Book Club | Man’s Search For Meaning
“A man who knows the way for his existence will be able to bear almost any how.”
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is a modern classic. Frankl – a leading psychoanalyst of the twentieth century – draws on his experience as a prisoner in the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps to unfold his meaning-centred theory of human psychology. This “logotherapy,” Frankl argues, is an answer to the “neurosis” of modern existence – namely, a loss of purpose and direction in many peoples’ lives. “Patients complain today, namely, [about] the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives,” he writes early on in the book. In face of the COVID-19 lockdown, challenges to democracy, the euthanasia referendum, and environmental catastrophe, Man’s Search for Meaning remains eminently relevant.
Frankl’s essential insight from his experience in the concentration camps and as a clinical psychiatrist is that the striving to find a logos (from the Greek for “reason” or “meaning”) is the primary motivational force in a person’s life. The experience of the concentration camp provides stark proof that neither pleasure nor power are an adequate motive for life.
Instead, at the heart of the book (pages 86-87), Frankl proposes that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalisation” of instinctual drives,” as Freud’s “will to pleasure” and Alder’s “will to power” theorised. This “meaning,” Frankl adds, “is unique and specific in that it must and can fulfilled by [each person] alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.” Stripped of everything, a person retains their spiritual freedom and contemplative life.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The ultimate expression of this freedom was in and through love. “Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved” and “finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self.” It was love which provided logos, a reason to bear the sufferings of camp life, providing an internal response to each moment: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
Frankl’s existentialism is personalist, rather than individualistic, in that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone else other than oneself. In seeking meaning outside of ourselves, we accept that meaning is, in a sense, received. Seeking the transcendent in love and through love leads to the flourishing of the human person.
The book is part memoir and part psychoanalytic treatise, across two essays. In the first, Frankl composes his memory of his time in the concentration camp, and then uses this composure to outline a logos or meaning-centred theory of psychology. In the second, Frankl explains, in full, this logotherapy as he developed it in clinical practice over his career.
Frankl’s remembering of the Holocaust falls along two themes: the process of depersonalisation, and the strategies that prisoners employ in response. As he later summarised, in the camps, “a man counted only because he had a prison number. One literally became a number: dead or alive – that was unimportant; the life of a ‘number’ was completely irrelevant. What stood behind that number and that life mattered even less: the fate, the history, the name of the man.”
Intelligence, status, physical health and strength – all count for nothing in this stripping away of the person. Prisoners live a “provisional existence” – without any control over their circumstances. Everything can be taken from a person except one thing: “Your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” A person “can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in the most terrible conditions.”
In this way, Frankl‘s observations about camp life is not moral but strategic. He proposes the “art of living” – expressed in humour, beauty, and work, for example – all of which express a decision in response to the situation. Love, above all, offers a relationship with the transcendent. A few prisoners were “able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom,” and in the imagining of such a space there was the potential for survival.
We could say that most men in the concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet in reality there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.
Suffering becomes meaningful because of the desolation of camp life, rather than in spite of it. This experience provides an evidentiary basis for the second part of the book, in which Frankl sketches out his logotherapy. Suffering is part and parcel of life. Without suffering, there is no meaning. Moreover, this is something each person has to come to terms with, and therefore differs not only between persons but also in any given moment of a person’s life.
The “meaning of life,” in this sense, is to be discovered in the world, rather than within a person and his/her own psyche. In this way, Frankl preferred to understand human psychology in terms of “mental hygiene,” rather than pathologies. Rather than a state of tensionless zen, a healthy psychological response to circumstances requires a level of tension: the gap between what one is and one should become. In this way, logotherapy is geared towards a person’s encounter with life outside of themselves, rather than engaging in an inward, introspective curation of the self. The “meaning of life” is less a question we pose for ourselves, and rather one that life poses to us. Frankl also points to the responsibility each person has in the use of their freedom.
Towards the end of the book, Frankl – a survivor of the Holocaust, and witness to the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima – warns that, without the right strategy of meaning-making, people tend towards conformity, totalitarianism, or boredom. These three “neuroses,” interestingly, are all features of the type of decadent society that Ross Douthat outlined in our previous book study. In this way, Frankl’s deeply personal psychology, which is not panglossian nor austere stoicism, is vitally important for coming to terms with the challenges and circumstances of the twenty-first century.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
What are the different “strategies” pursued by concentration camp prisoners, as outlined by Frankl?
What difference does “will to meaning” make over “will to pleasure” or “will to power” as a strategy of life?
What are the different strategies for a logo-centric living that Frankl points to (e.g. beauty, humour) and how might you apply these in your own circumstances during COVID-19 lockdown?
What might Frankl’s “logotherapy” contribute to our discussions here in New Zealand about the lockdown, COVID-19 pandemic, or the euthanasia referendum?