Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Published in Book Reviews2022-03-0412 min read
Man’s Search For Meaning

Man’s Search For Meaning is the culmination of psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s 3 years spent in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps during World War 2 and is a memoir of the realizations and epiphanies he came to during this time about some of the most fundamental questions of human existence. The book is a meditation on authoritarianism, the human proclivity towards evil, and the consequences of abdicating individual responsibility in the face of collective adversity. It is a journey through the daily lives of camp inmates, revealing lessons of perseverance, man’s capacity to endure suffering, and the need to confront this suffering with dignity by giving it meaning even in the harshest of circumstances, like the death camps of a totalitarian State.

It is this ‘𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘵𝘰 𝘮𝘦𝘢𝘯𝘪𝘯𝘨’, that forms the foundation for Frankl’s ‘Logotherapy’ – the school of psychotherapy founded on the idea that a search for meaning is the primary human motivation. As expounded upon in the second part of the book, Logotherapy is a departure from the kind of impulsive and hedonistic ‘will to pleasure’ that undergirds Freudian Psychoanalysis. It seeks to explain the human condition as one in constant search for meaning. Suffering is ubiquitous and inescapable, and man must constantly fight to remain worthy of his suffering by leading a meaningful life – to justify his existence despite all its pathologies. The pursuit of purpose, not power or pleasure, is the antidote to suffering. One is reminded of Nietzsche’s words

“𝘏𝘦 𝘸𝘩𝘰 𝘩𝘢𝘴 𝘢 𝘸𝘩𝘺 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘣𝘦𝘢𝘳 𝘢𝘭𝘮𝘰𝘴𝘵 𝘢𝘯𝘺 𝘩𝘰𝘸.” This statement Viktor claims, withstood the ultimate test in the death camps of Auschwitz.

Part 1 is the autobiographical account of camp life that serves as the stock of experience from which Viktor draws, in briefly laying out the core tenets of Logotherapy in Part 2. The reader is taken through a personal, yet extremely powerful and haunting description of life in the Nazi concentration camps. Hunger, disease, torture, humiliation, death, the cold, the insufferable work conditions, and the constant battle for life revealed truths about human nature in conditions no social experiment could replicate. One of these key truths and a common thread throughout the book is that the human spirit is capable of withstanding even the greatest of suffering only when this suffering is infused with a sense of meaning. Frankl builds upon the notion that the existentialist philosophers of the past had always proclaimed - the belief that the individual has free will and possesses the unique human capacity for reason. Viktor’s own experience of being a prisoner to one of the evilest totalitarian regimes in history, as well his up close and personal experiences with his fellow inmates as a psychiatrist made it clear to him, above all else, that at the root of man lies an undying urge to find meaning in his existence. Those in the camp that had even a glimmer of hope to cling on to - a purpose to fulfill, a personal achievement to realize, a career goal to reach, or even just a loved one to go back home to, were the ones that did not succumb to the paralyzingly hopeless existence of the Nazi concentration camps.

Frankl writes of how not just the physical and mental state of the prisoner, but the very integrity of his moral being was stretched to its limits. For many, stealing bread from a fellow starving prisoner, betraying a friend or family member, or switching identification numbers with a stranger so they would be first to suffer the fate of the gas chambers was no longer immoral conduct. The ambit of morality for many had expanded to include any act of cruelty and deceit that would trade-in for another lease on life. Because indeed, those not willing to forego their moral standards even in a concentration camp died earlier and more brutal deaths - as Frankl writes, “the best of us did not return”. This is what Frankl means by what he calls “the last of human freedoms – the freedom to choose one’s attitude in a given circumstance”. Prisoners in the torturous work camps among the raging famine, death, and disease were presented with this one last freedom by fate.

