Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning

In Books, Philosophy, Published work

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist, was interned in a number of concentration camps during World War II, including the infamous Auschwitz. His parents and young wife were also interned, though Frankl was the only member of his family who survived long enough to see freedom.

Man’s Search for Meaning is, in part, a memoir of this period. What makes the book unique, however, is Frankl’s perspective. Being a psychiatrist, he is drawn to analyse and understand the psychological dynamics of concentration camps, as well as seek to integrate his own highly traumatic experiences.

Man’s Search for Meaning opens with Frankl’s point of entry into Auschwitz. If you’ve ever read an account of a concentration camp, then you’ll know what follows. Frankl and his fellow prisoners are subjected to a process of degradation and dehumanisation by the camp’s staff. Frankl’s head is shaved, and his possessions – including a much treasured scientific manuscript – are taken from him.

Shivering and dressed in the filthy rags of a prisoner who had already met their end in the ovens of Auschwitz, Frankl reflects on his situation. Having had his freedom, possessions, body hair and even his name taken from him, he feels as though he has entered a more primitive, naked form of existence.

At first, the prisoners struggle to comprehend to gravity of their situation, attempting to barter or bargain with prison guards, or to appeal to the good nature of their fellow prisoners. Such naivety is often painfully stamped out, either by hardened older prisoners – in whom almost all traces of sentimentality have been obliterated – or by the guards, who refuse to even recognise the prisoners as human beings.

Barbed wire fences outside the mist-covered Auschwitz concentration camp
Barbed wire fences outside the mist-covered Auschwitz concentration camp

As Frankl’s hopes and illusions are cut down one by one, he is gripped by a grim sense of humour. The situation seems to him absurd in its hopelessness, and he cannot help but make jokes, laughter offering some minuscule respite from the pain. He also experiences a strange detachment from his situation, and regards his fate with an objective curiosity – perhaps the same way a scientist might observe an experiment:

“I had experienced this kind of curiosity before, as a fundamental reaction towards certain strange circumstances. When my life was once endangered by a climbing accident, I felt only one sensation at the critical moment: curiosity, curiosity as to whether I should come out of it alive or with a fractured skull or some other injury.”

In the following weeks, Frankl is frequently surprised by how much punishment the human body can withstand. Despite being subject to a perilous combination of exhaustion, starvation, forced labour, sleep deprivation, filth, and sub-zero weather, his body carries on.

Survival in the camp quickly becomes a brutal long-game with its own particularly cruel set of rules. If a prisoner cannot quickly adapt to them, their time will be short. Each day brings a series of challenges that threaten with death; maintaining cunning and strength is key. Taking a risk to steal a few slices of bread, or knowing where to stand in morning assembly so as to avoid a particularly fatal work party could mean the difference between life and death.

Many prisoners quickly collapse under such heavy strain – and, to Frankl’s surprise, many physically robust individuals collapsed faster than their smaller and meeker counterparts. This perplexed the doctor, who had assumed that those who are physically hardened would better tolerate hard labour and physical pain.

Meditating on this, Frankl gained an important insight into the human psyche. He realised that physical strength is but one dynamic of survival in such an extreme situations; more important were questions of spiritual and psychological health. He observed that those who lacked physical strength but possessed great mental strength seemed to better endure.

Frankl theorised that, though sensitive individuals might suffer more from the physical sensation of pain, they had a psychological edge; a rich intellectual life and a strong constitution to draw on. The result was that:

“…the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of robust nature.”

Suffering was a constant in the camp. But how an individual interpreted this suffering was of great importance. If they could find a way to give their suffering meaning, they gained the ability to replenish their psychological resources, and strengthen their inner selves. This meaning might be born of religious belief – a divine promise of justice or redemption in the next life – or of more earthly desires; the desire to see the face of a loved one again, or to complete a life mission.

Man’s Search for Meaning turns upon a line of Nietzsche’s that Frankl apparently never tired of quoting:

“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

Frankl himself was driven by the goal of rebuilding his life’s work – the scientific manuscript that was taken from him upon entry to the camp. Despite the immense risk, he stole scraps of paper on which to slowly rebuild his research during the dark of night. This dream provided a psychic anchor, and a crucial refuge from pain in times of difficulty.

Frankl believed that each individual possesses a “spiritual freedom” which enables them to choose their attitude to life. Reflecting on camp life he writes that:

“…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 a plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become moulded into the form of a typical inmate.”

He goes as far as to claim that “the sort of person a prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone” – which assigns extraordinary agency to human beings. To Frankl, suffering provides an opportunity to add deeper meaning to one’s life. That only a minuscule proportion achieved this noble goal is of no consequence: these rare cases demonstrate that human beings can “rise above their outward fate” through inner strength. Frankl dedicated his life to understanding how this was possible, and exploring how such a mechanism could help treat and empower his patients.

A portrait of Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl in  1947. (c) Imagno/Getty Images.
A portrait of Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl from 1947. (c) Imagno/Getty Images.

The first section of the book closes with Frankl’s liberation at the hands of American soldiers, and a short discussion of the psychological challenges ex-prisoners faced reintegrating into society.

In the second half, Frankl lays out his theory of Logotherapy in a concise and clear manner. Using the insights born of his experience in concentration camps, he sets out a new model of the human psyche, in opposition to those offered by Freud, Jung and Adler.

The crux of Frankl’s theory is that humans are not driven by a will to pleasure (Freud), or a will to power (Adler), but rather a will to meaning. He takes an existentialist position on the meaning of life, claiming that no single, innate meaning exists, but rather a plethora of possible meanings:

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise 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…”

This idea stands in stark opposition to the views of Freud, who emphasised that man is a limited creature, subject to irrational impulses and primitive urges of which he can never hope to escape or attain full control. His psychology was a deterministic, and quite pessimistic one.

Frankl acknowledges that man is limited in many ways – biologically, socially, psychologically – but holds that his observations in German concentration camps provide evidence to “the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable.” Many other accounts of concentration camps corroborate his experiences; tales of incredible kindness, strength, and integrity in the most horrific of environments.

It’s clear why this book gained such popularity in the wake of World War II. The war created political, social, and existential crises that shook the very foundations of civilisation. As post-war Europe surged desperately to cope with the chaos and horrors which had been unveiled, here came this slight, Viennese psychiatrist, emerging from hell on earth to proclaim that humans do have agency in life; that we can create meaning, form new values, adapt to new conditions, and even overcome terrible suffering through the cultivation of a rich inner life. It was a message of hope set in a period of widespread hopelessness; but also, importantly, one of personal responsibility – and it resonated across languages and cultures.

Today, Man’s Search for Meaning’s message is as relevant as ever. As our societies are becoming ever-more complex, hyper-commodified and abstract, an existential vacuum threatens to grip us once more. We are sold images of dreams by a market economy that can never quite deliver what it promises: security from death, transcendence of the self, and meaning in life. We lose ourselves in power, money and pleasure, only to find them ultimately lacking.

As faith in traditional religions and other myths continue to erode, books like Frankl’s are vital in helping us establish new ways of living and forging meaning in the world. His experience in Auschwitz has provided us with a unique insight into the human psyche.

For those less interested in philosophical debates, Frankl provides a fascinating portrait of what life was like inside concentration camps, and the humanity which still managed to shine through immeasurable pain and suffering.

Clearly written, well translated, and of short length, Man’s Search for Meaning is essential for anyone looking to reflect upon the content and direction of their life.

This piece was originally published at The Big Smoke.

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