Man’s Search for Meaning Summary: Viktor E. Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning Summary

Man’s Search for Meaning Summary provides a free book summary, key takeaways, insightful review, best quotes, and author biography of Viktor E. Frankl. Viktor E. Frankl wrote a remarkable, touching memoir of three years in Nazi camps. It is classic and inspires millions. This 2006 version has an additional 57-page segment. It offers Frankl’s explanation of “logotherapy.” Logotherapy is the psychoanalytic way Frankl created post-war. Frankl wrote this account in 9 days in 1946. This was when he went back to his home in Vienna, Austria. On reaching there, he came to know that the Nazis had killed his whole family. This included his parents, pregnant wife, brother, and friends. His hardboiled memoir helps readers avoid what he thought as a misleading trap. That is, thinking about the Nazi camps with pity and emotions.

Frankl’s memoir has sold over 12mn copies in 22 languages. A 1991 Library of Congress survey ranked it among the “top 10 influential books in the U.S.” The non-English version has the title Say Yes In Spite of Everything.  This enthusiasm captures his belief that whatever you go through, comes after your response. His book Man’s Search for Meaning, teaches us to find our special meaning and goal in life. And then fulfill it. We recommend this moving, extraordinary memoir to history buffs, and all therapists.  We recommend it to everyone.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

This Summary Will Help You Learn

  • The events which marked the work and life of Viktor E. Frankl,
  • How Frankl managed to survive 4 Nazi death camps,
  • What learnings Frankl got in these camps, and
  • The approaches you can use for applying Frankl’s ways in your life.

Take-Aways

  • Viktor E. Frankl is a Viennese psychiatrist and doctor. He survived 4 Nazi labor and death camps during the Second World War. Frankl found a deep understanding of life’s meaning.
  • Human life had no value in the camps. Most captives lost all morals in their fight for survival.
  • Without knowing why or how people can survive anything.
  • Even the most extreme living conditions can show the potential for meaning.
  • Frankl stopped choosing after years of being a prisoner. He allowed destiny to take its course.
  • After the war, he built the 3rd school of Viennese psychology, “logotherapy.” The aim was to assist people in finding meaning and purpose in their lives.
  • Humankind’s main drive in life is to seek life’s meaning.
  • Your outlook toward life shapes your life’s meaning.
  • You must assume responsibility to find answers to your life’s problems.
  • “The salvation of humans is in love and through love.”

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Man’s Search for Meaning Summary

Viktor E. Frankl

Vikto E. Frankl studied psychiatry and philosophy as a teen. He started a correspondence with Sigmund Freud. Freud submitted Frankl’s article to a famous journal. The journal published Frankl’s report when he was just 16. When Frankl turned 34, he was already heading neurology in Rothschild Hospital. This was Vienna’s single Jewish hospital. When the Nazis shut it down, Frankl feared they would kill him and his family. The US Consulate offered him a visa in 1942. Such a rare invitation was an honor to his fame. Few Jews tread out of Austria, and fewer got to the US.

Frankl wanted to go. He knew it was a haven. He could even complete his book Man’s Search for Meaning in the U.S. However; he saw a piece of marble his father had protected. This was from the most prominent synagogue in Vienna after the Nazis had destroyed it. It was from a carving of the Ten Commandments. The marble only had one Hebrew letter. Frankl’s father told the letter meant “Honor thy mother and father.” Hearing this, Frankl decided not to leave. The Nazis deported him and his kin in September 1942. From that time till March 1945, Frankl moved between four Nazi camps. These were Turkheim, Theresienstadt, Kaufering, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Scruples

Frankl toiled in small, less popular camps where the actual killings happened. Innumerable people froze in horror and anonymity. The Nazis would push their prisoners off cattle cars at the entrance of Auschwitz. They would seize their documents and whatever remaining belongings. The Nazis would tattoo numbers on the captives’ arms. These were those prisoners who were not sent directly to gas chambers. This destroyed the captives’ identities. They were stripped naked, shaved fully, and given clothing of dead captives. Few prisoners even think of ethics or morality. To survive amidst such pain, every inmate built an essential defense shell. Those who could shed their scruples survived. Camp life killed several. It wiped out people who hung on to a higher purpose. “The best among us failed to return.”

