Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

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Title: Man’s Search for Meaning

Author: Victor Frankl

Publisher: Beacon Press, Boston

Year of Publication: 2006 (first published 1946)

Format: Kobo File

Extra Information: Gift Edition.

Where to get it from: Kobo.com

“We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily, hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.”

Victor Frankl is an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was captured by the Nazis in World War II. The first part of the book narrates an autobiographical account of life as a Jewish inmate in Auschwitz. The second part of the book describes the basic tenets of logotherapy: a therapeutic method that focuses on patients’ existential worries (in Kierkegaard’s sense, their will to meaning) as opposed to other anxieties (such as Adler’s Nietzschean understanding of will to power or Freud’s will to pleasure). The two halves of the book reinforce one another. The autobiographical account of the horrors suffered at the hands of both Nazis and Capos (Jewish prisoner functionaries assigned to SS soldiers to manage and conduct the torture of fellow Jewish inmates) will leave one feeling depleted of human sympathies.

While reading about the atrocities, I recalled Jean Améry’s quote (which is often reiterated in Human Rights venues and United Nations websites concerned with the lasting effects of torture):

“Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured [ . . . ]. Anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world, the abomination of the annihilation is never extinguished. Faith in humanity already cracked by the first slap in the face, then demolished by torture, is never acquired again” (Mind’s Limits, 53).

Like Frankl, Améry, an Austrian Jew, survived Auschwitz. Unlike Frankl, Améry never recovered his faith in humanity. Frankl conceives of human worth as internal. He argues that human beings possess the power to assign meaning to their lives and to reinterpret their own suffering. He explains further that one should not seek to discover self-worth or value from others or from material possessions. Perhaps the most powerful message of the book is that meaning does not reside in suffering itself. Meaning is assigned to suffering by our reactions to moments and events that fill us with pain and anguish.

Frankl identified three possible sources for the will to live, or the way in which one conceives of meaning and purpose. He saw potential meaning in one’s work (doing or creating things that are significant), in love (in caring for other people), and in acts of courage through times of trouble. Most importantly, all sources of meaning stem from the anticipation of a future in which one is able to achieve, accomplish, or perform such acts. He describes Nietzsche’s phrase, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” as “the guiding motto for all psycotheraputic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners.” This is why the first part of the book works well with the theoretical section. After everything that he has suffered, Frankl continues to believe that life may still possess value, that his existence was neither arbitrary nor insignificant.

Frankl writes:

“Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.”

I think that the biggest asset of the book–its insistence upon our ability to assign meaning to our lives even in the midst of the darkest hour of human history–works as a double-edge sword. On the one hand, it serves optimists who possess an egalitarian viewpoint well, it allows them to find their own happiness in the happiness and well-being of others, which is great for the prosperity of the human species. If kind and conscientious individuals believed in logotherapy, they would interpret cosmic signs in manners that are beneficial to everyone.

What happens when selfish, megalomaniacal or downright hurtful individuals start to believe that the universe speaks to them in signs, and that their sole purpose is to find the meaning of their existence by interpreting these cosmic riddles?

I quote the following section to illustrate the origin of this fear:

“Another time we were at work in a trench.  The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces.  I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying.  In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom.  I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.  At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria.”

If history taught us anything it is that the whole world is not composed of one essence, one mood, one moral core, one way of thinking, or one way of behavior. History has shown us time and time again the diversity of the human species. Love it or hate it, mock it or commend it, but the human race is nothing if not plural. So my biggest fear is that logotherapy (or the interpretation of the signs of the universe in order to assign personal meaning onto random events) might be believed by dangerous individuals. It is not the belief in meaning that is dangerous, in my opinion, but its usage in the hands (or brains, rather) of dangerous individuals who might view themselves as destined to destroy others and their ways of lives in the name of a greater (or newer) good.

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