"Man's Search for Meaning" - Book Review

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. From that experience he wrote this book and created a system of psychotherapy called Logotherapy. Modern editions of the book (such as the one I read) contain the original text (125 pages) and several letters and papers, most by Frankl but one about his life and distinguished post-war career.

Two thirds of the original text details his experience in the camps, and it's tough reading. But he makes his point: we're more than Freud's base desires and drives, we can always make a decision about how we behave. Even in the worst possible circumstances.

He's very fond of the Friedrich Nietzsche quote, "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how."

"It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man's main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning."

"But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering -- provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause ... To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic."

Frankl apparently tended to avoid reference to his own religious beliefs: "He was fond of saying that the aim of psychiatry was the healing of the soul, leaving to religion the salvation of the soul."

I would have loved to meet this man. Within a couple years of the end of the war, he was condemning the concept of "collective guilt." It makes sense in his philosophy: everything is the action of individuals, their choices. His willingness to forgive and live a meaningful life after that experience leaves me in awe.

I have a couple complaints about the book: some of the essays tacked onto the book directly repeat some of the material contained in the main work - the repetition is annoying. And some of the writing on the subject of logotherapy is a bit ponderous in its choice of words and sentence structure, although this can perhaps be blamed in part on translation from the German. But these minor problems aside, this is a book I'd recommend to anyone: it's a brilliant and very wise take on how we can and should live our lives.