Cigarettes

During his remaining weeks of captivity, Frankl worked as a physician. He was offering his services in a typhus ward. Frankl spent the majority of 3 years doing manual work which was crushing. He used to lay railway tracks in biting cold wearing torn shoes and rags. Jews were slaves for German industrial purposes. Sometimes they would get “bonus” coupons or cigarettes. This was the currency of the camp. Only the Capos – Jewish prisoners who were guards – really smoked. Others would trade them for tidbits or food. If an inmate smoked a cigarette, that meant he had lost his will to live. This inmate would shortly die. Inmates working in crematoria and gas chambers would get alcohol by the SS soldiers. These workers were aware that they would also end up in gas chambers soon. The Nazis intoxicated them so that they would continue working.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Reality

It did not take long for Frankl to see the reality of camps. He detached himself from his earlier life. Frankl promised to live with this new truth. All he had was his survival. He recognized that he did not need any material things anymore. Once, he had to sleep on rugged boards in freezing buses. Worse, he had to share two ragged blankets with eight other people. He still slept. Frankl ate nearly nothing. But, he was still alive. He embraced Dostoevsky’s truth: a person can get accustomed to anything.” Inmates thinking of suicide would jump on an electrified barbed-wire fence. Frankl promised himself that he would never hurl himself on the wire. Anyway, he would die soon. However, he wanted to live each day he had.

Apathy

Captives toughened to their situations were not afraid of looking at the punishments their fellows endured. Instead, they competed to strip new dead bodies of shoes, clothes, etc. Most lost compassion as they were starving to death. However, Frankl had some empathy for his fellow inmates. The men became habitual of the constant beatings. To the SS and the Capos, no inmate was human. They were nothing. Survival was what mattered. The prisoners were just fed watery soup and a small piece of bread. They watched their bodies gulp themselves. The captives forgot anything which was not useful for survival. Few had the energy left in them to aid others. The Capos and guards were masters of life and death. Captives were just toys of destiny, further decreasing their humanity.

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Spirituality

Prisoners withdrew to their spiritual lives. Some Jews turned even more religious. The more artistic and sensitive survived better because they were more robust and aware. Sensitive captives were physically not strong. However, their more profound, richer spirituality drove survival. By accepting their spiritual lives, the prisoners started appreciating natural beauty more. Frankl found that even the smallest moments could produce immense joy. He would miss his wife and talk to her in his mind. The strength of love transfixed Frankl. Amidst death and suffering, he learned “redemption of humans is in love and through love.”

Fate

As time passed, captives turned more passive. Any proactive step could fasten death. Hence, they stayed away from making choices. As freedom became closer, Frankl refused an SS’s offer to join other inmates on a truck to Switzerland. He allowed destiny to go its way. Frankl avoided changing his fate. Like many, he thought future controlled him. So, trying to turn it could mean disaster. The Nazis crammed inmates from that truck into a hut. Then they set it ablaze and saw the Jews burn alive.

Choice

Camp life taught Frankl that humans have choices on how to act. He watched others keep “spiritual liberty” regardless of how tight their situations were. Frankl maintained his individuality too amid all the torture.  He learned that attitude gives meaning. How you handle your destiny adds or deducts meaning from your life. Amid hardship, one can maintain his/her inner freedom. Men who could cling to even the slightest hope of future survived. Those who stopped believing in the future did not. In February 1945, Frankl’s friend had a dream about the camp’s freedom on March 30.

On March 29, there were reports that the Allied help had slowed. So, they would not be reaching the camp when Frankl’s friend dreamed. Hearing this news, the man had a high fever. He died the following day. Typhus was found to be the cause. However, Frankl knew that his friend had lost faith in tomorrow. And this is what killed him. Life has no meaning when people lose hope. They do not have any motivation and stop seeking meaning. Therefore, you should always search for answers to questions your life presents. The uniqueness of your life provides its meaning. Still, a meaningful life does have pain and death. Frankl learned that living at the lowest level of your existence gives a proper perspective of good/evil.

“Depersonalization”

When the Allies freed the camps, there was no happiness among the prisoners. They no more could rejoice. So much so that they had to learn it again. What they went through had dehumanized them. Their new lives looked like a dream. They were not able to relate to it. Frankl found his body can recover by eating. Hence, he ate everything that he could. This made his body stronger. However, his emotions and mind would not heal so fast. He relied on his faith and gradually rediscovered his humanity.

Several men thought that after going through such a dreadful time, they could behave how they liked. They felt that their pain justified the terrible behavior. Many were unable to deal with those who had never been to camps. As the men slowly found some humanity, they were unable to understand how they survived. The fields now looked like a bad dream. And, the best feeling was the beautiful absence of fear.

“Logotherapy”

Once the war was over, Frankl formed a new therapeutic method. This was logotherapy. It leads a patient to fathom the meaning and goal of his/her life. Even if such knowledge may hurt, using psychoanalysis, a patient sits on a couch and speak disagreeable things.

