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Viktor Frankl (1095-1997) was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and philosopher who survived the Holocaust. He published 39 books in his lifetime and developed a new form of psychology known as logotherapy. In Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) Frankl describes his experience in various Nazi concentration camps and discusses the psychology of logotherapy.
Frankl developed the idea that meaning was the primary motivational force in humans when he was a student before World War II. After his return to Vienna, he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in just over a week. The book was an international bestseller and was translated into 24 languages. Although the book met with some criticism, the Library of Congress listed it as one of the ten most influential books in the United States.
The following 26 extraordinary quotes from “Man’s Search for Meaning” allow us a view of life in the concentration camps. They also describe logotherapy, in which one is meant to find their meaning, or purpose, and live by it. Frankl’s belief that life centers around the responsibility we have to find our meaning is demonstrated in these quotes.
Man’s Search for Meaning Quotes
- “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. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.”
- “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on.”
- “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
- “But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”
- “Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”
- “As a professor in two fields, neurology and psychiatry, I am fully aware of the extent to which man is subject to biological, psychological and sociological conditions. But in addition to being a professor in two fields I am a survivor of four camps – concentration camps, that is – and as such I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable.”
- “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.”
- “Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
- “I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.”
- “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
- “Ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man… What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic.”
- “Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”
- “The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
- “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 forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”
- “Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him-mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom- which cannot be taken away- that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
- “You may of course ask whether we really need to refer to “saints”. Wouldn’t it suffice just to refer to decent people? It is true that they form a minority. More than that, they always will remain a minority. And yet I see therein the very challenge to join the minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
- “I think it was Lessing who once said, ‘There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose’. An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior”.”
- “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 the 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 thought transfixed me: 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 contemplation of his beloved.”
- “Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.”
- “It is not for me to pass judgement on those prisoners who put their own people above everyone else. Who can throw a stone at a man who favors his friends under circumstances when, sooner or later, it is a question of life or death? No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same”.
- “In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.”
- “It is we ourselves who must answer the questions that life asks of us, and to those questions we can respond only by being responsible for our existence.”
Video: Victor Frankl – Overview of Man’s Search for Meaning
If you want a quick overview of Man’s Search for Meaning, with a fun animated overview, this video is worth a watch. And when you are finished watching, scroll down to read our conclusion.
Frankl was subjected to intense suffering. Even in suffering, he found purpose. These 26 extraordinary quotes from Man’s Search for Meaning offer us Frankl’s viewpoint as a survivor and a psychiatrist.
In these quotes, we can begin to imagine the horrors that millions suffered and that millions did not survive. Even in intense suffering, Frankl believed we can choose how we react to our life’s conditions. May we all believe in ourselves and others the way Frankl did.