A Sub-human Existence

By Teria Shantall

What did Frankl mean when he spoke about a sub-human existence? What does the term: sub-human mean?

Sub-human is like something sub-standard; a falling short of or being less than or not as good as can be expected.

To be up to standard — to be what we should be and can be expected to be like as human beings — is to fully exercise or put to creative use the capacities we do have. What are these? These are the capacities we exercise when we fully live on what Frankl called the human dimension of being. Here we show forth what being human is truly like:

  • We have free will: we have the capacity to think, to make up our own minds and choose to act in a considerate and caring way towards others.
  • We have an inherent will to meaning, proved by the fact that we seek to make sense of our lives. We want to believe and experience that our lives have a purpose, some direction and destiny; that we live for some or other worthwhile reason; that we are needed in this world.
  • We have conscience: a conscientious awareness of right and wrong; an awareness of what is meaningful, life-enhancing and constructive versus what is life-destructive, meaningless and futile. Conscience is our moral compass in life. We are aware that we are constantly being addressed to exercise responsibility. We are expected to live by the standards of accountability.
  • We fulfil our destiny; take our place in this world. Our lives have ultimate meaning. Let’s face it: we all uncannily sense that we are under the yardstick of what we OUGHT TO BE! To be human is a MORAL OBLIGATION, but a most marvellous one. Through free-willed obedience to the demands life makes upon us, we acquire the beauty, the impressiveness and impact of an ECCE HOMO level of being! How really free we become when we reach such optimal levels of being; how free of envy, frustration, resentment, competitiveness, greed and selfish ambition!

Sub-human is NOT non-human. We do not stop being human beings if we do not live up to our full potential. It simply means that we are less that we could or even should be as human beings. It is a MINUS state of being. Living a sub-human life, we fall short. We are failing ourselves.

We are in a LESSER state of being.

And how tragic! It means that we do not realize what capacities for greatness, for decency, for uprightness and dignity we do have. This is what makes a study of logotherapy so imperative: it teaches us to know what we are capable of being, a capability we are meant to realize. We are meant to become a person in our own right; be uniquely and irreplaceably ourselves. We are to become distinctively human; show forth the characteristics of true humanity. We are to be humane! To act inhumanely, to even become decadent and repulsive, is to abrogate, spurn, waste or criminally neglect our very humanness. We become inhumane.

What a loss of stature!

HOWEVER, WE DO NOT STOP BEING HUMAN IF WE DO NOT FULFILL OUR POTENTIAL AND CAPACITIES OF FREE WILL AND A WILL TO REALIZE MEANING IN OUR LIVES. WE DO NOT BECOME ANIMALS IF WE FAIL OR REFUSE TO LIVE UP TO OR REALIZE OUR POTENTIAL AS HUMAN BEINGS. We never become animals, no matter what psychological or physical state we are in; no matter how far from being a decent and responsible human being we are! Our awareness of ourselves and, however much we try and escape it: our sense of responsibility (conscience) remains. Even infants are not little animals! Born as humans, we have a perception which is very unlike the purely instinctual and survival-driven perception of animals. An animal does not have a self: it reacts according to its species, that is, its instinctual make-up. An animal can show emotions, yes, form attachments and show grief. Animals are also subject to a tragic fate. But the intelligence to find meaning in it, to deal with it and overcome it, the freedom of thought and choice — the distinctively human capacity of self-transcendence (embedded in self-awareness and the awareness of responsibility), all of these are not found in the animal kingdom.

By sub-human, therefore, Frankl simply meant that WE ARE NOT FULLY OURSELVES, THAT IS: WE ARE NOT WHAT WE COULD, AND BECAUSE WE ARE ABLE: SHOULD BE if we fail to live up to what we OUGHT TO BE! But, no matter what our circumstances or state of being, we still have the capacity to change. We can feel ashamed of ourselves or become dissatisfied enough with the way we are living to freely decide to stop this kind of sub-human kind of existence! To be living mindlessly and irresponsibly; to allow ourselves to be driven by need and desire; to be driven by our emotions and to be a plaything or helpless victim of circumstances; to fail to take a situation in hand and take responsible control over it; all of these kind of situations can be described as a sub-human way of living!

The commission or command to all us is to become what we have been created to be; to exercise our humanness as a reflection of the Divine!