The Austrian psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Emil Frankl was a quintessential humanist. His memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, a psychological portrait of life inside the concentration camps, has become a go-to for seekers of every variety since its original German-language publication in 1946. Listed as “one of the ten most influential books in the U.S.” in 1991, it still appears as one of Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime. Having sold more than 10 million copies and having been translated into 24 languages, Man’s Search for Meaning is considered among the most inspiring nonfiction works. This “should be required reading for anyone desiring to live on this planet,” says a YouTube commentator, regarding one of Frankl’s interviews. Frankl’s crowning literary achievement, however—written in nine days and originally published anonymously—is just the capstone on his life and work.
Frankl was concerned with the meaning of suffering. Unlike camp inmates Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, who grew understandably despairing in the years after Auschwitz, Frankl lived and died a happy man. Despite the horrors of what he saw and experienced in four concentration camps over three years, Frankl never lost faith in mankind. While suffering can make us feel less than human, Frankl used his to understand the pain of others and become, in a sense, more of a human being.
While most written accounts of the Holocaust emphasize its obvious racial and political dimensions, Frankl always sought out the uniquely human quality of any situation to draw out a universal message. His vision of a psychiatry that would counteract the depersonalizing forces of modern life may never have fully taken hold, but its urgency has only grown with time. What it means to be a person in the modern world remains a crucial question, the posing of which may be more important than any answer we can give.
Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna on March 26, 1905, the middle child of Gabriel and Elsa Frankl, with an older brother, Walter, and younger sister, Stella. In his final memoir, Recollections (1995), where he shares more about his private life than elsewhere, Frankl describes his mother as a warmhearted, pious woman and his father, who worked for the state on various relief programs, as the personification of justice. He characterizes his father’s philosophy as “Spartan,” pushing his children to meet their potential without being unnecessarily punitive. His father once rescued a toddling Viktor from an oncoming train after the child had scurried onto the tracks, a memory burned into Frankl’s consciousness. “With my eyes still closed,” he remembered, “I was flooded by the utterly rapturous sense of being guarded, sheltered. When I opened my eyes, my father was standing there, bending over me and smiling.” Frankl attributed his personality to the combination of deep emotions and rationality that his parents, respectively, embodied.
Frankl’s childhood was full of strange visions and synchronicities. He was born in Vienna’s second district, across the street from his future mentor, the founding psychologist Alfred Adler. He came into consciousness during the precarious years of World War I, standing in bread lines in the cold from 3 AM until 7:30 AM, at which point his mother would take his place.
To his parents’ delight, Frankl was determined at a young age to become a physician. While still in high school, he began attending adult night classes in psychology—then a new field. Sometime in his teen years, Frankl began corresponding with his idol, the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who was so impressed by a two-page paper that the young man had written that he had it published in a major journal. “I hope you don’t object,” Freud wrote to a 16-year-old Frankl. A few years later, they would meet by chance on a street in Vienna; when Frankl introduced himself, Freud recalled his home address by heart from their letters.
Frankl loved his family ferociously. Years later, when Frankl and his father were being marched from the train station to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, his father remained lucid and cheerful, repeating the mantra: “Be of good cheer, for God is near.” When Frankl was separated from his mother in another one of the camps, and soon to be deported to Auschwitz, he remembers calling out for her blessing. “I can never forget how she cried out, from deep within her heart, ‘Yes! Yes, I bless you!’ ” His thoughts would often dwell on his mother during his stay in the camps, imagining seeing her again and how he would “kiss the hem of her dress.” Except for his younger sister, who managed to flee the country, everyone in his immediate family, including his pregnant wife, Tilly, died in the Holocaust. He wouldn’t find out about the deaths of most of them until after the war.
When his father was afflicted with pulmonary edema in the camp, Frankl used a smuggled vial of morphine to ease his pain.
I asked him: “Do you have pain?”
“Do you have any wish?”
“Do you want to tell me anything?”
I kissed him and left. I knew I would not see him alive again. But I had the most wonderful feeling one can imagine. I had done what I could. . . . I had accompanied my father to the threshold and had spared him the unnecessary agony of death.
This was Viktor Frankl: a man who could squeeze out a moral victory from the death of his own father in a concentration camp.
Between the wars, Frankl gained valuable experience working at a youth counseling clinic dealing with teen suicide. After finishing his medical degree, he started working at the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna, mostly in the female suicide ward. These were his first courses in suffering.
