Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning
EXPERIENCES IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP
“On the 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; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to
save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we
know: the best of us did not return.”
The Three Phases of the Inmate’s Mental Reactions to Camp Life:
a) the period following his admission
“Delusion of reprieve”: “The condemned man, immediately before
his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the
very last moment. We, too, clung to the shreds of hope and
believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.”
“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
b) The period when he is well entrenched in camp routine
a) Relative apathy, a kind of emotional death
“Disgust, horror and pity” were “emotions” one could “not really
feel anymore. The sufferers, the dying and the dead, became such
commonplace sights to him after a few weeks of camp life that they
“…the prisoner soon surrounded himself with a very necessary
b) Extreme hunger from undernourishment ; preoccupation with food
d) “Cultural hibernation,” with the two exceptions: politics and religion
“In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of
life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to
deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life
may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate
constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They
were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of
inner riches and spiritual freedom.”
On love while thinking on his wife while marching:
“…for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into
song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so
many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the
highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning
of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and
belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in
love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world
still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the
“A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still
alive, I knew only one thing – which I have learned well by now:
Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved.
It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self.
Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still
alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”
“Intensification of inner life” (p. 61): “escape into the past”
“As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense,
he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before.”
b) Humor: “another of the soul’s weapon in the fight for self-
“…the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
“Gas” analogy: (p. 70). Also, the relativity of joy. See examples.
“…everything that was not connected with the immediate task of
keeping oneself and one’s closest friends alive lost its value.
Everything was sacrificed to this end. A man’s character became
involved to the point that he was caught in a mental turmoil
which threatened all the values he held and threw them into
doubt. Under the influence of a world which no longer recognized
the value of human life and human dignity, which had robbed man
of his will and had made him an object to be exterminated (having
planned, however, to make full use of him first – to the last ounce
of his physical resources) – under this influence the personal ego finally suffered a loss of values. If the man in the concentration camp did not
struggle against this in a last effort to save his
self-respect, he lost the feeling of being an individual, a being
with a mind, with inner freedom and personal value. He thought of
himself then as only part of an enormous mass of people; his
existence descended to the level of animal life.”
d) Thoughts on fate, including parable of death in Teheran.
“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence
of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical
“…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last
of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a
decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would
not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your
very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not
you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing
freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the
“…in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person
the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not
the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any
man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become
of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity
DOSTOEVSKI: “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be
“It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away –
that makes life meaningful and purposeful.” (p. 106)
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning
in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate
and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it
entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample
opportunity – even under the most difficult 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 either to make use of or to forego the opportunity of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may
afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy
Prison life: a “provisional existence of unknown limit” (p. 111)
“A man who could not see the end of his ‘provisional existence’
was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living
for the future, in contrast to a man in normal life. Therefore the
whole structure of his inner life changed; signs of decay set in…
” Altered experience of time: (p. 112)
“A man who let himself decline because he could not see any
future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts…
But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain
danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make
something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did
exist. Regarding our ‘provisional existence’ as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life;
everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot
that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external
situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually
“One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into
an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply
vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”
INNER STRENGTH: Through a future goal to which he could look
“It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to
the future…And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments
of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to
“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our
attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves, and, furthermore,
we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really 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
to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life-
daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and
meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer
to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man
to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to
define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the
meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements.
‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something real and
concrete, just as life’s tasks are real and concrete. They form
man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual.
No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or
“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have
to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He
will have to acknowledge that fact that even in suffering he is
unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his
suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears
toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an
unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear
Races of decent men and indecent men, (p. 137)
c) the period following his release and liberation
“state of inner suspense was followed by total relaxation.” (p. 138)
“We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to
“Depersonalization”: “everything appeared unreal, as in a dream.”
“During this psychological phase one observed that people with
natures of a more primitive kind could not escape the influences
of the brutality which had surrounded them in camp life. Now,
being free, they thought they could use their freedom licentiously
and ruthlessly. The only thing that had changed for them was
that they were now the oppressors instead of the oppressed.”
“But for every one of the liberated prisoners, the day comes
when, looking back on his camp experiences, he can no longer
“…logotherapy, in comparison with psychoanalysis, is a method less retrospective and less introspective. Logotherapy focuses rather on the
future, that is to say, on the assignments and meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future. At the same time, logotherapy defocuses all
the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms that play such a great role in the development of neuroses. Thus the typical
self-centeredness of the neurotic is broken up instead of being continually fostered and reinforced.”
“…the patient is actually confronted with and reoriented toward the meaning of his life.”
NEUROTIC: Tries “to escape the full awareness of his life task. And to make him aware of this task, to awaken him to a fuller consciousness
of it, can contribute much to his ability to overcome his neurosis.”
“According to logotherapy, the striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.”
Will to meaning (logotherapy) vs. will to pleasure (psychoanalysis/pleasure
Would you be willing to die for your “defense mechanisms”?
1) How many people need “something” for the sake of which to live?
2) Is there something or someone, in your own lives for whose sake you are
There are some cases in which an individual’s concern with values is really a camouflage of hidden inner conflicts: Exception rather than the
In these cases, Psychoanalysis, in order to disclose the underlying unconscious dynamics, is justified.
“Unmasking, or debunking…should stop as soon as one is confronted with what is authentic and genuine man.”
“IF the meaning that is waiting to be fulfilled by man were really nothing but a mere expression of self, or no more than a projection of his
wishful thinking, it would immediately lose its demanding and challenging character; it could no longer call man forth or summon him.”
Freud, Jung, & Sartre criticized (p. 156-157)
Jung: “archetypes”, like Freud’s defense mechanisms and pleasure principle. Does not “call” man to meaning. (I disagree).
Sartre: “the meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected.” (p. 157)
“Now, if I say man is pulled by values, what is implicitly referred to is the fact that there is always freedom involved: the freedom of man to
make his choice between accepting or rejecting an offer, i.e., to fulfill a meaning potentiality or else to forfeit it.”
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