In this work, a Viennese psychiatrist tells his grim experiences in a German concentration camp which led him to logotherapy, an existential method of psychiatry. This work has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 the author, a psychiatrist labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the stories of his many patients, he argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. His theory, known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (meaning), holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.
Frankl was lucky to be alive at the end of the war. He experienced degradation to the greatest degree. He witnessed people broken down until there was nothing more important than a crust of bread. He saw some people lose all hope and some people survive, and it was this comparison that eventually lead to his theories. In essence, he came to realize that there is no life without meaning (and here meaning and worth are intertwined). No human life can be so degraded that there is not some choice. Even those condemned to death can choose to leave life with dignity. It may not seem much, but it is attitude more than circumstance that shows the mettle of mankind. At one point, Frankl gives a speech on the meaning of life to the others in the cramped barracks, and I couldn't help but think of that other Viktor, Victor Laszlo from Casablanca who always had the courage to hold his head erect and fight injustice. Frankl is incredibly humble, but he repeats again and again Nietsche's quote, "He who has a 'why' to live for can bear with almost any 'how'."
The second half of the book is a brief skim of Frankl's psychiatric theories. They sound so much more healthy than Freud's. Instead of delving deeper and deeper in a search for the causes of neuroses, he gives his patients a reason to live, a way to devote themselves to something larger, a means to escape from the vicious circle of self-reflection and -deception. His responses to his patients show him to be a sage old man. The depressed widower discovers he has saved his wife from a lonely old age. The fearful rabbi finds solace in the suffering of his life. Frankl repeats that we can find meaning not only in the act of creation or in the enjoyment of life, but in the way we survive the pain and suffering that is inherent to our existence.
One thing I found truly heartening. Frankl said that we do not have one meaning in life. There is no one true answer to the question of the meaning of life any more than a chess master could say what is the best move. It's all in the context. At one period we may live for our children, at another to finish writing a book, at a third juncture to save someone from pain. There is meaning in every day of our lives, but that meaning changes and evolves. That feels so right. This book contains a remarkable story of survival and a wonderful take on life.
Dr. Frankl begins his book by recounting his experiences in four separate Nazi concentration camps. He does not go into detail about the horrors many people suffered there because that information can be easily obtained elsewhere. Frankl describes his experience only to lend credibility to his theory, logotherapy, which is outlined in the second half of the book.
Frankl’s somewhat clinical observations of his trials and sufferings in the camps are told with an underlying humanity that is able to move any reader. Nevertheless, the most important part of the book comes after the realization of his freedom from the camps when Frankl goes on to demonstrate his theory of logotherapy.
Logotherapy, or “meaning therapy,” focuses on the importance of meaning in a patient’s life. Meaning in your life can change year to year, day to day, or experience to experience. Frankl likens the overall meaning of your entire life to the end of a movie. You have to experience and take meaning from every single shot of the film before you can truly understand the meaning of them once they are all put together.
Frankl also states that the young should never pity the older generations. The young may have unlimited possibilities open to them but the old have an abundant collection of realities under their belts, realities that can never be taken away from them (unlike the easily lost possibilities available to the young.)
Logotherapy can be explained relatively well in three statements:
1. Our main motivation in living is the will to find the meaning of our own life.
2. Every life has a meaning, even one under the most hopeless of conditions.
3. Nothing can take away ones freedom to choose how they react to any given situation or to find meaning in any unavoidable suffering that may occur.
I think Frankl’s logotherapy is a theory of infinite potential for humankind. If one never wants for a meaning to their life, one will never want for anything. As Spinoza says in his Ethics, “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.” Or, in the sense of logotherapy, “as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of its meaning.”
His answers for each came from his psychological philosophy and practice of what he calls "logotherapy," which he elaborates more upon in the second section added in 1962, "Logotherapy in a Nutshell." Called the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy," the first being Freud with his "pleasure principle," the second Adler who thought the principle human drive was a will to power, Frankl, in contrast, thought the most important human drive is the quest for meaning. He quotes Nietzsche who wrote: "He who has a Why to live for can bear almost every How." Giving many examples from his experience, he related that often those who survived were not necessarily the most physically robust, but those who found meaning in their existence and even in their suffering--those who had hope and kept a sense of humor. He spoke in particular of the importance of work, love, and courage. For himself, he still had a book to write, his love for his wife he hoped to be reunited with, and the examples before him of those who still kept their dignity aiding in keeping his will to survive. Frankl writes that Freud claimed that if you could take a diverse group of people and starved them, that "the imperative urge of hunger can and will blur individual differences." Frankl says Freud was wrong. That in the face of starvation in the camps "people became more different" and that they were "unmasked" as "swine or saints." In the conclusion to that second section he says: "We have come to know Man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also the being who entered those gas chambers upright with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."
The first half of the book tells his experiences in concentration camps in heartwrenching detail, and his observations of what gave prisoners strength to keep going. For him, it was to have an opportunity to rewrite a manuscript that was confiscated when he was imprisoned. As he observed his fellow prisoners, he began to ask the question "what is the meaning of life" and discovered that, at our core, humans most want to feel that their life has a meaning or a purpose.
