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Book review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

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Book review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

In a nutshell: The meaning of life is the meaning you decide to give it.

Viktor Frankl’s wife, father, mother and brother died in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Only his sister survived. Enduring extreme hunger, cold and brutality, first in Auschwitz and then Dachau, Frankl himself was under constant threat of going to the gas chambers. He lost every physical belonging on his first day in the camps and was forced to surrender a scientific manuscript that he considered his life’s work.

This is, if there ever was one, a story that could excuse someone believing that life is meaningless and suicide a reasonable option. Yet Frankl emerged an optimist. His reasoning was that even in the most terrible circumstances, people still have the freedom to choose how they see their circumstances and create meaning out of them.

Redefining human achievement

The most poignant bits of this 1959 classic are Frankl’s recollections of the thoughts that gave him the will to live. Mental images of his wife provided the only light in the dark days of the concentration camp. He also imagined himself after liberation in lecture halls, telling people about what must never happen again. This proved to be prophetic. Finally, there was the desire to jot down notes remembered from his lost manuscript.

The men who had given up, in contrast, could be recognised because they smoked their last cigarettes, which could have been traded for a scrap of food. These men decided that life held nothing more for them. Yet this thinking struck Frankl as a terrible mistake.

The book’s impact

Man’s Search for Meaning has sold over nine million copies and been translated into 24 languages. It was voted one of America’s 10 most influential books by the Library of Congress.

Yet Frankl, who originally wanted the book to be published with only his prisoner number on the cover, stated that he did not see the work as a great achievement. Its success was ‘an expression of the misery of our time,’ revealing the ravenous hunger for meaningful existence.

The will to meaning and logotherapy

What is amazing about Frankl’s experiences is that they caused him to live out the ideas about which, as a doctor before the outbreak of the Second World War, he had been theorising.

The theory and the practice became the Third School of Viennese psychotherapy, logotherapy (from the Greek logos, ‘meaning’), following Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology.

Unlike psychoanalysis, logotherapy tries to take the person out of themselves and see their life in a broader perspective.

Where psychoanalysis focuses on the ‘will to pleasure’ and Adlerian psychology on the ‘will to power,’ logotherapy sees the prime motivating force in human beings as a ‘will to meaning.’

In logotherapy, existential distress is not neurosis or mental disease, but a sign that we are becoming more human in the desire for meaning.

Sources of meaning

Logotherapy says that mental health arises when we learn how to close the gap between what we are and what we could become. But what if we are yet to identify what we could become?

Frankl noted that the modern person has almost too much freedom to deal with. We no longer live through instinct, but tradition is no guide either. This is the existential vacuum, in which the frustrated will to meaning is compensated for in the urge for money, sex, entertainment, even violence. We are not open to the various sources of meaning, which according to Frankl are:

1. Creating a work or doing a deed.

2. Experiencing something or encountering someone (love).

3. The attitude we take to unavoidable suffering. 

The first is a classic source, defined as ‘life purpose’ in the self-help literature. Our culture expects happiness, yet Frankl says this is not something that we should seek directly. He defines happiness as a by-product of forgetting ourselves in a task that draws on all our imagination and talents.

The second is important as it makes experience (inner and outer) a legitimate alternative to achievement in a society built around achieving. The third gives suffering a meaning, but what meaning? Frankl (pictured) admits that we may never know, or at least not until later in life. Just because we do not comprehend meaning, it does not mean that there is none.

To the people who say that life is meaningless because it is transitory, Frankl’s response is ‘only the unfulfilment of potential is meaningless, not life itself.’ Our culture worships the young, yet it is age that is to be admired, since the older person has loved, suffered, and fulfilled so much. Fulfilment of your own potential, however humble, will make a permanent imprint on the history of the world, and the decision to make that imprint defines responsibility. Freedom is only one half of the equation. The other half is responsibility to act on it.

Final comments

If there is a thread running through personal development writing, it is a belief in the changeability of the individual. Determinism, in contrast, says that we can never arise above our childhood or our genetic make-up.

What makes humans different as a species is that we can live for ideals and values. How else, as Frankl noted, would you be able to hold your head up as you entered the gas chamber?

Aware that most of us would never even come close to such a horrible fate, he used it as a reference point, a symbol of personal responsibility that could guide the decisions we make in our everyday lives. No matter what the circumstances, his book says, we can be free.

In a similar vein

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (6th century)

Extracted from 50 SELF-HELP CLASSICS: 50 Inspirational Books to Transform Your Life by Tom Butler-Bowdon, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing in paperback at £12.99. To order your copy with free postage and packaging (UK only) phone 0207 239 0360 or email: sales@nicholasbrealey.com

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