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. In the concentration camp, he discovered that the desire to find meaning is essential to the human experience. He uses this knowledge in his psychoanalytic practice.

  • 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 also realizes that even in the direst of circumstances men still search for meaning in life.

  • 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.

  • Unlike many other psychologists, Frankl does not shy away from spiritual or existential questions. Instead, he embraces them, using them to identify the true source of a patient's neurosis.

Summary

Man’s Search for Meaning was first published in German in 1946, just one year after the end of the Second World War 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.”

Part I, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp”

“Experiences in a Concentration Camp” is structured around Frankl’s observations of three distinct phases of the average prisoner’s psychological response to life in the concentration camps, each with its particular symptoms: the phase immediately following arrival at the camp, the phase when prisoners are entrenched in camp life, and the phase following their liberation.

The first phase is characterized by the symptom of shock. Frankl recounts his arrival by train at the infamous Auschwitz, when he and his fellow prisoners’ initial shock and horror quickly gave way to the condition known as the “delusion of reprieve”—the conviction that they would be saved at the last moment, that things could not be as terrible as they seemed. Frankl describes how, not for the last time, he waited for fate to take its course as the prisoners took their turns standing in front of an SS officer who casually pointed them to the right, which meant they looked physically fit enough for manual labor, or the left, which meant they would be sent to the gas chambers.

For Frankl, the culmination of this first phase came when the prisoners were taken to the showers and all their clothes and possessions were taken from them. Desperate to keep the manuscript of his first book, which he had in his coat pocket, he tried to enlist the help of an older prisoner. The prisoner grinned at Frankl, then cursed at him. At this moment, Frankl says, he realized he would have to “strike out [his] whole former life.” After this incident, shaved and stripped of everything but their “naked existence,” the prisoners were overtaken by a grim sense of humor, a cold curiosity about their situation, and an ongoing surprise at how much they were able to endure. Still, many considered committing suicide by running into the electrified barbed wire that surrounded the camp. His first night there, Frankl promised himself he would not do the same. A colleague who had been imprisoned weeks before advised him and his fellow new arrivals to shave daily, stand up straight, and avoid looking weak in any way. Men who looked worn out or sick—men who looked like they could no longer work—were called “Moslems” and were inevitably sent to the gas chambers.

After a few days, inmates entered the second phase, which was characterized by apathy, detachment, and what Frankl terms an “emotional death.” Faced with so much daily suffering, prisoners’ initial feelings of disgust, horror, and pity were deadened. This apathy was a necessary defense mechanism, as all a prisoner’s emotions were concentrated on ensuring his own survival and the survival of those closest to him. Frankl illustrates this deadening of emotion by recalling how he calmly watched the body of a man who had just died of typhus be dragged from their hut into the snow, telling readers that he would not have even remembered this incident if his own lack of emotion had not interested him from a psychological standpoint.

Prisoners suffered frequent beatings from guards and foremen, edema from working in the ice and snow in worn-out shoes, and outbreaks of typhus. They were also all severely undernourished, receiving only a small portion of bread and watery soup every day. Many starved. Frankl writes that the inmates largely “regressed” to a more primitive level due to the conditions of camp life, and the need for food was the “primitive drive” on which their desires centered. There was no room for the desire for anything not directly related to survival. In Frankl’s view, however, the desire for meaning was more directly related to a prisoner’s survival than anything. He quotes Nietzsche: “A man who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” Having something to live for, Frankl says, was the only reason anyone survived in such conditions. For him, it was the thought of seeing his wife again, returning to his work, and reconstructing his lost manuscript, which he began to rewrite on tiny scraps of paper in an attempt to stave off delirium when ill with typhus.

Frankl explains that people who were able to find meaning in their rich inner lives had better chances not only of surviving the camps but of lessening the damage to their inner selves. He illustrates with a moving passage on the loving thoughts about his wife that sustained him while he dug ditches in the dead of winter. As he worked, Frankl carried on a conversation with his wife in his mind, not knowing if she was alive or dead but feeling that he was in real communion with her either way. During this spiritual experience, Frankl concluded that “love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire” and that “the salvation of man is through love and in love.” Even in the most desolate situation, when there is no possibility of taking significant action to change one’s circumstances, meaning can be found in love. This conviction would become part of Frankl’s logotherapeutic theory.

