Saturday, January 6, 2018

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl


The title invokes a broad sweep of history, philosophy, and psychology-- an impossible range of topics for one book, or many. And on its face, the book seems to only focus on psychoanalysis, with the author's experiences as a Jew in Nazi concentration camps serving as the most powerful illustration imaginable for his thesis. Yet his thesis has implications far beyond psychology into the hearts of both history and philosophy. The thesis? An idea Frankl drew from the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, that "he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."


Man's Search for Meaning is actually two small books packed into one still-pretty-small book, with an essay tacked onto the end serving as an ignorable third component. When read without any preconceptions, this structure can make it feel disjointed-- but the content is no less rewarding as a consequence. If you decide to pick it up, also understand that there is essentially no structure to the first book, while the second book does have headings which give some shape to the author's narrative arc.

Book 1

The first book, "Experiences in a Concentration Camp", is a memoir that was written in non-chronological, stream-of-consciousness form over the course of nine days in 1945. Because it was written so close to the actual events, it retains the raw power to impress the horrors of the Holocaust into the psyche of the most callous readers. Yet Frankl's purpose goes far beyond this. He repeatedly highlights the meaning that he and some of his fellow prisoners were able to find even unimaginably bleak circumstances. The striking thing about his anecdotes of meaning-acquisition is that they are mostly small, seemingly insignificant moments, such as his precious snippets of solitude squatting on the lid of a water-pipe shaft beside a corpse-tent, when he would gaze longingly at the distant blue Bavarian hills and allow his thoughts to wander, or how he and another prisoner in his work-party required each other to come up with one funny idea each day.

But some of these moments draw upon deeper themes, such as the time when someone in his work-party made mention of their wives, and he started contemplating his own wife.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth-- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in the world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, which his only achievement may consist in his enduring his sufferings in the right way-- an honorable way-- in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory." (37-38)
This truth strikes me like a bolt of lightning even now. It is central to living a good life. It is at the intersection of the mundane and transcendent, the human and divine, where true meaning is found. And that meaning is love. This is where non-dual consciousness, as the mystics put it, is found. And staying in this beautiful place is what they mean by enlightenment.

Another time, on a particularly bad day in the camp, Frankl is asked by his senior block warden to give an encouraging talk to his fellow prisoners. Though his own spirits were depressed, he spoke eloquently about the meaning of the past, the future, and of suffering. And in the course of his remarks, he says, "Someone looks down on us in difficult hours-- a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God-- and he would not expect us to disappoint him." Just as he did earlier, Frankl takes his listeners and readers outside of themselves and to their beloved to find meaning, much as the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous offers trust in God as the way to "to make all things right," "living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, acknowledging hardship as the pathway to peace." And it is through this trust that one comes to understand that making "all things right" may not mean what you thought it had meant-- that the soul is purified in love, rather than the entire world cleansed of evil. But each time a soul becomes more divine, the world becomes a better place.

Book 2

Though Frankl's ideas on meaning-acquisition come across in his first book, they are formally developed in Part 2, "Logotherapy in a Nutshell," which is a classic in the realm of psychoanalysis. His thesis, that life is essentially a quest for meaning, draws heavily from Nietzsche's assertion quoted above, and stands in counterpoint to Freud's thesis that life is a quest for pleasure and Alfred Adler's (the psychoanalyst who coined the term "inferiority complex") idea that life is a quest for power. Though he mostly maintains his scientific detachment from the religious idea that there is a logical, overarching meaning to life, he asserts that the specific meaning to a person's life at a given moment is what really matters. "Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence (109)." In the first part of the book, he expounds that "life does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete (77)." And here is where one finds the tension in Frankl's theory. Above, he seemed to offer love and contemplation of the beloved as the panacea to one's existential crisis, yet here he says there is no one meaning for everyone. How to explain this contradiction?

The answer lies in his discussion of the three sources of meaning on pp. 111-115:
According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning of life in three different ways:(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. The first, the way of achievement or accomplishment, is quite obvious... The second way of finding meaning in life is by experiencing something-- such as goodness, truth, and beauty-- by experiencing nature and culture or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness-- by loving him.
In the discussion that follows, Frankl brings together his thoughts on the meaning that can be found in love as well as suffering, in which meaning is ultimately drawn from love as well. The ultimate picture of this commingling of love and suffering is in the first part of the book, where he highlights fellow Jews who went to the gas chambers with the Shema Yisrael on their lips.

Though it may feel unsatisfying to some religious readers, I assert that this focus on maintaining an awareness of deeper meaning within each present moment is the essence of all true religion. Indeed, Frankl highlights this towards the end of the book when he writes, "What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic." No Christian could articulate the message of Jesus, the true Logos, better than this. And the consistent message of all the great mystical traditions throughout the ages confirm the veracity of this statement. Theosis, not theology, saves us from the existential nihilism of our age.


If you plan to read this book sometime, I would follow it with Elie Wiesel's Night to draw out the similarities and striking differences between the two works. While the teenager Wiesel was left with only hate for the Nazis as a result of his experiences, Frankl, a middle-aged psychiatrist, was able to maintain a clinical and even metaphysical take on his horrific situation. His perspective is therefore much more prescriptive than Wiesel, for whom every source of meaning and value is destroyed. And ultimately, it reflects the deepest discoveries of the ancient wisdom traditions, among which Judaism stands as one of the greatest.

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