Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, originally titled “A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp” was released in German in 1946, becoming one of the most influential books in the United States, having sold over 10 million copies at the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, and continues to this day to inspire many to find significance in the very act of living.

He sees the success of his book as a symptom of the “mass neurosis of modern times” since the title promised to deal with the question of life’s meaningfulness.

Frankl’s writings have been called “the most important contributions in the field of psychotherapy since the days of Freud, Adler and Jung.” He is the founder of logotherapy, which he describes as a “school of psychotherapy in spiritual terms”, in which a search for meaning in life is the primary motivational force in man.

Frankl chronicled his experiences as a prisoner in concentration camps during World War II. Instead of giving up and accepting that he was doomed as most did, he decided to use his suffering as an opportunity to help others and himself.

While a man’s destiny in life is certainly affected by the circumstances in which he finds himself, he is ultimately free to choose his attitude towards life.

Part I “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” constitutes Frankl’s autobiographical account  of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part II “Logotherapy in a Nutshell” introduces his theory of logotherapy.

Part I. Experiences in a Concentration Camp

Concentration camp

Frankl begins by telling the reader that his book is a compilation of his experiences and observations. He focuses on how the daily struggles of camp life affected the mental state of his fellow inmates.

There are three psychological stages experienced by the prisoners: (1) shock during the first few days in the camp, (2) apathy after being accustomed to camp existence, and (3) depersonalisation, leading to bitterness and disillusionment with life after being liberated.

Many experienced the phenomenon known as “delusion of reprieve”, a man sentenced to death becomes convinced that he might be set free just before his execution.

The prisoners were made to pass in front of a guard who pointed them to the right or the left. About 90% were sent to the left for execution, the remaining few were sent to the right, including Frankl. They then had all their possessions removed, being left with nothing but their own “naked existence.”

The second psychological stage of the prisoner is apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care anymore. Frankl writes that there is much truth in Dostoevsky’s definition of man as a creature that can get accustomed to anything.

Frankl often thought of his wife and he realised that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire, and that in a position of utter desolation, this intensification of inner life helped him seek refuge from the emptiness, and spiritual poverty of his existence. However, many prisoners suffered a loss of values in their personal ego, becoming part of an enormous mass of people, whose existence descended to the level of animal life.

Frankl argues that man is not just an accidental product of biological, psychological, and sociological nature, but that man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical distress.

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life. As Dostoevsky pointed out:

“There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

The inmates lived a provisional existence of unknown limit, without a future and without a goal, intensifying the feeling of lifelessness. However, one could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did the majority of the prisoners.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

The sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect, weakening one’s power of resistance and making one vulnerable to illness. The death rate in the week between Christmas and New Year’s increased in camp beyond all previous experience, as many hoped to be freed and reunited with their loved ones. Man needs a future goal. Frankl approvingly quotes the words of Nietzsche:

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

“That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

What was really needed was a fundamental change in one’s attitude toward life.

“It does not really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us.”

The third stage is the psychology of the prisoner after his liberation. Frankl was freed after 3 years, yet he and his inmates did not feel pleased.

“Freedom, we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it. Its reality did not penetrate into our consciousness; we could not grasp the fact that freedom was ours.”

They had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly. This is known as depersonalisation, everything appears unreal, unlikely, as in a dream.

Many experienced bitterness. The superficiality and lack of feeling of one’s fellow men was so sickening that:

“one finally felt like creeping into a hole and neither hearing nor seeing human beings anymore.”

Others experienced disillusionment:

“Woe to him who found that the person whose memory alone had given him courage in camp did not exist anymore!”

Part II. Logotherapy in a Nutshell

Logotherapy

The second section of the book, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” is devoted to explaining Frankl’s ideas about logotherapy in more detail.

He named his practice after the Greek word logos, which denotes “meaning.” His form of therapy is oriented around helping patients find meaning in their future, in contrast to the psychoanalytic practice of solving a patient’s problems by focusing on their past.

The most important force in a man’s life is his desire to find meaning. While Freud speaks of a “will to pleasure” and Adler speaks of a “will to power,” Frankl focuses on a “will to meaning”, as the primary motivational force in man.

An inability to follow the will to meaning gives way to existential frustration. This can in turn result in neuroses, which may be defined as a poor ability to adapt to one’s environment, an inability to change one’s life patterns and the difficulty to develop a richer, more complex and satisfying personality.

Unlike the neuroses dealt with in psychoanalytical practice which emerge from gratification and satisfaction of drives, in logotherapy one speaks of noögenic neuroses (from the Greek word noös or “mind”), which arise from existential issues and problems with the will to meaning.

A man’s concern over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. A misinterpretation of this may motivate a doctor to bury his patient’s existential despair under a heap of tranquilising drugs.

The logotherapist regards his assignment as that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life through widening and broadening the visual field of the patient, so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.

To be mentally sound, man must constantly be struggling and striving for a worthwhile goal.When people are haunted by their inner emptiness, with a feeling of ultimate meaninglessness, they exist in what is known as an “existential vacuum”.

Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked. Thus, responsibility is the very essence of human existence.

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Frankl claims that there are three ways to find meaning in life: (1) by working or doing a deed; (2) by love; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

The first is the way of achievement or accomplishment. The second way of finding a meaning in life is through love:

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality.”

The third way of finding a meaning in life is by suffering. Suffering is in no way necessary to find meaning, but rather meaning is possible in spite of suffering, provided that it were unavoidable.

“Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”

Suffering may well be a human achievement. One of the basic tenets of logotherapy is that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.

“Our current philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.”

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. A human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, through actualising the potential meaning inherent and dormant in every given situation.


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Man’s Search for Meaning in 10 Minutes | Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning was published by Viktor Frankl in 1946. Frankl is the founder of logotherapy. The most important force in a man’s life is his desire to find meaning.


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In Pursuit of Meaning (philosophy & psychology)

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