The great film critic Roger Ebert would at times end his reviews of the best movies with this simple line: “This is one of the year’s best films.” I love the simplicity of that line.
Well, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is one of the 20th Century’s great books.
I first read this book a number of decades ago. I have always remembered the book. But for this event, I re-read every word, and approached it as I do each book that I present. I asked: why is this book worth our time? What are the key points; the main lessons and takeaways?
For my synopsis, I chose to read the book itself, and read nothing about the book from others.
The book has two main sections: the first, from his experiences in the Nazi concentration/death camps. The second is his description of Logotherapy, a therapy of meaning that he developed before he entered the camps, and found valuable, and refined, while in the camps.
Here is my one paragraph summary of the book:
Man’s Search for Meaning makes one clear and compelling point – people need meaning to keep living. This search for meaning leads to a different meaning for each person. But finding that meaning is essential for life itself.
Why is this book worth our time?
#1 – This book has stood the test of time as a 20th century classic. In other words, it’s one of those books we should all have read by now.
#2 – This books deals with two great human questions/issues/challenges: meaning, and suffering. These are universal and timeless subjects to explore.
#3 – This book has the rare combination of great personal human experience along with great training and expertise.
The book is filled with profound excerpts. Here are just a few:
There was neither time nor desire to consider moral or ethical issues. Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another “number,” to take his place in the transport.
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. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way —an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.” …I knew only one thing—which I have learned well by now: 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 actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.
(This may be the best known quote from the book): We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.
It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not. … It is true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards. Of the prisoners only a few kept their full inner liberty and obtained those values which their suffering afforded, but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.
I made eight observations about life in the camps, from the book:
#1 – The inmates were stripped of every human identifier. They lost their clothing, all of their possessions, their hair (their bodies were shaved entirely), and their names. (All inmates were given numbers, and always called by their numbers).
#2 – There was inadequate: nutrition, medicine, personal hygiene… Every human comfort was withheld from the inmates.
#3 – The struggle was the struggle to keep going, or to “give up” and face certain death.
#4 – This book describes the surprising power, and apparent deep human need, for artistic expression. (“A “cabaret” was improvised from time to time.”) And there was a deep appreciation in the inmates of the beauty of nature.
#5 – The book describes the “signal” of the cigarette. When an inmate would stay in the cabin, and smoke a cigarette, that was the signal that he had given up. He would soon die after that.
(• But more important, the cigarettes could be exchanged for twelve soups, and twelve soups were often a very real respite from starvation).
#6 – There was always a mad scramble for anything “salvageable, or better’ from the body of the dead.
#7 – And, just a word about the horror of the pointed finger. (One at least had to look “healthy enough” to work or the finger pointed to death).
(• His right hand was lifted, and with the forefinger of that hand he pointed very leisurely to the right or to the left. None of us had the slightest idea of the sinister meaning behind that little movement of a man’s finger, pointing now to the right and now to the left, but far more frequently to the left).
#8 – And a word about the spread of information within the camp – (e.g., Mauthausen was to be feared…)
He asked the ever-interesting question: are people evil, or are they swine? The answer is…both, of course. He wrote: After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips. And he described utterly inhuman guards; but also, guards with a touch of human kindness…
The question, of course, is what is this meaning in life that people seek? He is clear: it is different for each person; even different at different times for each person. From the book:
Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. — 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. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
In other words, strive to find/discern meaning in each moment of each day. Meaning is connected to “doing” – what will I do to live life with meaning (this day; this hour)?
Mr. Frankl worried about the coming boredom (from the rise of automation – quite an observation for the late 1940s). He called this the “existential vacuum,” and believed that it could be a very real catalyst for a crisis in meaning – and even suicide – for many.
There are two well-known thoughts from the book, repeated often by many:
First, “We need a second statue: I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
And second, he quoted, more than once, the well-known line from Nietzsche: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
I wrote and said this — THE primary messages of the book:
Message #1 – One must discover meaning to keep living. — The will to meaning instead of the will to pleasure and instead of the will to power.
Message #2 – One has little control over what might happen – but the individual has the freedom to choose how he/she will respond to the situation. – (“to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”)
I ended my synopsis, as I always do, with my lessons and takeaways:
#1 – Be prepared for suffering. It will come.
#2 – Find your meaning, know your meaning, in the tasks of your day – each day.
#3 – Cultivate your inner life, so that it will be strong and ready when most needed.
#4 – Don’t ever be surprised at the evil men do to one another. (Remember, the camps were part of a plan to remove every Jewish person from the face of the earth. We must never forget this).
#5 – And, cherish the small moments of humanity in the midst of the worst of moments.
#6 – Practice and cherish love and service.
When Viktor Frankl entered the camps, he, like all others, had everything taken from him. That included a manuscript – his life work. The manuscript contained the book he wanted to publish on Logotherapy. More than once, he found scraps of paper and attempted to reconstruct his manuscript. The need to publish that manuscript, someday, kept him going. It gave his life meaning. (And, by the way, he actually wrote this book in nine days).
So very many people have said that this book had a profound impact on them. I have a simple suggestion: whatever else you are reading, if you have not read this recently, read this next. And ponder its meaning, as you continue your own search for meaning.
(My synopsis of this book, along with my synopsis of Sapiens, will be available soon at the “buy synopses” tab at this web site. Each synopsis comes with my multi-page handout, and the audio recording of my presentation).