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Man's Search for Meaning

Man's Search for Meaning Summary
Personal Development, Psychology and History & Philosophy

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Man's Search for Meaning

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ISBN: 9780807014271

Also available in audiobook

Summary

Between 1942 and 1945, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Emil Frankl spent time in four different Nazi concentration camps. Published shortly after the end of World War II, “Man’s Search for Meaning” is a two-part document of defiance amid pain and suffering. Its first half chronicles Frankl’s experiences at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Kaufering, and Türkheim, while the second describes the psychotherapeutic method he developed to help people cope with the agony of living. 

So, get ready to learn a bit more about one of the most influential psychiatrists of the 20th century, and prepare to discover nothing less than the meaning and value of human existence!

The life of Viktor Frankl before the war

Viktor Frankl was alive for all but eight years of the twentieth century: the first five and the last three. His interest in psychology surfaced during the time of World War I when he began taking night classes at the Adult Education Center. Soon after, he began a correspondence with Sigmund Freud, and, at his recommendation, the International Journal of Psychoanalysis published a scientific paper by the 19-year-old Frankl in 1924.

Influenced by Freud and inspired by a fellow student who told him he had a gift for helping others, Frankl decided to become a psychiatrist while still in high school. However, he quickly grew dissatisfied with Freud’s ideas and became a member of the circle of students around Alfred Adler, a former adherent of Freud and a founder of the second Viennese School of Psychotherapy. He didn’t remain long there: he was expelled from Adler’s circle because of his insistence on meaning being the central motivational force in human beings.

So, from 1926 onward, Frankl began developing a new psychological theory, while working with troubled youths and suicidal patients at a self-founded counseling program and the University Clinic in Vienna. When World War II started in 1939, Frankl was a nationwide respected psychiatrist and was the head of the neurology department at Rothschild Hospital – the only hospital in Vienna still admitting Jews. He was also planning to start structuring his theory in a book. Titled “Logotherapy,” the book was supposed to argue that “the quest for meaning is the key to mental health and human flourishing.”

Honor thy parents: Frankl and the war

However, soon after the war started, the Rothschild Hospital was closed down by the National Socialist government. Frankl, fearing for his life and the lives of his close ones, wanted to flee. As luck would have it, shortly before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, he received an invitation to come to the American Consulate in Vienna to pick up his immigration visa. Frankl’s parents were overjoyed, but he was hesitant: “could I really afford to leave my parents alone to face their fate, to be sent, sooner or later, to a concentration camp?” – he wondered.

It was then that he noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at his home. His father explained that he found the piece on the site where the Nazis had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He took it home because it was a part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. This one in particular stood for the fifth one: “Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land.” “At that moment,” writes Frankl, “I decided to stay with my father and my mother upon the land, and to let the American visa lapse.”

Frankl and his family were arrested and deported in September 1942. His father wouldn’t live to see the following year, dying in Theresienstadt soon after. His mother and brother were both killed in Auschwitz. Frankl survived, spending the three years until the end of the war at four different concentration camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kaufering, and Türkheim, part of the Dachau complex. 

Camp life and the three phases of suffering

Strongly opposed to outsider depictions – since they are bound to be “mingled with sentiment and pity” – Frankl coolheadedly identifies three phases of an inmate’s mental reactions to the realities of camp life:

