Man's Search For Meaning: The Classic Tribute To Hope From The Holocaust
- Ebury Press
- Publication Date:
- 06 May 2004
- Psychological Theory & Schools of Thought
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At the most excruciating moment in a long series of excruciating moments at the hands of Dr. Josef Mengel's medical experimenters in the Nazi's concentration camps, Dr. Frankl abruptly stopped caring any longer about the pain -- and found that to be the moment in his life when he felt the freest. His experience gave rise to a branch of psychology known as logotherapy.A remarkable and important book.
Viktor Frankl was, as he put it, "a professor in two fields, but a survivor of four camps - concentration camps, that is". Already a renowned psychotherapist, Frankl's experiences at Auschwitz and other concentration camps provided him profound and striking insights into human psychology. He sets them out in this brief and elegant book. Firstly, when put in a situation of extreme adversity or deprivation human personalities do not blur into one "uniform expression of the unstilled urge", as Sigmund Freud had supposed they would but, on the contrary, true personalities are accentuated. Secondly, despair and depression are not at all correlated with the experience of adversity, but if anything inversely so: in our modern, plentiful and comfortable times, neuroses are legion. By contrast, on the whole they weren't in Nazi death camps. Frankl was uniquely placed and qualified to comment on this; Freud was not: "Thank heaven," Frankl remarks dryly, "Freud was spared knowing the concentration camps from the inside". This seems right: I dare say you don't see much neuroticism in modern day Somalia either (though I do quite like the idea of obsessive-compulsive Mogadishan parents pushing their kids into extra cello lessons.) Frankl uses his anecdotal observations to propose what was in its day a revolutionary psychology: it isn't our primal physical urges which determine our behaviour, with intellectual constructions being mere epiphenomenal by-products (Freud would have it that love, for example, was a spin-off of the deeper primal sexual urge), but the other way round: it is the intellectual content - the *meaning* of our lives that shapes and drives our behaviour and, crucially, our happiness. The more profound and compelling you find the meaning in your own life, the less neurotic you're likely to be. This leaves open the question of what "meaning" might be, and what might make a profound and compelling one. This question Frankl doesn't answer, rightly I think, other in rather an airy fashion. Anecdotally, meanings are more likely to count as profound and compelling the more gravely connected with the "tragic triad" of pain, guilt and death they are (no shortage, therefore, at Auschwitz). But beyond those axes, the implication will be that we, the users, determine our own meaning. This may perhaps be a little self-fulfilling, and neurosis may be a product of existential frustration (in other words the confounding of one's own quest for meaning through preoccupation with things you don't truly value): Frankl cites a senior American diplomat who sought treatment from depression arising from discontent with his working life. Frankl's advice was not undergo psychotherapy, but to change his job to something he cared more about! But all the same this seems to me a plausible explanation for modern melancholy: who, these days, isn't continually and forcibly preoccupied with things he or she doesn't truly value? That seems to perfectly capture the "asset rich, time poor" existence. This is a short book, but it's a gem: the message of plurality and self-determination are ones which should strike harmonious chords in the ears of those, like this reviewer, who are nudging into middle age and wondering if it is quite all what it cracked up to be.
An excellent, fairly short, but very inspiring book. The author's experiences in Auschwitz concretised his belief that the fundamental purpose of life is the search for meaning and that each person's search is unique to him or her. Finding this meaning can enable one in even the most trying circumstances to find relief and salvation in an inner spiritual (but not necessarily religious) world. A wonderful eye-opener.
Even though written by a concentration camp survivor, it is a very positive and inspiring book written simply and with a lot of relevant insights. I found it very honest and accurate in describing the psychology of life in the concentration camp: What keeps man alive in such circumstances, what prevents him from committing suicide, what makes some keep their dignity and some to lose it, and what gives meaning to life under these conditions are the questions Frankl poses and then answers in an insightful and sincere manner.Frankl sees suffering as something that can give man’s life its meaning, and the salvation of man through love. As long as a person has someone or something to cherish, will it be somebody to love, or an idea he wants to live for and share with others, this person’s life has a meaning and this person is able to survive against all odds and circumstances.
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