Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor E. Frankl

Posted 27 July, 2010 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 16 Comments

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Title: Man’s Search for Meaning
Author: Viktor E. Frankl
Published: 1946;  Pages: 154
Genre: Autobiography/Psychology
Rating: NA

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?

I am an Amazon Associate and if you purchase Man’s Search for Meaning or any other Amazon product through this review I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.  Thank you!

16 Responses to “Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor E. Frankl”

  1. I have heard of this book, but did not really know what it was all about. GREAT review and I have definitely added it to my TBR list.

  2. I have to admit, this is the sort of book I want to hear about but don’t actually want to read. I’m so bad about nonfiction! I prefer short articles with the meat of information rather than long, drawn out books. There needs to be a short story equivalent to nonfic books. Not essays – that’s different. Just…like a long, brief synopsis. :D that’s why I like reading these reviews.

  3. I’ve been wanting to read this for years but for some reason I never have…you have me dying to read it now after this review!!

  4. I can understand finding meaning to one’s life. I like to think that I was put here for a reason to achieve something good. I just haven’t realised what it is yet. The book sounds very interesting and one I would definitely like to read.

  5. I read this in high school and I remember writing practically a book while reading. Notes and questions and quotes, my pen just couldn’t stop moving.

  6. *Molly – I had no idea what it was about before picking it up, either. It was a fascinating read–I’d recommend it.

    *Amanda – You could read this book in a couple of hours–easy. And I think you’d find this book really interesting. Very easy to read.

    *Chris – Very easy reading–done in a few hours. I’d be interested what you think of this one given your line of work.

    *Vivienne – I do think that we all need meaning in our life. And I like how Frankl stresses that our meaning can change–we don’t have one purpose.

    *Trisha – I couldn’t imagine reading this one without a pencil in hand! There were just so many little nuggets to soak up.

  7. This sounds like a read that requires a lot of attention! I don’t know if I could do it during the summer, or on my own, so I can see why you read it with a book club. I think it’s one of those that would stay with me and randomly come to mind when I was doing something else that related to an experience he described, you know?

  8. I have not read Frnakl’s book,so my opinion is probably a stupid one, but I’ve always disliked the underlying idea. Not that I blame this on him. I think if you are in a concentration camp, whatever you need to get through it, you’re to be commended for finding it. But, my impression of logotherapy was that there is an underlying assumption that a meaning exists for life, indpendent of all, and that we are uspposed to seek it out. The meaning may be, like he said, different for everyone and for every moment, but still, it is some key that is to be found.

    I think that, at some level, this creates a dangerous parallel 0 either one must accept some sort of higher force, or directing, organizing power in the universe, and seek to sublimate one’s own life to the whims of that force, or one must assume that meaning is arbitrary, and simply a means to fulfill an illogical human need – sort of an evolutionary leftover, the same way that humans soetimes have much more sex drive than they need in a modern world with abundant opportunities for successful procreation, so humans must find other ways to channel this internal urge. A god who would deconstruct ‘meaning’ into something that involves concentration camps and perpetually starving countries juxtaposed against perpetually wealthy ones, and rape, and all the other things in the world, just feels like a nasty schoolmaster – I mean, most religions think of God as some variation on a father, so if he is a father, why give us lessons in life by sending us out to get raped or murdered or whatever? Or to see it happen to others and feel how unjust that is? Evil, suffering, etc are either the self-inflicted creation of humans themselves or the edict of a very unpleasant guiding force int he universe, and in eithe rcase, to simply search for a personal meaning in that kind of horrifies me, it feels almost pathological – one can understand it as a necessary defense to someone undergoing an abusive trauma, but at some point, it isn’t healthy anymore. It feels the same way that children will look for patterns and meaning behind when they are physically or sexually abused, and develop aversions or compulsions or phobias of the triggers and reasons they divine for things. You know? Again, I haven’t read the book, but have had people talk to me about it at length in the past, as advice in given situations, and it just always sort of made me uncomfortable

  9. *Aarti – I was surprised at how easy this book was to read. Usually I think psychology and my brain shuts down, but Frankl simplies things pretty well.

    *Jason – Ok kind sir. First–you could read this book in a sitting. Very short and easy read. Second, this is the type of conversation we would need to have over a nice bottle of wine–or anything with a little bit of booze. :P I think that having purpose in life and finding meaning isn’t always coupled with having a belief in God and thus having a belief in a god who allows terrible things to happen. Of course, when I was reading the book I immediately thought about the millions of people who believe in a higher power and how I feel that these people sometimes do so as a type of direction or hope or answer or meaning for their lives. Because if we don’t have meaning in our lives, then what’s the point, right? Personally I don’t feel like I need god in my life to derive meaning. And I don’t see the point in trying to derive meaning from terrible things that happened. I could dwell forever on why I had a miscarriage but what’s the point. I don’t think there was any meaning in it except for it wasn’t my time–and if I try to search for meaning I could drive myself crazy and come up with all sorts of terrible things. This is where I think that Frankl begins to oversimplify things in his book–and with only 150 pages how can he not gloss over the basics of his theory.

