Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

★★★★★ (5/5)

 “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”


This was a fantastic read albeit difficult to review owing to my present crisis of grappling the meaning of my own life in a larger context other than myself. Victor Frankl’s book is a tremendously brave piece of writing. A holocaust survivor and a psychiatrist, he is considered one of the founders of logotherapy – a form of existential analysis which emphasises upon unearthing one’s meaning of life. The book is divided in two parts, the first chronicles life in concentration camps and the other expounds upon his therapy and the need for it in modern age.

Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.

I: Experiences in a Concentration Camp

Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent

The first unit contains harrowing details of mental and physical torture suffered by those condemned to concentration camps. Amidst all traumatic experiences, Frankl ably portrays the endurance of man through which he either survived the ordeal or made peace with his circumstances. Intense cruelty of the environment around them made prisoners either volatile or more attentive to beauty of art and nature.

As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before

Love, truth and humour are some of the human values which can be found in the most tormenting of times. The struggle against endless uncertainty of life and its most trivial aspects, which many of us take for granted, was fought by many prisoners with the only weapon at their disposal – survival. Strenuous physical work coupled with mental agitation (lost families, death and misery), inability to fend for or feed themselves adequately aggravated their distress. Yet many held on to hope, hope to see their wives and children, complete their life’s work, escape from misery or general freedom from the brutality of Nazi regime.

After all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more—except his God.

Faith, love and beauty helped these prisoners persevere through the harshest of conditions in which hunger, death, filth and misery were abound. Through many poetic instances of encounters with nature and irony, Frankl illustrates human will and fortitude in face of extreme brutality. He explicates on the importance of free-will and choice in an age where fate and predestination have been given a final say in all matters. He thoroughly charges against the concept of nihilism with the example of his own life and survival.

Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

II: Logotherapy in a Nutshell

Logotherapy, in comparison with psychoanalysis, is a method less retrospective and less introspective

The second chapter expounds on Frankl’s “Logotherapy” – it focuses on Kierkegaard’s will to meaning theory as opposed to Freudian will to pleasure or Adler’s will to power philosophy.

In contrast to Freud’s and Adler’s “depth psychology,” which emphasizes delving into an individual’s past and his or her unconscious instincts and desires, Frankl practiced “height psychology,” which focuses on a person’s future and his or her conscious decisions and actions

Logotherapy considers man’s search for meaning of life as the single most motivating force to live and survive. Frankl’s Holocaust experiences gave his notions a concrete shape which he later transcribed in this book.

Psychiatry tried to interpret the human mind merely as a mechanism, and consequently the therapy of mental disease merely in terms of a technique

Frankl’s ideas deviate from mainstream practice of psychoanalysis. For him, a man’s despair of his worthwhileness of life is an existential distress and not a mental disease. Here, the word “disease” is the hook for burying crucial existential questions under a bulk of expensive, tranquilising drugs. The doctor profits financially whilst giving their patient an easy fix but undoubtedly entombing the patient with their misery for life.

There are some authors who contend that meanings 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,” nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my “reaction formations.”

Frankl also delineates the importance of internal tension arising from man’s search for meaning – not in absolute but in variable and subjective terms. One may commence the search for meaning in hopes of mitigating existential anguish or reaching an inner equilibrium. However the search maybe far too profound and may rattle one even more. But Frankl argues that such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health.

Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become

Next, Frankl explains the term “meaning of life” which is often understood to be answered in absolute rather than relative terms. He argues that meaning of life can never be gathered in a generalised manner. Each moment of a person’s life differs in what meaning he might attribute to or extract from it. Therefore the phrase “meaning of life” can be answered in specific, variable terms depending on what the person is going through.

Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Three main tenets of logotherapy represent its basic principles:

  1. Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  2. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
  3. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stance we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering

Frankl emphasises on man’s power to free-will to deduce what form his life will take. The choice granted by our Creator to human kind is one of His kindest blessings, one which we make very less use of, often relying on total submission to forces greater than us. Fate and free-will are reconciled in this universe, each supplementing the other.

Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.