The second half of the book introduces logotherapy, which is his theory that man is able to transcend his suffering regardless of the circumstances. I give the book 4 stars because this section can get a little confusing. But the overall idea is inspiring and one of my favorite ideas of his is that "happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue". Much of his theory overlaps with existential psychotherapy which focuses on existential conflicts as the root of suffering (see Yalom's seminal work on the topic if you want to know more). Though these ideas obviously don't apply in all circumstances, Frankl provides a snapshot of a fascinating theory in a way that is accessible to more people than just psychologists.
"These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment.... 'Life' does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life's tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man's destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response." (pp. 122-3)
"This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the 'why' for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any 'how.'" (pp. 126-7)
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.
I think that this should be required reading for, well, mostly everyone. Just a quick overview, Victor Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist who went through multiple concentration camps during World War 2 and survived. After the war, he wrote about his experiences and the experiences he witnessed of other prisoners from a psychological, almost third-person point-of-view.
Frankl was an amazing man who went though a terrible atrocity, losing his friends and family, and went on living without all the bottled-up hatred and PTSD like so many did.
The book begins with the remarkable biographical story of life in the concentration camp in conditions that are
The description of life in the concentration camp is chilling in what it describes but this appears multiplied by the manner of the description. The narrative is largely free of gruesome details and uses simple matter of fact language to convey and amplify the all enveloping abject awfulness of the situation faced by those imprisoned. They are described as having been transported into an incredible and inexplicable world where every normality is replaced by ever present abnormality. Yet in this utterly abnormal world we see there is space for the acts of saints as well as demons.
It is a book which provides insights into the nature of life and meaning and thus should be read by all. If its relevance to those involved in change needs to be stated, for me it is captured in clear imagery that life in the concentration camp which removed so much from the inmates, was denied removing one crucial thing, described thus:-
In the concentration camp every circumstances conspires to make the prisoner lose his hold. All the familiar goals in life are snatched away. What alone remains is “the last of human freedoms” – the ability “to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances”.
It is this choosing of attitude that sits at the heart of the inmate’s ability to survive, for those that did survive are characterised by having a clear vision, a clear imperative that they must survive for they have work yet to be done.
When so much effort directed at change focuses on what to do and how, Frankl powerfully quotes the words of Nietzsche
‘He who has a why to live, can bear with almost any how’.
I highly recommend this book as one that will change your perspective on what people and organisations can achieve and the incredible importance of establishing meaning; of answering the question ‘why?’
Frankl suffered incredible loss and spent about 4 years in a number of concentration camps but was able to utilize his education, confidence and resolve to turn evil into good. He made a bold decision to use the horror of his environment, the constant hunger, back-breaking labor, cold, and deprivation as an opportunity… to learn, to teach, to strengthen himself and others.
He saw that the Nazis deliberately chose sadistic Jews as Kapos to torment and force the prisoners to work harder and faster. He witnessed some ‘kind’ SS guards slipping prisoners extra food. He saw prisoners behave like animals because they thought their lives and others’ lives were worthless, others who gave up, and others who did everything in their power to help a relative or friend.
One night Frankl was asked to talk to fellow prisoners in his hut. He taught them how to positively manage their minds. He suggested they think about their pasts, the good memories, and what they had accomplished. He then said they should consider their future lives; the work, study, living, and loving they still needed to do. How does a prisoner in a concentration camp have the nerve to tell people to think about the future? Frankl did because he sincerely felt (based on his observations) that those who passionately believed in the importance of their future would find meaning in all the parts of their lives including their current suffering.
He survived and wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, both as a witness of what he and others experienced, and as a highly intelligent response to the chaos and madness of that time. He develops 3 categories of creating and finding meaning in our lives, each one is dynamic, powerful and breathtaking.
Because man is self-determining, we get to decide how to react to any situation, and what our attitudes will be. That can make all the difference.
Read this book as soon as you can.
Towards the end, Frankl discusses the American
No easy answers are offered here, but for anyone willing to give it the time and thought, this book can really live up to its reputation as a life-changer.
Unbelievable. One of the very best books I've ever read. The main topic here is the human being, not the holocaust or the concentration camps. Frankl comes to the same conclusions of the Gospel, only from a psychological / neurological point of view. Sometimes you need to forget your rationality
This is not an easy book to read, but I can see why it has been required reading since 1959. It especially resonates today when there are so many people who deny the Holocaust actually happened. But there is another reason why, in my opinion, it is important
If you have not read this book and are trying to decide whether it is worth your time, I have compiled a few of the life lessons that I took from this book. I hope you find them an encouragement to delve deeper yourself:
1) When it came to the prisoners in the camps, those who lived in the past, died, while those who believed in a future, lived. Those who survived looked for opportunities to help others, and reveled in even the smallest accomplishment. I believe this is why the author, Frankl, survived while so many others succumbed. He took each day one at a time, not focusing on what he didn't have, but on what he could do for others (he was a doctor). He also had a long-term goal--to write a book.
