Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning

I’ve just finished reading the wonderful Man’s Search for Meaning, a 1946 book written by psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor E. Frankl, where he discusses his experiences and observations as a Nazi concentration camp inmate.

The book comes in two parts, the first recounts Frankl’s experience as an inmate in two concentration camps; the second discusses the ideas behind the form of psychotherapy he developed, called logotherapy.

Unlike narrative accounts of concentration camp life, such as Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, Frankl describes scenes rather than a story and uses them to explore the psychology of both the oppressed and the oppressors in the camp.

The book is particularly outstanding in that it explores the social complexities of the concentration camps with remarkable subtlety, noting when the failings of the inmates and the humanity of the guards were present. He highlights that these seemingly out-of-place responses had the most impact amid the brutality of camp life.

It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp’s influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible. Obviously the prisoners found the lack of character in such men especially upsetting, while they were profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from any of the guards. [p93]

In a sense, Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment just re-iterated what Frankl was saying years before – that coercive systems breed their own conformity and that average people need extraordinary courage to step outside the norm.

Frankl’s form of psychotherapy is influenced partly by his wartime experiences and draws on the fact that some concentration camp inmates could still find purpose in their lives despite the hellish conditions.

The therapy attempts to help people who are experiencing inescapable suffering to cope better, by looking at ways in which they can find meaning in their lives.

Paradoxically, suggests Frankl, for some the experience of suffering is the one thing that inspired a discovery of meaning in a previously superficial existence. Accepting that all life involves some suffering allows us to use the experience to better understand ourselves and others.

Frankl was not the only mind doctor in the concentration camps, indeed he was among a long list of professionals who were interred.

Psychologist Bruno Bettleheim famously wrote the article ‘Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations’ after his experiences.

Bettleheim, best known for his work on child psychology, was a complex character whose reputation has fluctuated greatly since his death.

Even the story of his article on concentration camp psychology is fascinatingly complex, as recounted in a 1997 article [pdf] by Christian Fleck and Albert Müller.

Link to Wikipedia article on ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ (thanks Ceny!)
pdf of article ‘Bettleheim and the Concentration Camps’.

3 thoughts on “Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning”

  1. Frankl’s book is the one that has had the most influence on me. Perhaps in some ways he disassociates from the experience by intellectualizing it but he taught me that being a victim is a choice. Sometimes circumstances force you to be a victim for awhile but remaining there is a choice. Even admitting you have to be a victim for a period of time is empowering. You’re acknowledging a transitory period rather than a state of permanence.

  2. I first read Man’s Search For Meaning around 1972. It is amazing how the problems we face everyday pale in comparison. It is also interesting to consider and formulate what kinds of meaning we need to attach to life in order to get past the bumps.

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