  • Shock. Despite hearing many stories, none of the prisoners were prepared mentally for the sight of a concentration camp: the barbed-wire fences, the water towers, the searchlights, and “the long columns of ragged human figures.” Some experienced the shock of disbelief even before being formally admitted to the camps. For example, nearly everyone in Frankl’s transport was under the impression that they would be reprieved, convinced that everything would yet be well. The condition – known as “delusion of reprieve” in psychiatry – could only deepen the shock on arrival. No prisoner could believe their fate after being stripped by the Nazis of their possessions, clothes – and even names.
  • Apathy. In time, the initial shock gave way to something far worse: apathy. Dostoyevsky writes in “The House of the Dead” that a man can get accustomed to anything, and Frankl testifies to the veracity of this claim. The prisoners became desensitized to the atrocities going around them. Feelings such as disgust, horror, and pity became alien to them. Nothing could move them – not the beatings, not the punishments, and not even the sights of the numberless dying and the dead lying around. Survival was all that mattered at the moment, and the means were less important, so pillaging the recently deceased became a common sight, one that Frankl could watch “without any emotional upset.” Bereft of a future, a human being can become an animal, a prisoner of their primal instincts trapped in the uncertainty of the present. The Holocaust victims were even less – not people, not animals, but numbers. “Dead or alive – that was unimportant,” remembers Frankl; “the life of a ‘number’ was completely irrelevant. What stood behind that number and that life mattered even less: the fate, the history, the name of the man.”
  • Depersonalization. Millions died in the camps – a disaster that is as shocking as it is unfathomable. Frankl makes a poignant note of an even greater tragedy behind the tragedy: “We who have come back […] we know: the best of us did not return.” Unfortunately, even the ones who did weren’t liberated psychologically: they had seen too much to be able to make a new start. They had said the word “freedom” so often during their years as prisoners that it had lost all meaning once they were released. “We could not grasp the fact that freedom was ours,” explains Frankl. Now that their dreams of liberty had come true, they could not believe in reality anymore: “everything appeared unreal, unlikely, as in a dream.” Psychologically, what was happening to the liberated prisoners could be called “depersonalization”: after living years as numbers, they had forgotten how to live as people. And even when they tried, two other fundamental experiences threatened to damage their character – bitterness and disillusionment. The prisoners who survived had kept their spirits up in the camps by imagining that they would see their loved ones after liberation day, “only to find that the person who should open the door was not there, and would never be there again.” For some prisoners, the disillusionment evolved into bitterness and a strong desire for revenge. “Now, being free, they thought they could use their freedom licentiously and ruthlessly,” analyzes Frankl. “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.” These people justified their behavior by their own terrible experiences and had forgotten that “no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”

Meaning in the face of suffering

As a prewar psychiatrist, Frankl believed that meaning was the central motivational force of human existence; as a prisoner of war, he had no choice but to revisit his theory. After all, life stopped having any meaning for most of his fellow inmates, both in the camps and after the camps were liberated. So, how and why did some of them survive? And how could the ones who did go on living?

It didn’t take long for Frankl to realize that, rather than a refutation of his psychological theory, life at the camps was really its final validation. The people who persisted through the pain and the monstrosities were the people who felt like their life had some kind of meaning – not just despite the pain, but even because of it. “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task – his single and unique task,” writes Frankl. “He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”

Frankl himself survived using this method. As American philosopher William J. Winslade writes in the afterword to “Man’s Search for Meaning,” his survival was “a combined result of his will to live, his instinct for self-preservation, some generous acts of human decency, and shrewdness. [He] drew constantly upon uniquely human capacities such as inborn optimism, humor, psychological detachment, brief moments of solitude, inner freedom, and a steely resolve not to give up or commit suicide. He realized that he must try to live for the future, and he drew strength from loving thoughts of his wife and his deep desire to finish his book on logotherapy.” 

Logotherapy in a nutshell

In short, unlike the people who tragically lost their lives, Frankl didn’t give up on his future. In his opinion, giving up on your future is not that different from dying in itself. As a literal proof, he shares the story of a friend of his who had dreamed the camp would be liberated on the penultimate day of March. This inspired a lot of hope in the man, but when it didn’t happen, he succumbed to a typhus infection, dying just a day after the dream-promised liberation. 

Frankl chose a different path: to live for his future even when taken from him. This gave his life meaning in the present, and this meaning gave him the necessary courage and defiance to endure the unbearable suffering. “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,” wrote once Nietzsche. Frankl can see in these words a motto for his school of psychotherapy, dubbed by him “logotherapy” after the Greek word for “meaning.”

Where Freud wrote of “the will to pleasure” and Adler of “the will to power,” logotherapy focuses on “the will to meaning” as the primary motivational force in man. Frankl believes that life has meaning under all circumstances and that we have freedom to find meaning in what we do even amid unimaginable suffering. Although there are three universal sources for meaning – work, love, and courage – each person’s meaning is unique and specific in that it can be fulfilled by them alone.

Frankl spent his life believing that “the salvation of man is through love and in love.” When his students asked him once to express in one sentence the meaning of his life, he allowed them to guess. “The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs,” one of the students eventually stated. That was the right answer.

Final Notes

“Man’s Search for Meaning” is not only one of the bestselling works of the 20th century but also one of the most influential.

There aren’t many nonfiction works that can make an immediate difference in your life. Well, this one can.

12min Tip

The original German title of “Man’s Search for Meaning” is “...Nevertheless, say 'Yes’ to Life.” Please, do.

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Who wrote the book?

Viktor Emil Frankl was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor. He was the founder of logotherapy, the third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, after Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology. A pro... (Read more)