Viktor describes witnessing the manifestation of many of the human mind’s defense mechanisms in the unprecedented psychological stress it was presented within the concentration camps. The shock upon admission sent many of the prisoners into a state of apathy – a kind of deadening of emotions and numbing of the senses that left the individual unperturbed by the senseless pain, suffering, and death that surrounded him at all times. The future was no longer relevant, and any ‘future’ to worry about shrank from years to days, to hours to sometimes even the next few minutes. 'Living' for the camp prisoner was reduced to a mere ‘𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘷𝘪𝘴𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘦𝘹𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘤𝘦’, where nothing else remained relevant but the here and now. Hope took many forms for those who still wanted to hold on to it - from mental images of eventual freedom and family reunions to the rare moments of recreation that the inmates created among themselves. For the dying prisoner with no life outside the confines of the camp to look forward to, even as much as the sight of a tree outside the prison window could provide a moment of relief and reflection. One of the most moving sentences in the entire book was where Viktor talks about the redemptive power of love. Frankl writes of how often the image of his beloved wife spared him moments of calm and peace from the torturous daily march to their worksite, despite not knowing where she was, even dead or alive:

“𝘍𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘪𝘳𝘴𝘵 𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘦 𝘐 𝘴𝘢𝘸 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘳𝘶𝘵𝘩 𝘢𝘴 𝘪𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘴𝘦𝘵 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘴𝘰𝘯𝘨 𝘣𝘺 𝘴𝘰 𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘺 𝘱𝘰𝘦𝘵𝘴, 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘤𝘭𝘢𝘪𝘮𝘦𝘥 𝘢𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘸𝘪𝘴𝘥𝘰𝘮 𝘣𝘺 𝘴𝘰 𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘬𝘦𝘳𝘴. 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘳𝘶𝘵𝘩 – 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘭𝘰𝘷𝘦 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘶𝘭𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘩𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘦𝘴𝘵 𝘨𝘰𝘢𝘭 𝘵𝘰 𝘸𝘩𝘪𝘤𝘩 𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘢𝘴𝘱𝘪𝘳𝘦. 𝘛𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘐 𝘨𝘳𝘢𝘴𝘱𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘦𝘢𝘯𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘨𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘴𝘵 𝘴𝘦𝘤𝘳𝘦𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘩𝘶𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘱𝘰𝘦𝘵𝘳𝘺 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘩𝘶𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘣𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘦𝘧 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵: 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘢𝘭𝘷𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘰𝘧 𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝘭𝘰𝘷𝘦, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘪𝘯 𝘭𝘰𝘷𝘦.”

The book changed and deepened my understanding of totalitarianism which I had believed to be a top-down tyrannical structure where subjects were united in their suffering under the oppression of a powerful authoritarian elite. Viktor’s experience in the concentration camp, however, paints a more sinister picture of how authoritarian tendencies perpetuate –that tyranny is the consequence of each individual’s moral failings as much as it of the moral bankruptcy of the State. Viktor’s description of life in the concentration camp teaches that man does not hesitate to turn against a fellow man when thrown into a struggle for daily bread and mere survival. Viktor observed in the concentration camps the repudiation of the Freudian idea that uniformity of suffering in a group, orients the group toward a single collective goal. The tight group identity of prisoners in their mutual suffering in the concentration camp did not unify them, instead turned many of them against one another in a kind of bitter and selfish fight for ‘survival of the fittest, to use Darwinian terms. This infighting further weakened the group collectively and allowed the authoritarian power to cement control over its subjects.

The struggle for life “𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘰𝘱𝘦𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘥𝘦𝘱𝘵𝘩𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘩𝘶𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘴𝘰𝘶𝘭” exposed the same qualities of good and evil that reside inside every human being, leaving the choice to the individual which of these qualities to manifest in the fight for survival. The ‘Capos’ - prisoners who had agreed to be Nazi accomplices in the administration of the camps, were often even more brutal than the Nazi SS Guards towards their treatment of the prisoners. This reminded me of the famous ‘Milgram Experiment’ in social psychology, whose results demonstrate how man’s willingness to commit acts of brutality increases as his sense of individual responsibility for the activity decreases. It is easier to inflict pain and suffering when you think you’re just following orders, not burdened with personal guilt.

Some of the darker passages in the book, mainly in Part 1 were so powerful that I often found me momentarily looking away from the page just to fully absorb the depth of what I had just read. It is easy to read most survival literature like this, from the view of the poor oppressed victim - but what I’ve come to realize is that it’s just as important to imagine yourself in the shoes of a Capo or a Nazi SS Guard, to learn what twisted sense of moral virtue drove ordinary men to commit such genocidal acts of evil. You need to be aware of the darkest parts of your being, inside what Carl Jung called the ‘Shadow’, to guard against it.

