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This short summary and analysis of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl includes:
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About Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl:
Written just after World War II, Viktor Frankl’s international bestseller Man’s Search for Meaning is both a heartbreaking memoir and a source of inspiration for millions of readers.
Dr. Frankl’s description of his time in a string of Nazi concentration camps is a fascinating, mandatory read for anyone wanting a better understanding of the Holocaust. A highly respected psychotherapist, his ideas on human emotion, the mind, mental health, tragic optimism, and the day-to-day neuroses of common people in the modern world provide spiritual guidance as each of us searches for meaning in our own lives.
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Summary and Analysis of Man's Search for Meaning
Based on the Book by Viktor E. Frankl
By Worth Books
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
I. Experiences in a Concentration Camp
Frankl begins with the institutional brutality of his own entry into the camps: the formal orderliness with which Nazi officials organized transport, admission, regulation, and control of the prisoners. The processing of prisoners — giving them numbers, dividing them up into random groups, stripping them naked, beating them, selecting privileged capos, setting them to work from early in the morning to late in the day, and starving them — in Frankl's estimation was a way of depriving people of their connections to others and to their own lives and histories. As a manner of control, this was very effective. People were too frightened, alienated, and intent on surviving to even consider resistance. The Nazis projected an image of total control and order, and an essential part of this was weakening and disempowering their prisoners.
Thoughts of suicide, fear of death, and brutal working conditions kept the prisoners down, but Frankl recounts moments where human behavior seemed to run counter to what was — and often still is — popularly thought about human psychology. Some obedient prisoners were selected by the Nazis and became capos — helpers and orderlies of the regime — but more often, prisoners would help strangers in the camp at great risk to themselves.
On his second day at Auschwitz, Frankl was approached by a man who broke the rules, risking death, by sneaking out to his hut to offer advice on how to survive in the camp. This deed was entirely selfless and also completely unnecessary, as it did little to help either party in the end.
Though suicide was possible — all one had to do was "run into the wire," the highly electrified fence surrounding the camp — few people actually killed themselves. And though many of those who repressed thoughts of suicide were still murdered, a small minority of survivors continued to take great risks for others and to find ways of maintaining calm, levelheadedness, and some optimism. Frankl found these cases the most interesting.
To understand better, Frankl broke the experience up into a few loose phases. The first phase was one of an ironic curiosity. Most inmates, subject to such hopelessness, moved into a state of removed curiosity as to how much pain they could take and whether they would survive. With the elimination of personal agency, it seemed that, initially, the intellectual mind took over and found itself stimulated to see what would happen next. How long could a person go without sleep? How long could a person stand out in two-degree weather without boots or a coat?
The brief first phase was then followed by a phase of apathy and a permanent and total lack of libido. Frankl viewed these characteristics as central symptoms of imprisonment. Prisoners began to view death and suffering as just another part of the day, unremarkable for the camps. Frankl too fell into this behavior, often viewing the body of a friend who died right in front of him or watching people ransack a dead body for a coat, shoes, and other possessions without the slightest reaction. He also had very few sexual thoughts and was reduced, essentially, to a state of physical and libidinal anhedonia or disinterest. These responses were characteristics of psychological self-defense and were necessary for survival. To feel, see, and live as normal in the camp was impossible, so in order to make it through the ordeal, the human mind naturally withdrew to a state of moral, physical, and emotional apathy.
Frankl discusses what he calls "cultural hibernation" and the importance of a rich inner life. The belief systems and culture of the prisoners were largely absent during internment, but Frankl writes that there were often heady discussions of a political, academic, or religious nature. This led him to some insights about the importance of intellectual lives for human beings. He remarks that the biggest and healthiest prisoners would often perish sooner than those with slighter constitutions who had rich intellectual lives. Inner peace and a desire to find meaning — through literature, science, theology, etc. — even when confronted with violence and chaos, was central not only to survival, but also to finding meaning in one's life. Frankl refers to his own knowledge of literature to aid his understanding of the range of human responses to the anguish. He quotes Lessing, "There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose," and Dostoevsky: "Yes, man can get used to anything, but do not ask how."
Thoughts of poetry, literature, and science helped Frankl to understand himself and the world around him and led to one of his central revelations. During a particularly difficult march in the cold, he recognized that he and other inmates were thinking of their wives in order to comfort themselves. Love was central, he thought, to survival and to finding meaning. "The salvation of man is through love and in love." The intensification of the inner life centering around thoughts of meaning and love gave the prisoners respite — if brief — from the moral and intellectual desolation of the camps.