    And to an extent I agree with you on the dangers of Frankl’s theory–especially when you begin looking at things like famine and AIDS and genocide, etc etc etc, but I don’t think that finding meaning in your life and how it relates to god or a higher power is mutually exclusive. I don’t think that finding meaning in life has to be some grand gesture. For me right now my meaning is to enjoy the things that I enjoy and allow myself some inner peace. Be a good wife, maybe cook a little, quilt a lot, learn to sail, but generally to be happy. This gives me purpose.

    I’m starting to want to go off into other tangents but I’ll refrain. :) Hmmm…Pass the Pinot??

  10. OK…I’ve had your blog up pretty much all day and just got to it now. This might be completely overstated, but I think the people of the early to mid-1900s had a very different mindset from today. My grandmother had a very similar mindset to Mr. Frankl I think and she was in her 20s during the Depression and WWII. That generation just had a quietness of spirit about them and a resolve that I really admire. It’s so hard to truly identify with them because they are quite different from our generation–we have the luxury of questioning a change of mindset whereas I think that generation had a lack of it because life was just not easy at all. The survivors of the Holocaust, the Depression, etc. are usually really inspirational people I think because they have such strength of mind and spirit.

    I definitely love your review and now want to read this! It will have to stay on my virtual TBR list for now because ugh with my mountain of books that just keeps growing!

  11. Ms Trish – Very right – It was my mistake binding the ‘search for meaning’ too closely to the ‘search for god’. At the same time, god or no god, I think that codifying a search for meaning, and designing life as a series of interconnected events that have a specific purpose, whether there is a god involved or not, sets us as humans up to live life as a game theory, where we take each event and try to untangle the puzzle of each moment’s purpose, sort of living the neverending saint’s lament – ‘why me, oh lord? Why now? What have I done?’ whether there is a god to ask or not. I don’t know, what if there IS no meaning, what if the only meaning is an empirical one, that we are a species, we reproduce, etc? That’s almost worse. I suppose, in a sense, meaning must be manufactured, then, we must MAKE UP a meaning for ourselves, and in that sense, it seems to me that it wouldn’t be ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ so much as ‘Man’s Creation of Meaning’ – sort of the philosopher’s question, of whether purpose, beauty and direction exist without someone to comprehend them, you know? And whether it matters if they do, if one does not assume that the world exists solely as the created playground of human beings.

    Okay, I’m not sure that makes sense. Maybe we need to skip the Pinot, and go straight to shots.

  12. Ms Trish – Very right – It was my mistake binding the ‘search for meaning’ too closely to the ‘search for god’. At the same time, god or no god, I think that codifying a search for meaning, and designing life as a series of interconnected events that have a specific purpose, whether there is a god involved or not, sets us as humans up to live life as a game theory, where we take each event and try to untangle the puzzle of each moment’s purpose, sort of living the neverending saint’s lament – ‘why me, oh lord? Why now? What have I done?’ whether there is a god to ask or not. I don’t know, what if there IS no meaning, what if the only meaning is an empirical one, that we are a species, we reproduce, etc? That’s almost worse. I suppose, in a sense, meaning must be manufactured, then, we must MAKE UP a meaning for ourselves, and in that sense, it seems to me that it wouldn’t be ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ so much as ‘Man’s Creation of Meaning’ – sort of the philosopher’s question, of whether purpose, beauty and direction exist without someone to comprehend them, you know? And whether it matters if they do, if one does not assume that the world exists solely as the created playground of human beings.

    Okay, I’m not sure that makes sense. Maybe we need to skip the Pinot, and go straight to shots.

  13. Wow! I can’t believe a book review on your post that I have actually read! I read this in College and LOVED it! It was a book that really makes you think.

    For me, finding meaning in life (whatever that meaning may be) is necessary. Without it, one would perish in a physical, emotional, or spiritual way, depending on the season of our lives.

    I don’t believe that you need to go through something like a concentration camp to be able to find whatever your purpose is. Life is hard. The question is What makes you face the days? What is it inside of you that says, no matter what happens I will prevail? Despite the hell that one can face in life (and we all do on some form) what keeps you moving forward.

    It has been a long time since I have read this, so my facts may be inaccurate, but the general idea is there… what stood out mostly to me is when he said something to the affect
    “They can take everything away from me. My freedom, my clothes, food, safety, EVERYTHING, but they can never take what is inside of me. What I believe. No one has that power. ”
    That in and of itself is so powerful. That will probably stick with me my whole life.

    Not sure if any of this makes sense but oh well! Love ya Trish!

  14. Wow, this sounds like a really deep book, and it’s interesting that he tackles a huge question in so few pages. Thank you for the detailed review; I’ll have to get this one at the library at some point. I hope it’s okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations.