“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl (Book Summary)
Man’s Search for Meaning is a book by psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, who was a long-time prisoner in bestial concentration camps during the Second World War. The book details some of his personal experiences and how they led to his discovery of logotherapy.
“A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to,” as Gordon W. Allport says in the preface to the book. And he’s absolutely right, Man’s Search for Meaning, which Frankl originally wanted to publish anonymously, is the must-read book in modern times. This should be mandatory reading in school.
As an ordinary prisoner, Frankl experienced what millions of other prisoners have suffered time and again. “It is an inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.”
“In the concentration camp every circumstance conspires to make the prisoner lose his hold,” as Allport states. “What alone remains is ‘the last of human freedoms’ – the ability to ‘choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.’ This ultimate freedom, recognized by the ancient Stoics… takes on vivid significance in Frankl’s story.”
Look, I’d prefer if you read the book instead of this summary. It’s a short book and you can get it for five bucks here. There are so many fascinating experiences and insights I couldn’t include in this summary. I cannot recommend Man’s Search for Meaning highly enough.
Who Is Man’s Search for Meaning for?
- Anyone interested in recent human history
- Anyone feeling depressed and struggling with life
- Anyone looking for meaning in life
Experiences in a Concentration Camp and Its Three Mental Phases
In the first part of the book, Frankl shares his experiences of his time as a prisoner and mixes them with psychological insights.
As a result of the many prisoners’ observations and experiences, three phases of the inmate’s mental reactions to camp life become apparent: (1) the period following his admission with the main symptom of shock, (2) the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine with the main symptom of apathy, and (3) the period following his release and liberation with the main symptoms of disillusionment and bitterness.
1. Phase One After Admission to Camp Life: Shock and Delusion of Reprieve
In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as “delusion of reprieve.” The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.
No one could yet grasp the fact that everything would be taken away.
While we were waiting for the shower, our nakedness was brought home to us: we really had nothing now except our bare bodies – even minus hair; all we possessed, literally, was our naked existence.
We knew we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays!
The prisoner of Auschwitz, in the first phase of shock, did not fear death. Even the gas chambers lost their horrors for him after the first few days – after all, they spared him the act of committing suicide.
Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.
The moment Frankl had to leave his manuscript that contained his life’s work behind, he saw “the plain truth and did what marked the culminating point of the first phase of my psychological reaction: I struck out my whole former life.”
2. Phase Two While Entrenched in Camp Life: Apathy and Mental Agony
The prisoner passed from the first to the second phase: the phase of relative apathy in which he achieved a kind of emotional death… and made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings.
Apathy… was a necessary mechanism of self-defense. Reality dimmed, and all efforts and all emotions were centered on one task: preserving one’s own life and that of the other fellow.
At such a moment it is not the physical pain which hurts the most… it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.
The most painful part of beatings is the insult which they imply.
What helped Frankl most to keep mental sanity was love and humor. “The salvation of man is through love and in love.” He understood that a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss in the contemplation of his beloved.
“Humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation.” Frankl suggested to a friend that they would promise each other “to invent at least one amusing story daily.”
Developing a sense of humor “is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.”
3. The Relativity of Suffering and Negative Happiness
Another time we saw a group of convicts pass our work site. How obvious the relativity of all suffering appeared to us then! We envied those prisoners and their relatively well-regulated, secure and happy life. They surely had regular opportunities to take baths, we thought sadly.
We were grateful for the smallest of mercies. We were glad when there was a time to delouse before going to bed… we were thankful if there was no air raid alarm during this operation.
The meager pleasures of camp life provided a kind of negative happiness – “freedom from suffering,” as Schopenhauer put it.
The size of human suffering is absolutely relative.
One of two pleasures Frankl experienced in weeks was when he was admitted to the only cook who did not look at the men whose bowls he was filling: “the only cook who dealt out the soup equally, regardless of the recipient.”
Frankl did not want to pass judgment on those prisoners who put their own people above everyone else. “No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”
4. The Freedom of Choice
The majority of prisoners suffered from a kind of inferiority complex. We all had once been or had fancied ourselves to be “somebody.” Now we were treated like complete nonentities.
The consciousness of one’s inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things, and cannot be shaken by camp life. But how many free men, let alone prisoners, possess it?
The experiences of camp life show that man does have choice of action. There were enough examples of heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
The sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.
The human being is not completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings, Frankl observed. Man is more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors – a human being does have a choice no matter the circumstances.
“It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
5. The Deadly Loss of Hope
Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man – his courage and hope, or lack of them – and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.
Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners.
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. 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.