Suicide remains among the most complex moral issues. It’s a testament to Frankl’s humanism that he took an unequivocal stance against suicide in almost every instance. “I take the position that even in the case of an actual suicide attempt,” he argues in Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything (1946), “the doctor not only has the right but also the duty to intervene medically, and that means to save and to help if, and to the extent that, he can.”
Frankl would even develop a procedure, using amphetamines, to revive people who had attempted suicide. This invited the ire of his colleagues, who told him that he was playing the role of fate—including one female colleague who went on to try to kill herself, and whose life Frankl would ultimately save. His response to this criticism was to turn the issue on its head:
It is not I who wishes to play the role of destiny but the doctor who abandons a suicide to his fate, who gives fate free rein and sits on his hands where he could perhaps still intervene to help, who is the one who tries to act the part of destiny. Because if it had pleased fate to really allow the suicide in question to perish, then this fate would certainly have found ways and means to prevent the dying person from falling into the hands of a doctor while there was still time.
It was here that Frankl’s vision really took hold. The nihilism of the modern age that lacked moral concern for suicide, Frankl later argued, was, at bottom, the same antilife sentiment motivating Hitler’s euthanasia programs.
In Yes to Life, Frankl takes us through the counterarguments to the proposition that life has intrinsic value, going through all the ways that life could be stripped of sense—incurable or terminal illness, mental illness, disability, loss, imprisonment, sterility—to make a case for the inherent sanctity of life. No amount of anguish or adversity can truly take away our humanity, he says. Being human precedes our capacity to be productive, functional, or even mentally sound.
Frankl tells many stories of seemingly hopeless situations in which a person was ultimately able to transcend his circumstances—not by changing them but by changing his attitude toward them. He once treated a young man who was a successful advertiser before he became paralyzed with a spinal tumor. Instead of falling into self-pity and depression, the man achieved a sense of life and purpose by doing everything he still could in his passive state—reading, having stimulating conversations with fellow patients and staff, and so on. As his condition worsened, however, he could no longer do even these things. One evening, he beckoned Frankl to his bedside and told him that he thought it was probably his last night alive, and asked for his dose of morphine now, so that he would not disturb Frankl later and the doctor could prioritize other patients. The man held on to a kind of grace to the last. For Frankl, anecdotes like this were not the exception but the rule.
Frankl eventually broke with his two mentors, Adler and Freud, and the schools of psychotherapeutic thought that they represented. He eventually formed his own: logotherapy, sometimes called the third Viennese school of psychotherapy. Derived from the Greek word logos (“meaning”), logotherapy orients patients toward a sense of purpose to be fulfilled in the future, in order to overcome the misery of the present. It’s about getting people to realize that something awaits them, that something is expected of them that they, and only they, can actualize. If traditional therapy is about depth, a peeling back of layers until we get to the truth of who we are, then logotherapy is about height, a reaching upward for our greatest potential.
Frankl’s vision of psychology diverged from that of his former mentors over where he identified the locus of the will. While Adler saw the will to power as the central motivating force in our nature, and Freud saw pleasure, Frankl argued that we are willing to forgo power and pleasure if it is meaningful to do so. As far as Frankl could see, the excessive pursuit of pleasure and power so common today is mere compensation for a lack of deeper value in our lives. With a good enough story about who we are and wish to be—a story that ties our personal journey to mankind’s larger story—we can get through pretty much anything. As Nietzsche put it, “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
A key aspect of Frankl’s vision is that meaning does not emerge in a vacuum or within the circular confines of the self. We exist in relation with others; we are not closed loops. While much psychotherapy is a roundabout effort to perfect or modify the self, Frankl recognized that the significance of life is to be found through our relationships with the world and other people. One could even say that the meaning of life is other people. Self-transcendence is the essence of logotherapy.
Consider the area of life where power and pleasure are most pervasive: love and sex. When we love someone in the depths of our being in all that person’s uniqueness, Frankl maintains, sex is wonderful because we are fully immersed in the experience of another and lose sight of ourselves for a fleeting moment. It means something. On the other hand, when we see the other person as solely a means to our own gratification, sex may be momentarily pleasing, but it is ultimately less beautiful. As Frankl puts it, “The more a patient, instead of forgetting himself through giving himself, strives for orgasm, i.e., sexual pleasure, the more this pursuit of sexual pleasure becomes self-defeating. Indeed, what is called the ‘pleasure principle’ is, rather, a fun spoiler.”
