“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” 

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” remains a timeless achievement of brutal honesty and almost divine insight, a fundamentally true testament to how even those trapped in the worst inhuman abyss – in Frankl’s case, an abyss named “Auschwitz” – are still able to discover meaning in their suffering, enough to bear the burden of their tragic state. 

The book has been a bestseller for over half a century with good reason. It is accessible and short (it only takes a few hours to read), while also profound in a harrowing yet hopeful way. Frankl’s personal account of life in the concentration camp leads him to probing meditations on the nature of totalitarianism, suffering, love, time, dreams, personal responsibility, and fate – meditations worth a few hours for anyone to read and reread.  

If you have never read Frankl’s account, consider yourself impoverished. Enrich yourself soon. 

If you have read it before, revisit it again. You will be surprised by what new insights you find. The best works of art and science have a way of staying with you like a friend, taking on new meanings as time marches on.  

I first read “Man’s Search for Meaning” when I was 17. Now, 17 years later and on the cusp of my 35th birthday, I find Frankl’s story even more powerful. Discovering a little personal life tragedy helps in beginning to truly fathom the immense tragedy that Frankl experienced firsthand.  

Below are a few select quotes from the book, though they hardly do the entire narrative justice, beginning with Frankl’s insight about laughter as a weapon against life’s cruel twists of fate. Even at 17, this discovery was a weapon that has never left my arsenal, as I have remembered to laugh at my fate even amid my worst days. 

“To discover that there was any semblance of art in a concentration camp must be surprise enough for an outsider, but he may be even more astonished to hear that one could find a sense of humor there as well; of course, only the faint trace of one, and then only for a few seconds or minutes. Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.” 

More than humor, the image of a loved one sustained men more than anything: 

“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.” 

Some of Frankl’s most remarkable insights come when he examines the question of the concentration camp guards. What could drive men to do such evil things? Some were undoubtedly sadists, but the heart of the matter was more complicated: 

“From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two—the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race”—and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards. 

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 into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.” 

Another counterintuitive insight has to do with how some of the men freed from the camps behaved on the outside: 

“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. They became instigators, not objects, of willful force and injustice. They justified their behavior by their own terrible experiences.” 

Frankl’s greatest insights then touch on man’s radical freedom to take responsibility to make sense of his seemingly senseless suffering: 

“[E]verything 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. … 

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 complete.” 


“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. … 

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.” 

Again, these are only a few select quotes meant to build a thirst for one of the greatest works of prose ever put to paper. 

You never know, it may provide you a “why” when the “how” of life seems too much to bear.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819news.com

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