Frankl explains that the exploding death rate in the week between Christmas 1944 and New Year’s was simply because the prisoners “had lived in the naïve hope that they would be home again by Christmas."
With the disappointment they lost hope and courage, which had a dangerous influence on their powers of resistance. Therefore, he concluded, the man who knows the “why” for his existence will be able to bear almost any “how.”
6. Phase Three After Liberation: Disillusionment and Bitterness
“Freedom” – we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it. We had said this word so often during all the years we dreamed about it, that it had lost its meaning. Its reality did not penetrated into our consciousness… We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.
Psychologically, what was happening to the liberated prisoners could be called “depersonalization.” Everything appeared unreal, unlikely, as in a dream.
During this psychological phase one observed that people with natures of a more primitive kind could not escape the influences of the brutality which had surrounded them in camp life. Now, being free, they thought they could use their freedom licentiously and ruthlessly… They justified their behavior by their own terrible experiences.
Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.
Apart from the moral deformity resulting from the sudden release of mental pressure, there were two other fundamental experiences which threatened to damage the character of the liberated prisoner: bitterness and disillusionment.
A man who for years had thought he had reached the absolute limit of all possible suffering now found that suffering has no limits, and that he could suffer still more, and still more intensely.
In camp, Frankl and other prisoners knew that there could be no happiness to compensate for their suffering. They were not hoping for happiness, and yet they were not prepared for unhappiness. “This disillusionment, which awaited not a small number of prisoners, was an experience which these men have found very hard to get over.”
Logotherapy and the Meaning of Life
In the second part of the book, Frankl explains his Logotherapy. And because Logotherapy is a meaning-centered psychotherapy, he clarifies the meaning of life.
7. Logotherapy in a Nutshell
Logotherapy, in comparison with psychoanalysis, is a method less retrospective and less introspective. Logotherapy focuses on the future… on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in the future.
Logos is a Greek word which denotes “meaning.”
According to logotherapy, this striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.
Logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.
Logotherapy tries to make the patient fully aware of his own responsibleness; therefore, it must leave to him the option for what, to what, or to whom he understands himself to be responsible. That is why a logotherapist is the least tempted of all psychotherapists to impose value judgments on his patients, for he will never permit the patient to pass to the doctor the responsibility of judging.
Frankl compares the role of a logotherapist to that of an ophthalmologist rather than a painter. A painter tries us to see a picture of the world as he sees it; an ophthalmologist tries to help us see the world as it really is.
The core idea of Logotherapy is that we find meaning in our lives and take responsibility. He advises to “live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
8. The Meaning of Life
The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at given moment.
By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system… being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself.
The meaning of life always changes, but it never ceases to be. According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (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.
We all must find our meaning(s) in life ourselves. “Everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
As encountered earlier, “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.”
In other words, The Obstacle Is the Way.
9. There Is No Meaning without Tension
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, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. (Live with Aretê, the first corner of the Stoic Happiness Triangle)
I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or… a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal.
Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.
His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
For me, this is the most important insight of Viktor Frankl. We need tension not only to grow, but to find meaning in life. We need to realize that there will always be struggles, that’s part of life. Instead of getting frustrated, we must take responsibility and move on.
Life is supposed to be hard. Beyond mountains are more mountains, as a Haitian proverb goes.
The Case for a Tragic Optimism
The third and final part of the book is dedicated to the memory of Edith Weisskopf-Joelson, whose pioneering efforts in logotherapy in the United States began in 1955 and whose contributions to the field have been invaluable.
Tragic optimism is about remaining optimistic in spite of a tragic fate. It’s about saying yes to life in spite of everything and presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions.
10. Do the Best in Any Given Situation
What matters is to make the best of any given situation. “The best,” however, is that which in Latin is called optimum – hence the reason I speak of a tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.
To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to “be happy.” But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to “be happy.” Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.
Once an individual’s search for a meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capacity to cope with suffering.
Life remains potentially meaningful under any condition. It’s our task to find this meaning and take responsibility.
Look, I feel this summary can’t do justice to this wonderful book. I left out so many important insights. You must read it yourself. If there is one must-read book out there, I believe it’s Man’s Search for Meaning. For its history and its insights.
If you enjoyed this summary, check out these relevant summaries:
- The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday. What stands in the way becomes the way. The struggles we experience in life are necessary challenges for personal growth.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. This book is based on Viktor Frankl's finding, "Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
- Thanks! by Robert Emmons. Fortunately, reading Man's Search for Meaning might leave us feeling grateful for our secure lives. This emotion is immensely valuable.
Thank you for reading.