To Live is to Suffer, to Survive is to Find Meaning in Suffering

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in suffering.”

This quote is mistakenly attributed to German philologist, Latin and Greek scholar, and philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900), considered one of the most influential philosophers in modern intellectual history and Western philosophy. If you have googled the quotation, you realize how ubiquitous it is — it appears in hundreds of books, blogs, and merchandise (like posters) — mostly misattributed to Nietzsche. So much for fact-checking in the Google Era. Sure, it makes sense — Nietzsche certainly wrote about suffering. In fact, there is a passage that comes close; in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) he wrote: “Man, the bravest animal and most prone to suffer, does not deny suffering as such: he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering.” (p. 120, Cambridge edition, translated by Carol Diethe; p. 144, Penguin edition, translated by Michael Scarpitta).

But the actual source of that quotation is Victor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist who founded logo therapy. The quotation is from his profoundly insightful and bestselling work, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), originally published as From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1959). In the 1946 edition, Frankl wrote: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in suffering. If there is a meaning in life at all then there must be meaning in suffering. Suffering is an inevitable part of life — without suffering life cannot be complete.” (p. 106, translated by Ilse Lasch).

Imagine the conversation that Nietzsche and Frankl would have had if they had lived in similar times and met.

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2 responses to “To Live is to Suffer, to Survive is to Find Meaning in Suffering

  • isabellacatolica

    Life is suffering. This is frequently said, and not just by Frankl. By Buddhists, too. But can it be true? It seems very sweeping. Certainly there must be some suffering in life. But it is not all suffering. A lot of it is demands: get up, go to work, pick up the wife, read a bedside story etc etc. A lot of this does not deserve the term “suffering”.

    • Alexander Atkins

      Hi Isabella: Thank you for your note. I understand what you mean. My interpretation from reading the book is that what Frankl meant to say in this very compacted aphorism is this: If you live life fully, you will at some point experience suffering; but to make sense of it, to get through it, one must find meaning in it. In other words, suffering can teach us something, it can inspire us. That is why I find the quotation so powerful and why it resonates for so many people, especially as you get older and have a great deal of life experience — including love and loss. Cheers. Alex

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