In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, questions regarding the meaning and purpose of life are felt most intensely. A best seller published in 1946, Man’s Search for Meaning is written by Viktor Frankl (Frankl, 2008), a Holocaust survivor who narrates his experience in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The scope of this review is to briefly explore the author and his book, summarise the major concepts of this two-part book, and critically evaluate some of the concepts.
The Author & His Book
Viktor Emil Frankl (1905–1997), a 20th-century Jewish psychiatrist, established logotherapy, a form of existential psychology. He was born in Vienna and received his MD and PhD degrees in psychiatry and neurology, focusing on areas of suicide and depression. As a medical student in his late 20s, he virtually eliminated suicide among high school students through counselling. He was asked to head the suicide-prevention department of General Hospital in Vienna, and ultimately became the head of the neurological department at the Rothschild Hospital.
In 1942, Frankl and his parents, wife, and brother were arrested and sent to the Thereisienstadt concentration camp where Frankl’s father died within six months. In the next three years, Frankl moved between four concentration camps. When his camp was liberated in 1945, he learned all his immediate family members were dead except his sister who had immigrated to Australia. Frankl used his experiences in the camps to develop his theory of logotherapy, and spent most of his later career studying existential therapy. He believed that despite dehumanising conditions, life still had meaning and suffering had a purpose. Furthermore, he believed a person could survive extreme physical suffering through the spiritual self, which could not be affected by external forces. (Viktor Frankl Biography, n.d.)
Man’s Search for Meaning is a groundbreaking book that details his perspective of living through concentration camps. The first part is divided into three major sections, each of which assess the three phases of the inmate’s mental reactions to camp life—shock, relative apathy, and post-liberation psychology which includes depersonalisation, bitterness, moral distortion, and disillusionment. The second part briefly explores logotherapy.
The Prisoner’s Psychology
In the first stage of shock, a delusion of reprieve gives the prisoner the illusion that he might be pardoned at the very last minute. These illusions shattered when they were left with nothing but their bare bodies, paving the way for a grim sense of humour to lighten the mood. Curiosity of whether they would come out alive served to protect them from anxiety concerning the future. Surprise followed when they didn’t catch a cold after being exposed to the chill of late autumn. Other surprises included falling asleep to a symphony of snores, crammed together on their side with only two blankets among nine. Therefore, they found that they could endure anything, not knowing how. Thoughts of suicide and running into an electrically charged fence were common. Frankl reasoned that there was no point since their life expectation was very poor anyways. Thus, a prisoner did not fear death because it only served to spare him the act of suicide.
In the second phase of relative apathy, prisoners would no longer try to avert their gaze from the savage beating of fellow comrades. Emotions were numbed and they felt like no one cared anymore. Apathy became an essential defence mechanism, and life’s purpose boiled down to preserving self and the other. Regression, a return to a less developed form of mental life, was evident through dreams of bread, cake, cigarettes, and warm baths. Food was the chief primitive instinct around which the mind revolved and explained the general absence of sexual urges since it did not serve to preserve one’s life.
There was a depth of religious belief, and services were conducted in the corner of a hut. Prisoners preserved themselves through experiencing art and nature as never before, humour which allowed for being detached and rise above any situation, even if just briefly, and a deeper understanding that no one can judge another unless they consider what they would’ve done in another’s place. Some developed miniature delusions of grandeur after being promoted as a cook, a store-keeper, or a camp policeman. Moreover, continually witnessing beatings increased the prisoners’ tendency towards violence.
The final stage of a prisoner’s mental reactions came after his liberation. Instead of bursting with joy, freedom had lost its meaning and they felt like outsiders. They experienced depersonalisation where everything appeared unreal and unlikely. First, a prisoner would eat voraciously for extended periods, and then drink coffee which loosened his tongue to talk for hours as if out of necessity to release all the pressure he had been carrying on his mind for years until feelings finally emerged.
Three experiences threatened to damage the liberated prisoner’s character—first, moral deformity, whereby they thought they could use their freedom recklessly, justifying their behaviour by what they had gone through until and unless they were brought back to understand that no one had the right to do wrong, even if they had been wronged; secondly, bitterness from hearing people in his hometown say either that they did not know about it, or that they too had suffered, making him wonder why he had gone through everything, and if others had nothing better to say; and lastly, disillusionment when the prisoner learned that suffering had no limits just when he had thought he had reached the limits of enduring suffering. It was worse for those who had endured so many years in the camp with the hope of reuniting with their loved ones only to find they were all alone.
In the second part of his book, Frankl explains that logotherapy is a meaning-centred psychotherapy which focuses on the meaning one is to fulfil in the future. The client is confronted and realigned to the meaning of their life, which then better enables them to overcome neurosis. Logotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on mankind’s search for meaning, and derives its name from the word “Logos,” which in Greek denotes meaning.
Frankl then expounds on logotherapy under nineteen subheadings including the will to meaning, existential frustration, the existential vacuum, the meaning of life, the essence of existence, the meaning of love, and the meaning of suffering. To keep this review brief, I will mention two concepts that stood out to me. First, Frankl claims that life’s meaning can be discovered in how we approach unavoidable suffering. He narrates how he helped a Jewish doctor struggling with the death of his wife by stating that his suffering was the cost of sparing her the same pain should she have been in his place. It struck me how meaning can be found in even the most difficult of times once such a perspective is developed.
Secondly, paradoxical intention is a technique of logotherapy which is based on the twin-fact that fear gives rise to that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention takes one further away from what they desire. This technique encourages clients to intentionally overdo that which they are afraid will happen. He narrates how one client conquered his fear of sweating, while another overcame his severe stuttering within a week of practicing this technique.
Frankl writes that the love shown by prisoners towards each other in the camps is “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.” (Frankl, 2008, p. 62) However, he doesn’t seem to take into account the number of prisoners who chose to “run into the wire” and end their life. Psychology today maintains that suicidal behaviours are not out of choice but as a result of a mental illness which makes one feel like there is no other way out. Therefore, it seems that even human freedom can be taken away by mental illness.
However, I strongly agree that an effective way of releasing mental pressure is by talking, and that finding meaning in suffering helps endure through it. This might look like spending more time talking with friends, or booking an appointment with a mental health professional to talk about more sensitive concerns one may not be comfortable talking with just anyone about. In the face of this global pandemic, a “we” culture is needed more than ever to remind ourselves that we are in this together, and that together we will overcome.
Frankl, V. E. (2008). Man’s Search For Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust (Exported edition). RHUK.
Rogers, C. R. (1995). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin.
Viktor Frankl Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved June 22, 2020, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/viktor-frankl.html