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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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.

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