Man's Search for Meaning Summary
In Man's Search for Meaning, psychologist Victor Frankl draws on his experiences in Auschwitz to develop his method of logotherapy.
Part I of the book recounts Frankl's personal experiences of the Holocaust. He knows that his time in Auschwitz stripped him of an essential part of his humanity, but he also realizes that people still search for meaning even in the direst moments.
Part II of the book introduces Frankl's theory of logotherapy. This practice presumes that the desire for meaning is more fundamental to the human experience even than the desire for pleasure or power.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Man’s Search for Meaning was first published in German in 1946, just one year after the end of World War II and the liberation of its author, psychologist Viktor Emil Frankl, from a Nazi concentration camp. With its exhortation to each individual to find the meaning in his or her life, Frankl’s combined memoir and psychological treatise—first translated into English in 1959—has become one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.
Frankl’s book consists of two long essays and a short postscript added in 1984. The first essay, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” details the author’s experiences and observations while imprisoned in several different concentration camps, paying particular attention to how finding meaning in even the most dire of circumstances allowed him and others to survive. The second essay, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” describes the basic principles of Frankl’s meaning-centered therapeutic practice. The postscript, “The Case for a Tragic Optimism,” explores the idea of “saying yes to life in spite of everything.”
At the beginning of the first, narrative essay, Frankl is a psychiatrist working in Vienna. Due to their Jewish identity, he and his family—including his pregnant wife—are sent to concentration camps. Frankl is shipped to several different camps, including Auschwitz. He describes in detail the harsh conditions of the camps and the mental state of the various residents there, from the prisoners to the kapos to the Nazi guards.
The prisoners did all they could to stay alive, from deadening emotions like disgust or anger to trying to retain a sense of humor about their situation to shaving with broken glass so as to look younger and therefore be less likely to be sent to the gas chambers with the sickly. But to survive physically, Frankl argues, was not enough, and not everyone in the camps survived mentally. He describes some prisoners who gave up living and either killed themselves or succumbed to apathy, allowing themselves to be beaten to death by the guards.
And yet, Frankl argues that despite the hellish conditions, some prisoners rose above their pain and continued to treat their fellow prisoners with compassion. They exercised what little freedom they had within themselves and adjusted their attitude toward their suffering, even if they could not eliminate the root of that suffering. While surviving the camps was largely a matter of luck, Frankl writes that those who were able to keep themselves going without committing suicide or choosing to waste away tended to have something to live for, a higher purpose to pursue. He argues that those who dedicate their lives to something can face any pain or hardship.
The two things keeping Frankl from succumbing to despair were the hope of seeing his wife again and the hope of rewriting his book on logotherapy (the original manuscript was confiscated by the Nazis). At the end of the war, he learned his wife had died in the camps, which left him only with the dream of finishing his book.
Before proceeding to the second essay, Frankl describes the psychological state of the freed prisoners. Many required time before they were able to readjust to society or even fully experience simple pleasures. Some experienced severe disillusionment upon realizing the families they longed to reunite with were dead or that the businesses they expected to return to no longer wanted them.
In the second essay and postscript, Frankl ties in his experiences during the war with his later psychiatric theories and practice, expounding upon his belief that suffering can be made bearable so long as one attaches meaning to it. He shares the case study...
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of a patient who considered killing herself and her disabled son because she was so miserable having to care for him alone; however, her son did not want to die, and seeing how he found meaning in his life despite his condition, the woman came to realize that her love for her son and her decision to care for him rather than send him to an institution had given her life meaning.
Frankl also argues that responsibility is a necessary component of freedom, famously writing that the United States should have a Statue of Responsibility as well as a Statue of Liberty. Without responsibility for something, freedom can easily turn into mindless, meaningless hedonism, which can produce pleasure but not lasting happiness.
The book concludes on a note that is both optimistic and ominous. He writes that while the world is in "a bad state," things will only get worse unless people try their best to live their lives with a positive meaning in mind. He leaves the reader with these words: "Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake."