Man’s search for meaning

A book review of Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’

A summary in Précis


Jose de Carvalho

 The book is about Viktor Frankl’s story of his struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. Today this remarkable tribute to hope offers us an avenue to finding greater meaning and purpose in our own lives.

 “It has the power to transform lives” Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks.

 The author “in my living laboratory” was able to observe human behaviour and make some sense of it in the midst of the most horrendous circumstances and state, “we watched some of our comrades behave like swine, while others behaved like saints”. Concluding, man has both potentials within himself; which one is activated depends on decisions, not circumstances.” He alluded to that due to the extreme suffering, psychotic individuals would lose their usefulness, but some would retain the dignity of a human being. Everything can be taken from a person, apart from one thing – the last of human freedom, namely to choose ones own way! Fundamentally therefore one can conclude that if that kind of distinguishable behaviour transpires under those circumstances, any person can decide what shall become of him mentally and spiritually and have the ability to decide whether to retain his dignity or not. This is freedom that cannot be taken away. When one seeks  purpose invariably it is pleasure, wealth or achievement, but not all enjoyment is meaningful. Suffering is an indispensable part of life – without that and death human life is not complete. The way man accepts his fate and the suffering that it entails, the way he takes up his cross, even under the most difficult circumstances adds deeper meaning to his life.

“Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose and therefore no more point in carrying on” (Victor Frankl). 

The author also believes that if anyone utters the words, “I have nothing to expect from life anymore,” he would perish shortly. To him the question one should ask is, “what is life expecting from me?”

Any attempt in the camp to restore man’s inner strength was being shown some future goal giving him the ‘why to live’ for then he could bear almost anything. The moment a man became conscious of the responsibility he bears towards another human being, somebody who affectingly waits for him, or the knowledge that an unfinished work that uniquely and specifically can and must be fulfilled by him alone, added ‘meaning to his life’ to such an extent that he could bear almost anything. He will not throw his life away if he knows the ‘why’ of his ‘existence’ and then will be able to deal with it anyhow.

 Frankl made a very important observation, namely that the crowning experience of all for the overcoming man was the wonderful realisation that after all that he had suffered, he reached a place where he was no longer afraid of anything – the only fear left, was his fear for God.

 The author of the Biblical book Ecclesiastes come to similar conclusion from a different departure, after he had failed to find any value or justice “under the sun” over and above enjoying our lot in life, he begins to conclude that value must then be found transcendent to this life, leading  to reverence and obedience to God, bearing fruit that will stand on the Day.  Ones priorities should therefore not just lie in the things of this life, but also in God. He quoted has follows, “Fear God and obey His commandments for this is the entire duty of man, for God will judge us for everything we do, including every hidden thing, good or bad” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

 The above although not part of the book review serves the purpose to contrast the two authors, one found meaning in suffering for what was to come still in this life, where the other in his search found none, however he found it in what was still to come in the after life, his philosophy was although man has to put up with his lot in life, all men will have all their deeds assessed, and such adds meaning to life.

 ‘A purpose for more than ourselves and greater than ourselves adds meaning to life’

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