What’s the book about? Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl describes his internal struggle to find reasons to live during his incarceration in the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. This renowned piece of literature has become a must-read book for those looking for guidance in matters relating to meaning and purpose.
Book Review — Man’s Search for Meaning
This book was given to me at a time in my life where I was searching for my next mission. I had recently found myself living in an entirely new country where I was forced to adapt to great changes in personal circumstances. Self-reflection was a big deal for me during this time, as I attempted to take stock of my situation so that I was comfortable navigating the uncertain future that awaited me.
It was during this time of great introspection that a friend of mine recommended Man’s search for Meaning. A book famous for assisting those who are contemplating the meaning behind one’s purpose. And I will say this—looking back on this book, I was not really expecting how powerful and profound it would be and the effect it would have on my outlook moving forward.
About The Book
Author: Viktor E. Frankl
Genre: History, Psychology
Frankl argues that each man’s life is unique, and as such, the meaning of life is inevitably different for each individual person. He proposes that anyone can choose to make meaning out of any situation they find themselves in, no matter how bad things are. A premise that is backed up with great conviction by his own experiences of incarceration in the Nazi concentration camps during WWII. The outlooks formed within this book are greatly enhanced by Viktor’s psychological expertise—outlining a chilling look into the human condition during one of mankind’s darkest hours in history.
The reader will find themselves promptly confronted with the nightmare of the holocaust. But Frankl takes great care to explain to the reader that the concern of this book is not to outline the great horrors of the camps, for there are many books that can do that in greater detail—but rather, Man’s Search for Meaning concerns itself with how the human mind responds to a multitude of smaller torments, adversities and an ever-present threat of death.
And it is precisely through these observations of his, that Viktor Frankl presents his case for how he believes certain individuals could stand through any suffering, no matter how long drawn, in contrast to those who couldn’t.
He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
My Takeaways from Reading Man’s Search for Meaning
Man’s search for Meaning is a short piece of literature that can be read in a relatively short period of time and I believe any thorough analysis of this book that you’re going to consume from elsewhere is going to distort somewhat, the essence of this profound piece of literature. Each reader brings their own vital peculiarity. Each differentiated ego will approach the text with their own lens. And I believe I would be failing you if you were to subscribe to my particular commentary of this book as a worthy synopsis of its intended message.
Therefore in this review, I’m simply going to outline the 3 key takeaways that I personally took from this book:
First takeaway: The strength of one’s Personal Sovereignty
Imagine living in a world in which the environment dictates your every move—a tyrannical system that runs entirely without your input that has no means to be manipulated or understood. It commands your every act with grave consequences for disobedience. To what extent can one find control or understanding within such a closed system?
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. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.
— Viktor Frankl
And that right there was a true game changer for me when I first grasped the meaning behind this message. A person needn’t ever give up the inner sovereignty of their mind. And from this inner sovereignty remains the freedom to choose the attitude to which you will respond to any given situation, however ruthless and chaotic the external material world happens to be. It was with this notion, that I came to understand that control can only truly be ensured from one’s inner self.
Frankl emphasizes that psychological reactions are not determined for people by any stimuli, no matter how ruthless or devastating as long as they understand this inner control. The examples detailing the horrific experiences of his incarceration in the Nazi concentration camps are provided to reinforce this idea. Personal Sovereignty allows the individual to build an axiom of their own choosing irrespective of any situation that they’re faced with—so long as a person never surrenders their will to external forces, one can find hope from within the darkness.
Second takeaway: The danger of the crowd
Whenever we’re exposed to the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, it can be very difficult to understand precisely how the perpetrators could have committed and justified such merciless acts. But there is great wisdom in understanding how vulnerable all people are to surrendering their own personal sovereignty to great ideological forces. Regular German people just like you and I tolerated and took part in these acts and we’d do well to know why. It isn’t enough to simply say, I’d never do that when history paints a very different picture of how people act when they’re surrounded by a culture of tyranny.
Viktor Frankl believed people are vulnerable to such forces when they suffer from a loss of existential orientation. Frankl notes that the modern person has almost too much freedom to deal with. Through the abstractions of culture, man can no longer depend upon his instinct, nor can he depend upon his social traditions to tell him what to do—this results in an existential vacuum. Leaving him to either do what other people do (Conformism) or to do what other people wish him to do (Totalitarianism)
And it was precisely due to this phenomenon that Frankl believes pre-war Germany allowed totalitarianism to manifest itself in order to fill this void. And filling this void has been necessary for all people throughout history. Turning to their respective gods and their leaders for a sense of purpose and direction in their lives. To witness millions of people walking together in ideological unison, chanting, laughing, trusting, striving for greatness, and openly hostile to outsiders—must be a sight to behold and a great symphony that pleases the most intuitive senses. The gravitational pull of such forces is surely capable of consuming the best of us.
And for anyone who decides to stand against the in-group when they’re in control, is surely going to suffer the contempt of their own community and perhaps even suffer from hostile consequences. An outcome that most people very rarely put themselves into voluntarily for obvious reasons. Therefore, the potential to manipulate those who place little value on their own personal sovereignty is frighteningly easy. (As was the case with people in Nazi Germany) And it was precisely through the above mechanisms, that normal people were capable of contributing to one of the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind.
So how does one avoid the pull of such forces? To not allow such forces to prosper in your environment in the first place. To not allow your community to fall into an existential vacuum.
The problem ultimately lies in people seeking meaning through others—looking to fill their own emptiness through the meanings of external abstractions rather than building their own individual purpose. When an individual rids themselves of the personal responsibility to create their own meaning and pleads their loyalty to external axioms that they have very little understanding over, that is when we can see the aforementioned conditions arise.
I’ll end this point with the following quote from one of the most prominent Nazis Adolf Eichmann as he described his own role within the holocaust—that I believe illustrates the disconnect between one’s own personal sovereignty and the role of social subordination:
I cannot recognize the verdict of guilty… It was my misfortune to become entangled in these atrocities. But these misdeeds did not happen according to my wishes. It was not my wish to slay people… Once again I would stress that I am guilty of having been obedient, having subordinated myself to my official duties and the obligations of war service and my oath of allegiance and my oath of office, and in addition, once the war started, there was also martial law… I did not persecute Jews with avidity and passion. That is what the government did… At that time obedience was demanded, just as in the future it will also be demanded of the subordinate.
— Adolf Eichmann
Third takeaway: The sources of meaning
When people fall victim to the conditions of an existential vacuum, Frankl believes they’re no longer open to the various sources of meaning, which according to him, are:
1) Creating a work or doing a deed;
2) Experiencing something or encountering someone (love);
3) The attitude we take to unavoidable suffering.
And in closing, the words of Viktor Frankl on the sources of meaning:
“The first, by way of achievement or accomplishment, is quite obvious. The second and third need further elaboration.
The Meaning of Love
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features of the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true…
The third way of finding a meaning in life is by suffering.
The Meaning of Suffering
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation–just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer–we are challenged to change ourselves…
But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering–provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political…
There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one’s work or enjoy one’s life; but what can never be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end. In other words, life’s meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of unavoidable suffering…
[In Auschwitz] the question that beset me was, “Has all this suffering, all this dying around us, a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends on such a happenstance–as whether one escapes or not–ultimately would not be worth living at all.”