Man’s Search for Meaning
Dr. Viktor Frankl
This is a short write up about one of the most important books of the 20th century which is “The Man’s Search for Meaning” by Dr. Viktro Frankl.
January 27th is the birthday of Mozart (Happy birthday Mozart!). On January 27, 2006, the sixty-first anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, nations around the world observed the first International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This could also have been celebrated for Dr. Frankl’s book. And it is a coincidence that I started reading this book recently and finished it yesterday to write about it on January 27th. To give a short background, Viktor Frankl was born in 1905. He lived in Vienna and became a doctor twice! Once in Neurology and another in Psychiatry. He was developing his theory called “Logotherapy” (more on that in a bit), when world war 2 broke out.
A sad moving story here. He applied and even got a visa to the USA. His parents wanted him to go to USA to continue and publish his research. He was thinking about it too. When he saw his father save a piece of marble, he asked him what it was. A Synagogue had been bombed and his father wanted to save this one marble piece as a reminder since it was from the stone that had the ten commandments. Viktor asked his father what hebrew character on the stone was. It was a number and that number’s corresponding commandment was “Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother”. Viktor decided to stay back to take care of his aging parents.
As fate would have it, along with thousands of others, he and his family would all be taken to concentration camps. His wife, his brother, his father, mother, many good friends would all die in various concentration camps. Somehow he survived not one but four different camps (Auschwitz being one of them). After the last few remaining survivors were set free, he would return back to Vienna and know the sad truth he had always known - that he was alone. But he decided that he should live on. And that his meaning for his life is to help others realize the meaning of their lives. No matter how many times we read about or see it depicted in movies, it is nevertheless heartbreaking to read about the concentration camps. I will skip those episodes and stories.
Instead I would like to highlight some of his thinking as well as his theory (Logotherapy).
A few quotes from the book in the introduction sets this up.
Frankl approvingly quotes the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” "Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning." Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.
I was reminded of the Stoics philosophy reading the above. Dr. Frankl himself while forming the theory also has to pull every bit of his strength to live it as well. We can see how solidly he has to stick with some reason, any reason to keep hope alive.
Quoting Spinoza and Nietzche
Spinoza: “ Affectus, qui passio est, desinit esse passio simulatque eius claram et distinctam formamus ideam.” Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it. Nietzsche: “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker.” (That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.)
Having come out of the camp, he continues to put together the work that he had done from memory and goes on to publish it. It is about 20 volumes in German but this book has one chapter to it. And he writes this book “Man’s Search for Meaning” as well.
Dr. Frankl says, “we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two—the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man.”. Very profound and how true even today. There is another poignant idea. He considers that Freedom (liberty) and Responsibleness are two sides of the same coin. Hence he suggests that the Statue of Liberty in the East should be balanced with a Statue of Responsibility in the West.
A short intro to Logotherapy: In comparison with psychoanalysis, is a method less retrospective (not look at the past too much) and less introspective (nor overanalyze everything) but rather Logotherapy focuses on the future - on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future.
Dr. Frankl also coins the term “existential vacuum” especially in the 20th century as more and more in the industrialized nations fail to see meaning in their life and he attributes this to various addictions and illness including depression. By far, my favorite of his coinage is “Autobibiliotherapy” - healing through reading. Amen!
He says that we should not be asking what is the meaning of life rather that life is asking us this question and that we ought to answer it by having the right thought and taking the decision and action at each and every moment. Quoting a wise man from many centuries: “If I do not do it—who else will do it? And if I do not do it now—then when?”.
I highly recommend this book. It puts a completely new perspective on pretty much anything and everything that we go through now in new light. There are profound lessons to learn.