Tales from the concentration camp also refute the notion that any clear line can be drawn between two groups about good and evil. Viktor rejects this collectivist idea through his narration of personal experiences with both the camp guards and his fellow prisoners, dividing people into simply ‘decent’, and ‘non-decent’ men. This refutation of collective guilt or victimhood reminds me of what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in The Gulag Archipelago: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart ... And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains an uprooted small corner of evil”.

Frankl’s development of Logotherapy was the practical and psychotherapeutic application of these experiences and the lessons learned during his 3 years of captivity in Nazi concentration camps. Approaching man as being driven primarily by a pursuit of meaning, and not by a pursuit of power or pleasure as described by his predecessors, Logotherapy seeks to solve neuroses, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and chronic depression by orienting the individual to a purpose in existence, awakening him to the finitude of his life and helping achieve what Viktor calls ‘𝘴𝘦𝘭𝘧-𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘴𝘤𝘦𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘯𝘤𝘦’.

One of the more interesting things in the latter part of the book was Viktor’s diagnosis of the modern man as stuck in an ‘𝘦𝘹𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘭 𝘷𝘢𝘤𝘶𝘶𝘮’– a kind of monotonous and mundane daily existence in a soulless industrialized world that provides no sense of individual meaning beyond everyday life to most of the working class. The cure to this epidemic of meaninglessness says Viktor, is to never allow the youth to be in a state of stasis, rather always be oriented towards the attainment of a goal - whether in creative achievement, in personal experience, or even in simply facing life's suffering with dignity. These are in fact, the three avenues to meaning that Viktor offers the reader in the fight against the 'tragic triad' of life - namely pain, guilt, and death. A constant struggle towards one of these avenues to meaning is how the individual is prevented from degeneration into pleasure-seeking impulsive gratification that may take the form of several self-destructive behaviors.

Another thing I could gather from the passage on Existential Vacuum is that the condition of man is not meant to be static and tensionless. Viktor seems to imply that the human condition retreats to its most primal and instinctual form in the absence of a struggle towards a purpose higher than oneself. This is true of the most fundamental biological drives like one's eating habits and sexual behavior. Upon reading this I was reminded of what Fyodor Dostoevsky said about the nature of man – “Shower on him every blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, give him economic prosperity such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of the species, and even then, out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick”. This Dostoevskian idea suggests that the curious and unresting mind of man is essentially built for trouble and mere satisfaction of biological needs cannot pacify him. This rings similar but in a way the reverse of Frankl’s idea of existential frustration and its resultant devolution of man into a more primal being driven by immediate instinct. The difference lies that Viktor Frankl replaces this tendency for ‘playing nasty tricks’ with an orientation toward a productive and meaningful goal.

It is clear that Viktor emphasizes the necessity of meaning in individual life, but in parallel, he has also rejected the existence of a grand universal meaning for the collective humankind. Instead, Viktor says, that the particularities of each individual’s life – in both his biological and social being, are so unique that each is independently responsible for carving out a pathway to a meaning that he alone can define for himself. It is in the absence of this personal meaning that the individual either succumbs to hopeless nihilism, gives up his individuality in conforming to the group collective, or submits to the tyranny of authoritarian power. However, for one to be cognizant of his responsibility to find meaning in life, it is to be assumed that man is ultimately in control of his own life and destiny, and not a mere ‘plaything of circumstance’, be it his internal biology or external environment. This is Viktor’s major critique of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis – claiming that its deterministic nature only adds to a patient’s neurosis by treating him as if only driven by deep biological impulse beyond his control and conscience. This criticism is backed up by the observational experience that none of Viktor’s contemporaries can lay claim to – 3 years of enduring and witnessing the worst of horrors that man is capable of both inflicting and suffering, inside the Nazi concentration camps.

I’ve tried in this review to distill some of the key lessons I derived from the book as best I could. Man’s Search For Meaning has to be one of the most profound books I’ve ever read – so dark in its subject yet so uplifting in its lessons of hope and meaning. It makes you wonder how many other great minds and stories died unnamed and unreported in the Holocaust and the genocides of the 20th century. The book will leave you spellbound and teach you that if meaning can sustain prisoners inside a death camp, then we can be sure that it is meaning that will pull us through the trivial suffering of our individual lives – that there is something uniquely powerful about the human spirit once it is oriented towards a noble purpose. I’d rate this book a 9.5/10 and I highly suggest you to read this timeless classic of survival literature!