MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by VIKTOR E. FRANKL
A BOOK REVIEW
About the author – Viktor E. Frankl was Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School. He was the founder of what came to be called the Third Viennese school of Psychotherapy (after Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology) – the school of Logotherapy.
Born in 1905 he died at the age of ninety two in the year 1997. Logotheraphy is based on the belief that it is the striving to find a meaning in one’s life that is the most powerful motivating force in our lives. When asked about the difference between psychoanalysis and logotheraphy, the author puts it a nutshell by saying that while in psychoanalysis the patient must tell you things which are at times very disagreeable to tell, in logotheraphy he must hear things which sometimes are very disagreeable to hear.
This a small yet powerful book for it details out the development of his theory through his own experiences of the holocaust during World War Two. Having himself survived Auschwitz and the other Nazi concentration camps he brings to the fore man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. In the author’s own words –
“An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative life, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also a purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.”
The book is in two parts – Part one gives an autobiographical account of the author’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps, living every day in the uncertainty of whether he would see another day, watching fellow prisoners being taken away to the gas chambers and wondering when his turn would come, enduring the sufferings heaped upon all the prisoners. It is about how everyday life in a concentration camp is reflected in the mind of an average prisoner. He talks about the sacrifices, the crucifixion and the deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims. As you read you are able to visualize the horrors of the Holocaust in graphic detail.
It is in the midst of all this brutality heaped by man upon man and the suffering that never seemed to end that the prisoner lives what is called a provisional existence for the prison term was not only uncertain but unlimited. Not being able to aim at an ultimate goal in life he ceases living for the future. The person who had lost faith in the future was doomed. The author quotes Nietsche “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”.
But it is easy for the author to say that it did not really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us. One gets the feeling that throughout the book the author speaks in the language of a psychotheraphist and which is of course true. But if one puts himself in the position of the average prisoner who has reached the end of his tether I think the ‘why’ and ‘how’ would have ceased to have any meaning. I quote the author’s words when he talks about the meaning of life –
“the meaning of life, differs from man to man, and from moment to moment. It is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements ‘Life’ does not mean something vague but something very real and concrete, just as life’s task are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny and which is unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny”
That is true, but it is when he says that when man finds it his destiny to suffer he will have to accept his suffering as his task, his single and unique task that we may ask is it really possible to expect that. It is here that the author does sound like a preacher. How many are really prepared to carry the cross.
Being a psychologist the author also touches upon the psychological make-up of the camp guards. Part one is intense in its descriptions and analysis of the inmates and their life in the various concentration camps. Being told by an inmate and a psychologist at that, it makes powerful reading. It also lays the ground work for the author’s exposition of his theory of Logotheraphy and its practice.
Part two – Logotheraphy in a nutshell.
This part is divided into several sections where author discusses the neuroses that arises from existential problems and the dynamics involved, the understanding of which is simplified by anecdotal references. But it is the sections on The Will to Meaning, Existential Frustration, The Existential Vacuum, and The Essence of Existence that I found of particular interest. I will try to summarize these sections below for they are reflections of Existentialism –
Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a secondary realization of instinctual drives. His will to meaning can be frustrated. This existential frustration can result in neuroses. Here the author says that the term ‘existential may be used in three ways 1) Existence itself, the specifically human mode of being 2) the meaning of existence; and 3) the striving to find a concrete meaning in personal existence, that is to say the will to meaning.
Quoting the author the existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century – “No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).”
The book first published in 1959 has undergone many reprints and translations in various languages and has been labeled as one of the outstanding classics to emerge from the Holocaust. It is also called a remarkable tribute to hope and offers us an avenue to find greater meaning and purpose in life.
This perhaps is one of the books I would place on my shelf of the great books I have had the opportunity to go through.