Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s search for meaning’

I was given Viktor Frankl’s Man’s search for meaning much earlier this year, but only had a chance to get to it just now. It’s an interesting book.

On the one hand, Frankl writes from, to understate it, a remarkable set of experiences. The concentration camps were an unimaginable tragedy, and anyone who survived has seen a sick depth of human nature that many/most of us will have the good fortune never to be exposed to. That experience alone, I think, can provide powerful insight.

Added to that, Frankl is a good writer. For something written in nine days, apparently, it’s a very well put together piece (presumably polished in the various subsequent editions).

But for all that, I felt that at some level the book didn’t live up to what I’d expected based on the blurb, and what others have said. One review called it ‘the definitive book about happiness‘, and it’s been enormously successful. So perhaps I was expecting too much from what is better described as a useful, but not definitive, piece.

Frankl uses the first part of his book to describe his experiences in the camps, and the second part to describe his approach to psychotherapy (I feel it could be reasonably described as his philosophy) – logotherapy.

Part I is intense, and includes detailed discussion of his experiences in the camps. Scattered throughout are asides – reflections on different aspects of his philosophy, and how different experiences informed it. His stories are in some part inspiring – it’s no small thing to be able to tell how you survived a concentration camp, and the things that helped you survive. Frankl talks about love, about imagining loved ones, about finding purpose even in the darkest of times.

He talks about the pressures of the camps:

But apart from the selection of Capos which was undertaken by the SS, there was a sort of self-selecting process going on the whole time among all of the prisoners. One the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return. 

He talks about how the experience changed people, and narrowed their mental horizons:

The men were herded – sometimes to one place then to another; sometimes driven together, then apart–like a flock of sheep without a thought or a will of their own. A small but dangerous pack watched them from all sides, well versed in methods of torture and sadism. They drove the herd incessantly, backwards and forwards, with shouts, kicks and blows. And we, the sheep, thought of two things only–how to evade the bad dogs and how to get a little food. 

There’s also a cuttingly melancholic moment, as he reflects on the idea that even when every choice is taken away, there’s still the choice how to respond:

Those of us who saw the film called ‘Resurrection’-taken from a book by Tolstoy-years ago, may have had similar thoughts. Here were great destinies and great men. For us, at that time, there was no great fate; there was no chance to achieve such greatness. After the picture we went to the nearest cafe, and over a cup of coffee and a sandwich we forgot the strange metaphysical thoughts which for one moment had crossed our minds. But when we ourselves were confronted with a great destiny and faced with the decision of meeting it with equal spiritual greatness, by then we had forgotten our youthful resolutions of long ago, and we failed. 

Frankl’s central idea is that people require meaning to live; life is not a quest for power, or pleasure, but for meaning. This is a central, fundamental idea, and everything else hangs off it. I think it’s a reasonable one, as far as it goes; but a lot hangs on what you define as ‘meaning’.

Frustratingly, I felt that what ‘meaning’ was didn’t get pinned down in any detail by Frankl. He acknowledges this himself: … the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. Which is a reasonable statement at one level; but it also doesn’t provide the general principles to help someone think through what might be relevant for them in their circumstances.

The most detailed statement, in fact, was a set of three options that Frankl identifies:

According to logotheraphy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways:

(1) by creating a work or doing a deed;

(2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and

(3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. 

For what it’s worth, I think it’s commendable that he doesn’t encourage unnecessary suffering, or more to the point glorify it, and explicitly identifies unavoidable suffering. For all that, it still feels frustratingly vague.

A 1984 postscript deals with what Frankl calls ‘tragic optimism’: In brief it means that one is, and remains, optimistic in spite of … those aspects of human existence which may be circumscribed by: (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death. He reflects on this for a little, and then writes ‘In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation’.

Although Frankl then insists that he is not advocating for forced optimism, and that genuine optimism can only come from meaning (again, the most specific he gets is the three options listed above), I think this idea of ‘tragic optimism’ is a really important one. Particularly as Frankl then goes on to argue that meaning has helped people change their view on life, and become optimistic – and cites particular examples where he’s helped people see their situation differently, and because of that be happy, or find meaning.

All in all, it felt fluffy and circuitous. Or perhaps, put better, it felt oversold.

Yes, I think it’s important find meaning in their life. Yes, I think it’s fair to say that when people do have a sense of meaning and purpose, it can have a significant impact on their lives. Yes, it’s likely true that ‘meaning’ falls into one of three very broad categories (doing, experiencing or encountering, or suffering), and likely varies significantly between individual circumstances.

But it doesn’t feel to me that Frankl offers a fundamental philosophical proposition. He’s unwilling to pin himself to anything, or to set out a broader framework, and so it feels frustrating to be left with what are quite general statements. They’re not incisive philosophy; and while they may have been insightful psychology in contrast to some of the Freudian bunk that was floating around in the ’60’s, the insights don’t feel particularly striking. At best they feel like a blend of pop-psychology and existentialism, with some not terrible writing.

Having said that, there are others I know who’ve found the book beneficial. I know one friend who described it as being influential in turning their depression around, and another who quit their job and moved interstate, in part after reading it. So it didn’t do much for me, but if you’re pondering the big questions there are probably worse books to read.

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