Title: Man’s Search for Meaning
Author: Viktor E. Frankl
Published: 1946; Pages: 154
I didn’t really know what to expect when my coworker chose Man’s Search for Meaning for our book club pick last month. I hadn’t heard of the book before and the short snippet I read on Amazon compared Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust narrative with Primo Levi’s. When I picked up my copy from Half Price Books, I noticed the subtitle was “An Introduction into Logotherapy.” What the heck?? What was this book really about—the Holocaust or Psychology?
Man’s Search for Meaning is divided into three sections. In the first and longest section, Frankl gives a short history of his experiences in the various Concentration Camps he was sent to during the war. In this section he also introduces his philosophical theory of the Will to Meaning. In the second , Logotherapy in a Nutshell, Frankl goes into more detail about his theory and what it means to have a will to meaning versus the will to pleasure (Freud) and the will to power (Nietzsche). In the final section of Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl discusses the application of his theory in modern times and also a concept called Tragic Optimism.
This is a relatively short book and I was surprised how quickly I read it, but it was so different from what I’m used to reading and I was eager to discuss Frankl’s experiences and theories with my book club. Frankl’s Holocaust narrative is quite different from the others that I’ve read in the past–he discusses many of the things that happened during his imprisonment in the camps but he talks about these things without emotion, as if he is looking at his experience from a purely clinical view. It was very strange for me to read his experience as he seemed so removed, but I suppose it makes sense in light of his theories. His experiences aren’t the central focus in this book–his central focus is Logotherapy.
What is Logotherapy? Frankl purports that every man has a basic desire to gain meaning from his life. Throughout his time in the Concentration Camps, Frankl focused his energies on the meaning of and in his life–when people began to lose sight of meaning in their lives, that is when they would begin to give up and perish. Meaning comes from outside, not from within ourselves and there are three basic ways that one can find meaning in his life: Through works, through love, and through suffering. The meaning that one finds in his life today may not be the same meaning as yesterday and of tomorrow because meaning changes based on circumstances.
The bottom line for me is that although I found this book interesting and I agree with it in theory, I think that Frankl is oftentimes overly optimistic in his thoughts–especially in the later parts of the book when Frankl discusses finding meaning in suffering (Tragic Optimism). I do agree that without meaning or a search for meaning in our lives we become lost and lose sight of what is important and where we want to direct ourselves. And when we are suffering we need to find some type of meaning otherwise that suffering is in vain. But when we are lost, I don’t think it is as simple as thinking to yourself “Oh, I just have to find some meaning!” Perhaps through work and maybe even some counseling you can come to this enlightened idea, but I don’t think it is as easy as simply changing one’s mindset (or maybe it is that easy, it just isn’t easy to change one’s mindset when one’s mindset is there…in the depths of despair).
I know I gave more details to the book than I normally do, but this isn’t the type of book that has plot spoilers. :) I found this to be a fascinating book and between my pencil underlining and the previous owner’s blue highlighting, I think we have every page covered in some type of marking or note. It’s a short book that can be read in a single sitting if you have the time, and I think it’s the type of book that everyone can gain something from reading. Man’s Search for Meaning made for a fascinating book club discussion and I’d highly recommend it as a book club selection.
Some sample quotes:
“I wanted to wake the poor man (having a nightmare). Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of camp which surrounded us. and to which I was about to recall him” (41).
“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete” (76).
“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it” (82).
“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from 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 a given moment” (113).
What do you think about the idea of finding meaning in one’s life?
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