2) He objectified his suffering. It took awhile for him to learn this, but he eventually learned to accept the beatings and mistreatment from the guards as if it wasn't personal. Instead, he turned all of this suffering into a learning experience, as if he was doing a giant psychological lab experiment. He even viewed himself as part of that experiment, referring to himself in the third person.
3) Liberation from the camp brought it's own challenges, or as Frankl put it, "With the end of uncertainty came the uncertainty of the end." Initial joy turned into bitterness when he (and his fellow prisoners) returned home and found their past lives erased, their loved ones dead, and their former neighbors unrepentant. Faced with this, many of Frankl's fellow prisoners wanted revenge, but he was still seeing himself as part of a grand experiment in which this new challenge was only the next stage. I found it interesting that even his writing about all of this was dispassionate and analytical; and I think it was this approach that not only saved his life in the camps, it allowed him to forgive and move on. It was a supreme act of will, and very admirable.
4) Frankl said mankind's search for meaning is the primary motivation for us all. He quoted Nietzsche, "He who has a why to live can survive almost any how." This meaning--this "why"--is unique to each of us. With some of us we find meaning in a spouse or our children. For others this meaning might come from serving God or their fellow man. According to Frankl, no matter what your purpose is, you must avoid the "existential vacuum", where you feel your life has no meaning. And he suggests the way to avoid that vacuum is by filling your life with a task. For him, that task was serving others. Someone once asked him what was the meaning of his life, and he replied, "To help others find the meaning of theirs."
This brings to mind a story of my own. Back in the nineties I wrote and directed a TV movie called FORGET ME NOT: THE ANNE FRANK STORY. I shot it at Universal/Hollywood, then later did a benefit premier for the Simon Wiesenthal Center at the Television Academy, with Jerry Molen (who had won the Academy Award for producing SCHINDLER'S LIST) serving as chairman of the event.
In researching the script for ANNE FRANK, I worked with the Wiesenthal Center, as well as the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam, and it was the Foundation who put me in touch with Miep Gies. Miep and I became great friends, and I even asked her to introduce the film. For those of you who don't know who Miep was (she's gone now), she was the one who hid Anne's diary from the Nazis. She also cared for Anne and the others in the annex that served as their hiding place, providing them with food, news, etc., along with the scraps of paper Anne used for her diary long after she had filled up the initial diary her father had given her. During this time, Miep and her husband (who secretly worked for the underground) also hid a Jewish boy in the basement of their home, even though she and her husband weren't Jewish.
When food in Amsterdam became scarce, Miep began riding her bicycle to the farms outside of town to acquire provisions for her large "family". Then one day the Nazis confiscated all of the bikes in Amsterdam. This forced Miep to walk, and with food becoming scarce even in the countryside, she had to go further and further away from Amsterdam to find food. Then the Nazis instigated a midnight curfew, and anyone found outside after midnight would be shot on sight. This didn't stop Miep. She kept going, often sneaking back into town just before dawn, and barely avoiding death on numerous occasions. When I asked Miep how she found the courage to do this, she shrugged, "I only did my human duty."
After Anne and the others had been captured by the Nazis, Miep found Anne's diary (now made up of her original diary, plus dozens of those scraps of paper Miep had given her) scattered about the floor of the annex. She hid them in her desk, and after the war, when Otto Frank (the only one to survive) returned to Amsterdam, Miep gave Anne's diary to him and convinced him to publish it.
But the story doesn't end there. Many of those prisoners who returned to Amsterdam wanted retribution, not just against the Nazis, but against their fellow countrymen who had collaborated with the Nazis. By then Anne's diary had become an international best seller, so the Dutch government began an investigation into who had turned Anne and the others in to the Nazis. Things quickly got out of control, with dozens of people accusing each other. Someone even accused Miep! This outraged Otto, and he told the investigators, "If you suspect Miep, you suspect me. I want this investigation to stop, and I want it to stop right now." And so it did. Which is why to this very day we do not know who turned Anne in.
The moral of this story is, in my opinion, the moral of Viktor Frankl's book: We achieve the greatest meaning in life by letting go of the past and focusing on doing something good for others.
The second half of the book was way over my lay head. I hesitate to use the term psycho-babble but that was what most of it was to me.
A remarkable and important book.
This is a tough book to read. The first part is about the author's interment in various concentration camps. Just brutal. It's a first hand account, yet it differs from others I've read as it is told through the experiences
So, let us be alert - alert in a twofold sense:
Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.
And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.
I think a person should read this book every couple of years especially if your life seems adrift.
I loved the first half. He doesn't
The second part of the book was harder to understand, but what I got out of it is that logotherapy is designed to help people find meaning in their own lives. Once they have discovered their own meaning, their problems become much easier to bear. It also emphasizes that people must take responsibility for their own actions and their own lives.
This is a tremendous book. I wanted to share a couple of quotes:
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
"Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of 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."
Human beings have the capacity to think about meanings and values, to take a creative approach to life's conditions, and to be conscious of the responsibility to fulfill a unique purpose in life.
Frankl believed that we are motivated by a desire for purpose in our lives: to evaluate, judge, and seek out the meaning of an event, of the here-and-now moment.