Man’s Search for Meaning, a fascinating read | Book review

What is the book about?

Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book written by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, ex prisoner at Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Kaufering and Turckheim concentration camps.

Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist, who survived with the help of his knowledge, intuition and (if I may say so) luck. He is the developer of Logotherapy, an approach based on the premise that the primary motivational force of a human being is to find a meaning in life.

The book is both an insight into how his theories helped him survived, but also how his experience reinforced and further developed his theories. The first part of the book is more about the experience and little stories that Frankl had during the Holocaust, while the second part focuses more on Frankl’s interpretation of the events and presenting his theories on life, human suffering, survival, and, broadly speaking, as the title anticipates, about our search for a meaning in life. Frankl began developing logotherapy in the years prior, and when he found himself without family in a death camp, he found meaning in developing his theories. He thought about the manuscript he didn’t have time to finish, and “wrote” it in his memory. After the end of the war, he published this book.

Logotherapy was also subject of controversy, receiving criticism by a few experts in the field, such as existential psychologist Rollo May’s arguments that logotherapy is authoritarian, undermining the complexity of life by its simple solution to life’s problems.

Whether you agree or not with logotherapy, it’s an interesting concept and it’s easy to understand. Basically, states Frankl in his book, logotherapy “focuses on the future, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in the future”, and “the patient is actually confronted with and reoriented toward the meaning of his life”, which is personal, unique and specific. When asked about the difference between logotherapy and psychoanalysis, Frankl stated that “(…) in logotherapy the patient may remain sitting erect but he must hear things which sometimes are very disagreeable to hear”. V. Frankl also explains the ways in which we can discover our meaning in life, and I will appoint them here: “(1) by creating a work or a deed, (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone, (3) by attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering”.

My thoughts

I enjoyed reading Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s a fascinating read, that offers the reader insight about the camp experience during WWII, from the perspective of a psychiatrist. And what better man to retell the stories than one who had the knowledge of interpreting and analyzing people and behaviors?

This is a book that teaches you about the internal structure of a death camp, the methods the prisoners had to adopt in order to survive, and how the weak were easily eliminated. More than this, Frankl’s theories, either if you believe them or not, offer an interesting point of view over the events that took place. But, in the end, I still cannot comprehend how people, in such large numbers, could behave like that, and I will probably never accept that people can be so cruel. Of course, just because it’s not covered by the press often, it doesn’t mean that similar (if not too similar…) atrocities take place in our time, but humanity doesn’t seem to learn from its past, or maybe it’s just that “history repeats itself”.

The theories presented in the book are not applicable just for the camp prisoners, they are applicable to anyone, since each of us has to deal with some sort of suffering several times during our lifetime. I recommend it to anyone interested in WWII, psychology, or anyone who wants to find more about these subjects. Needless to say, I gave this book five out of five stars.

Links if you want to read further

  • An excellent article with a lot of quotes and examples from Viktor Frankl’s book, here
  • An interview with the author, here
  • More on logotherapy, here
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