Man’s Search for Meaning is a truly remarkable book in which Viktor E. Frankl recounts his experience in a number of concentration camps during WWII. Before the war, Frankl had worked as a psychiatrist and formulated a theory that he named “Logotherapy,” the central point of which was that finding purpose and meaning in life was the driving force for human beings.
During his time in the concentration camps, Frankl put his theory to the ultimate test– could he maintain well-being and even happiness in the most terrible circumstances? Could he find meaning in life while imprisoned in concentration camps?
This autobiographical text puts forward strong evidence that meaning in life is a powerful antidote to even the most extreme experiences of suffering.
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish-American psychiatrist that survived the Holocaust. In 1946, he published the book Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicled his experiences during World War II as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps.
A little less than twenty years before the war began, Frankl studied medicine at the University of Vienna, focusing on psychiatry and neurology and specializing in suicide and depression. He joined Alfred Adler’s circle of students after questioning the Freudian approach to psychoanalysis and started developing a theory about the fact that the central motivational force in human beings was meaning. Though this led him to be expelled from Adler’s circle, he continued to pursue the idea.
He soon thereafter termed this theory of meaning as the central driving force among human beings as “logotherapy.”
In the decade or so leading up to the war, he worked at the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital, where he treated suicidal women. Though he began his own private practice in 1937, his opportunity to treat patients became limited by the Nazi annexation of Austria the next year.
In order to continue treating psychiatric patients, he began working with the Rothschild Hospital, which was the only hospital in the city that was still willing to admit Jews.
Leading up to the time when Frankl was deported to the concentration camps, he assisted a number of people in avoiding euthanasia under the Nazi’s programs that specifically targeted individuals that were mentally disabled.
Frankl and his family were sent to a concentration camp in 1942, where his father died of pneumonia and starvation. Roughly two years later, Frankl and his remaining family members were taken to Auschwitz. There, both his brother and his mother were killed in the gas chambers.
Over the course of three years, Frankl was imprisoned in four different concentration camps. During this time, his wife died of typhus in a concentration camp known as Bergen-Belsen.
After the war, Frankl returned to the University of Vienna to receive a Ph.D. in philosophy. He taught and lectured at a number of universities over the next several decades and continuously advocated for the rehumanisation of psychotherapy.
There are a number of powerful ideas that are worth really exploring in Man's Search for Meaning. Let's take a look at some of the most compelling themes in the text and some of the quotes that best exemplify them.
Are you searching for more great books to read that will expand your mind and help you on your lifelong quest to improve yourself? If so, check out our lists of books that will change the way you think and ten Stoic books to learn about Stoicism. You also might be interested in our summaries of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and Letters from a Stoic by Seneca the Younger.
During his time in the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl formulated an idea he called “The Will to Meaning.” The concept had to do with his notion that there were three ways that humans found meaning in their lives– work, suffering, or love.
Even though he found himself in dire circumstances, he would think about his Logotherapy theory and imagine continuing to contribute to psychology. He dreamed about being reunited with his wife after they were separated.
He found that thinking in this way helped him persevere during this impossibly difficult time. He put his attention toward finding meaning in each moment rather than fixating on what he had once had in his past life.
He argued that meaning was key to survival. In his book, we see that the people that were able to maintain some semblance of meaning were much more likely to stay alive than those that had completely collapsed into nihilism.
“Human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death.”
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. 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.”
“As to the causation of the feeling of meaninglessness, one may say, albeit in an oversimplifying vein, that people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning.”
“This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. 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.'”
“Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency.”
“Thus far we have shown that the meaning of life always changes, but that it never ceases to be. According to logotherapy, 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.”
“Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.”
While Frankl discusses the fact that people can find meaning through both work and love, most of his attention falls on the ability to find meaning through suffering.
The book goes over many of the extreme injustices he and his fellow inmates endured while in the concentration camps. In the face of incredible suffering, Frankl notes that most men gave up. However, the ones that were able to find meaning through their suffering were much more able to endure their pain.
Though Frankl is aware that many individuals will never go through circumstances as extreme and unjust as being imprisoned in a concentration camp, he held that pain is like a gas and fills the room it is in, meaning that even a person who leads a fairly privileged and comfortable life will have to face the reality of suffering.
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
“One may only demand heroism of one person, and that person is oneself.”
“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”
“What is to give light must endure burning.”
“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
One could certainly forgive Frankl for having a pessimistic view of humanity after the experiences he went through, but he remained optimistic. He maintained that man has the ability to change himself at any given time, meaning that even the worst people can change for the better.
