Victor Frankl’s classic work Man’s Search For Meaning is a rich source of psychological insight. Written based on first-hand observations of the lives of fellow inmates in Nazi concentration camps, the work succeeds in capturing key universal truths. The foremost of the book’s concerns is that of ‘meaning’ pertaining to human life. It talks about how humans miraculously manage to find meaning even in the most despairing, demeaning and de-humanizing of circumstances.
One of the insights into human personality traits offered by Frankl is the classification of humans into ‘decent’ and ‘indecent’ types. This dichotomy is not strictly applicable to camp inmates versus Nazi officers divide, for there were ‘decent officers’ and ‘indecent fellow inmates’ as well. Frankl reckons that this classification is at the core of human psychological makeup. He recounts how there were exemplar inmates who managed to keep their integrity intact even in the most testing of situations. The same applies to some Nazi officers who tried to dispense their duty as humanely as possible while still obeying orders from the High Command. One of the major goals of Frankl’s thought is
“to highlight the relationship between psychotherapy and philosophy. He reminds us that all psychotherapies, wittingly or unwittingly, are based on a theory of humanness, a philosophy of life. The question, states Frankl, is whether or not our “humanness” is preserved in the given philosophy and theory. This is where Frankl demonstrates his concern over the implications of the “nothing-butness” theory. This is where–as a psychiatrist and as a humanist–he takes a hard look and sees that in most current approaches the human quality is disregarded or neglected: our freedom of will is denied!” (Lowen, 2000, p. 55)
It is interesting to speculate how Frankl’s theories and personal experiences would have changed had his circumstances been a little different. Firstly, it is relevant to ask how Frankl would have acted if he was cognizant of his wife’s death. This relevance of this question comes from the fact that during the most depressing and desperate moments in his life in concentration camps, it was the image of his wife he brought to mind to rejuvenate his will to live. In the book, Frankl poetically recalls how, in the mind space of his reminiscence, he was able to picture his wife as the epitome of beauty, tenderness and love. Here, his wife appeared several times more luminous than that of the rising sun. In moments such as this he was able to understand for the first time what the poets have been in adoration for centuries past – namely the centrality of love in an individual’s life.
An interesting notion brought up by Frankl’s analysis of human psyche under severe distress is ‘will to meaning’. What this concept means is our obligation toward ourselves to find meaning to our suffering even when prospects for a future look bleak and hopeless. Frankl seems to suggest that adverse external circumstances should not have a significant bearing on the spirit of striving to live. Irrational as it might outwardly seem, Frankl says that suffering creates its own meaning and experience which will strengthen an individual’s hold onto his spiritual self. Hence, the concept of ‘will to meaning’ counsels us on how it is spiritual progress that is the ultimate meaning of life. Such being the case, harsh physical conditions can actually aide in this progress. Further, Frankl hypothesized that not only a repressed will to pleasure or power can lead to sickness, but
“also that a repressed will to meaning can have similar results. In fact, he placed the will to meaning at a higher level than the other causal factors. Pleasure, Frankl said, is not an end in itself but only a by-product of a person’s having found meaning. Power, too, said Frankl, is not an end in itself but only a means to an end, namely to find meaning. Meaning, or logos, in Frankl’s view is neither a by-product nor a mere means to an end, but is an essence. The human being is basically a meaning seeking animal-and appears to be the only meaning seeking animal. (Barnes, 2000)
In many ways, the concept of ‘will to meaning’ is at the centre of Frankl’s existentialist discourse in the book. Since existentialism proposes that “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering”, it holds humans responsible for finding meaning to their existence. This responsibility is contrasted against the impulse to long for freedom. In Frankl’s view, freedom is very dangerous in the absence of commensurate responsibility. He even hints that responsibility is a more urgent pre-condition for existence than freedom. This is so, for spiritual progress is a matter of inner discipline and fortitude. In this scenario, responsibility is the more suited virtue than liberty. Frankl identified with this idea so strongly that he even recommended the erection of a Statue of Responsibleness on the West Coast of the United States to counterbalance the Statue of Liberty guarding the East Coast.
The insights and theories presented in the book have implications for various disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, sociology and even political science. Hence, I would call it a treasure trove of wisdom for anyone related to any of the mentioned fields of inquiry. When we place the book in the socio-political and historic context in which it was written, its value is further enhanced. For example, Frankl’s book is as much a comment on the dangers of political authoritarianism (as it unfolded under Hitler) as it is a thesis on psychotherapy. In its latter role, instead of dismantling or trying to disprove the ideas of Freud and Adler (leading contemporaries of his era) he mostly accommodates his theories to theirs. In this regard, Frankl’s project is integrative as against being polemic. As for the scholarship style and merit,
“the book is both well written and organized, with information and atmosphere to spare. But perhaps what is striking about this work is the balanced perspective it offers. Frankl comes across as a “paradoxically dogmatic” individual who is open and strident as well as immensely tolerant…he is also shown to be, at times, unyielding and unforgiving.” (Dattilio, 2003)
As I conclude this essay I admit to how deeply moved I am by reading the book. No other book has had such a profound impact on me as Man’s Search for Meaning has. It has made me realize how superficial my concerns and preoccupations have been so far. As a result of reading this book, I will now think twice before complaining about anything. If people can get through the most torturous conditions in a concentration camp and not complain about it, what are my complaints worth? In this regard, reading this book has been a humbling experience, as it has shaken up my conscience and rejuvenated my spirit to find and fulfil my life’s purpose. It will be my endeavour to remember and apply the numerous psychological insights offered by Victor Frankl to life’s various challenges.
Barnes, R. C. (2000). Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy: Spirituality and Meaning in the New Millennium. TCA Journal, 28(1), 24+.
Dattilio, F. M. (2003). When Life Calls out to Us: The Love and Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 57(1), 140+.
Lowen, J. (2000, Winter). Viktor Frankl, the Champion of Humanness. Free Inquiry, 21(1), 55.
Viktor Emil Frankl (1 June 2006).Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press.