Victor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning was originally published in 1946 in Austria as Ein Psycholog Erlebt das Konzentrationslager (A Psychiatrist Experiences The Concentration Camp). I found the 1984 revision for a dollar some years ago.
The book is broken into two sections: “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” and “Logotherapy in a Nutshell”.
Victor Frankl [1905-1997] was an Austrian Jew. He studied medicine at the University of Vienna and had a distinguished career in psychology, neurology, and counseling prior to his imprisonment in several Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War (from September 1942 until April 1945). His mother, father, brother, and wife died in the Holocaust. [Univie.ac.at/logotherapy/biography.html]
He invented logotherapy prior to his imprisonment, but his experiences in the camps sharpened his ideas and deepened his convictions.
I. About the “Logotherapy in a Nutshell” section
Logotherapy is a psychology based upon the assumption that the drive for meaningfulness–rather than, for example, Freud’s pleasure-principle or Aldler’s power-principle–is our most fundamental animating force.
Someone with a frustrated “will to meaning” may try to hide by pretending what it really wants is something else: they may hide in a “will to power” or a “will to pleasure.” But they are lying to themselves, because what they long most fundamentally is a meaningful life.
Logotherapy recognizes three ways to find meaning in one’s life: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” [“Logotherapy in a Nutshell” — “The Essence of Existence” section] The first of these Frankl considers self-evident. The second he explains in terms of experiencing something important–like goodness, truth, beauty, or love. The third has to do with facing up bravely, and with kind resolve, to unavoidable suffering. Frankl concludes the “Meaning of Suffering” section with the following consideration of a time (in the concentration camp) when he felt that he would soon die:
“The question which beset me was, ‘Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance–as whether one escapes or not–ultimately would not be worth living at all.'”
The aim of logotherapy is to help the patient find, consciously express, and pursue the meaning of his or her life — to “make the patient aware of what he actually longs for in the depth of his being.” [end of the “Noogenic Neuroses” section]. Logotherapy does not seek to rid people of inner tension but to help them maintain what Frankl called “noodynamics” (“i.e., the existential dynamics in a polar field of tension where one pole is represented by a meaning that is to be fulfilled and the other pole by the man who has to fill it”. Per Frankl:
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” [“Noo-Dynamics” section]
The Work of the Logotherapist
From “The Essence of Existence” section:
“The logotherapist’s role consists of widening and broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.”
According to Fankl, man’s a meaning is not within him so much as out in the world (perhaps, I would say, between him and the world). His term for this circumstance is “the self-transcendence of human existence”:
“It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
In the “Meaning of Life” section, Frankl argues that we should not focus on finding a grand meaning to life: “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’ life at a given moment.”
The logotherapist, then, works with people to help them clarify their own deepest sense about what their purpose is here and now and how they can best fulfill that purpose.
Logotherapy in Action
Frankl gives many examples of logotherapy in action.
In one case, a man had spent years in therapy trying to discover what his feelings towards his parents had to do with his dissatisfaction with his work; Frankl and he quickly discovered that he really just didn’t find his work meaningful, and he switched careers and the case was closed: there was no actual neurosis to be addressed.
In another instance a single mother had tried to kill herself and her handicapped son after her other son had died. Victor Fankl asked another 30 year old woman in the group therapy session to imagine herself an old woman who’d great success but no children; that woman found that life ultimately empty. Then Frankl asked the woman with the handicapped son (who’d stopped her from killing them both) to pretend herself an old woman looking back on her life, and she reasoned that she’d wanted children and she’d been given them and she’d given her handicapped son the best life she could give him and by caring for him she’d kept him from having to go into a home, and that in the end she’d had a meaningful life.
In another instance a rabbi from Eastern Europe is deeply depressed. He had lost his first wife and their six children in Auschwitz, and now his new wife is sterile and there will be no one to say the Kaddish (prayer for the dead) for him when he dies. His children died as innocent martyrs and would be in the highest place in Heaven, so he’d never be able to see them again.
