Man's Search For Ultimate Meaning


By Viktor E Frankl

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Viktor Frankl, bestselling author of Man’s Search for Meaning, explains the psychological tools that enabled him to survive the Holocaust Viktor Frankl is known to millions as the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, his harrowing Holocaust memoir. In this book, he goes more deeply into the ways of thinking that enabled him to survive imprisonment in a concentration camp and to find meaning in life in spite of all the odds. He expands upon his groundbreaking ideas and searches for answers about life, death, faith and suffering. Believing that there is much more to our existence than meets the eye, he says: ‘No one will be able to make us believe that man is a sublimated animal once we can show that within him there is a repressed angel.’ In Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, Frankl explores our sometimes unconscious desire for inspiration or revelation. He explains how we can create meaning for ourselves and, ultimately, he reveals how life has more to offer us than we could ever imagine.


Viktor E. Frankl

(Kövesdi Press Agency, Vienna, Austria)


The main title of this book is identical with the title of the Oskar Pfister Award Lecture that I gave at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in 1985. The text of this lecture is reprinted here as Chapter 9. As for the first part of this volume, it has already been published under the title “The Unconscious God” in 1975, the English translation of “Der unbewusste Gott,” published in 1947. This book, in turn, had been based on the manuscript for a presentation I had been invited to give in Vienna, only a few months after the end of the war.

The “printing history” of the present volume thus goes back some 50 years. Perusing what I wrote in 1947, in 1975, and in 1985, I feel that it is, as a whole, a consistent sequence of presentations of some substantial thoughts regarding a quite important subject. Hopefully, then, some of what I have written throughout these decades may be of value to some readers.

However it may be—“See, I have not kept my lips closed.”

V. F.

Preface to the First English Edition

The material in this book is drawn from a lecture I gave shortly after World War II, at the invitation of a small club of Viennese intellectuals. My audience was composed of no more than a dozen listeners. In 1947 the lecture was published as a book in German. It is only now, 28 years after its original publication, that the book appears in an English translation. (Spanish, Danish, Dutch, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, and Swedish editions have already been published.)

Considering the time that has elapsed since the first edition—more than a quarter of a century—it might be understood that I no longer am in a position to subscribe fully to each and every word as it was printed in 1947. My thinking has developed considerably in the meantime—developed and, I hope, also matured.

To be sure, some of the changes have been implemented in the present edition by slightly altering certain passages. However, I have deliberately refrained from major alterations of the text because, of my 20 books, this is the most organized and systematized one, and it would have been a pity to destroy the cohesive structure of this piece of work by interspersing too much of the material that might have accrued in the meantime.

All the more, I welcomed the alternative that the publishers Simon and Schuster offered me, namely, to add, by way of a postscript, a supplementary chapter outlining some of the ideas that have evolved in my theory of conscience during the last two decades. As to the wider field that this book concerns, i.e., the interrelationship between psychotherapy and theology, the reader will find pertinent discussions in my two most recent books published in English (and in English only), Psychotherapy and Existentialism* and The Will to Meaning. In each of these books one chapter explicitly deals with religious issues, and there are scattered references to this topic as well.

The updated bibliography at the end of this volume will enable the reader to locate further publications, not only those dealing with the relationship between religion and psychiatry but also those covering the whole area of logotherapeutic teachings and practices.

However, the main thesis propounded in the lecture entitled “The Unconscious God” remains still valid and tenable. There is, in fact, a religious sense deeply rooted in each and every man’s unconscious depths. In two of my books, Man’s Search for Meaning and the above-mentioned The Will to Meaning, evidence has been advanced to support my contention that this sense may break through unexpectedly, even in cases of severe mental illness such as psychoses. For example, a student of mine at the United States International University, San Diego, California, wrote:

In the mental hospital, I was locked like an animal in a cage, no one came when I called begging to be taken to the bathroom, and I finally had to succumb to the inevitable. Blessedly, I was given daily shock treatment, insulin shock, and sufficient drugs so that I lost most of the next several weeks.…

But in the darkness I had acquired a sense of my own unique mission in the world. I knew then, as I know now, that I must have been preserved for some reason—however small, it is something that only I can do, and it is vitally important that I do it. And because in the darkest moment of my life, when I lay abandoned as an animal in a cage, when because of the forgetfulness induced by ECT I could not call out to Him, He was there. In the solitary darkness of the “pit” where men had abandoned me, He was there. When I did not know His Name, He was there; God was there.

Likewise, such unexpected religious feelings may break through under other circumstances, as was the case with a man who wrote from prison:

I am at the age of 54 financially ruined, in jail. At the beginning of this incarceration (8 months ago) everything looked hopeless and irrevocably lost in chaos that I could never hope to understand, much less to solve.