Thinking of loved ones, recalling the past, exercising a sense of dark humor, and experiencing brief glimpses of the beauty of art and nature were all methods of survival in the camps. Prisoners created an improvised cabaret from time to time that was so effective in helping them temporarily forget their suffering that many men missed receiving their ration of food to attend.

The “meager pleasures of camp life,” Frankl says, “provided a kind of negative happiness—‘freedom from suffering’ as Schopenhauer put it.” Frankl describes the happiness of being transported to a camp without a “chimney” or crematorium, the small mercy of being able to delouse before bed or go back to camp before dying of exhaustion in the cold, and the good luck of being able to work indoors in a factory or rest in the sick hut. Real pleasures were very few.

Frankl’s main concern is how the dehumanizing effects of the camps threatened to cause prisoners to lose their values and “inner freedom”: if they didn’t struggle to maintain their self-respect and individuality, if they didn’t have a meaning to live for, they could descend to an animal level. Though “do not be conspicuous” was one of the rules of survival, Frankl also managed to find a few moments of sustaining solitude, in one case by crouching on the lid of a water shaft near a tent housing dead bodies at a rest camp where he was treating typhus patients.

In the camps, the feeling of being totally at the mercy of fate was inescapable. Frankl illustrates this, along with the lack of value placed on human lives, through a description of the sick convoys. When ill patients were rounded up and taken away in trucks, “one literally became a number.” One of Frankl’s rules for himself was that he would answer all questions truthfully but not say more than was asked. Another was that he “let fate take its course,” as when he didn’t take his name off the list of men to be sent to a “rest camp” many suspected was actually just the gas chambers. This turned out to be the right decision, as Frankl really was transferred to a rest camp and later learned that famine and cannibalism had broken out at the previous camp just after he had left. Since fate seemed to be in control, however, making decisions could be tortuous. Near the end of the war, Frankl planned to escape with a friend but decided to stay and comfort the patients he was treating instead. Later, he again tried to escape with a friend, but the Red Cross arrived first. Frankl and his friend had to stay behind while others left the camp on trucks, supposedly bound for freedom; they were instead burned in the huts of a nearby camp while Frankl and his friend were liberated.

The apathy and irritability prisoners experienced resulted from lack of sleep (partially due to the vermin that infested the huts), hunger, and lack of nicotine and caffeine, as well as from the inferiority complexes most prisoners suffered. This worsened when the “degraded majority and the promoted minority” (Capos and other prisoners given prominent positions) clashed, or when irritability was faced with others’ apathy along with impending danger (as when Frankl tended apathetic sick patients while facing inspections by guards).

Still, Frankl posits that people are more than just the result of their environment or conditions. He emphasizes that everyone can choose, under any circumstances, what “will become of him—mentally and spiritually.” He argues that what kind of person you are is a result of an “inner decision” rather than your situation, and that bearing your suffering with dignity is a real achievement. “It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and personal.”

Frankl regards suffering as an opportunity to make meaning out of life. Even if the normal routes to meaning (a creative life or a life of enjoyment) are closed, people can still find deep meaning in their lives through the way they handle their suffering—with bravery, dignity, selflessness, and morality, rather than by becoming “no more than an animal.” Suffering and dying are, much as we might wish it otherwise, part of a complete life.

The most depressing influence of the camps was the total uncertainty as to how long one would be there—living a “provisional existence of unknown limit.” Many prisoners felt unable to live for the future or have a goal because they had no idea when or if they would be released. For prisoners who chose to live totally in the past, shutting out the reality of their lives in the camp and overlooking opportunities to make something positive of their experiences, life became pointless and meaningless.

Frankl states that prisoners—and all people—must have a future goal to look forward to. “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future—sub specie aeternitatis.” He himself combated the disgust at the “trivial things” he was forced to think of in the camp (matters of survival in horrible conditions) by imagining himself lecturing on the psychology of the camps in the future. “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed.” These men lost their “spiritual hold” and gave up on living, refusing to move, sometimes smoking a last cigarette,...

