Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl (Beacon Press, 2006, 165 pages)
We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life-daily and hourly. Our answer must consist not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
When Man’s Search for Meaning was first published in 1959, it was hailed by Carl Rogers as “one of the outstanding contributions to psychological thought in the last fifty years.” Now, more than forty years and 4 million copies later, this tribute to hope in the face of unimaginable loss has emerged as a true classic. Man’s Search for Meaning–at once a memoir, a self-help book, and a psychology manual-is the story of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s struggle for survival during his three years in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. Yet rather than “a tale concerned with the great horrors,” Frankl focuses in on the “hard fight for existence” waged by “the great army of unknown and unrecorded.”
Viktor Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist, as well as the “father” of logotherapy, later recognized as the Third School of Viennese Psychotherapy (after Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler). Further, Frankl was a Holocaust survivor of four concentration camps dating from 1943 to 1945. Following the end of the war, Frankl returned to Vienna, where he devoted his professional career towards philosophy (earning a PhD in 1948) and the re-humanization of psychotherapy and neurology. Frankl published 39 books, wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days, and first published in German in 1946. This book became one of the ten most influential books in the US by 1991.
It was never Frankl’s intent to publish under his name. Initially, the original German print was released anonymously, with Frankl’s hope being to aid those who were prone to despair, needing a story they could transcend themselves (and their will to endure any hardships) into. In addition, he sought to avoid literary fame and simply wanted to convey that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions. Modest themes such as diet, clothing and weather depict the same memoir style as complex analysis on friendship, suffrage, and choice, with the author taking great care to ease the reader into understanding the acclimation of acceptance of the prisoner’s life. Frankl guides the reader through this world as though it is a museum, only being allowed to face the raw emotion swelling within, while kindly being asked to hold all questions till the end.
Where is the conscious line drawn between the belief that one is living their purpose of existence, and actually living that purpose of existence? Perhaps it emerges when one awakens one day to find their titles and social status void of actual meaning. Perhaps it makes itself known when materialistic pleasures we used to express our identity with no longer define the presence in the space we occupy. In a way, the ego that shapes the perception of our own significance is also the blinding searchlight seeking to understand what Schopenhauer describes as the vacillation between the two extremes of distress and boredom. Showcased in opinion polls, humankind admits that we as a species need “something” for the sake of which to live for, something to feed the ego beyond primordial life motivators found at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As seen throughout humankind’s history, the power we assign to our ideals and values is substantial enough to live and die for; the power of the mind is great enough to carry us through tremendous realities simply by validating our “why”.
In Viktor Frankl’s world renown book Man’s Search for Meaning, the steady underlying beat of the emotionally grounding drum comes as a Nietzsche quote explaining that “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” Numerous accounts of the world wars have depicted the gruesome accounts humankind has enacted on his likeness in the name of ideals and values, the aftermath giving way to deep-dives and analytics in search of answering the “why”. What sets Frankl’s work apart is the style in which he recalls his three-year concentration camp experience, his description of World War II as “the war of nerves” perfectly summarizing the emphasis of his literary masterpiece. More than the physical endurances suffered by so many Holocaust victims, Frankl explores the mental hygiene of man as a species not just subject to being a reactionary force of our condition and environment. Rather–as noted in his description regarding the power of intrinsic choices and decisions–the sort “of person the prisoner became resulted from an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone” and that fundamentally “any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.”
In humility, it can place the significance and worthiness of life into perspective, particularly the diabolical conflict between emotions and logos. David Hawkins spends considerable time in his book Letting Go scientifically describing that indeed it is your emotions that control your thoughts, and not vice versa. Frankl’s direct approach towards vulnerability unearths the necessity to understand human emotion, to understand the human mind; thus, tears become messengers, revealing to all surrounding that one has the courage to suffer, or love bearing the gospel that “salvation of man is through love and in love.” The search for meaning is the study of the intrinsic, the attempt to understand not with the ego, but with the heart on how to embrace life unconditionally. After all, what is humankind but yet another organism in time and space, giving itself higher value than it perhaps truly has? As Frankl reminds us, it isn’t man who should ask what the meaning of life is, but “rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”
You may wonder what connection emotions and philosophy may have with your present circumstance, particularly if you are one of our Department of Defense readers. If you are searching for a gallant war story at the end of which a tethered and worn flag is victoriously waved against the red of dawn, this book will leave you wanting. Frankl’s simple account of his experiences is presented humbly to the reader in two parts: the first autobiographical piece describing the mental perseverance and attitude of himself and other Holocaust survivors while describing day-to-day life in a concentration camp. The second part of the book is a brief amalgamation of the study of logotherapy, Frankl’s own school of psychotherapy, which focuses on the meaning of human existence and on man’s search for such a meaning.
Logotherapy in a Nutshell requires more focus and attention, as Frankl provides tidbit insights into his life’s work in psychotherapy. Behaviors and ideas described in the first part become more apparent in rationale thanks to his precise articulation of man’s ego and the consistent struggle to define existentialism without reverting to conformism or totalitarianism. Through several real-world examples, studies and analytics, Frankl can translate complex work homogenous to the complexity of our minds into phrases that resonate with most of us, and our experience of life. Man’s Search for Meaning is a worthwhile read for anyone beginning their journey towards intrinsic empowerment, a gift benefitting not only the self, but those around one too, no matter where in life you may be at.