Frankl: “‘Is it not conceivable, Rabbi, that precisely this was the meaning of your surviving your children: that you may be purified through these years of suffering, so that finally you, too, though not innocent like your children, may become worthy of joining them in Heaven? Is it not written in the Psalms that God preserves all your tears? so perhaps none of your sufferings were in vain.’ For the first time in many years he found relief from suffering through the new point of view which I was able to open up to him.”
As Frankl points out early in the Nutshell section, logotherapy is future-directed: it seeks to break people out of futile feedback loops by helping them to clarify their purpose and how they should go forward with their lives.
Interestingly, a psychological tool that he discusses quite a bit in his “Logotherapy as a Technique” section is basically what modern treaters of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder call “exposure therapy”: forcing yourself to face situations or invite outcomes to which you’ve developed an unnatural fear. He calls the malady not OCD but “hyper-reflexion” and the inviting of the fear situation or outcome “paradoxical intention”, rather than “exposure therapy”. In one case, a man who is ashamed by sweating so much thinks, “I’m going to sweat buckets” whenever he starts to worry about his condition, and the condition subsides. In another case, a woman who’s been abused is unable to achieve orgasm, through therapy she learns to shift her focus off of her desire to achieve orgasm onto the proper focus of a sexual encounter: one’s partner. (In this case, we also see the principle of self-forgetting at work).
Before moving to a discussion of the “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” portion of the book, we’ll excerpt a few quotes that will help flush out his philosophy as it is presented in “Logotherapy in a Nutshell”.
From “The Meaning of Love” section:
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. … By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes the potentialities come true.”
From this it follows, at least it seems to me, that if the logotherapist is to succeed in his mission of helping his patient discover meaning in his own life, the logotherapist must love the patient. How else can the logotherapist understand the patient’s being well enough and empathize with the patient deeply enough to travel with the patient on the patient’s quest for insight into the innermost longing of their being?
From “The Super-Meaning” section:
“The ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man; in logotherapy, we speak in this context of a super-meaning. What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic.”
This quote emphasizes the point that for the logotherapist, the “atom” of human life is not just a search for one’s own particular meaning in a given moment of your life, but life’s underlying meaningfulness. Logotherapy calls the practitioner to bear witness to the inscrutable–but not therefore unobservable “unconditional meaningfulness” of human life; and to use that fundamental vista to find meaningful responses to whatever life presents one with.
As Frankl says in “The Meaning of Life” section:
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.”
From the “Life’s Transitoriness” section:
“Those things which seem to take meaning away from human life include not only suffering but dying as well. I never tire of saying that the only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualized, they are rendered realities at that very moment; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved from transitoriness. For, in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything is irrevocably stored.”
In that section he makes the point that it is the young, not the old, who are to be envied. He pictures the old mind reasoning thus: “‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.'”
Logotherapy, Religion, and Philosophy
Logotherapy reminds me of a mix between a liberal religiousity and an ancient Greek school of philosophy–like from the Hellenistic era. (With the Skeptics [knowledge is impossible], Stoics [life is fated and the point of life is doing one’s duty], and Epicureans [the world is materially determined because the totality of atoms flow together in accordance of the laws of thump and bump; except not quite, because atoms swerve (whatever that means) and the point of life is maximizing pleasure, which is accomplished first and foremost by freeing oneself from pain and desire].
The question of the ultimate operations of the universe does not need to be covered by philosophy, although the founder of logotherapy has a spiritual sense and a religiosity and the logotherapist is encouraged to work with the religiosity of devoted patients, and there is a spiritual core to this philosophy: the existential atom of logotherapy is faith in and insight into the unconditional meaningfulness of life.
The point of life is leaving meaningfully.
This point of life is further elucidated in the following ways: one should seek not so much to discover the ultimate meaning of life, but to discover one’s meaning in a given circumstance; one’s meaning is found in one’s interaction with the world and ultimately in transcending and forgetting the self; ultimately we are equally free and responsible, and we cannot have the one except to the degree we accept the other.
