Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, translated by Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959, 1962, 1984, 1992, and 2006. 184 pp)

Viktor Frankl is an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. Frankl’s memoir of his time in the Nazi concentration camps became a foundational element of his psychological and existential philosophy. Frankl died in 1997.

The Holocaust Museum

In high school, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. for a youth leadership conference. The event included high schoolers nominated from their respective schools across the United States. The principal aim of the conference was to educate the future leaders of America on the minutiae of D.C. politics. We created a pseudo-government and tried to lobby for different initiatives.

Outside of this endeavor, we had the opportunity to meet our local law makers and tour the city, checking out some of the main attractions.

For me, the most meaningful day over the course of the two weeks occured when we had the opportunity to visit the Holocaust museum. I didn’t enjoy it. But the day mattered greatly. Sobering in nature, the museum experience provided the first encounter with the vast horrors of the concentration camp and the genocidal nature of the Nazi party. A visit to the holocaust museum is necessary for everyone.

The Holocaust Narrative

In popular culture, the Holocaust has become a lynchpin of World War II storytelling. Whether Schindler’s List, The Pianist, or Life Is Beautiful, the horrors of the Holocaust emerge in our collective consciousness.

Even with the many variations of the Holocaust story, Viktor Frankl’s important work, Man’s Search for Meaning, possibly outdistances all other accounts.

A Psychological Account of the Holocaust

An Austrian psychologist, Frankl encountered concentration camp life firsthand, not only at Auschwitz where he experienced the selection between worker and gas chamber, but also a handful of other camps across Nazi controlled territory.

As a psychologist, Frankl leveraged his time in the concentration camps to prove his core assumptions around his existential philosophy and psychology, namely, meaning and deep purpose drive human beings to do great work, even in the midst of extreme suffering.

Man’s Search for Meaning is distributed between three sections. In the first, Frankl provides a memoir of his experiences in the concentration camps. He details the harsh conditions and basic strategies he employed to stay alive against the odds.

“But they did see reason if they were told that a normal workman did not live on 10 ½ ounces of bread (theoretically—actually we often had less) and 1 ¾ pints of thin soup per day; that a normal laborer did not live under the mental stress we had to submit to, not having news of our families, who had either been sent to another camp or gassed right away; that a normal workman was not threatened by death continuously, daily and hourly” (28).

In the second section, Frankl shifts to an academic focus, linking his experiences in the concentration camps to his psychological approach, coined logotherapy.

“According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (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” (111).

Lastly, Frankl adds a postscript, much later (the book has three versions based on the number of sections included). This third section expands on the link between purpose and suffering, promoting the idea of tragic optimism as a key foundation for true human flourishing through human vocation.

“’The best,’ however, is that which in Latin is called optimum—hence the reason I speak of tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action” (137-138).

The Holocaust is perhaps the darkest moment of history, certainly in modern history. Even with the immense suffering millions encountered, Victor Frankl linked his experiences to a profound psychological position that provides optimism and purpose to our daily activity. Even though I’m not a trained psychologist and I can’t comment on the depth or veracity of logotherapy, Man’s Search for Meaning represents an important and inspiring work for people looking deeper for the questions that guide life. A must read.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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