October 20, 2021
10 Minutes

Man's Search for Meaning

Book summary of Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Read this book summary to review the important takeaways and lessons from the book.

Table Of Contents

1. Preface By Harold S. Kushner

2. Preface To The 1992 Edition

3. Experiences In A Concentration Camp

4. Logotherapy In A Nutshell

5. The Case For A Tragic Optimism

Preface By Harold S. Kushner

  • Several times in the course of the book, Frankl approvingly quotes the words of Nietzsche, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how".

  • Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The great task for any person is to find meaning in their life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: work, love, and courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless: we give our suffering meaning by how we respond to it.

  • Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.

  • Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know the man as he is. Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

Preface To The 1992 Edition

  • Don't aim at success: the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you will miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued. It must ensue. And it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.

  • I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run - in the long run, I say - success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.

Experiences In A Concentration Camp

  • Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home and save his friends.

  • In psychiatry, there is a specific condition known as "delusion of reprieve". Immediately before execution, the condemned man feels that he might get reprieved at the very last minute.

  • We had nothing now except our bare bodies - even minus hair: all we possessed was our naked existence.

  • If you want to stay alive, there is only one way: look fit for work.

  • An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.

  • Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care anymore, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner's psychological reactions. It eventually made a prisoner insensitive to daily and hourly beatings.

  • At such a moment, it is not the physical pain that hurts the most: it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.

  • Reality dimmed, and all efforts and emotions got centred on one task: preserving one's own life and that of the other fellow.

  • Because of the degree of undernourishment the prisoners suffered, it was natural that the desire for food was the primary primitive instinct around which mental life centred.

  • When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies devouring themselves.

  • Undernourishment, besides being the cause of the general preoccupation with food, probably also explains that the sexual urge was generally absent.

  • Politics got almost continuously discussed everywhere in camp: the discussions were based chiefly on rumours, which were snapped up and passed around avidly.

  • The truth - that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.

  • Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

  • Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.

  • It is well known that humour, more than anything else in human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation.

  • The attempt to develop a sense of humour and see things in a humorous light is some trick learned while mastering the art of living.

  • To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. Suppose a certain quantity of gas gets pumped into an empty chamber. In that case, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering fills the human soul and conscious mind, whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the "size" of human suffering is relative.

  • I remember drawing up a kind of balance sheet of pleasures one day and finding that in many, many past weeks, I had experienced only two pleasurable moments.

  • No man should judge unless he honestly asks himself whether he might not have done the same in a similar situation.

  • The camp inmate was frightened of making decisions and of taking any initiative whatsoever. That resulted from a strong feeling that fate was one's master. And that one must not try to influence it in any way but instead let it take its course.

  • The majority of prisoners suffered from a kind of inferiority complex.

  • Since the prisoner continually witnessed scenes of beatings, the impulse towards violence increased.

  • Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

  • Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision. A decision that 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 moulded into the form of the typical inmate.

  • An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realise values in creative work. In contrast, a passive life of enjoyment allows him to get fulfilment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature.

  • If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.

  • Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.

  • A man who could not see the end of his "provisional existence" could not aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future, in contrast to a man in ordinary life.

  • The unemployed worker, for example, is in a similar position. His existence has become provisional, and in a certain sense, he cannot live for the future or aim at a goal.

  • In robbing the present of its reality, there lay a particular danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life - opportunities that did exist.

  • Such people forgot that often it is a challenging external situation that gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.

  • One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.

  • The prisoner who had lost faith in his future was doomed.

  • The death rate in the week between Christmas 1944 and New Year's 1945 increased in the camp beyond all previous experience. The explanation for this increase did not lie in the harder working conditions or the deterioration of our food supplies, or a change of weather or new epidemics. It was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naive hope that they would be home again by Christmas.

  • We had to learn ourselves. Furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men that it did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.

  • We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life and instead think of ourselves as those being questioned by life - daily and hourly.

  • Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and fulfil the tasks it constantly sets for each individual.

  • These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man and from moment to moment. Thus, it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.

  • No man and no destiny can get compared with any other man or any other destiny.

  • When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task: his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge that even in suffering, he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

  • A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who waits for him or to an unfinished work will never be able to throw away his life.

  • No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.

  • Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths.

  • What was happening to the liberated prisoners could be called "depersonalisation".

  • The body has fewer inhibitions than the mind.

  • It would be an error to think that a liberated prisoner did not need spiritual care.

  • Man who for years had thought he had reached the absolute limit of suffering now found that suffering has no limits and that he could suffer more intensely.

Logotherapy In A Nutshell

  • Logotherapy focuses on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient.

  • Logotherapy ("The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy") focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man's search for such a meaning.

  • Man's search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a "secondary rationalisation" of instinctual drives.

  • Man can live and even die for the sake of his ideals and values.

  • Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic: some amount of conflict is normal and healthy.

  • There is nothing in the world that would effectively help one survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life.

  • What man needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

  • If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load laid upon it. Thereby, the parts get joined more firmly together.

  • In fact, boredom is now causing, and certainly bringing to psychiatrists, more problems to solve than distress.

  • These problems are becoming crucial, for progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.

  • One should not search for an abstract meaning of life.

  • Everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

  • The logotherapist's role consists of widening and broadening the patient's visual field so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible.

  • The more one forgets himself - by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love - the more human he is, and the more he actualises himself.

  • What is called self-actualisation is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it.

  • According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) By creating a work or doing a deed; (2) By experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

  • Love is the only way to grasp another human being at the core of his personality. No one can become aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him.

  • For what then matters is to witness the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph.

  • Let me make it clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning.

  • To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.

  • Some of the people who call on a psychiatrist would have seen a pastor, priest or rabbi in former days.

  • Man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence.

  • The more a man tries to demonstrate his sexual potency or a woman's ability to experience orgasm, the less they can succeed.

  • Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.

  • In other words, man is ultimately self-determining.

  • By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.

  • I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast get supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

The Case For A Tragic Optimism

  • To the Europeans, it is a characteristic of the American culture that one gets commanded and ordered to "be happy".

  • Happiness cannot get pursued: it must ensue.

  • A human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualising the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.

  • Once an individual's search for meaning is successful, it makes him happy and allows him to cope with suffering.

  • To invoke an analogy, consider a movie: it consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures. Each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the whole film's meaning cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without first understanding each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn't it the same with life?

  • As for the concept of collective guilt, I think that it is unjustified in holding one person responsible for the behaviour of another person or a collective of persons.

  • An American woman once confronted me with the reproach, "How can you write some of your books in German, Adolf Hitler's language?" In response, I asked her if she had knives in her kitchen. When she answered that she did, I acted dismayed and shocked, exclaiming, "How can you still use knives after so many killers have used them to murder their victims?" She stopped objecting to my writing books in German.

  • One may see that there is no reason to pity older people. Instead, young people should envy them. The old indeed have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past. Potentialities they have actualised. The meanings they have fulfilled. And their realised values. Nobody can ever remove these assets.

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