According to https://www.aaimcounseling.com/services/adults/logotherapy/, Alex Pattakos worked with Dr. Fankl and wrote a follow-up book to Man’s Search for Meaning, entitled Prisoner of Our Thoughts, which broke Logotherapy down to these core principles:
- Exercise the freedom to choose your attitude (a freedom that can never be taken away)
- Realize your will to meaning
- Detect the meaning of life’s moments
- Don’t work against yourself
- Look at yourself from a distance
- Shift your focus of attention
- Extend beyond yourself
II. About the “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” section
I was walking to the grocery store today. It is a short walk from my apartment. A bright February sun had sunk low, leaving the sky gr ay. It was in the low thirties. I felt a slight chill, despite a heavy coat, two sweaters, a scarf, and a knit cap.
Frankl would’ve been out in nothing but rags. His leather shoes worn almost completely out, the shoelaces replaced by wires. No gloves. Working all day on a bowl of thin soup, a crust of bread, a dab of margarine.
He spent some time at Auschwitz, where “The daily ration consisted in a bowl of a bitter beverage similar to coffee for breakfast, a dish of thin soup made from rotten vegetables or meat at midday and a crust of bread and a little portion of margarine before going to bed.” [https://auschwitz.net/auschwitz-diet/]
How? How can a person do that for three years? And how can a person subject other people to that?
The Nazi concentration camps proved the exact opposite of their own starting premises: it proved that among the people it tortured–who were all Jews and other “inferior” sorts–there were superhumans who could bear what none of us would’ve thought a human could bear, and even in some cases, bear it with consistent kindness and equanimity; and it proved that among the torturers–who were Germans–, there were many willing to trade in their humanity for pointless cruelty.
Maybe. But Frankl didn’t allow himself such dramatic statements. In fact, he maintained that he saw good and bad people on both sides of the camp: people in positions of power who found ways to sneak a little kindness in; and prisoners who behaved cruelly and selfishly.
Frankl also states that the best among the prisoners did not survive. They were too kind to accept the insensitivity and sel-centeredness required to survive. Maybe in some cases. But we reading Frankl have a hard time not believing he was a great man.
The Players: Guards, Capos, Regular Prisoners
I had not previously realized that among concentration camp prisoners, some were elevated to become assistants to the camp operators, and that these prisoners had enough to eat. Per Frankl, “many of these Capos fared better in the camp than they had their entire lives”. Probably an exaggeration, but this comment at least speaks to the difference in treatment between the “Capo” and the regular prisoner. Per Frankl, as a rule these Capos behaved very cruelly. Of course, their position depended upon it, and so to some degree they were perhaps–as Frankl argues–selected for innate cruelty, and to some degree it was trained into them: the reward for cruelty was incredibly high because to lose their status meant starvation, physical abuse, and almost certainly death.
Looking for Insights into the Human Condition
In the Experiences section of his book, Frankl’s emphasis is on the insights he gained through his time in the concentration camp. It is an experiment none of us want to undertake, most of us would not survive, and none of us could justify. This circumstance lends his notes all the more value.
Early in the Experiences section, Frankl, says of the outside observer: “LIttle does he know of the hard fight for existence which raged among the prisoners. This was the unrelenting struggle for the daily bread and for life itself; for one’s own sake or for that of a good friend.”
He illustrates this point with a transport to “another camp”, but which the prisoners knew probably meant (sooner rather than later) the gas chamber. A given number of prisoners had to go. Everyone had been reduced to numbers and were known only by their numbers. “There was neither time nor desire to consider moral or ethical issues. Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another ‘number,’ to take his place in the transport.” It is shortly after this passage that he contends there was a negative self-selecting process at work in the camps: “We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles–whatever one may choose to call them–we know: the best of us did not return.”
Perhaps a human “best” is beyond what we in our safe, well-fed lives can fathom? Perhaps a human “best” only comes out under the most difficult of circumstances? Let us hope not. Let us hope the Victor Frankl is something of a “best”. Otherwise what chance do most of us–who do not want to and in fact should not leave the safe folds of non-tortured, unemaciated, and not near-to-death life–have to even a “pretty good, on the whole”?
Frankl notes with pride that he was not employed as a doctor except for the last few weeks. “… I was Number 119,104, and most of the time I was digging and laying tracks for railway lines.”
