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Man's Search For Ultimate Meaning - Book Review

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.

About the Book: Man's Search For Ultimate Meaning is an updated version of Viktor Frankl's The Unconscious God (1975), which is actually the English translation for the original piece published in 1947. In this audacious book, Frankl builds upon his previous theories, most notably the ones outlined in Man's Search for Meaning and The Will to Meaning.

Frankl tackles the relation of religion to science; and in doing so, he conclusively fathoms, Religion, we may say, revealed itself as the fulfillment of what we now may call the 'will to ultimate meaning.'

As Frankl so elegantly puts it in the video above (and in his previous books), life can be given meaning in essentially three ways:

1) By doing a deed or creating a work

2) By experiencing something (nature, culture, etc.) or someone (as in another human being that we love)

3) By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

According to Frankl, religion is a higher level of meaning as compared to 'regular' meaning. He would go on to define religion as man's search for ultimate meaning. Frankl speaks of religion here not necessarily in the traditional sense, but rather more so in the universal sense. The universal sense in that he believed that if religion were to survive, it would have to be profoundly personalized; and in regards to atheists he says, On his way to find the ultimate meaning of life, the irreligious man, as it were, has not yet reached the highest peak, but rather has stopped at the next to highest. Albeit, he notes no one is really irreligious.

Frankl also defines the term self-transcendence in this work as...human existence-at least as long as it has not been neurotically distorted-is always directed to something, or someone, other than itself, be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter lovingly. With self-transcendence, man is characterized not by the search for himself, but rather by the search for meaning.

The book also references a number of interesting academic studies, some of which can be found below:

1) James C. Crumbaugh and Leonard T. Maholick's Purpose-in-Life-Test (PIL) (a score less than 50 on the test suggests you are experiencing an existential void)

2) Johns Hopkins University study found that 7,948 students at 48 colleges, 16% of students stated their first goal was to make a lot of money, while 78% said it was finding a purpose and meaning to life

3) American Council on Education found in a study of 171,509 students screened, the highest goal among 68.1% was developing a meaningful philosophy of life

4) Idaho State University study found that 51 of 60 students surveyed that had attempted suicide felt their life meant nothing

5) Vanderbilt University study showed that there is a significant correlation between purpose in life and fear of death

6) Augustine Meier found that purpose in life is not related to educational backgrounds, sex, or religious affiliation; Meier also found that individuals from different age groups derive meaning from various sources:

- the 13-15 age group has access to experiential values in particular

- the 45-55 age group appears to derive 'meaning in life' from the actualization and discovery of creative values

- the 65 and over age group derives its meaning from the discovery and actualization of attitudinal values

Interestingly, the midlife age group is not referenced here.

There are other studies of course noted in the book, but these were just a few of the more academically fetching ones. Frankl also cites several times another study showing that Americans on average tended to be far more likely to found living in an existential vacuum than Europeans (65% to 25% respectively).

Despite all of psychology's benefits to society, and logotherapy's contributions to the field, neither can give a person meaning, rather the individual must still find that meaning for him or herself. On this he says, As a matter of fact, the answer to the question, 'What is the meaning of life?' can only be given out of one's whole being—one's life is itself the answer to the question of its meaning. And, not only do people need to find their own meaning to life, but it is also a responsibility! Or as Frankl would put it, logotherapy can be defined as education to responsibility., and is trifocal, focusing on a will to meaning, a meaning in suffering, and a freedom of will.

Possibly one of the most powerful, or striking parts of the book is Frankl's words to Aaron Mitchell, the last person to receive the death penalty in California. Frankl, who also faced the gas chamber at the hands of the Nazis, and in some sense, in some way sympathized with Mitchell, although they both encountered the chamber for very different reasons. Frankl noted that even in the shadow of a gas chamber, he did not lose his belief in the meaningfulness of life. For if life in this short duration lost meaning, simply adding more years to life would just perpetuate more meaninglessness. More importantly, he says, And believe me, even a life that has been meaningless all along, that is, a life that has been wasted, may-even in the last moment-still be bestowed with meaning by the very way in which we tackle this situation.

The notion that meaning in life can be found regardless of one's past is echoed in the movie Interwoven which was also reviewed on this site. Even if the end is inevitable, to despair would be suffering without meaning.

Overall, Frankl's Man's Search For Ultimate Meaning is another splendid work. The book starts off fairly sluggish, immersed in technical jargon, but is well worth the trudge through the academic verbiage.

Book rating:

Overall - 8 Meaning of Life Relevance - 9 Uniqueness – 5

Other great quotes in the book:

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.

When setting out to discuss the meaning of meaning I referred to meaning as something "down to earth." However, it cannot be denied that there is also some sort of meaning that is "up to heaven," as it were; some sort of ultimate meaning, that is; a meaning of the whole, of the "universe," or at least a meaning of one's life as a whole; at any rate, a long-range meaning

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