Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl — Book Summary and Notes

To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in suffering. If there is a purpose in life, there must be a purpose in suffering and dying.

"When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition that his suffering has meaning." — Viktor Frankl

He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how

To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in suffering. If there is a purpose in life, there must be a purpose in suffering and dying. But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for himself and accept his answer's responsibility.

All the familiar goals in life are snatched away. What alone remains is "the last of human freedoms"—the ability to choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances

If hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.

For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.

Man's Search for Meaning

By Viktor Frankl

Part 1: Experiences in a Concentration Camp

How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner? Most of the events described here did not occur in the large and famous camps but in the small ones where most extermination occurred.

A definite number of prisoners had to go with each transport. It did not matter which since each was nothing but a number. Therefore, each prisoner had had an opportunity to claim a fictitious name or profession; for various reasons, many did this. The authorities were interested only in the captives' numbers.

There was neither time nor desire to consider moral or ethical issues. Every man was controlled by one thought: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home and save his friends. Therefore, he would not hesitate to arrange for another prisoner, another "number", to take his place in the transport.

On average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, to save themselves. We know: the best of us did not return.

For those who have been inmates in a camp, it will attempt to explain their experiences in the light of present-day knowledge. And for those who have never been inside, it may help them to comprehend, and above all to understand, the experiences of only a small percentage of prisoners who survived and now find life very difficult. Only the man inside knows.

Psychopathology of the Masses

The engine's whistle had an uncanny sound, like a cry for help sent out in commiseration for the low load destined to lead into perdition. With the progressive dawn, the outliers of an immense camp became visible: long stretches of several rows of barbed wire fences; watch towers; searchlights; and long columns of ragged human figures, grey in the greyness of dawn, trekking along the straight desolate roads, to what destination we did not know.

Delusion of Reprieve

The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad. Just the sight of the red cheeks and round faces of those prisoners was a great encouragement.

There was another group of prisoners who got liquor supplied in almost unlimited quantity by the SS: these were the men who were employed in the gas chambers and crematoriums and who knew very well that one day they would be relieved by a new shift of men, and that they would have to leave their enforced role of executions and become the executed themselves.

Nearly everyone in our transport lived under the illusion that he would be reprieved, that everything would be well. We did not realize the meaning behind the scene that was to follow presently.

Textbooks Tell Lies

SS men appeared and spread out blankets into which we had to throw all our possessions, watches, and jewelry. There were still naive prisoners among us who asked, to the amusement of the more seasoned ones who were there as helpers, if they could keep a wedding ring, a media, or a good-luck piece. No one could yet grasp the fact that everything would be taken away.

We were anxious to know what would happen next; and what would be the consequence. We knew we had nothing to lose except our ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun of ourselves and each other. After all, actual water did flow from the sprays.

If someone asked us the truth of Dostoevski's Statement that flatly defines man as a being who can get used to anything, we would reply, "Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how."

If you want to stay alive, one way is to look fit for work. If you were even limp, because let us say, you have a small blister on your heel, and an SS man spots this, he would wave you aside, and the next day you are sure to be gassed.

Remember: shave, stand, and walk smartly; you need not fear gas.

A Prisoner's School of Thought

Some things must cause you to lose your reason or have none to lose.

At first, the prisoner looked away if he saw the punishment parades of another group; he could not bear to see fellow prisoners march up and down for hours in their mire, their movements directed by blows. I watched without any emotional upset the following scene, which was repeated repeatedly with each death. One by one, the prisoners approached the still-warm body. One grabbed the remains of a messy meal of potatoes; another decided that the corpse's wooden shoes were an improvement on his own and exchanged them. A third man did the same with the dead man's coat, and another was glad to secure some—imagine!—genuine string.

It is not the physical pain that hurts the most; it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all. That, to me, seemed the way to attract the attention of a beast, to call a domestic animal back to its job, a creature with which you have so little in common that you do not even punish it.

Apathy, the main symptom of the second phase, was a necessary self-defense mechanism. Reality dimmed, and all efforts and all emotions were centered on one task: preserving one's life and that of the other fellow—a retreat to a more primitive form of mental energy.

Primitive Desires

What did the prisoner dream about most frequently? Of bread, cake, cigarettes, and nice warm baths. No dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us and two which I was about to recall him. Is it not wrong to provoke the organism with such detailed and practical pictures of delicacies when it has somehow managed to adapt itself to minimal rations and low calories? Though it may afford momentary psychological relief, it is an illusion that physiologically must not be without danger.

