Man’s Search For Meaning is a work of non-fiction that deals with Viktor Frankl’s experience living in Nazi concentration camps, as well as his psychotherapeutic technique called logotherapy. Frankl never gives the reader a linear narrative of his time in the camps—instead, he is more focused on explaining how the daily struggles of camp life affected the mental state of its inmates. As a result, he only gives details about his experience when those details can be used as evidence for his psychological theories.
Frankl says that based on his observations of his fellow inmates, the typical prisoner passes through three mental stages: shock in the first few days after his arrival, apathy and “emotional death” once he has become used accustomed to life in camp, and disillusionment with life after he has been liberated. Most of the first section of the book, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” explores what happened to apathetic prisoners and how Frankl managed to avoid this apathy.
The core of Frankl’s philosophy is that a man’s deepest desire is to find meaning in his life, and if he can find that meaning, he can survive anything. Frankl found meaning in his experiences in the concentration camp by deciding that he was going to use his suffering as an opportunity to make himself a better person. Instead of becoming apathetic and accepting that he was doomed, he chose to embrace his suffering. According to Frankl, while a man’s destiny in life is certainly affected by the circumstances in which he finds himself, he is ultimately free to choose his own path in life. Even in the worst situation possible, man always has the freedom to choose his attitude towards life.
Frankl claims that there are three ways to find meaning in life: through work, through love, and through suffering. Frankl kept his will to meaning—or his desire to live a meaningful life—alive through his three years in the camps by focusing on the potential meanings he could create for himself. In addition to finding meaning in his suffering, Frankl motivated himself by thinking about the work he wanted to do after leaving camp. Namely, he wanted to rewrite his manuscript about logotherapy—a manuscript that the Nazis took from him when he arrived at Auschwitz. Frankl also found hope in love, and the image of his wife helped him through many of his most difficult times.
Frankl was able to use his work, love, and suffering to keep himself alive because he felt that he was responsible for and to them. He argues that humans cannot understand the general meaning, or super-meaning of life—instead, we must look for ways to make each individual moment valuable. Every person has a unique vocation that only he can accomplish, and he is responsible for undertaking this job.
The second section of the book, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” is devoted to explaining Frankl’s ideas about logotherapy in more detail. He explains that man’s will to meaning can become existentially frustrated, which can in turn provoke noögenic neuroses. In other words, if a man cannot find the meaning or purpose in his life, he can develop mental problems that need to be addressed. Frankl argues that everyone should strive to be in a state of noö-dynamics, in which there is a tension between what one has already done and what one hopes to accomplish. To Frankl, this tension between past and present is vital to mental health. For those who need therapy, Frankl helps them overcome their anxieties and fears by using paradoxical intention, in which the person tries to bring about the precise thing he fears. Ultimately, logotherapy seeks to help its patients develop goals—whether they be getting rid of a phobia or surviving a horrible situation—and finding ways to meaningfully accomplish them.
Frankl ends his book by saying that “man is that being who invented the gas chambers at Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” Frankl believes that while man is certainly capable of doing evil, no individual human must be evil. Every human has the capacity to change his behavior and attitude in every possible situation. In his postscript, Frankl reaffirms this belief as the basis for his tragic optimism, or belief in the importance of saying “yes” in spite of everything.