MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING. Viktor E. Frankl.
A classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust. Book Review by Patrick Aherne
I am not sure why it has taken me this long to get around to reading this book. Over the years, I have read so many books that have quoted or referred in some way to the life and work of Victor Frankl.
Why you should read this book
- To explore the impact of purpose and meaning for the person struggling on life’s edge.
- It delivers an uplifting message of hope in the face of suffering and traumatic circumstances.
- It is a necessary reminder of what man is capable of, the good and the bad. “After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisreal on his lips” (Viktor Frankl).
- It provides valuable insights into human behavior.
- It allows us an intimate look at the incredible life of Viktor Frankl.
Victor Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist. In the years leading up to the Second World War, he specialized in helping patients with suicidal tendencies. In 1938, he became head of the neurological department at the Rothschild Hospital, Vienna. The Nazi regime restricted Jews like Frankl to only practicing in this one hospital.
In 1942 Frankl, his wife and parents were transported to the Nazi ghetto. Later they were moved to and processed at Auschwitz concentration camp. Victor was then transferred to a camp affiliated with the infamous Dachau camp. Except for Victor and a sister who had earlier emigrated to Australia, the whole Frankl family, his wife, brother, and parents, all fell victim to Hitler’s ‘final solution’ in Nazi concentration camps.
Part 1. Life in the death camps.
In the first section of this book, Frankl records his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. It is an autobiographical account and what he sees as the existential validation of his theories. In a sense he was to use the death camps as his observation laboratory, never knowing if he would survive from one day to the next. He records his struggle to find meaning in what was unfolding before him:
“The odds of surviving the camp were no more than one in twenty-eight, as can easily be verified by exact statistics. It did not even seem possible, let alone probable, that the manuscript of my first book, which I had hidden in my coat when I arrived at Auschwitz, would ever be rescued. Thus, I had to undergo and to overcome the loss of my mental child. And now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a mental child of my own! So I found myself confronted with the question whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of meaning.
Under the most trying of circumstances, the responses of those around him to the death camp provided him with insight into human nature and what it means to be truly human. What Frankl witnessed in the Nazi concentration camps confirmed to him what his pre-war studies had indicated. He had found in his work with the depressed, unemployed, suicidal, and now death camp inmates, that meaning and hope were inextricably linked, and man’s primary need was to find meaning in life.
“As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why-an aim-for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.”
After liberation by the U.S. military forces in 1945, Frankl returned to his home alone. He continued to practice as a psychiatrist, to write and lecture. He married again and refined his theory of psychotherapy which he called ‘Logotherapy.’ It was to him, psychiatry re-humanized. To Frankl man was more than a ‘psyche’, more than a machine.
Part 2. ‘Logotherapy’ explained.
The second part of the book is an explanation of his theory of Logotherapy. In short the term refers to his meaning based therapy which became known as the ‘Third Viennese school of Psychotherapy.” Although Frankl refers to this as the theoretical section of the book, it still contains practical examples and mutually supports the credibility of the first part. His explanation makes it readily available to the general reader. As Frankl points out, his views of the human condition and behavior were forged by his experience and the experience of fellow prisoners in the horror of Nazi concentration camps. Those views stood in stark contrast to the abstract ideas of his contemporary Sigmund Freud that were formulated with clients relating their problems from the comfort of a style Victorian couch in a psychiatrist’s office.
This section provides a varied number of interesting case studies that illuminate the essential point that Frankl is making. Some of these studies grapple with the complexities of finding meaning in the midst of suffering, something Frankl understood in a very personal way. He presupposes that life is potentially meaningful even under the most miserable of conditions. In turn, this presupposes the human capacity to transform creatively life’s negative aspects into something positive and constructive.
He speaks of ‘the tragic triad’ as (a) pain; (2)guilt; and (3) death. The response he proposes is what he calls a ‘tragic optimism’
(a) Turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) Deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better, and (3) Deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.
This book is not a lengthy read, but it is a book that provides a wealth of insights into the human state and challenges to every reader for their own life journey.
Man’s Search For Meaning
The interesting chronology of Viktor Frankl’s life and achievements may be viewed in full on the following site:
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