Additional experiences, composing a kind of third phase of life in the camp, centered on the pursuit of "spiritual freedom." This struggle was the most intense and personal of all. It came out in various ways. Some people sang to one another or recited poems. In one case, a cabaret was put on for the group's entertainment. But psychological freedom was also found in brief or accidental respites: coming across a pair of old shoe laces, finding peas in your soup, doing something to help a friend.
Frankl did this last one often. He was once involved in a plan to break out from the camp and escape. He was excited, but also felt morally distraught over leaving his friends and patients behind. At the last minute, just when he and a friend were about to get away, he decided to remain behind to help his patients in the typhus block. Immediately, he felt better. Liberated, in a way. The struggle to maintain one's own values, he realized, was common among the prisoners. Many failed to find a way to do it. But others, like Frankl, did. Sacrificing oneself for others is, in the end, a way of surviving. It builds you up and makes you stronger, because it provides your life with meaning. Finally, Frankl quoted Dostoevsky to himself: "There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings."
Frankl brings this section of the book to a close with a long discussion of the choices we have in our own freedom. Psychological pressures, imprisonment, abuse, physical restraint — all of these have effects on the human mind. But for Frankl, it came down to the fact that we are able to choose to continue seeing value in living, and see ahead into the future and set goals, even in the most dire situations. The people who were able to do this not only survived, but also found peace and even happiness. Those who gave up perished.
Frankl tells a story of an inmate who had a dream predicting that the horrible war with Germany would be over on March 30, 1945. The man pinned all of his hopes on it. For the weeks and months leading up to that date, he was healthy and optimistic, completely believing in his dream. He'd given himself a goal, a small hope, and it opened up a world of optimism in him. But as March 30, 1945, drew closer and there was no sign of the war ending, the man fell ill. In the final days of March, he grew worse and worse until there was no hope. And on March 30, he died.
Frankl says that what people like this inmate knew at first, but later forgot, was the idea that "it [does] not really matter what we [expect] from life, but rather what life [expects] from us." One cannot force his way in the world by pinning all his hopes on a single date on the calendar, because in the end, life teaches you how to live; it has its own expectations. The response to life — the choice a person must make to maintain hope and inner richness — will dictate whether and how well he or she survives. In some cases, it may be a person's individual fate to suffer. In this instance, it is the acceptance of this that brings liberation and meaning into that person's life. Those who are able to see this, whether consciously or not, find inner peace.
Need to Know: From 1942 to 1945, Austrian therapist Dr. Viktor Frankl was detained in various Nazi concentration camps throughout occupied Europe. Although existence for prisoners was dire agony beyond imagining, Frankl noted that those who survived tended to be individuals who found meaning and inner richness in their lives. An inner life that centered on love and selflessness, even at great personal risk, would eventually lead to a revelatory inner liberation. Phases of ironic curiosity, apathy, suicidal tendencies, and the suppression of spiritual freedom were experienced by all in the camp, but those who found meaning in the smallest consolations — memories, literature, song, generosity — were those who were able to "say yes" to life and maintain hope, and therefore find spiritual liberation. These experiences led Frankl not only to insights about psychological suffering and the human mind, but also about the very nature of life itself. According to his assessments, it will not do to have expectations of life. You only find freedom in realizing that life itself has expectations of you. Accepting this idea is critical to living a psychologically healthy life and finding meaning.
II. Logotherapy in a Nutshell
Logotherapy is a "meaning-based" therapy, a treatment based on what Frankl observes is man's universal search for meaning. He calls it "The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy," next to Freudian psychology ("the will to pleasure") and Adlerian psychology ("the will to power"). Frankl's work is based on the idea of the "will to meaning." A lack of meaning is called existential frustration and typically results in a person being depressed because he or she feels there is no meaning in life. This existential state leads to "noögenic neuroses" (from noös, meaning mind), which typically presents itself as depression or dissatisfaction.
The neuroses emerge on the basis of "noö-dynamics," based on the idea of necessary tension between what one has achieved and what one ought to achieve. When there is no tension in life — that is, no goal or hope — one reaches a state of "homeostasis," or equilibrium, and this leads to depression. Although equilibrium is generally seen as the proper end state in other schools of therapy, Frankl sees it as dangerous. Without that tension, that motivation to do and produce in the world, depression, dissatisfaction, or even suicidal tendencies emerge. In other words, a person must have some use in the world, some reason for existing, that drives him forward.
Frankl then describes the existential vacuum, a historical concept. Frankl says that at some point in ancient history, man lost animal instincts that provided security, survival, a reason for living. Then, many thousands of years later, in our modern era, man lost "tradition," which may refer to religious, familial, or some other form of tradition that operates as a guide in one's life. With mass production, the centralization of power, and a general increase in life's comforts, people found themselves with less meaning or reason to go forward. Frankl notes that as many as 25% of the people in Europe were (at the time of writing) experiencing agony in this existential vacuum. In America, he interestingly notes, this figure rose to 60%.