In contrast, under logotherapy, a patient listens to disagreeable things. While Freud talked about “will of pleasure,” logotherapy speaks of “will to meaning.” Finding the meaning of life is a man’s primary drive. Every individual’s purpose is unique, specific to their lives.

For a fulfilling life, everyone should find and meet their meaning. If you are unable to do so, you will experience “existential suffering.” Logotherapy enables people to search for their lives’ purpose. Unlike psychoanalysis, its inquiry is not limited to forces in the unconscious. Logotherapy involves the effect of existential facts. For example, how patients live, love, work, health, etc. Logotherapy aims to enable patients to find what their souls yearn and fulfill it.

“Tension”

A healthy spirit lies between where you are and where you should be. Mental health does not come from no tension state. Or too much of leisure for that matter. Instead, it comes from striving to attain a goal with deep meaning. This is a goal you pick. And not the one which life throws at you. For example, the purpose of being alive in the Nazi camp. There are two extremes of life. First is the meaning you should find. And, second, the person who should see it, i.e., you. Take the example of an arch which requires fixing. People repairing it put more load on its top. Such weight pushes the arch’s pieces together and toughens it. Hence, your search for meaning is the same as the increased load.

“The Existential Vacuum”

A feeling of emptiness is a condition from the late 20th century. This manifests as boredom. It roots from a disconnect between you and your purpose. This happens when you are unable to connect or find your primary goal. People who do not have a goal become conformist. They do what everyone else is doing. Or, they become totalitarian. Here, they do what others say. Such a vacuum becomes evident during enforced leisure times like a dull Sunday.

Meaning

The meaning of life changes with every person every day. So, avoid seeking a meaningful overall sense. What is essential is your unique existential sense in the current moment. This is not a construct. Instead, it is a substantial task you should find and do. To discover this meaning, identify what your life expects from you because it is only you who can answer the expectations of your life. Regardless of how life moves, its meaning remains. There are three paths to find the purpose of your existence. First is to produce work which is only yours. Second is to connect with another person who is the path of love. And lastly, surpass tragedy or hardship. If you are unable to change your destiny, rise over it.

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

Love

Only love allows you to know the core of the other person. It exposes your beloved’s basic features. Love will enable you to view your beloved’s real potential. Your love enables and motivates your sweetheart to attain their real potential. Their love has the same impact on you. Love can become evident in sex. Ideally, sex does express love. However, love persists in a zone beyond logic or sex.

Suffering

Suffering can also unearth life’s meaning. It can stop being suffering when you know its underlying purpose. However, opposed to what many believe, there is no need to suffer to find meaning. You can have a change of heart at any moment. What feels unfair today could be a revelation tomorrow. Despite your pain, try to be optimistic. Embrace life, regardless of where it goes. Believe in tomorrow even amidst a grim present. Find what you should do. Then do it. This will give you the power to handle your suffering.

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Man’s Search for Meaning Review

People who are suffering or grieving are likely to feel hopeless with a profound feeling of failure. Man’s Search for Meaning is a useful book during these times. It is a high possibility that people would get solutions to their miserable feelings if they read the book actively. Written by Holocaust survivor and renowned psychiatrist Victor Frankl, this manuscript is pure but reflective and intense. This book is very inspiring in seeking a purpose in life and even in suffering.

The book can be labeled as extraordinary as Frankl by recounting his life experiences in the death camp, puts forth an incredible idea of how humans can decide to see meaning or purpose in any condition, even in the worst situations. Frankl descriptively demonstrates his accounts and observations of small human transitions which instill hope in readers.

With strong secondary and primary research, Frankl presents his ideas in 3 segments. The qualitative approach he uses has smoothly combined with his beliefs throughout these three points.

As a limitation, this book does not have a presentation of authenticity, procedure, and practice of Frankl’s approach of Logotherapy. This therapy does not enable a quantitative review: it is a philosophical outlook to people’s inner world. Though impressive, it includes a range of repetitive detailed stories of how this therapy helped people. However, in spite of the weaknesses, the spirit of the construct is discernible. This book is a recommended first step into existential psychology. This influential book is worth reading and must, by all measures, be mandated for all students of psychology.

When you are done reading this book, you will see your difficulties in a new light.

Man’s Search for Meaning Quotes

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to 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 personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. 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 about it”

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize 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; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

“So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and 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.”

“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

“It did not really 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 to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”

“The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, although these are things which cannot inspire envy.”

“I do not forget any good deed done to me & I do not carry a grudge for a bad one.”

“To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

About the Author

Victor E. Frankl is a world-famous psychotherapist and author. He wrote over 30 books on clinical and theoretical psychology.

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