Man’s Search for Meaning, the neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1905–1997)

Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for. —Victor Frankl

In Man’s Search for Meaning, the neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1905–1997) wrote about his experience as a concentration camp inmate during the Second World War. He observed that those who survived longest in concentration camps were not those who were physically strong, but those who retained a sense of control over theirenvironment.

He remarked,

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 human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

Frankl’s message is ultimately one of hope: even in the most absurd, painful, and dehumanizing situation, life can be given a meaning, and so too can suffering. His experience as a concentration camp inmate taught him that our main drive or motivation in life is neither pleasure (as Freud had thought) nor power (as Adler had thought), butmeaning. After his release Frankl founded the school of logotherapy, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘Third Viennese School of psychotherapy’ because it came after those of Freud and Adler. The goal of logotherapy (from the Ancient Greek logos, in this context meaning ‘reason’ or ‘principle’) is to carry out an existential analysis of the person and, in so doing, to help him discover meaning for his life. According to Frankl, meaning can be found through:

  • Creativity or giving something to the world through self- expression,
  • Experiencing the world by interacting authentically with our environment and with others, and
  • Changing our attitude when we are faced with a situation or circumstance that we cannot change.
Frankl is credited with coining the term ‘Sunday neurosis’ to refer to the dejection that is felt at the end of the working week when a person realizes just how empty and meaningless his life is. This existential vacuum may lead him to all sorts of excesses and compensatory behaviours such as neurotic anxiety, avoidance, bingeing on food and drink, overworking, and overspending. In the short-term these excesses and compensatory behaviours carpet over the existential vacuum, but in the longer term they prevent action from being taken and meaning from being found. For Frankl,depression can result when the gap between what a person is and what he ought to be becomes so large that it can no longer be carpeted over. The person’s goals seem far out of reach and he can no longer envisage a future. As in Psalm 41, abyssus abyssum invocat—‘hell brings forth hell’ or, in an alternative translation, ‘the deep calls onto the deep’.

2 Comments on “Man’s Search for Meaning, the neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1905–1997)”

  1. Pingback: Logotherapy: Viktor Frankl’s Theory of Meaning – Parental Alienation

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