Book Review: ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl

This book is divided into two parts. The first part is an autobiographical account of Viktor Frankl’s time in concentration camps during the second World War, and the second part is a more academic exposition of the type of psychotherapy that he created, Logotherapy.

He begins the book with an admission that ‘This book does not claim to be an account of the facts’, which is an interesting start, given that I think most people opening a book about the Holocaust are going into it prepared to be smacked in the face with some cold hard truths, and (hopefully) a willingness to take the survivors’ at their word. My comment isn’t to suggest that Frankl is painting a fictional picture, but he is reminding us that even factual accounts of events, especially those involving immense suffering, will always be shot through with the strong emotions colouring a first-person account. Which makes it then all the more surprising, and initially disorienting, to find in the pages that follow an absence of emotion, to the point where it can feel quite like watching a scientist observing the facts. This is soon explained however, when Frankl writes that: ‘Cold curiosity predominated in even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity’ (29). He describes this as a self-preservation mechanism, and we come closer to understanding just what happens at the limit of human cruelty and suffering experienced in concentration camps all over the world.

What the book goes on to teach us, is that positive transformation can be achieved even through the most horrendous experiences of suffering. This is a hard idea to take. Our immediate reaction might be to reject that kind of inhumane suffering forthright as an absolute evil (which it is), but what Frankl pushes us to confront is the possibility that so long as someone is still alive, there is still hope. Something can be made of the situation, even if it is only a kind of ‘spiritual’ and inner transformation. And what he wants us to take from that fact, those of us so far from having any comparable kind of experience of hardship, is that our experiences of difficulty can also be transformed into something meaningful and positive. This is another surprising move of the book – as we might feel uncomfortable trying to place the two different kinds of suffering side by side in this way – especially when ours might feel trivial in comparison.

But that is exactly what he asks us to do, to use his experience as something we can learn from to live our lives in more meaningful ways. And this is how we arrive at Part 2, on Logotherapy, which is a therapy designed to help the individual discover, and live by, the unique meaning that they can create for their lives. Frankl explains that there are three different ways we can discover meaning: ‘(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering’ (155). (Note the importance of the word ‘unavoidable’ to qualify suffering here, Frankl is adamant that self-inflicted suffering is masochism, without the potential for self-actualization). Where logotherapy differs from Freudian psychoanalysis is that according to Logotherapy, ‘man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalisation” of instinctual drives’ (105), and this has close links with Nietzsche’s idea of the will to power – but Frankl edits the phrase to will to meaning.

The first way we discover meaning, ‘creating a work or doing a deed’, is fairly self-explanatory and well-established, so Frankl doesn’t dwell on it. The second, ‘experiencing something or encountering someone’, Frankl explains by delving into the meaning of love: ‘Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality … by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualise these potentialities’ (116). I think it is still an open question as to whether this kind of ‘therapeutic’ love can exist within a psychotherapeutic relationship (my inclination is towards the negative), but that’s something I’ll write about in a future post. It sounds like Frankl is talking predominantly about real-world love experiences here, so maybe he’d agree with me. The third way to find meaning, ‘through suffering,’ is what Part 1 had described for us, as he was somehow able to transform his experience of suffering into something with meaning. However, I would like to tentatively suggest that perhaps point 1 (‘creating a work or doing a deed’) also has a role to play in what enabled Frankl to find meaning through suffering (point 3). From what we learn in the autobiographical part of his book, it seems as though Frankl’s role as a doctor towards the end of his time in the camps was at least partially what helped him survive, both physically and psychologically. At one point, given the chance to escape, Frankl decides to stay in the camp hospital and tend to his dying patients.

I like the idea of life as guided by those three ways of creating meaning: Works and deeds, experiences and relationships, and the strength to try to step back from our suffering to see what good can come of it, even if that might only be an increased ability to empathise.

I’ll finish by sharing some of my favourite quotes from the book:

‘Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.’ (30)

‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.’ (32)

‘A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life 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.’ (49)

‘This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his experience, by letting him escape into the past.’ (50)

‘Humour was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humour, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.’ (54)

‘Suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative. It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys.’ (55)

‘No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.’ (58)

‘The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add deeper meaning to his life.’ (76)

‘It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future – sub specie aeternitatis.’ (81)

‘Thus it can seem that 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 […] What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge or tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.’ (110)

Quotes from Freud (Standard Edition, Complete Works, Vol. XXI)

The Future of an Illusion (1927)

‘There are two widespread human characteristics which are responsible for the fact that the regulations of civilization can only be maintained by a certain degree of coercion – namely, that men are not spontaneously fond of work and that arguments are of no avail against their passions.’ (8)

I don’t agree with the above quote, I would counter that human beings are spontaneously fond of meaningful work, and that there are countless examples of men forgoing passion for legitimate reasons.

‘So long as a person’s early years are influenced not only be a sexual inhibition of thought but also by a religious inhibition and by a loyal inhibition derived from this, we cannot really tell what in fact he is like.’ (48)

Civilization and its Discontents (1930)

‘If we want to represent historical sequence in spatial terms we can only do it by juxtaposition in space: the same space cannot have two different contents. Our attempt seems to be an idle game. It has only one justification. It shows us how far we are from mastering the characteristics of mental life by representing them in pictorial terms.’ (71)

^ This quote felt relevant as an argument against the reductionist drive to explain everything in terms of neuroscience! But I’m probably stretching it a little...

‘Happiness, in the reduced sense in which we recognise it at possible, is a problem of the economics of the libido. There is no golden rule which applies to everyone: every man must find out for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved.’ (83)

‘In this respect civilization behaves towards sexuality as a people or a stratum of its population does which has subjected another one to its exploitation.’ (104)

The following two pessimistic quotes I am sorry to say that I think he’s right:

‘In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments, certainly a strong one, though certainly not the strongest; but we have in no way altered the differences in power and influence which are misused by aggressiveness, nor have we altered anything in its nature. Aggressiveness was not created by property.’ (113).

‘It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.’ (114)

‘And now, I think, the meaning of the evolution of civilization is no longer obscure to us. It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle is what all life essentially consists of, and the evolution of civilization may therefore be simply described as the struggle for life of the human species. And it is this battle of the giants that our nurse-maids try to appease with their lullaby about Heaven.’ (122)

‘Just as a planet revolves around a central body as well as rotating on its own axis, so the human individual takes part in the course of development of mankind at the same time as he pursues his own path in life.’ (141)