What makes this book stand out is a combination of the environment that lead to its creation (being based on experiences in Nazi Concentration Camps sets the precedent for a more than interesting story) as well as the unique and inspirational insights that the author, Viktor Frankl, is able to draw from it.
After describing some of the most significant and memorable experiences from time at Auschwitz and other camps, he goes on to describe Logotherapy – a psychoanalytic method which argues that, rather than the ‘will to pleasure’ proposed by Freud and the ‘will to power’ discussed by Adler, the fundamental drive of human beings is the ‘will to meaning’ – i.e. to discover the logos of life. Frankl believes that the lack of a meaning of life (which he terms ‘the existential vacuum’) can present as a will to pleasure or power, as the human psyche tries to compensate for this lack of a meaning in these ways, but that ultimately it is this desire for meaning which is the primary factor. He argues that therefore, any psychotherapy (or indeed any intentions to help others with their psychological problems) must, at least to some extent, aim to help them discover the meaning of their life.
What is the meaning of life? How could someone possible hope to find it? These are questions that many will ask. Frankl suggests quite reasonably that there is no ‘ultimate’ meaning of life, and that your ‘meaning’ will change at every moment – it is unique to every individual and every situation that they are in. He uses the excellent analogy of asking a chess-player ‘what is the best overall move’ – of course, one does not exist.
Frankl then goes on to propose that there are three main ways in which the meaning of one’s life can be realised. The first of this is through creation, by a project or creating something new which helps others. The second is through love – that love enables you to see the potential for self-realisation within someone else and in doing so realise your person in helping them to do so. He argues that self-realisation alone is not possible, and that one should undergo self-transcendence whereby one ‘realises’ themselves through others. The third method is through suffering, and this is particularly relevant to the first half of the book, in which Frankl describes his experiences. Suffering can help you to realise your meaning, as you can reflect on what the meaning of the suffering is. Examples that Frankl uses to illustrate this point include one of a man who is depressed after the death of his wife, to which Frankl explains that by living longer than her he has spared her of this same pain, and another of a woman who lost a young son but still had another and that needed to care for him to enable him to live a happier life.