As a way of treating this, each patient must search for his own meaning of life and essence of existence. This differs from patient to patient; there is no universal answer. Frankl writes that one must confront life's finiteness, as well as its finality, and freely choose to live as if he is being given a second chance to live better. Living meaningfully means responding to life's ever changing meaning. What life demands of a person may change from day to day, year to year. There are three basic ways to discover this changing meaning: by creating or doing some deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone; and by changing your attitude toward suffering.
It is through the meaning of love and the meaning of suffering that we are able to take hold of the core that makes up our personality and become free. Love helps us see our potential and suffering helps us see the final meaning. Although suffering is not necessary to find meaning, Frankl insists that in the right kind of life, it is possible to find meaning despite suffering. This meaning is discovered through examination and choice, and also through giving oneself over to life and its demands.
Through the "logodrama"— an instance in which our loss of or search for meaning is dramatized poignantly in our day-to-day life — we may discover what Frankl calls the "super-meaning." This super-meaning is the mystery of the cosmos, the fact that, despite all of our advancements and sciences and knowledge, there is still an indifferent universe out there about which we can never know anything. In such a context, our finiteness is clear, and it is through the acceptance of this that we may come to understand that the universe is not meaningless but rather has "unconditional meaningfulness."
As a small example of a logotherapy technique, Frankl offers the notions of "hyper-intention" and "hyper-reflection." Hyper-intention is the fear of something (such as failure) that finally brings about that which is feared. Frankl uses the example of a man who is afraid of blushing when he enters a room. Hyper-intention will cause that to happen. The opposite is also true — a forced intention will not bring about the desired outcome. Frankl's example is of a man wishing to prove his sexual potency. The more he tries to, the more he fails.
Hyper-reflection — the tendency to overthink and constantly imagine how one might fail — will bring about paralysis. Frankl's solution is to engage in "paradoxical intention." That is, the intentional embrace of the fear. If you fear sweating in public, as one of his patients did, the idea is to intentionally try to demonstrate how much you can sweat in public. Patients who underwent paradoxical intention found themselves losing their fears and finally being cured of them. Such a method can be applied to issues of sleep disturbance, public speaking, and many others.
There is also something Frankl calls collective neuroses, which is the current neurosis of any particular era. At the time of writing, he determined that nihilism was the most widespread problem. People felt then, and still do now, that life is nothing but a system of laws and organs and predetermined functions. This led to a mass sense of meaninglessness. As a result of this, and to some extent as a result of the influence of Freud, mankind fell into what he calls "pan-determinism," or the sense that we are determined by our childhoods and cannot really take a stand against adverse conditions (the way Frankl did during the Holocaust). But people, Frankl insists, are free to choose. It is this faculty in us that makes us more than merely our bodies, past, conditions, or suffering. Freedom is not the only important element in life, however. Frankl says that in order to be truly free and moral, one must have a counterbalancing aspect of responsibility. Here Frankl makes his famous declaration that, in addition to the Statue of Liberty, the United States should build a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.
Frankl announces his psychiatric credo: "An incurably psychotic individual may lose his usefulness but yet retain the dignity of a human being." Frankl uses this belief to guide his work and as a basic principle for treating patients. He goes on to say that, for far too long, the human mind has been viewed as a machine, or a mechanism, which can be repaired or abandoned according to the wishes of doctors. He finds this repugnant. He calls for a move away from Freudianism and an embrace of "humanized psychology," wherein a man or woman is viewed as a self-determining and free individual.
Need to Know: The application and practice of logotherapy is somewhat complicated in its details, but is ultimately easy to understand intellectually. The real difficulty lies in applying it to one's own life. Frankl describes logotherapy as a therapeutic practice of telling his patients "things which sometimes are very disagreeable to hear." Although being facetious when he said this, it holds true that the application of "meaning-therapy" is, above all, personal to each individual and, therefore, will delve into that person's worst fears and phobias — and then demand that the person make a choice. Logotherapy can only be used and understood in relation to a single individual's direct experience of life and his or her conflict within the greater context (the "collective neurosis" or the "super-meaning") of society at large. Examining the concepts of noögenic neuroses, existential vacuum, and super-meaning may help, but what it takes, in fact, in the end, is nothing more than a willingness to listen to what life is telling you, to accept the mysteries of the universe, to be selfless and loving, and to embrace the unknown. All of this is done in pursuit of Frankl's credo that all individuals, no matter how sick, confused, or morally compromised, "retain the dignity of a human being."
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Table of Contents
Direct Quotes and Analysis,
What's That Word?,
About Viktor E. Frankl,
For Your Information,