Smoke ’em when you’re done
Cigarettes were sometimes given to prisoners as rewards. Per Fankl, only Capos and some foremen were in a position to actually smoke them. Everyone else had to trade them for food and other necessities. The exception to that rule were those who’d given up on life. Frankl said if you saw a normal prisoner smoking his cigarettes, it meant he would soon be dead.
Phases of Imprisonment
Per Frankl, the experiences of camp prisoners shared three main mental phases: “the period following his admission; the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; and the period following his release and liberation”.
Phase I: Initial Shock
“The symptom that characterizes the first phase is shock.” Here he also speaks of the “delusions of reprieve” — like when relatively healthy prisoners (Capos [or something similar], as it later turns out) greeted them at Auschwitz and one tells oneself perhaps one will manage to get on like these fellows.
Frankl experienced the initial sorting at Auschwitz: a tall, fit guard in spotless uniform lackadaisically points incoming prisoners to the left or right. The rumor is the right is for work and the left for a less demanding placement. That night he’s told by other prisoners that if his friend went to the left he can see him there. Frankl asks where? A hand points to a chimney.
“‘That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,’ was the answer. But I still did not understand until th truth was explained to me in plain words.”
He’s still in the initial shock. Although he’s beginning to realize the truth of his situation, as earlier in the day he’d had the incident with his manuscript. He was explaining to one of the old prisoners that he must at all costs preserve the manuscript of the book he’s writing. It’s his first book on Logotherapy. “‘Don’t you understand that?'”
“Yes, he was beginning to understand. A grin spread slowly over his face, first piteous, then more amused, mocking, insulting, until he bellowed one word at me in answer to my question, a word that was ever present in the vocabulary of the camp inmates: ‘Shit!’ At that moment I saw the plain truth and did what marked the culminating point of the first phase of my psychological reaction: I struck out my whole former life.”
In related passages he speaks of prisoners asking if they might keep a wedding ring or some other important item–as they’d not yet grasped that everything would be taken.
As the initial phase transitions into the second, entrenched phase, a grim humor and curiosity set in, and they learn amazing facts about their bodies: for example, standing out wet and naked in the cold doesn’t give them colds, or that one can sleep on board with no pillow, or that their gums didn’t suffer from their inability to brush or otherwise clean them. And one thinks of suicide, of perhaps running onto the electrical fence. Frankl decided early on against suicide. The camp was likely to kill him without his consent. “The prisoner of Auschwitz, in the first phase of shock, did not fear death. Even the gas chambers lost their horrors for him after the first few days–after all, they spared him the act of committing suicide.”
In this first phase, Frankl also describes being filled with other emotions. “First of all, there was his boundless longing for his home and family. This often could become so acute that he felt himself consumed by longing. Then there was disgust; disgust with all the ugliness which surrounded him, even in its mere external forms.”
Per Fankl, at first prisoner’s look away when others are being beaten. They can’t bear to watch. That goes away once one has entered the second stage.
Phase II: The Entrenched Prisoner
Of the entrenched prisoner: “By then his feelings were blunted, and he watched [people being beaten] unmoved.” He gives another example of feeling unmoved as a twelve year old boys frostbitten toes are snipped off on after the other. Or when he watched indifferently as men pilfered a recently dead man for his coat, or a bit of string. Or the time when he was sipping soup while a “nurse” dragged a new corpse out, head rattling on the few steps down to the earth. “The corpse which had just been removed stared in at me with glazed eyes. Two hours before I had spoken to that man. Now I continued sipping my soup.”
“If my lack of emotions had not surprised me from the standpoint of professional interest, I would not remember this incident now, because there was so little feeling involved in it.”
Frankl said this apathy that enveloped the entrenched prisoners also made the beatings bearable. “By means of insensibility the prisoner soon surrounded himself with a very necessary protective shell.”
However, he goes on to relate moments of when some particularly inane or injust verbal or physical abuse was still able to raise his indignation.
Author: Bartleby Willard, disguised as Amble Whistletown, disguised as John Jeremiah Johnson
Copyright: AM Watson