Even the strongest of us was longing for the time when he would have reasonably good food again, not for the sake of good food itself, but for the sake of knowing that the sub-human existence, which had made us unable to think of anything other than food, would at last cease.

There were two schools of thought. One was in favor of eating up the ration immediately. The second group divided the rations. The most dreadful moment of the 24 hours of camp life was awakening when, at a still nocturnal hour, the three sharp blows of a whistle tore us pitilessly from our exhausted sleep and the longings in our dreams.

With most prisoners, the primitive life and the effort to concentrate on saving one's skin led to a total disregard for anything not serving that purpose. They explained the prisoners' complete lack of sentiment. They could retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.

Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy makeup often seemed to survive camp life better than those of a robust nature.

Love & Suffering

"The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."

The truth—is that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understand how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only briefly in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way— an honorable way—in such a position, man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.

The intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from his existence's emptiness, desolation, and spiritual poverty by letting him escape into the past. When given free rein, his imagination played with past events, often not important ones but minor happenings and trifling.

The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is a trick learned while mastering the art of living. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the room entirely and evenly, no matter how big. Thus suffering ultimately fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore, the size of human suffering is relative.


The only cook who did not look at the men whose bowls he was filling; the only cook who dealt out the soup equally, regardless of recipient, and who did not make favorites of his personal friends or countrymen, picking out the potatoes for them, while the others got watery soup skimmed from the top.

But it is not for me to pass judgment on those prisoners who put their people above everyone else. Who can throw a stone at a man who favors his friends when, sooner or later, it is a question of life or death? No man should judge unless he asks himself honestly whether, in a similar situation, he might not have done the same.

Everything not connected with the immediate task of keeping oneself and one's closest friends alive lost its value. Everything was sacrificed to this end. Under the influence of a world that no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity, which had robbed a man of his will and had made him an object to be exterminated. Under this influence, the personal ego finally suffered a loss of values.

It is well known that an enforced community life, in which attention is paid to everything one does at all times, may result in an irresistible urge to get away, at least for a short while. The prisoner craved to be alone with himself and his thoughts. He yearned for privacy and solitude.

The Value of Human Life

It is challenging for an outsider to grasp how little value was placed on human life in the camp. The camp inmate was hardened but possibly became more conscious of this complete disregard for human existence when a convoy of sick men was arranged. The emaciated bodies of the sick were thrown on two-wheeled carts drawn by prisoners for many miles, often through snowstorms, to the next camp. If one of the sick men had died before the carriage left, he was thrown on anyway—the list had to be correct!

One became a number: dead or alive—that was unimportant; the life of a number was utterly irrelevant. What stood behind that number and that life mattered even less: the fate, the history, the name of the man. The prisoners saw themselves utterly dependent on the guards' moods—playthings of uncertainty—which made them even less human than the circumstances warranted.

He shook my hand silently, as though it were a farewell, not for life, but from life.

Human Liberty

This escape from commitment was most apparent when a prisoner decided for or against an escape attempt. In those minutes in which he had to make up his mind—and it was always a question of minutes—he suffered the tortures of Hell. Should he attempt to flee? Should he take the risk?

The consciousness of one's inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things and cannot be shaken by camp life. But how many free men, let alone prisoners? His surroundings completely and unavoidably influence the human being. But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom concerning behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true, which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors? Is man but an accidental product of these?

Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions as psychic and physical stress. 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, 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 way.

"There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.

Finding Meaning in Suffering

An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work. In contrast, a sedentary life of enjoyment allows him to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of creation and enjoyment and admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man's attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. How a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails and takes up his cross gives him ample opportunity—even under the most challenging circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish. Or, in the bitter fight for self-preservation, he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man to forgo opportunities to attain the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him.

Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through suffering.

Provisional Existence of Unknown Limit

New arrivals usually knew nothing about the conditions at a camp. Those who had returned from other camps were obliged to keep silent; from some camps, no one had returned. With the end uncertainty, there came the anticipation of the end. It was impossible to foresee whether or when, if at all, this form of existence would end.

A man who could not see the end of his "provisional existence" could not aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future, unlike a man in ordinary life. The limitlessness of the term of imprisonment was most acutely felt; in space, the narrow limits of the prison. Anything outside the barbed wire became remote—out of reach and, in a way, unreal.