He attributes meaning of life primarily to responsibleness which is the very essence of human existence. He validates altruism and kindness through love as the first path towards finding meaning of one’s life.

The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself

The usage of the term “Moslem”

Do you know what we mean by a ‘Moslem’? A man who looks miserable, down and out, sick and emaciated, and who cannot manage hard physical labor any longer … that is a ‘Moslem.’ Sooner or later, usually sooner, every ‘Moslem’ goes to the gas chambers

This particular passage took me by considerable surprise. How can a book which advocates humility and kindness to all humankind so irrationally use the term “Muslim” in denigrating terms. Upon further research however I found its linguistic, semantic and cultural bearings.

The first derivation of the word is that Muselmann is a distortion of the word Muschelmann which implies the image of a man crouched or folded like in a shell. Prisoners in the concentration camp were often too cold and weak to move around. Having given up on living and already dying of malnutrition and overwork, they would hunker on the ground. From afar, they looked like kneeling in prayer-position, assuming a similar posture to that of a Muslim praying.

Another explanation of the word “Moslem” used for emaciated prisoners can be used in literal meaning of the word “Muslim” in Arabic which means absolute and unconditional surrender to the will of Allah. This hints at notion of fatalism which can be attributed to the resignation of prisoners to their surroundings.

Islamic fatalism has been duly misinterpreted by Western philosophic schools of thought. A Muslim surrenders to the will of God so that he may not submit to the will of man. Our faith defies giving absolute allegiance to any earthly being so that the aspects which make us human may not be defined by those who wield power on earth. Muslim faith denies relinquishing one’s will in favour of another human being except God and this very idea affirms our belief in God’s work.

Submitting to Divine Will is translated as loss of will in the West which is then construed as being “inhuman”. Thus the usage of the term “Moslem” in concentration camps for prisoners who had completely given up on survival slights the implications of Muslim faith and its terminologies. Islam beautifully binds together the opposing concepts of predestination and free-will which is the very point this book aims to make. However I felt it necessary to explain the usage of the term and its connotations.

Concluding Thoughts

Frankl ends the book by making a case for “tragic optimism”. Having already debunked the phrase “meaning of life” in relative terms, he argues against the phrase “pursuit of happiness”. Happiness is an abstract term but modern day connotations have given it tangible means – happiness can be acquired through following certain rites of passage like monetary and social success. Frankl sees human beings not in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy. This reason is intangible and so must be the means to achieve it.

Meaning orientation had subsided, and consequently the seeking of immediate pleasure had taken over.

He underlines the importance of experience being as valuable as achieving some substantial or incorporeal notion. The external world around us lays stress on achievement while our inner world relies on a myriad of experiences through which we fashion our decisions and mould our lives. This conflict can be resolved through therapeutic practices which stress upon the value of experiences in order to help in our search for meaning.

Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is highly recommended read for anyone striving to make sense of their lives through an external definition which does not conform to stereotypical notions of nihilism.

On Free-will

  • You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.
  • What does Spinoza say in his Ethics? —“Affectus, qui passio est, desinit esse passio simulatque eius claram et distinctam formamus ideam.” Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.
  • For, in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything irrevocably stored.
  • Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness

On Happiness

  • For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself
  • Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it

On Love

  • The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire
  • There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved
  • …stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me

On Human Condition

  • In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as “delusion of reprieve.” The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute
  • Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation
  • With the end of uncertainty there came the uncertainty of the end
  • It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future—sub specie aeternitatis. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.
  • The only thing that had changed for them was that they were now the oppressors instead of the oppressed. They became instigators, not objects, of willful force and injustice. They justified their behavior by their own terrible experiences.
  • No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them
  • Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).
  • Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money. In other cases, the place of frustrated will to meaning is taken by the will to pleasure. That is why existential frustration often eventuates in sexual compensation. We can observe in such cases that the sexual libido becomes rampant in the existential vacuum.
  • Blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness
  • Sed omnia praeclara tam difficilia quam rara sunt (but everything great is just as difficult to realize as it is rare to find) reads the last sentence of the Ethics of Spinoza

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