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Man's Search for Meaning Overview

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
Man's Search for Meaning cover image

At the outbreak of World War II, Viktor Emil Frankl was director of therapy in a large mental hospital in Vienna and the organizer of a group of successful youth guidance centers. Frankl, along with his family and many other doctors, was soon sent to a Nazi concentration camp. He carried with him the manuscript for his first book, which was taken from him and destroyed at Auschwitz. Ironically, the desire to reconstruct and rewrite that volume on psychotherapy helped him endure three harrowing years of prison life. For Frankl, the situation confirmed Friedrich Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” From his observations in the concentration camp and his knowledge of psychology and philosophy, Frankl originated the school of logotherapy, or existential analysis. Man’s Search for Meaning is both an introduction to that theory and an absorbing personal account of the most appalling event in modern history.

This brief volume is divided into two parts; the first, longer essay is titled “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” the second, “Basic Concepts of Logotherapy.” Both are written in simple, nontechnical language for the general reader.

Frankl does not dwell unnecessarily on personal hardship, but he uses his experience and observations to illustrate the life of the ordinary prisoner. Inmates performed hard manual labor, such as digging ditches and tunnels for water mains or laying railway tracks, while working on a near-starvation diet. His observations thus have both the gritty reality of personal experience and the more universal quality of shared suffering. As a psychiatrist, Frankl was primarily interested in recording the mental and emotional reactions of prisoners to their experiences.

Three distinct phases of the typical prisoner’s reactions are noted: the period of shock following his admission, the period when he was entrenched in camp routine, and the period following his liberation. Each phase has its striking images and typical symptoms. The reader will not soon forget the high-ranking Schutzstaffel (SS) officer who flicks his finger casually to right or left as the incoming prisoners file by. Those shunted to the right look capable of hard physical labor; those directed to the left head for the “showers,” where they are gassed and shoveled into the insatiable furnaces. This was but the first of many selections between life and death that each prisoner must face. More experienced inmates warned them to shave every day, stand tall, and walk vigorously; even a limp because one’s feet were frostbitten might cause an SS guard to wave a prisoner aside and send him to the oven.

The shock and horror of the first phase, marked by prisoners’ thoughts of suicide, longing for home and family, and disgust with the ugliness and filth of the surroundings, gave place to the relative apathy of phase 2. Endurance in such circumstances demands a certain callousness. Eventually, the emotions of disgust, horror, and pity simply shut down. Much of the discussion concerning this stage dwells not so much on the physical brutality as on the mental agony of personal insult and the demeaning obsession with food. The daily ration of about ten ounces of bread and one and three-quarters pints of watery soup was never adequate for the labor they were forced to perform. The prisoners often fought among themselves irritably.

In spite of these depressing circumstances, however, Frankl does have some positive comments about human possibilities. Although most succumbed in some measure to the general apathy and irritability, there were persons who displayed compassion, comforting others and even giving away their last piece of bread. Frankl suggests that the kind of prisoner one becomes depends on some inner decision, not on environmental conditions alone. There is a last human freedom, available in even the most deprived conditions: the freedom to choose one’s attitude toward one’s suffering.

The second essay is divided into short explanations of basic principles, such as “existential frustration,” “noogenic neurosis,” and “the search for meaning.” Students of existentialism will recognize some of the ideas, such as “existential vacuum” and the influence of hopes or intentions for the future on present choices.

Frankl’s observations about the concentration camp combine a certain modesty and humane tolerance of human weakness with a tendency toward strict moral judgment. In one sense, the account is more objective than most prison memoirs, partly because of Frankl’s scientific background and purpose and partly because of his refusal to dramatize himself as the suffering hero. While he never focuses on his own behavior as especially altruistic, Frankl does note that quality in others. Moreover, he usually demonstrates such negative attributes as indifference and irritability with his own reactions. In explaining the callousness that develops after the initial shock of incarceration, for example, he remembers complacently sipping his thin soup as he watched the corpse of a cellmate who had just died being dragged laboriously downstairs by the feet, the head bouncing on every step, to be thrown unceremoniously on the ground. He writes that he would not even have remembered the incident except that his lack of...

(The entire section is 2190 words.)