It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities that did exist.

What would there be to eat tonight? If a piece of sausage came as an extra ration, should I exchange it for a bit of bread? Should I trade my last cigarette, which was left from a bonus I received a fortnight ago, for a piece of bread? How could I get a bit of wire to replace the fragment which served as one of my shoelaces? Would I get to our work site in time to join my usual working party, or would I have to join another, which might have a brutal foreman? What could I do to get on good terms with the Capo, who could help me to obtain work in camp instead of undertaking this horrible long daily march?

We all feared this moment—not for ourselves, which would have been pointless, but for our friends. Any attempt to restore a man's inner strength in the camp had first to show him some future goal. Nietzsche's words, "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how."

It did not 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 think of ourselves as those being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist not of talk and meditation but of the right action and conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the correct answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which constantly sets itself for each individual.

Changing What it Means to Live Through Suffering

Long ago, we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query that understands life as attaining some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the importance of life embraced the broader cycles of life and death, suffering and dying. We refused to minimize or alleviate the camp's tortures by ignoring them, harboring false illusions, and entertaining artificial optimism.

(Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!) How much suffering there is to get through! Rilke spot of "getting through suffering" as others would talk of "getting through work". In both cases, it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.

When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. He knows the "why" for his presence and can bear almost any "how".

The immediate influence of behavior is always more effective than that of words. But at times, a comment was effective, too, when some outer circumstances had intensified mental receptiveness—the real reason for their deaths: giving up hope.

A Rare Case of Humility

How could men of flesh and blood treat others as so many prisoners say they have been treated?

  1. The presence of sadists
  2. A severe detachment of guards
  3. Ever-increasing doses of brutality

It was the human "something" that this man also gave me—the word and look that accompanied the gift.

Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths, we again found only human qualities which, in their very nature, were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches the lowest depths and becomes an apparent event at the bottom of the abyss laid open by the concentration camp.


"Freedom"—we repeated to ourselves, yet we could not grasp it. We had said this word so often during all the years we dreamed about it that it had lost its meaning. Its reality did not penetrate our consciousness; we could not grasp that freedom was ours.

"I called to the Lord from my narrow prison, and He answered me in the freedom of space." I can no longer recall how long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory. But I know that on that day, in that hours, my new life started. Step after step, I progressed until I again became a human being. They were now the oppressors instead of the oppressed.


When he heard the exact phrases everywhere—"We did not know about it," and "We, too, have suffered," he asked himself, have they nothing to say to me? A man who for years had thought he had reached the absolute limit of all possible suffering now found that grief has no boundaries and that he could suffer more and more intensely.

He had to be reminded that life still awaited him, that a human being awaited his return. But after liberation? Some men found that no one awaited them.

We all said to each other in the camp that no earthly happiness could compensate for all we had suffered. We were not hoping for pleasure—it was not that which gave us the courage and gave meaning to our suffering, our sacrifices, and our dying. And yet we were not prepared for unhappiness.

Part 2: Logotherapy in a Nutshell

The Will to Meaning

Logotherapy focuses on the future and defocuses all the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms. Striving to find meaning in one's life is the primary motivational force in man. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled alone; only then does it achieve a significance that will satisfy his own will to meaning.

Unmasking Psychology

Unmasking focuses on removing his "hidden motive"—namely, his unconscious need to debase and depreciate what is genuine, what is genuinely human, in man.

Existential Frustration

  1. To existence itself
  2. The meaning of existence
  3. The striving to find a concrete meaning in personal existence

The Existential Vacuum

Mental health is based on the tension between what one has already achieved and what one should accomplish or the gap between what one is and should become. Man needs not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task

No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes, he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or what other people want him to do (totalitarianism).

It is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life, he can only respond by being responsible.

The Essence of Existence

"Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!" Imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed and amended. Logotherapy attempts to make the patient fully aware of his responsibility; therefore, it must leave him the option for what, to what, or to whom he understands himself to be responsible.

To transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement. When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition of being sure that his suffering has meaning.

The question which beset me was, "Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning" For if not, then ultimately, there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose purpose depends upon such a happenstance—as whether one escapes or not—ultimately would not be worth living at all.

In A Nutshell

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes—within the limits of endownment and environment—he has made out of himself. We watched and witnesses some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.