Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl; Beacon Press (200 pages, $23).

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Dr. Viktor Emil Frankl (1905 – 1997) was a world-renowned Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor. He founded “logotherapy”, a psychotherapy method of great significance. He published 39 books in his lifetime, including his famous autobiography Man’s Search for Meaning. Published in 1946, Man’s Search for Meaning chronicles Viktor’s experiences as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. According to Dr. Frankl, his intent in writing the book was to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” I say he answered the question in spades, leaving little to the imagination in the pages of his book. If anything that I mention in this review makes you squeamish, just know that its watered down compared to what Viktor goes into to share what he endured as a victim of Hitler’s “Final Solution”.

Having also recently read The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, an autobiography by a survivor of Stalin’s Gulags, I can safely say that alongside the massive amounts of death and unimaginable cruelty, there were plenty of attributes also held in common between Nazi concentration camps and Gulags. The guards were unnecessarily brutal to the inmates, beating them for not doing a job right, beating them for talking too much, beating them for not moving fast enough, beating them for collapsing from exhaustion, etc. Inmates of both systems suffered from forced labor, starvation, exhaustion, and the cold. They were given small rations of food, thin clothes, and worked long hard hours. Yet another similarity was their living conditions. The cells or barracks they lived in were small and extremely unsanitary, they smelled of urine and no showers were available so the spreading of typhus & other diseases frequently occurred. Both groups of people were transported to the camps in cattle cars and treated like animals. It would seem that the Soviets and the Nazis had exchanged numerous cruel ideas as to what to do with the political enemies of their respective ideologies while Stalin and Hitler were temporary allies.

The second half of Man’s Search for Meaning introduces us to Viktor’s logotherapy method, which was born from the mindset he himself tried to maintain in order to stay focused and hopeful while enduring the horrors of the Holocaust. Dr. Frankl maintained a deeply held belief that the way he and other Holocaust prisoners imagined their futures affected their longevity. Logotherapy is his psychotherapeutic method which describes a search for meaningful living as the central human motivational force. The name “logotherapy” is derived from “logos”, a principle of Greek philosophy defined as an eternal and unchanging truth present from the time of creation, available to every individual who seeks it. By Viktor’s century “logos” had been adapted as a psychological term to describe a person’s central motivation behind their day-to-day goals and activities.

Logotherapy focuses upon identifying a purpose in life to feel positive about, and then immersively imagining that outcome. It remains a part of existential and humanistic psychology theories. His acknowledgement of meaning as a person’s central motivational force and factor in mental health is his lasting contribution to the field of psychology, having provided foundational principles for the emerging field of positive psychology. Logotherapy has helped many get a handle on their mental health, saving some from the verge of suicide. Though he occasionally uses professional jargon, Viktor does a wonderful job of explaining his methodology to us non-psychologists in the audience. I imagine his psychiatric career involved frequent explanation.

Like many psychiatrists, Dr. Frankl was a passionate man who cared deeply for the wellbeing of others, even as he suffered the unimaginable cruelty of the Holocaust, and it shows in his writing. Hopefully none of us will suffer as Viktor did, but his work helped many regardless of the nature of their suffering, and it continues to do so even now in our modern era.

Donavon Anderson is a Reference Assistant at May Memorial Library. He can be reached at danderson@alamancelibraries.org.