Viktor E. Frankl “Man’s Search for Meaning” – book review

I’ve been planning to read this book for quite some time. I heard it was an essay about the meaning of life written by a psychiatrist (or logotherapist as he calls himself) who was also an Auschwitz survivor.

As such, my expectations were sky high and so perhaps easily disappointed. After all, if any one book explained the meaning of life, wouldn’t everything be solved?

I’ve read Borowski’s witness account of the death camps, so that part of the book wasn’t as new to me as it might be to some people. Frankl speaks of his personal experience of suffering and describes the frame of mind that allowed him to survive the camp. It seems in his account that the death camp is a sort of test of ethics – “these are the times that try men’s souls” – that determines the worth of the person involved.

The second half of the book which focuses on logotherapy seems to link back to conceptions of human life that were prevalent before the 20th century – the fact that it is full of inescapable suffering, for example. Mankind should search for meaning in life rather than for pleasure. If I understand correctly, by “the pursuit of meaning in life” Frankl is implying a kind of ethical/ moral sense of purpose in one’s actions. I agree with Frankl’s emphasis on attempting to make one’s life a search for a sense of purpose rather than a hedonistic orgy of pleasure.

However, I think that Frankl is very quick in describing solutions to what for many will be never-ending problems – he benefits from a religious framework, which makes matters of suffering and injustice in this world, and though he suggests that the same principle could apply to an agnostic or atheist framework he never quite explains how that might be. Equally, he says suffering can be useful in one’s search for meaning if it is necessary, but suffering unnecessarily is simply masochistic. But he never really explains the difference between one type of suffering and another.

I do think this is a book worth reading if you have an interest in existential ponderings. Be reasonable in your expectations, though.

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