Friday, May 22, 2009

Book Review: Man's Search for Meaning

What might surprise you if you pick up Man's Search for Meaning is that it is a work of psychology, not philosophy. And yet, if you think about it, the approach of the author, Viktor E. Frankl, offers a great insight into many of today's social and personal problems.

Let's start with brass tacks here, because for me Frankl's background makes his approach to psychology is even more impressive and remarkable when you realize where he was coming from: he was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps. The book was written in German, but the English translation is brilliant in its clarity and lucidity. The first part of the book is a very brief outline of Frankl's experiences in the camps (the book is only 164 pages long, 96 pages of which are his personal story). He reflects on some of the daily incidents and petty cruelties and harsh brutality that make such an existence unimaginable to comfortable, civilized Americans today. Approaching the camps from the detached, philosophical perspective of a doctor of psychology, Frankl describes how different prisoners reacted to their experiences.

Frankl identifies three different stages of the prisoner experience--entry, adaptation, and release--and takes the time to describe in many poignant anecdotes how different individuals, guards, capos, and prisoners, responded, including Frankl himself. Transported to Auschwitz originally, Frankl tried to hold onto a manuscript he was writing on a new idea he was developing at the time: logotherapy. Having the manuscript taken from him early on in his captivity, Frankl decided to make it his goal in the camp to survive to rewrite the manuscript and hone his ideas. His time in the camps ended up being his field research.

Here's what logotherapy is: derived from logos, the Greek word for logic or meaning, Frankl put forth the notion that human beings did not exist to pursue pleasure or sex but to find meaning in their lives. Individuals who lacked any driving meaning--whether it be devotion to God, achievement of some sort, or love of another person--inevitably suffered. Frankl believed that every individual was a moral being, capable of and responsible for making choices in their life. And those choices mostly centered around how to derive meaning from their lives, even life in a concentration camp.

There are so many things to like about this book, from its clear, approachable writing style to its matter-of-fact, un-self-pitying survivor narrative to its uplifting approach to life. One aspect of the book I particularly liked was that Frankl does not look down upon religious faith as some sort of futile or quaint superstition, like many in the philosophical disciplines I've read. He is, of course, an existentialist, as he does not advocate a particular method or search for meaning. He merely challenges his patients and the reader to seek what life means to them and to live for that meaning with all their heart. As he puts it (paraphrasing here--he was quoting Nietzsche, but I can't find the page), "Anyone who understands the why can endure any how."

I griped recently about the fecklessness and aimlessness of Generation Y and their general state of ennui. Frankl calls their state "existential frustration," wherein the individual is unable to find or accept a meaning for his life, and so finds himself rootless, aimless, and ultimately hopeless. But Frankl offers his patients and readers no easy outs (I love the bit where he says that, as a companion piece to the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast, America should have a Statue of Responsibility on the West). Again, using his own understated life as an example, Frankl shows how even in prison, the individual has a choice: in the case of a concentration camp victim, a person suffering from a life-threatening illness, or someone suffering from a serious lack of options, you still have the freedom and responsibility to choose how you respond to your situation. For a similar treatise on the value of the free individual (both to art and to the individual), I particularly recommend Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto.

Perhaps this is why I am so impressed with, and warmed by, my e-niece Morgan. Whatever she's going through, she's made a conscious decision to stay positive. She doesn't need Frankl's philosophy or psychology--she's living it, and her life is that much more blessed and fruitful because of it.

Ultimately, the value of Frankl's book is that he treats every person as a free individual capable of making free choices, even in un-free circumstances. In a time when psychology, sociology, and politics seem driven by genetics or the market or inevitable forces of history or nature, Frankl returns the human being to the center of our moral universe and asks each one to face up to the responsibility of being human. His closing lines should give us pause and resolution:

For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.

So, let us be alert--alert in a twofold sense:

Since Auschwitz, we know what man is capable of.

And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.

1 comment:

J. Neil Schulman said...


You and I definitely have books we like in common -- I also note C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity on your favorite's list -- but finding someone else who's appreciates the value of Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is a rare treat.

You know what? There's another of my novels you need to read -- my 2002 novel, Escape from Heaven.

I don't want to spoil plot points for you but I will quote just enough here so you'll understand why I like Man's Search for Meaning as much as you do.

In Escape from Heaven I have my viewpoint character, Duj Pepperman -- deliver the following speech to another immortal:

“The meaning of existence isn’t something you look for, as if it’s a prize in a box of Cracker Jack.
Meaning is where you start. You say to yourself, ‘So here I am. Looks like I’m going to be here forever, doesn’t it? Now what am I going to do with eternity? Make something beautiful that gives me joy, and find out what other exciting things others are making, or just sit around feeling sorry for myself, when something doesn’t work out right, until I’m counting the grains of sand in the desert and letting myself go crazy?’”

I was on a roll and finally had her attention.

I continued:

“People born here on earth for the first time call important questions ‘life or death.’ But they haven’t yet learned what those words mean. They think life is having a heartbeat and death is being in a coma forever. But eternal life is pursuit of joyful surprise and the only alternative, when forever is before you, is becoming the death of the party. You, yourself, just told me you discovered that the nature of real existence is that it’s something you can’t choose. It just is what it is. Isn’t the only choice we have—the first choice we have to make before making any other choices—just how we’re going to look at it?”