Man’s Search For Meaning: An Introduction To Logotherapy, by Viktor E. Frankl
This is the second time I have read this book (it happens to also be a part of my mother’s library, where I read it first). In reading the book a second time I am able to see the subtle (and unrecognized) influence the book has had on my thinking and behavior in the meantime, especially given it is a slim and easy to read and slightly mosaic book (accounting for some repetition in its points). I find in particular that Frankl’s focus on the nobility that is possible in suffering (and that life is suffering) have been major influences on my own work .
Man’s Search For Meaning is divided into three unequal parts. The first is a brief autobiographical account of life in the concentration camps, which is partly a memoir of the unpleasant experiences (in the vein of Elie Wiesel’s Night) and partly a psychological naturalistic observation of the impossibility in assuming that all Germans were wicked, that all Jews behaved nobly, or that any kind of collective judgment is beneficial or worthwhile. In addition to all of this, the author is genuinely self-effacing in refusing to consider himself more noble than those who suffered with him. Rather chillingly, he mentions that the best of them never left the camps and provides plenty of savvy comments about the sort of survival skills that were learned in the camps, as well as the way those who had nothing (not even their names or a recognition of their humanity) showed themselves to either become barbaric or behave immensely nobly in the midst of unbearable suffering.
The second part of the book is a brief summary of logotherapy, pointing out some of the nihilism that is a great part of our world, as well as the perversion of our natures as a result of idleness lacking in meaning. Indeed, a big aspect of logotherapy (as opposed to other kinds of psychotherapy) is the avoidance of a focus on the self and an outer-directed focus that allows people to work out the (variable and changing) meaning in their lives. There are, according to Frankl, three ways to discover meaning in life: by creating a work or doing a deed (creativity and action), by experiencing something or encountering someone (love and beauty), and by our heroic attitude toward suffering patiently. Obviously, there are implications of these ways, given that we find meaning either through our own work/works, our relationships with nature and other human beings, or in our own Christ-like endurance of unavoidable suffering, and the author explores some of these in rather tolerant language.
The third, and shortest, section gives a case for tragic optimism. If I can be called an optimist at all, it is as a tragic optimist, one who chooses to find meaning (and occasionally even enjoyment) in the midst of the world’s suffering. What a tragic optimist does is not escape from the suffering of the present in vain fantasies or living in the past, nor in denying meaning and purpose altogether, but in seeking to do what can be done given the constraints of the situation. It is a middle path between simply adapting and rebelling that preserves responsibility while admitting that some circumstances are simply beyond our control and have to be faced honestly. This part of the book ends with an ominous quote: “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.” After this comes a useful bibliography of Logotherapy for those interested readers who wish to read further and have good libraries around them (since most of the books are rather obscure).
All in all Man’s Search For Meaning is an excellent book. There is plenty of repetition in the book, largely as a result of having different essays and transcripts attached after the short main part of the work that cover the same ground. In addition, Man’s Search For Meaning is rather similar to the similarly titled Man’s Ultimate Search For Meaning. Nonetheless, assuming that one is reading the book from a library or purchasing it for a low cost, one can read the same Nietzsche quote a few times without being too bothered by it. Frankl’s work deserves to be better known than that of Freud, even if much of it is in German (and is therefore inaccessible to the English-language reader), especially given its greater grasp of reality and vastly lower egotism than its competing worldviews.
Please note that the blog entry is in Spanish, as is my epitaph, which, translated, reads as follows:
“To live is to suffer,
To die is to sleep.
Here I will suffer no more,
So let me sleep in peace.”