Endless months passed. Then, one day I had a visit by a court psychiatrist to whom I took an immense liking, right from the start, as he introduced himself with a very pleasant smile and a handshake, like I would be still “somebody,” or at least a human being. Something deep and unexplainable happened to me from there on. I found myself reliving my life. That night, in the stillness of my small cell, I experienced a most unusual religious feeling which I never had before; I was able to pray, and with utmost sincerity, I accepted a Higher Will to which I have surrendered the pain and sorrow as meaningful and ultimate, not needing explanation. From here on I have undergone a tremendous recovery.

This happened in Baltimore County Prison in April of this year. Today, I am at complete peace with myself and the world. I have found the true meaning of my life, and time can only delay its fulfillment but not deter it. At fifty-four, I have decided to reconstruct my life and to finish my schooling. I am sure I can accomplish my goal. I have also found a new great source of unexpected vitality—I am able now to laugh over my own miseries, instead of wallowing in the pain of irrevocable failure, and somehow there are hardly any great tragedies left.…

But one may discuss religion irrespective of whether it is unconscious or conscious, for the question confronting us is more basic and radical. First, we must ask ourselves whether this is a legitimate area for psychiatric exploration. Lately, I have come to draw the line of demarcation between religion and psychiatry ever more sharply.* I have learned, and taught, that the difference between them is no more nor less than a difference between various dimensions. From the very analogy with dimensions, however, it should become clear that these realms are by no means mutually exclusive. A higher dimension, by definition, is a more inclusive one. The lower dimension is included in the higher one; it is subsumed in it and encompassed by it. Thus biology is overarched by psychology, psychology by noölogy, and noölogy by theology.

The noölogical dimension may rightly be defined as the dimension of uniquely human phenomena. Among them, there is one that I regard as the most representative of the human reality. I have circumscribed this phenomenon in terms of “man’s search for meaning.” Now, if this is correct, one may also be justified in defining religion as man’s search for ultimate meaning. It was Albert Einstein who once contended that to be religious is to have found an answer to the question, What is the meaning of life? If we subscribe to this statement we may then define belief and faith as trust in ultimate meaning. Once we have conceived of religion in this way—that is, in the widest possible sense—there is no doubt that psychiatrists are entitled also to investigate this phenomenon, although only its human aspect is accessible to a psychological exploration.

The concept of religion in its widest possible sense, as it is here espoused, certainly goes far beyond the narrow concepts of God promulgated by many representatives of denominational and institutional religion. They often depict, not to say denigrate, God as a being who is primarily concerned with being believed in by the greatest possible number of believers, and along the lines of a specific creed, at that. “Just believe,” we are told, “and everything will be okay.” But alas, not only is this order based on a distortion of any sound concept of deity, but even more importantly it is doomed to failure: Obviously, there are certain activities that simply cannot be commanded, demanded, or ordered, and as it happens, the triad “faith, hope, and love” belongs to this class of activities that elude an approach with, so to speak, “command characteristics.” Faith, hope, and love cannot be established by command simply because they cannot be established at will. I cannot “will” to believe, I cannot “will” to hope, I cannot “will” to love—and least of all can I “will” to will.

Upon closer investigation it turns out that what underlies the attempt to establish faith, hope, love, and will by command is the manipulative approach. The attempt to bring these states about at will, however, is ultimately based on an inappropriate objectification and reification of these human phenomena: They are turned into mere things, into mere objects. However, since faith, hope, love, and will are so-called “intentional” acts or activities, along the lines of the terminology coined by Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler, the founders of the school of “phenomenology,” these activities are directed to “intentional” referents—in other words, to objects of their own. To the extent that one makes intentional acts into objects, he loses sight of their objects. Nowhere, to my knowledge, is this brought home to us more strikingly than with the uniquely human phenomenon of laughter: You cannot order anyone to laugh—if you want him to laugh, you must tell him a joke.

But isn’t it, in a way, the same with religion? If you want people to have faith and belief in God, you cannot rely on preaching along the lines of a particular church but must, in the first place, portray your God believably—and you must act credibly yourself. In other words, you have to do the very opposite of what so often is done by the representatives of organized religion when they build up an image of God as someone who is primarily interested in being believed in and who rigorously insists that those who believe in him be affiliated with a particular church. Small wonder that such representatives of religion behave as though they saw the main task of their own denomination as that of overriding other denominations.

Certainly the trend is away from religion conceived in such a strictly denominational sense. Yet this is not to imply that, eventually, there will be a universal religion. On the contrary, if religion is to survive, it will have to be profoundly personalized.

