Viktor Emil Frankl M.D., PhD. (1905 – 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl was the founder of logo-therapy, a form of Existential Analysis, and best-selling author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which belongs on any list of the most influential books in last half-century. It has sold over 12 million copies. (According to a survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club it is one of “the ten most influential books in America.” (New York Times, November 20, 1991)
The first part of the book tells the story of his life in the concentration camps—needless to say it is not for the faint of heart. Although Frankl survived, his parents, brother, and pregnant wife all perished. (There is no good substitute for a close reading of the book to convey the unrelenting misery of the situation, or to appreciate Frankl’s reflections on it. The record of his personal experience and observation is a priceless cultural legacy.)
Frankl’s philosophical views that emanate from his experience begin with his quoting Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” If we live to return to our loved ones or to finish our book, if we have a why to live for, if we have a meaning to live for, then we have a reason to survive, no matter how miserable the conditions of our lives. This desire to live, what Frankl calls “the will to meaning,” is the primary motive of human life. Putting these ideas together we are driven by the desires to survive, exist, and find meaning.
Frankl believes that a large part of meaning is subjective. It is not what we expect from life but what it expects from us that will provide meaning. We are free and we are responsible for how we live our lives. In this way Frankl sounds like an existentialist and subjectivist, extolling us to create our own meaning. But we classify him as an objectivist, for in the end there are objective values, there are things in this world that can provide meaning for anyone. The three objective sources of meaning are: 1) the experience of goodness or beauty, or of loving others; 2) creative deeds or work; and 3) the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. It is easy to see that love or work could give life meaning. If others whom we love depend upon us, or if we have some noble work to finish, we have a meaning for our lives; we have a why for which to bear any how.
But how is the attitude we take toward suffering a potential source of meaning? Frankl says first that we reveal our inner freedom in the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering; and secondly, like the Stoics, we can see our suffering as our task that we can bear nobly. Thus our suffering can be an achievement in which tragedy has been transformed into triumph. Frankl observed that prisoners who changed their attitudes toward suffering in this way were the ones who had the best chance of surviving. In the end Frankl makes a case for tragic optimism. Life may be tragic, but we should remain optimistic that it meaningful nonetheless—life even in its most tragic manifestations provides ways to make life meaningful.
Summary – Meaning in life is found in productive work, loving relationships, and enduring suffering nobly.