Defining himself as a “tragic optimist,” Frankl held that humans are fundamentally free. However, he also posited that responsibility comes along with that freedom.
It isn’t just that we have the choice to find meaning in our lives– we have a responsibility to find meaning in our lives.
“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”
“I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsiblity on the West Coast.”
“Dostoevski said once, "There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings." These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of the their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
“For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes—within the limits of endowment and environment—he has made out of himself…Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”
“To be sure, a human being is a finite thing, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.”
Related to the notion that humans are inherently free and that we have a responsibility to find meaning in our lives, Frankl also believed that we all have specific tasks in life that we need to find and fulfill with our best efforts.
Though much of the discussion around purpose in life typically has to do with one unchanging goal, Frankl believed that meaning is ever-changing and found in the moment.
“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
In line with Frankl's ideas about the fact that humans are ultimately free, he believed that an individual always has the freedom to choose their own attitude regardless of the circumstances.
If you're a person that regularly engages with the ideas of Stoicism, you likely recognize this sentiment as being very similar to notions put forth by Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca the Younger, and other ancient Stoic philosophers.
It can feel difficult to take control over how you perceive your life and your circumstance. However, if what Frankl says is true, and he was able to maintain a sense of freedom based upon his ability to choose his own attitude during the most horrendous of situations, it goes to show that this is something that can be achieved despite the extremity of one's suffering.
“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.”
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes - within the limits of endowment and environment- he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
It would be hard to blame someone like Frankl for being angry and spiteful after spending years in the concentration camps, but instead, he embraced a spirit of gratitude.
“I do not forget any good deed done to me & I do not carry a grudge for a bad one.”
Another powerful idea found in Frankl’s book is the notion that happiness isn’t something that you should chase after; it’s something that occurs as a result of identifying and actualizing the meaning in any situation, which is inherently present and lies waiting no matter the circumstance.
Many of us assume that we should be doing things in order to be happy, but you may have noticed that this doesn't necessarily work as planned in most circumstances. Frankl would argue that this is because you need to focus on the meaning in any given circumstance rather than the pursuit of happiness, as it can only be a product, not the goal in itself.
“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.”
Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”
Another theme that emerges in Man’s Search for Meaning is the importance of having a rich spiritual relationship with life. He notes that people that had been highly intellectual before entering the camps suffered physically but were less damaged internally because they knew how to retreat into their inner world.
“The majority of prisoners suffered from a kind of inferiority complex. We all had once been or had fancied ourselves to be ‘somebody.’ Now we were treated like complete nonentities. (The consciousness of one’s inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things, and cannot be shaken by camp life. But how many free men, let alone prisoners, possess it?) Without consciously thinking about it, the average prisoner felt himself utterly degraded.”
If you have been making an effort to work on yourself recently in order to fulfill your talents and potential, then you've been aiming at self-actualization whether you realize it or not.
A really interesting idea is presented in Man's Search for Meaning about how one can reach self-actualization. Frankl suggests that it is necessary to transcend the self as an unmotivated, empty, isolated unit and instead give himself to serving something larger in order to actually become self-actualized.
“‘The self-transcendence of human existence’…being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself…self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
An idea that Frankl frequently discusses is "the meaning of the moment." The idea is that there is a singular opportunity in any moment to fulfill meanings and values in the convergence of a unique purpose, circumstance, and moment in time.
“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”
“These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.”
“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
Another theme that is present throughout Man's Search for Meaning is the notion that meaning can be revealed through interactions with other people, particularly people that you love and that love you back.
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth - that Love is the ultimate and 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.”
“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.”
Finally, let's close off with a handful of quotes from Man's Search for Meaning that are certainly worth spending some time with.
“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
“Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. I should say having been is the surest kind of being.”
“Logos is deeper than logic.”
“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.”
“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”
Though Man's Search for Meaning isn't strictly a Stoic text, there are a lot of ideas here that are applicable and even show the use of Stoic ideas in practice. Engaging with a text like Frankl's account of his time in the concentration camps can really give us a reality slap when we most need it. No matter how rough our current circumstances, they could always be worse, but more than that, we can always work to find meaning in them.
Have you been thinking about the meaning of your life and what you want to accomplish while you're alive? Are you ready to grab hold of both your freedom and your responsibility in order to fulfill your purposes?
If so, head over to our Stoic Quotes blog for more articles full of tips about how to improve yourself and walk the path toward the good life.