Man's Search for Meaning

Reviewed on , book by Viktor E. Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning describes the author’s, Frankl’s, experience in several concentration camps during WW2 and his psychotherapeutic theory of logotherapy assembled from these experiences.

The book is composed of two parts, first half describes his time in camp, the second half describes logotherapy. The first half is different because it’s, surprisingly, not filled with the hopelessness that permeate most Auschwitz accounts (and who can blame them). Frankl takes an extremely stoic position. When you are stripped down to your naked self, with not a hair on your body, and not a single thing you own—what are you? The only external freedom you have left is the attitude with which you do something. The only thing that brings you hope, are your thoughts. Frankl talks about the many suicide, but he insists that life always carries meaning. The accounts are deeply influenced by existentialism. During his account, many casual, insightful remarks make it to paper. Some of my favorites: Suffering stops being suffering once we form a precise picture of it, the inability to feel joy when freed, fate and the spiritual accounts from camp. Frankl walked out of that camp with a belief that the human mind is stronger than he ever thought. Around christmas was when most people passed away. Not having a time-frame for your release is one of the most painful parts. Many set themselves up for christmas being the time where they’d once again see their family, passing like flies when it didn’t happen and they gave up.

Frankl takes a more existential approach to psychotherapy than does Freud (pursuit of pleasure) and Nietzsche (pursuit of power). It’s clear that Frankl is deeply influenced by Kirkegaard. Fundamentally, logotherapy is about helping people answer the fluid question of: what is the meaning of life, for you?

It sits at the foundation. Many people fall into the pursuit of pleasure, because they haven’t found their meaning. Frankl observed this as e.g. an increase in libido. Many people fall into the pursuit of power (money), because they haven’t understood what really makes them content. I see them in a pyramid like this, from the why of life, to pleasure, to power.

/ Nietzsche <br /> / Freud <br />/ Frankl <br />
I find that Frankl is extremely pragmatic in his approach. Logotherapy is not about answering the “supermeaning” question (what is the meaning of life?), but rather about coaching the individual to find out what life wants from them. And that suffering has a purpose. When you encounter suffering, you must find the purpose, for otherwise it will not make sense and remain suffering. This is where Frankl’s empiric stoicism most clearly comes to expression. It is not about avoiding suffering, it is about finding its meaning. It’s not about suffering voluntarily, this is masochistic, and not heroic.

Frankl even touches on the subject of happiness, multiple times repeating that happiness is not a primary effect—but always a secondary or tertiary effect of executing ones meaning. He compares this to sex, where orgasm doesn’t happen when focused on, but rather as a secondary effect to completely letting go to your partner. Throughout the book many cases from his past are described, and he’s seen 1000s of patients. Logotherapy is the least dogmatic school of psychotherapy I have seen, developed in a time of crisis from real experiences. Frankl would not have survived the holocaust had he not used this tool he developed in the camp to keep his mind strong.

I will find myself returning to Frankl’s thoughts again and again in the future. This has already broadened my perspective on existentialism and stoicism. This book contains a myriad of gems, and I will no doubt spend more time processing my notes on this book.