This does not mean that there is no need for symbols and rituals. Even the die-hard agnostic and atheist cannot completely dismiss symbols. Consider the Russians, who once constructed a monument to express symbolically their indebtedness and gratitude to the thousands of dogs that had been sacrificed by Pavlov in the course of his famous conditioned-reflex experiments—what a purely symbolic gesture, pointless by the utilitarian yardstick adopted by dialectical materialism, and yet extremely meaningful to the heart of the Russian nation. A heart like that, as Blaise Pascal once observed, has reasons that are unknown to reason (le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point). The heart of man defies even Marxist indoctrination.

To all appearances, religion is not dying, and insofar as this is true, God is not dead either, not even “after Auschwitz,” to quote the title of a book. For either belief in God is unconditional or it is not belief at all. If it is unconditional it will stand and face the fact that six million died in the Nazi holocaust; if it is not unconditional it will fall away if only a single innocent child has to die—to resort to an argument once advanced by Dostoevski. There is no point in bargaining with God, say, by arguing: “Up to six thousand or even one million victims of the holocaust I maintain my belief in Thee; but from one million upward nothing can be done any longer, and I am sorry but I must renounce my belief in Thee.”

The truth is that among those who actually went through the experience of Auschwitz, the number of those whose religious life was deepened—in spite of, not because of, this experience—by far exceeds the number of those who gave up their belief. To paraphrase what La Rochefoucauld once remarked with regard to love, one might say that just as the small fire is extinguished by the storm while a large fire is enhanced by it—likewise a weak faith is weakened by predicaments and catastrophes, whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them.

Viktor E. Frankl

* Viktor E. Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (New York: Washington Square Press, 1967, and Touchstone Paperback, 1968).

† Viktor E. Frankl, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (New York and Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1969; paperback edition, New York: New American Library, 1970).

‡ Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959; New York: Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, 1973).

* Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; second, expanded edition, 1965; paperback edition, New York: Vintage Books, 1973).



The Essence of Existential Analysis

Arthur Schnitzler, Vienna’s famous poet and a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, has been quoted as saying that there are really only three virtues: objectivity, courage, and sense of responsibility. It would be tempting to allot to each of these virtues one of the schools of psychotherapy that have emerged from Viennese soil.

It is obvious that the virtue of courage fits Adlerian psychology. The Adlerian, after all, regards his entire therapeutic procedure, in the final analysis, as nothing but an attempt at encouraging the patient. The purpose of this encouragement is to help the patient overcome his inferiority feelings, which Adlerian psychology considers to be a decisive pathogenic factor.

In the same way, another of the virtues mentioned fits Freudian psychoanalysis—that of objectivity. What else could it have been that enabled Sigmund Freud, like Oedipus, to look into the eyes of the Sphinx—the human psyche—and draw out its riddle at the risk of a most dreadful discovery? In his time such an undertaking was colossal, and so was his accomplishment. Up to then psychology, particularly so-called academic psychology, had shunned everything that Freud then made the focus of his teaching. As the anatomist Julius Tandler jokingly called the “somatology” that was taught in Vienna’s junior high schools “anatomy with the exclusion of the genital,” so Freud could have said that academic psychology was psychology with the exclusion of the libidinal.

However, psychoanalysis not only adopted objectivity—it succumbed to it. Objectivity eventually led to objectification, or reification. That is, psychoanalysis made the human person into an object, the human being into a thing. Psychoanalysis regards the patient as ruled by “mechanisms,” and it conceives of the therapist as the one who knows the technique by which disturbed mechanisms may be repaired.

But cynicism lurks behind an interpretation of psychotherapy in terms of mere technique. It is true that we can see the therapist as a technician only if we have first viewed the patient as some sort of machine. Only an homme machine, I would say, is in need of a médecin technicien.

How is it that psychoanalysis arrived at this technically minded, mechanistic view? It is understandable considering the intellectual climate in which psychoanalysis emerged, but it must also be understood in the context of the social milieu of the time—a milieu full of prudery. The mechanistic view was a reactionary response to that prudery, and today it is out of date in many respects. But Freud not only reacted to his time, he also acted out of his time. When he formed his teaching he did so completely under the influence of associationism, which was then beginning to dominate the field of psychology. Associationism, however, was the product of naturalism, an ideology typical of the late nineteenth century. Within Freud’s teaching naturalism makes itself most conspicuous in two basic characteristics of psychoanalysis: its psychological atomism and its theory of psychic energy.

