Famous Misquotations: To Live is to Suffer, to Survive is to Find Meaning in Suffering

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThe quote “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering” 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).

In addition to being attributed to Nietzsche, the source is also mistakenly attributed to Victor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist who founded logotherapy. However, although he certainly would have agreed with that statement, he never wrote it. Nevertheless, the quotation is found in his profoundly insightful and bestselling work, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), originally published as From Death-Camp to Existentialism (1959) — but it only appears in the preface; however, that was written by Gordon Allport. Allport was a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and former editor of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, who was instrumental in introducing Frankl’s logotherapy to a wider audience. In the preface (page 9), Allport is paraphrasing Frankl; he writes: “But these moments of comfort do not establish the will to live unless they help the prisoner make larger sense out of his apparently senseless suffering. It is here that we encounter the central theme of existentialism: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying. But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each man must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes. If he succeeds he will continue to grow in spite of all indignities. Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzsche, ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.'” (Beacon Press, 1964)

So the next time you read or hear this line being quoted, please correct the writer or speaker and give Allport the appropriate credit that he deserves.

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Read related posts: Quotations Mistakenly Attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Meaning of Life by Peter Gay
The Meaning of Life by Joseph Campbell
The Meaning of Life by Mortimer Adler
The Meaning of Life by Norman Vincent Peale

Where to Find the Meaning of Life
Life’s Most Important Questions

Special thanks to Frank Gravier, the librarian at the University of California, Santa Cruz who helped follow a lead from an obscure doctoral dissertation that led us to finally find the correct source of this ubiquitous, yet elusive, quotation. It was a real eureka moment, to be sure. This collaboration underscores the important research services that librarians provide as an alternative to being drowned by an ocean of information online, some of it (especially with respect to this particular quotation) that is egregiously incorrect.

To learn more about Alexander Atkins Design please visit www.alexatkinsdesign.com

7 thoughts on “Famous Misquotations: To Live is to Suffer, to Survive is to Find Meaning in Suffering

  1. Pingback: Former Sen. Max Cleland Dies At 79, Can Now Haunt Rick Wilson In Person – My Blog

  2. Hi Alex – after searching FOUR HOURS I found your page with the help off some friends and it was VERY helpful, many thanks. Unfortunately, its not even Frankl who wrote this about life and suffering, but some Gordon W. Allport in the preface to the 1992 and earlier edition of Frankls “Man’s
    Search for Meaning” … (I also ran into “Genealogy of Morales” …) But as I don’t have access to the 1946 edition it may be, that Allport picked it up from Frankl. Anyway: Thanks a lot!!

    • Hi Michael: Thank you for your note. I too searched for this quotation for hours and thanks to a librarian’s assistance we were able to figure out that it was actually in Allport’s introduction to the book. I’ve been meaning to update this post to reflect that discovery and credit the librarian at UC Santa Cruz that helped me arrive at the final source. Fortunately, you were able to arrive at the right conclusion. I have several editions of that book and it never occurred to me that it could in the introduction, so I always skipped it when I re-read it. Feels great to finally solve that quotation mystery, doesn’t it? Great work. Cheers. Alex

      • Hi Alex: I’m a little confused about how to quote this in MLA format since there are many misunderstandings around the quote. I believe I would put Gordon W. Allport as the writer and I would use the book where his preface is in it, is this correct? Thanks for pointing this misquote out as I almost quoted it wrong.

      • Hi Martin: yes, the correct attribution would be Allport, but you would cite that it came from the book and author where it was found. It is not uncommon to cite an author who has written an intro or preface to a book (common in republished classic works or annotated editions). Cheers. Alex

  3. 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”.

    • 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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