Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Self help books don’t usually fall under the BookSexy umbrella.  Occasionally, though, I recognize that a little guidance can be helpful.   Which is why Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (so much more than a self-help book) has had a place on my nightstand for the last 10 years.

Frankl was sent, with his wife and parents, to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in 1942.  He was liberated from Türkheim (near Dachau) in 1945.  A psychiatrist before the war, he survived his time in the camps attempting to treat fellow prisoners and mentally re-writing the manuscript that was taken from him on his imprisonment, incorporating his camp experiences into it.   The result has since been dubbed the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy”:  Logotherapy.

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives.  This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.  There are some authors who contend that meaning and values are “nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations.”  But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my “defense mechanisms,” now would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my “reaction formations.”  Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values!

What does this mean?  Frankl had discovered that those prisoners who had meaning in their life were more likely to survive their time in the concentration camps.   The key lay in finding  something in the future to live for – be it their next meal, a reunion with family, a task to be completed or, in his case, a manuscript to publish.  Without this will to meaning, the prisoner often gave up and death was almost inevitable.  (Of course, the difficulty often lay in pin-pointing what gave meaning to each individual).

Man’s Search for Meaning is divided into two parts . Part One: Experiences in a Concentration Camp is Frankl relating his personal story, while at the same time analyzing the dynamics of the camp and its’ impact on those within.  Frankl explores the three stages of a prisoner’s life – transport & arrival into the camp, daily camp life, and liberation & re-entrance into the world.  This exploration is not limited to the inmates, but extends to include guards, Capos, even the SS Commander in charge.  Parenthesis mine.

It was found after the liberation – only the camp doctor, a prisoner himself, had known of it previously – the (the commander of the camp) had paid no small sum of money from his own pocket in order to purchase medicines for his prisoners from the nearest market town.  But the senior camp warden, a prisoner himself, was harder than any of the SS Guards.  He beat the other prisoners at every slightest opportunity…

It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing.  Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.  The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils.

Frankl writes of his experiences and observations in a deadpan prose style.  His ability to analyze what must have been the darkest period of his life, and to do so without judgment, bitterness or bias is extraordinary.  In the Preface he states that Man’s Search for Meaning “is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multiple of small torments… Most events described here did not take place in the large and famous camps, but in the small ones where most of the real extermination took place.”   After reading his account it’s difficult to see the distinguishing line between the small torments and the great horrors…  but Frankl is not interested in that.  For him the Concentration Camp has become a set a circumstances.  His interest is in how man  reacts and rises above those circumstances.  (In later interviews he would discuss the freedom of choice and how it relates to our response to situation which are out of our control).  Yet despite his ability to remain detached in setting down this portion of his life, there are still moments of poignancy that creep in (more startling in their scarcity).

… there was a sort of self-selecting process going on the whole time among all of the prisoners.  On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of friends, in order to save themselves.  We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know:  the best of us did not return.

Books about the Holocaust often have a voyeuristic quality that distresses me,  as do true crime books and documentaries on the lives of serial killers.  It seems wrong to focus that kind of morbid (since how can it really be anything else?) curiosity on actual horrors, versus those created for t.v. on shows like Criminal Minds & CSI (which I find a bit creepy as well).   Man’s Search for Meaning is a fascinating story, dealing with the horrors and atrocities of the WWII Holocaust, but it is a story that is told within a greater context.  Frankl has attempted to apply what he has learned to the world outside of a Concentration Camp in order to address what he described as man’s existential dilemma.

The second part of Man’s Search for Meaning is called  Logotherapy in a Nutshell. The title is pretty much self explanatory.  When asked by reporters how he felt about the book selling millions of copies, Frankl stated that he sees it as “an expression of the misery of our time:  if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning of life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.”   Here he discusses how modern man has focused too much on happiness, when he should be focusing on the meaning in his life.   Similar to Kennedy’s famous quote “Ask not what your country can do for you…”, Frankl would point out that the question was not what you expected from life… but what does life expect of you?  Happiness is a result, not a reason.

This portion of the book is a bit more technical, dealing with neurosis and motivations and what can seem to some like so much psychoanalytical mumbo-jumbo that has long since passed out of fashion.  But it also contains a great deal of common sense.  The reader who can approach Logotherapy with an open mind, perhaps as lessons from a man who has gleaned some wisdom out of his life experiences, will be rewarded.  Not least by the realization that Viktor Frankl was a compassionate man, who made the choice to use his suffering to find a way to help others.

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5 comments on “Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

  1. I was introduced to “Man’s Search for Meaning” Viktor Frankl, by a Dr. Robin Herman, Professor for Psychology at Wright State University. Dr. Herman also wrote two books/ “The Psychology of Incarceration” and the “Hanbleycea” Dr. Herman used Viktor Frankls expereience in the camps as a metaphor, to men and women who are or have been in jails, prisions, abusive relationships. Viktor Frankls quote, “Everything can be taken from a man but, the last of human freedoms to choose.” The self imposed or imposed incarcertions can have an affect on us yet, do I allow myself to react or act to the circumstances. I have a chose to choose my own way, Today, I a consultant with Dr. Hermans work, he recently died from cancer. I also know that we can learn from our sufferings yet, do we have to suffer to learn? That is my choice.

    Khadijah Ali, In honor to my mentor, brother, teacher,(twin spirit) Dr. Robin Herman.

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  2. This is quite fascinating. I feel I’ve heard of it before but I’ve never had the opportunity to read it. I’m most intrigued by the first half of the book. While the technical aspects of psychology are of course interesting, I would really like to see how Frankl analyzes this world through, I presume (perhaps wrongly?), a psychoanalytical point of view. There is much to learn about human nature from the worst of circumstances and the second quote (about the guards) is most fascinating. This is an excellent review – thank you for writing it. I’m looking forward to reading Frankl’s book for myself.

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  3. Hi Biblibio!
    The first part of the book is fascinating, but don’t be intimidated by the second half. It’s really not all that technical (or else I probably would have had to give up). Regarding whether or not he is taking a psychoanalytical approach I can’t say, since to be honest I’m pretty ignorant on the schools of psychology. But based on what I’ve read about Frankl, himself, I’d say you are probably making a safe assumption.

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    • I think so too. Steinbeck really seems to like the people he meets on his road trip, and has the ability to get to the heart of what makes them interesting characters. Not to mention the fact that some of the stories in it are absolutely hilarious!

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