Psychoanalysis views the whole of the human psyche atomistically as pieced together out of separate parts, i.e., out of various drives, which in turn are composed of so-called drive components. Thus the psyche is not only atomized but an-atomized, i.e., the analysis of the psyche becomes its anatomy. In this way, the wholeness of the human person is destroyed. One could say, on the one hand, that psychoanalysis depersonalizes man. On the other hand, it personifies the individual aspects within the totality of the psyche, aspects that are often in conflict with one another. Sometimes they are not only personified but even demonized, e.g., when the id or the superego is dealt with as if it were a relatively independent, pseudo-personal power in itself.

Psychoanalysis destroys the unified whole of the human person, and then has the task of reconstructing the whole person out of the pieces. This atomistic view is most evident in Freud’s hypothesis that the ego is made up out of “ego drives.” According to this hypothesis the censor, which represses the drives, is itself a drive. Just consider the following statement from Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality: “… the production of sexual excitation… produces a store of energy which is employed to a great extent for purposes other than sexual—namely… (through repression…) in building up the subsequently developed barriers against sexuality.”1 To me this is comparable to claiming that a builder who has constructed a building out of bricks is himself built of bricks, for that which builds a barrier against sexuality cannot itself be made up of sexuality. What is obvious here is the materialism that permeates the psychoanalytic way of thinking and also ultimately accounts for its atomism.

In addition to atomism, psychoanalysis is characterized by energism. Psychoanalysis, in fact, operates constantly with the concepts of instinctual energism and emotional dynamism. Drives as well as drive components work the same way as what physics call a “parallelogram of forces.” But on what are these forces working? The answer is the ego. The ego in the psychoanalytic view is ultimately a plaything of the drives. Or as Freud himself once said, the ego is not the master in its own house.

Psychological phenomena are therefore reduced to drives and instincts and thus seem to be totally determined, i.e., caused, by them. Being human is a priori interpreted by psychoanalysis in terms of being driven. That is also the ultimate reason why the ego, once it has been dismembered, has to be reconstructed out of the drives.

Possessed of such an atomistic, energistic, and mechanistic concept of man, psychoanalysis sees him in the final analysis as the automaton of a psychic apparatus. And that is precisely the point where existential analysis comes in. It pits a different concept of man against the psychoanalytic one. It is not focused on the automaton of a psychic apparatus but rather on the autonomy of spiritual existence. (“Spiritual” is used here without any religious connotation, of course, but rather just to indicate that we are dealing with a specifically human phenomenon, in contrast to the phenomena that we share with other animals. In other words, the “spiritual” is what is human in man.)

And thus we come back to Schnitzler’s list of virtues. Just as we could apply the virtue of objectivity to psychoanalysis and that of courage to Adlerian psychology, so it is apt to apply to existential analysis the virtue of responsibility. In fact, existential analysis interprets human existence, and indeed being human, ultimately in terms of being responsible. At the time we introduced the term “existential analysis”2 in 1938, contemporary philosophy offered the word “existence” to denote that specific mode of being that is basically characterized by being responsible.

If we were to give a quick account of what led existential analysis to recognize responsibleness as the essence of existence, then we would have to begin with an inversion of the question, What is the meaning of life? I made this inversion in my first book, Ärztliche Seelsorge,3 when I contended that man is not he who poses the question, What is the meaning of life? but he who is asked this question, for it is life itself that poses it to him. And man has to answer to life by answering for life; he has to respond by being responsible; in other words, the response is necessarily a response-in-action.

While we respond to life “in action” we are also responding in the “here and now.” What is always involved in our response is the concreteness of a person and the concreteness of the situation in which he is involved. Thus our responsibility is always responsibility ad personam plus ad situationem.


  • "Brilliant! In this book, we are privileged to share the richness of Frankl's experience and the depth of his wisdom."—Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
  • "One of the great souls of our time shares with us the distilled wisdom of a lifetime of personal and professional experience in this truly important book."—Rabbi Harold Kushner
  • "A powerful psychological exploration of the religious quest. Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning is to be treasured by psychologists and theologians and by men and women who wrestle with ultimate questions and encounter God as often in the question as in the answer."—Michael Berenbaum

On Sale
Aug 11, 2000
Page Count
208 pages
Basic Books

Viktor E Frankl

About the Author

Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997) developed the revolutionary approach to psychotherapy known as logotherapy, founded on the belief that humanity’s primary motivational force is the search for meaning. One of the great psychotherapists of this century, he was head of the neurological department of the Vienna Polyclinic Hospital for twenty-five years and is the author of thirty-one works on philosophy, psychotherapy, and neurology, including the classic Man’s Search for Meaning, which has sold over nine million copies around the world.

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