I am conflicted in writing this Man’s Search For Meaning summary because while the book has a ton of useful insights, the style in which it was written is very academic compared to most other self-help books. I suppose this makes sense as it was originally written by Viktor E. Frankl as an academic paper. That being said, the author’s story is incredibly fascinating (which makes up the first half of the book) and then the latter half, where he explains his doctrine of Logotherapy is more practical.
Man’s Search For Meaning Summary (High-Level)
The first half of the book is solely about Viktor E. Frankl’s experience surviving the second world war as a prisoner in the concentration camps. I recommend that you go buy a physical copy of the book so you can experience this story by reading it first hand. It will be impossible for me to re-tell the story he tells in the first half of the book.
However, he leaves a bunch of golden nuggets of insights that I will include in part 1, below.
The entire premise of the book is how achieving or recognizing a significant meaning or higher purpose in life can allow you to get through practically any, seemingly impossible, obstacle.
Obviously, that is hyper simplified but we will get into the finer details in the sections below.
Man’s Search For Meaning Summary – Part 1
So as mentioned before, the first part of the book is all about Viktor E. Frankl’s experience on the inside of a concentration camp. He explains that every man was controlled by one thought throughout this experience – to keep himself alive for their family waiting for them at home.
That said, there were some people who clearly gave up on their will to live and had given up faith and once this will was lost it seldom returned and the prisoners simply enjoyed their last days of life.
In psychiatry, there is a concept called “delusion of reprieve” whereby a prisoner on death row has a false illusion that he or she will be spared last minute. The prisoners in the concentration camp also had this false belief initially.
Literally, every single shred of their physical identities had been taken away from them and all that remained with the prisoners was their naked existence.
Viktor E Frankl goes on to explain that despite all of the mental and physical primitiveness in the concentration camp, it was still possible to achieve further spiritual depth. Some prisoners were able to retreat from their horrible surroundings to their inner riches of spiritual freedom.
He then goes on to explain that love is the highest goal to which man can aspire. Even in the worst surroundings imaginable, man can experience bliss just through imagining his beloved, and through carrying this image, fulfillment can be achieved.
As the inner life of the prisoner became more intense he experienced beauty and art more intensely than ever before. He also used humor as a tool for self-preservation.
The majority of prisoners suffered from an inferiority complex in the camps as most had fancied themselves to be someone but now were reduced to nothing more than their bare bodies. As a result, the average prisoner felt utterly degraded. An exception being those prisoners who had their inner value anchored higher to more spiritual things (something that I discussed in Ego Is The Enemy summary.
The experience of camp life shows that man has a choice of action…
- Apathy can be overcome
- Irritability can be suppressed
Man can preserve spiritual freedom and independence of mind even in the most stressful conditions.
Everything can be taken from man except for one thing – his freedom to chose how he reacts to a given situation. The sort of person a prisoner became was the result of his inner decisions, not the camp environment alone. Therefore anyone can decide what will become of them no matter the circumstances.
The Meaning of Suffering
If there is a meaning to life then there is also a meaning to suffering.
Suffering is an unavoidable part of life. Without suffering and death, human life can’t be complete.
The way in which man accepts his suffering can give deeper meaning to his life.
In the camp, those men who allowed their inner hold on their moral and spiritual selves to subside, eventually fell victim to the camp’s influences.
The prisoners who let themselves decline because there was essentially no end in sight resorted to thinking of retrospective thoughts. The problem with robbing themselves of present reality is that they were not able to appreciate the beauty of present moments as they occurred.
Man can only live by looking forward to the future. With a loss of his belief in the future, he also loses his spiritual hold. A sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.
In order to restore a prisoner’s inner strength, they first had to be shown some future goal. They needed to have a future aim in order to withstand their horrible present reality.
Life ultimately means taking responsibility for finding the right answers for the problems that it presents you with.
Those who think it is their destiny to suffer will make the act of suffering their primary task.
Upon liberation from the camps, there were essentially two types of people:
- Those who were beyond grateful and seized every opportunity
- Those who were bitter and disillusioned and become the oppressors
It was interesting to discover that those in group 2 felt that because they were oppressed for so long they were now entitled to do that to others.
Man’s Search For Meaning Summary – Part 2
In part two of the Man’s Seach For Meaning summary, Viktor E. Frankl discusses his doctrine of logotherapy. It differs from other psychological methods in the sense that it focuses more on the future by getting the patient to associate meaning to his or her future.
The idea is to help the patient reorient meaning toward his life.
According to logotherapy, stiving to find meaning is man’s primary motivational source.
A man’s concern over the meaning of his life is fairly normal and should not be thought of as a mental disease. And actually, this tension can be very useful in pursuing future goals.
More specifically, the tension between what one has achieved already and what one ought to achieve in the future.
Man does not need a tensionless state but rather a state of struggling for a worthwhile and freely-chosen goal.
The Existential Vacuum
This concept is something that many American’s face when no instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do.
So in this case, there are two options:
- Conform and do what other people do
- Do what other people want you to do (totalitarianism)
With automation replacing more and more human jobs, this will become an increasing problem since people will have so much free time on their hands.
Sometimes the frustration associate with finding meaning can take shape as a will to power or pleasure.
The Meaning of Life
Most people stress out when trying to find an abstract meaning of life.
What matters most is not the meaning of life in general but the meaning of your life at any given time.
Each person is questioned by life differently and thus has to respond differently by taking responsibility. As such, logotherapy sees responsibility as the very essence of human existence.
Being human always points to something or someone other than yourself. The more you forget about yourself and direct your actions to serve someone else out of love the more you can achieve self-actualization.
This can be discovered in three different ways:
- Creating work or doing a deed
- By experiencing something or encountering someone
- By the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering
The Meaning of Love
Nobody can become aware of the essence of another human unless he loves that person.
Love is not understood as a side-effect of sex but sex is an expression of the ultimate togetherness, which is called love.
Man’s Search For Meaning Summary – Conclusion
Human beings are finite things with restricted freedoms. One does not have freedom when it comes to selecting your conditions but they do have freedom in the stand they take against them.
Man determines for himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them.
In that sense, man is self-determining and always decides what he will become in the next moment.