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Viktor Frankl's 1946 book Man's Search for Meaning chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding a reason to live. According to Frankl, the book intends to answer the question "How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?" Part One constitutes Frankl's analysis of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his theory of logotherapy.
According to a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man's Search For Meaning belongs to a list of "the ten most influential books in [the United States]." (New York Times, November 20, 1991).
Experiences in a concentration camp[edit | edit source]
Frankl identifies three psychological reactions experienced by all inmates to one degree or another: (1) shock during the initial admission phase to the camp, (2) apathy after becoming accustomed to camp existence, in which the inmate values only that which helps himself or others survive, and (3) reactions of depersonalization, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment after being liberated.
Frankl concludes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. In a group therapy session during a mass fast inflicted on the camp's inmates trying to protect an anonymous fellow inmate from fatal retribution by authorities, Frankl offered the thought that for everyone in a dire condition there is someone looking down, a friend, family member, or even God, who would expect not to be disappointed. Frankl concludes from his experience that a prisoner's psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life, but also from the freedom of choice he always has even in severe suffering. The inner hold a prisoner has on his spiritual self relies on having a faith in the future, and that once a prisoner loses that faith, he is doomed.
He also concludes that there are only two races of men, decent men and indecent. No society is free of either of them, and thus there were "decent" Nazi guards and "indecent" prisoners, most notably the capo who would torture and abuse their fellow prisoners for personal gain.
His concluding passage in Part One describes the psychological reaction of the inmates to their liberation. He recounts a decent friend who became immediately obsessed with dispensing the same violence in judgment of his abusers that they had inflicted on him. In their first foray outside their former prison, the prisoners realized that they could not comprehend pleasure. Flowers, sudden kindness by their former guards, and the reality of the freedom they had dreamed about for years were all surreal, unable to be grasped in their depersonalization. Even when he or she returned to "normal" life, a prisoner experienced bitterness that others were superficial and did not comprehend what he had gone through, then disillusionment when newfound freedom did not mean the end of unhappiness. As time passed, however, the prisoner's experience in a concentration camp finally became nothing more than a nightmare.
Quotations[edit | edit source]
- "We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
- "Nietzsche's words, 'He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.'"
- "When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves"
- "Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him - mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp."
- "We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by doing a deed; (2) by experiencing a value; and (3) by suffering."
- "It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual."
- "Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary."
- "Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death." (Cf. Song of Solomon 8:6)
- "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 those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."
See also[edit | edit source]
[edit | edit source]
- Man's Search for Meaning
- Viktor Frankl at Ninety: An Interview (Archive.org link)
- Literary Review - Reader Meet Author
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