Quotes from "Man's Search for Meaning"

I just read Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning and loved it. I strongly recommend this inspiring book of which there are more than 12 million copies in print worldwide.

For those who haven’t yet read it, it is Frankl’s account of surviving a Nazi concentration camp. His survival experience — which is gripping and shocking — provides the jumping off point for his life philosophy of “finding meaning”. He argues that the primary human drive is not pleasure but the pursuit of what we find meaningful. Here are two of my favorite excerpts from the book, emphases mine:

Mental 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. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his wall to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostatis,” i.e. a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him. What man needs is not homeostasis but what I call “non-dynamics,” i.e. the existential dynamics in a polar field of tension where one pole is represented by a meaning that is to be fulfilled and the other pole by the man who has to fulfill it.

And then to the question, What is the meaning of my life?

The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment…As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. in a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible….

This emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is: “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!” It seems that there is nothing which would stimulate a man’s sense of responsiblness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed and amended. Such a precept confronts him with life’s finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself.

1 comment on “Quotes from "Man's Search for Meaning"
  • This is definitely one of my favorite books too — I read it back in Guatemala in 2003, and this afternoon your post prodded me to dig it out of storage and I’m halfway through reading it a second time.

    Twelve million copies, and he wrote the entire book in nine successive days! Amazing.

    Another quote I found very interesting the first time around:

    “[I]t is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative. It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys…”

    The quote you chose about tension also brought to mind a humorous quote in this fastcompany article about Larry Brilliant (who was one of the leaders of the WHO effort to eradicate Smallpox and now heads Google.org). The quote refers to a time when he was living at a monastery in India:

    “Brilliant was sitting under a bodhi tree at his guru’s ashram in northern India, content with doing nothing more than his daily meditations. There was just one problem: ‘Every time I sat and meditated, my guru would throw apples at my testicles,’ Brilliant says. ‘I had to get up and get moving. I had no choice.’

    The point of the apple throwing was to get Brilliant out of the lotus position and into work where he could do the greatest good. His guru, Neem Karoli Baba, was telling him, ‘There are people who get exactly what they want. You think they’re the lucky ones, but they’re not. The lucky ones are those who do what they are meant to do.’

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