Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl is divided into two parts. The first deals with the author’s experiences in German concentration camps during World War II. As he says in his opening paragraph Dr. Frankl is not interested in writing about the great horrors but about the everyday life he experienced and in how these experiences led him to develop logotherapy, a school of psychoanalysis based on the idea that man’s primary motivational force is his search for meaning. To be honest, I am skeptical of this idea as I am of psychoanalysis in general, but when an author can back up his theories with experiences from Auschwitz it is difficult to remain a non-believer.
Man’s Search For Meaning does not go to extremes depicting life in the camps; it does not have to. As Mr. Frankl says we all know the horrors and those who are going to believe they took place already do. His focus is on the day to day issues such as how did a prisoner get enough food to survive, specifically how did he convince the man who ladled out the soup to go to the bottom of the pot and give him some of the peas that could be found there instead of just skimming broth off of the surface. When one’s life is reduced to this, how can it possibly have any meaning? Dr. Frankl provides this answer:
We who walked in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They many have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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…
…Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that 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 freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of 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.
This is certainly not an easy path to follow. Of late the word “purpose” has been cheapened, at least here in America. Dr. Frankl survived the worst experience the 20th century could summon, and he found people there who still maintained a life that meant something and had purpose. He also found their antithesis, men whose lives had lost meaning, men who had seized on all that is dark, who wanted nothing but survival. The thing that is a little hard to accept is that he found both groups of men among the prisoners and among the guards. Only recently have writers begun to widely discuss the role of the Capos in the concentration camps. I suspect many people don’t realize how important they were. The guards ran the camps, but the Capos ran the barracks, did the real day to day grunt work of keeping all the prisoners in line and working on rations and sleep well below what is needed to stay alive for long. The Capos were prisoners themselves, chosen by the guards because they were bullies enough to be willing to beat their fellow prisoners into submission when the guards weren’t around to do it themselves. Dr. Frankl says the Capos enjoyed a level of power and prestige in the camps that none of them would have experienced outside them.
Some of the guards were better than others. Dr. Frankl describes one who used his own money to purchase medicine for the prisoners in his camp and another who was hidden by three former prisoners when liberation came until the prisoners could convince the American soldiers that he should not be harmed.
Dr. Frankl writes: From all this 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. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race” –and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.
The second part of Man’s Serach for Meaning is “Logotherapy in a Nutshell” a brief overview of Dr. Frankl’s theory. (The term comes from the Greek “logos” or meaning.) It suffers from being a brief overview of what took 20 volumes in German to fully explain, as Dr. Frankl admits. I’m not qualified to comment on logotherapy’s effectiveness, I’m still skeptical of it frankly, but I did find much to admire in this section along with a great deal of food for thought. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that stays with the reader long after it is finished. It just may be one that stays with me for life.
This book has stayed with me since I first published this review back in 2009 on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. It’s become one of my key books. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I’m running it again here as part of Non-fiction November.