Book Summary: Man’s Search for Meaning

Also see: Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning

by Victor Frankl

What’s it about?

Man’s Search for Meaning and its companion, Man’s Search For Ultimate Meaning, are both the work of the same man. Do not be fooled by the New Age-y titles of these books, though– Frankl’s message is the real deal. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who spent time in Nazi concentration camps, where he suffered immensely and lost most of his immediate family, including his wife. What is remarkable about his story is that he emerged with a profound sense of peace despite the horrors that he had experienced, and went on to a successful career in psychiatry where he helped patients with many of his insights and the lessons he learned. These books contain some of his most powerful wisdom on living life dutifully and responsibly, and on accepting one’s one unique circumstances and making the best of them.

My impressions:

Man’s Search for Meaning is one of my favorite books of all time. When I read it last year, it fundamentally changed the way I think about human suffering and about everyone’s need to find some motivational ideal in his or her life. With hints at many of the the same themes as some of my favorite ancient philosophers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, this book moved me to my core. The first half is dedicated to a detailed an often horrific account of the author’s time in several Nazi concentration camps, and the second half describes the development of his post-war psychiatric career and the ideas he developed during that time.

“What is the meaning of life?” It’s one of the most ubiquitous questions of all human history. Frankl answers it by turning it on its head. It’s not you that’s asking the question, but it’s life itself that’s asking  it: What is the meaning of life? How can you answer? And you can only respond by having something to show for yourself. It instantly shuts down any tendency to look outward for meaning, expecting the world to answer the question for you, and forces you to turn inward and come up with your own purpose and your own meaning.

Another favorite passage describes a man who came to Dr. Frankl for treatment. His wife of many years had died, and he was overcome with severe depression.

“What would have happened if you had died first?” Frankl asked.

“Oh, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” said the patient.

Frankl replied, “You see, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering– to be sure, at the price that you now have to survive and mourn her.”

What a beautiful thought– what a way to console yourself over the loss of a loved one. You suffer so that they don’t have to. It instantly prevents you from shaking your fist at ths sky and whining “Why me? Oh god, why me?!?!”Suffering is somehow ceases to be suffering whenever it finds a meaning. In this case, its meaning is self-sacrifice for a loved one. Why you? Because it’s better you than her, you selfish dick.

But both books are not created equal. My commentary above was based on Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl’s first book. His later Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, I cannot speak so highly of. His first book was intensely personal, and written in a strong, yet somewhat vulnerable, personal  tone, with simple language. It moved me deeply, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who struggles to find his or her place in the world.

His second book, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, was underwhelming. It seems like Frankl, for all his strengths, changed his tune. Instead of a simple, honest book about his experiences and his thoughts, he wrote a book that seems like it was written db y a psychaitrist for the purpose of impressing other psychiatrists. Full of jargon, silly scare quotes, and way too many Latinate words ending in -tion, -ous, -ness, and  -ication, this book failed to evoke any kind of emotional response in me. I could scaresly make it through a page without having to Google a word or seven. It was so full of jargon and technical psychiatric mumbo-jumbo that I had to repeatedly put it down in frustration. I don’t understand what happened to good old Frankl, who I feel like I knew and loved. I felt sad after reading it; it was like meeting up with an old friend, only to realize that he had changed, and that we no longer have much in common.

So read Man’s Search for Meaning. It will change your life. Skip the sequel.


[S]omeone looks down on us in difficult hours– a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God– and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly– no miserably00knowing how to die.

[M]entail health is based on a certain degree of tension; the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.

…the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment…[E]veryone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.