoil, which threatened all the values he held and threw them into doubt.
"Under the influence of a world that no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity, which had robbed man of his will and made him an object to be exterminated (having planned, however, to make full use of him first — to the last ounce of his physical resources), under this influence the personal ego finally suffered a loss of values.
"If the man…did not struggle against this last effort to save his self-respect, he lost the feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind, with inner freedom and personal value. He thought of himself as only a part of an enormous mass of people; his existence descended to the level of animal life."

Frankl's words were published in 1946 but they were written some time in the preceding three years while he was an inmate at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. A Viennese medical doctor, psychiatrist and one-time protégé of Sigmund Freud, Frankl survived what millions did not: the Shoah, the mass, mechanized campaign to eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth.

Yet while the book in which these words appear painfully details the evil brutality of the camps, it's purpose is not limited to a first person account of one man's suffering. It is to articulate Frankl's discovery in the camps of the meaning of the human condition evident in experiencing, and transcending, suffering. The English title of the book, first published in German, is Man's Search for Meaning.

The conditions Frankl describes in the passage above are not only about physical or even moral degradation. They speak of the total loss of what it means to be a human being, that is of being capable of seeking the fullness of meaning that is truth. The loss of the cognitive capacity to regard oneself as capable of seeking truth through meaning, he tells us, entails the loss of inner freedom. Worse, it reduces us in our own eyes to objects within a mass of beings whose existential purpose, indistinguishable from those of insects, is to stay biologically alive, though spiritually dead, for as long as possible. The necessary condition of human existence, in other words, is meaning that gives truth, spiritual truth, not mere material fact. The pre-condition of that condition, as it were, is a truth does exist that, as Jesus promised, will set us free.

In his convocation address to students at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, re-printed in this issue, McGill University Professor Douglas Farrow urges his audience to always distinguish between that liberating truth, and the truth of the world as we live it now.

"Today, if we are not simply skeptical about truth and freedom, we try to live by the very reverse of Jesus' maxim. We do not say, "The truth will set you free," but rather "Freedom will make you true. Given a little time and space, you will discover whatever it is that is true for you. You will make your own truth."

Those who propagate that message, Farrow says, misunderstand the relation between justice, freedom and truth. They have, to be charitable, lost their way in the thickets of a pedagogy that has made them mere camp followers of current culture, and have ceased to take the search for meaning, for truth, seriously.

To take that search seriously, as true education must, is to treat faith itself so seriously as to make it, Richard Bastien argues in this issue, contiguous with reason.

"As John Paul II said in his famous encyclical, Fides et Ratio, 'Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.' And as Pope Benedict XVI said in his Regensburg Lecture, 'not to act "with logos" [reason] is contrary to God's nature.' Faith without reason is not faith. It's fideism. And fideism is an insult to human intelligence," Bastien writes.

There are, of course, worse things human beings can do than insult human intelligence. Victor Frankl documents legions of them in Man's Search for Meaning. But as he makes clear in the passage above and elsewhere, there is no lower we can go than crushing interior freedom by denying the truth of the spiritual life. Frankl not only witnessed and survived but drew meaning in spite of the re-education of individuals to believe that they are only meaningless objects in an amorphous mass.

Seeing the truth, he was set free long before the death camps were liberated.

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