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Death Row Last Meal: The Futility of Pleasure

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian Holocaust survivor, neurologist, psychiatrist, and author. His writings on man’s search for meaning in the face of horrors like the Holocaust made him a highly regarded source for thoughts on the subject. When life’s trials and sufferings are overwhelming, how and where can meaning be found? He lived when global consumerism was at its beginnings. In this analogy, he asserts that consumerism’s offerings of pleasure, as well as other types of pleasure, do not and cannot contribute to any useful meaning or understanding of life:

Let us imagine a man who has been sentenced to death and, a few hours before his execution, has been told he is free to decide on the menu for his last meal. The guard comes into his cell and asks him what he wants to eat, offers him all kinds of delicacies; but the man rejects all his suggestions. He thinks to himself that it is quite irrelevant whether he stuffs good food into the stomach of his organism or not, as in a few hours it will be a corpse. And even the feelings of pleasure that could still be felt in the organism’s cerebral ganglia seem pointless in view of the fact that in two hours they will be destroyed forever.

But the whole of life stands in the face of death, and if this man had been right, then our whole lives would also be meaningless, were we only to strive for pleasure and nothing else—preferably the most pleasure and the highest degree of pleasure possible. Pleasure in itself cannot give our existence meaning; thus, the lack of pleasure cannot take away meaning from life, which now seems obvious to us.

The essential point is that when suffering is crushing and life holds no luster, our lack of enjoyment of life’s pleasures should not doom us to meaninglessness and despair.

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