Man’s search for meaning (Viktor E. Frankl)

On Thursday 4th March, 2010, World Book Day, we asked teachers to talk to their classes about their favourite books or books they are currently enjoying.  Mr Maxted told his students about  Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s search for meaning’ which, in the course of his reading, had a powerful impact on him.  He says:

“Viktor Frankl was Professor of Neurology and Psychology at the University of Vienna Medical School. He was the founder of what has come to be called the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy – the school of logotherapy. His writings have been called ‘the most important contributions in the field of Psychotherapy since the days of Freud, Adler and Jung’ by Sir Cyril Burt, ex-President of the British Psychological Society.

During World War II he spent three years at Auschwitz, Dachau, and other concentration camps. During this time he observed that those prisoners who gave up on any purpose in life would be dead within a few days. They would simply refuse to leave the filth of their wooden bunks. Frankl was instrumental in maintaining the morale of prisoners, attempting to instil in them a meaning and purpose to their lives even when undergoing hideous suffering. Indeed, he tried to show that there could be a purpose to their involuntary suffering. Frankl calls this attitude a “tragic optimism”.

The school of Logotherapy aims to treat the depressed and suicidal by helping patients to discover a meaning and purpose to their lives. Frankl describes this absence of meaning and purpose as the “existential vacuum” which requires filling.

Upon reading the book, it is not difficult to see why Frankl survived the Holocaust or indeed why he was instrumental in enabling others to survive. This is a work of tremendous optimism in the midst of unimaginable suffering and is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. He rejects the idea that we are pre-determined to respond in a particular way to our circumstances and reinforces the importance of the decisions that we make. It is the old maxim, “with great freedom comes great responsibility”. In a superb line, Frankl argues that “the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast”!

Frankl concludes his book as follows:

“In the concentration camps…we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions. Our generation is realistic, for 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 that being who entered the gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips”.

Frankl truly was a remarkable and inpirational man, and if, after reading this review, you are tempted to read this, or any of his books, please leave a comment here.