Frankl maintained respect for traditional psychotherapy and his former teachers, while criticizing certain underlying assumptions. While previous schools pathologized suffering, Frankl argued that not all forms of suffering are necessarily pathological or neurotic. Indeed, it may well be a sign of an existential problem that helps us understand the purpose of our lives.
In Frankl’s view, mental well-being comes through pursuing worthwhile life goals, rather than pursuing happiness itself. Happiness is not something that we can successfully pursue; it is something that must ensue. He took issue with the strain in psychiatry known as “unmasking,” in which everything a patient says is seen as a mere rationalization of deeper instinctual drives that he is afraid to face.
Not everything we value is a rationalization of base instincts. “There are some authors who contend that meanings and values are ‘nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations,’ ” Frankl writes. “But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my defense mechanisms, nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my reaction formations. Man, however, is able to live and die for the sake of his ideals and values!”
Frankl understood that finding meaning in life can often create conflict, friction, and even pain. By orienting patients toward a positive future that gives their lives purpose, logotherapy creates a tension between who we are and who we wish to become. For Frankl, mental health was based on a fluid state of constant becoming, rather than a blissful state of selfhood that no one achieves: “Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. In a similar sense, suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon; rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement. . . . A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”
The strain in psychotherapy that puts individual suffering under a microscope, absent any larger spiritual or cultural context—as though every problem you might have has nothing to do with anyone or anything else around you—cuts us off from the deepest wellsprings of experience, in which suffering is universal. Is it any shock that we are dealing with an ongoing mental-health crisis in a culture that sees little beyond the horizon of the self?
Frankl was a critic of collective guilt—all the more strikingly so, given what he had endured. It would have been easy, as many did, to view the Nazis simply as monstrous and to project all guilt upon them, thus eluding the more terrifying reality that the Nazis were men and women, too, and that we might be capable of doing the same evil in their places. Even in his camp memoirs, which contained no shortage of nefarious characters, Frankl had an ability to see the humanity in everyone involved, from the inmates to the officers and the capo.
Frankl tells of an SS guard, the head of his camp, who took major risks and spent considerable sums of money to buy medicines for the inmates he was overseeing. When the camp was liberated, the Jewish prisoners hid him from the American troops and delivered him only on condition that no harm would befall him. Of course, it cannot be overlooked that the man was an SS guard and had been (one assumes) guilty of all manner of evil behavior at some earlier point; and yet, though he clearly remained the oppressor in the camp situation, he had shown decency. Frankl’s vision didn’t just apply to social or political victims but to anyone compromised by fate.
It is always easier to blame entire groups for the sins of the few, if for no other reason than moral and cognitive convenience. Asked about the guilt of Germans, Frankl liked to say: “There are two races of men in this world, but only these two—the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.”
After Frankl gave a lecture against collective guilt, a university professor and former Nazi officer came to him in tears, asking how he found it within himself to take such a stance. “You can’t do it,” Frankl said. “You would be speaking out of self-interest. But I am former inmate number 119104, and I can do it. Therefore I must. People will listen to me, and so it is my obligation to speak against it.”
To summarize Frankl’s views: it is the search for meaning, he believes, that makes us human. Life carries the potential for meaning under any circumstance. Every individual problem has an individual solution, an answer or action that stands out as the most significant thing that we could do under the circumstances. As Frankl writes in Recollections: “I am convinced that, in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain the seed of meaning.” Suffering isn’t necessary to make this discovery, but meaning can be found despite, even through, suffering, depending on our attitude toward it. The solution to the problem of pain is to become more of a human being by seeking out meaning.
In his writings on the camps, Frankl details the psychological breakdown of the average camp inmate—from shock to despair and finally a strained readjustment to a nightmarish new reality. What made Frankl’s account unique was that he was less concerned with the obvious moral message of the camp experience than with the interior processes of the actual people living in the camps. Most of us are aware of the horrifying conditions of the camps. Lesser known is the spiritual war against suicide that took place daily. Death was waiting around every corner, and there was always the potential death within: the psychological death that often results in a suicide.
What Frankl witnessed in the camps confirmed his suspicion that, in the worst situations, those with a sense of intrinsic purpose were less likely to die. “The two basic human capacities,” he outlines in Recollections, “self-transcendence and self-distancing, were verified and validated in the concentration camps. This experiential evidence confirms the survival value of the will to meaning and of self-transcendence—the reaching out beyond ourselves for something other than ourselves. Under the same conditions, those who were oriented toward the future, toward a meaning that waited to be fulfilled—these persons were more likely to survive.”
Frankl outlines three ways to ennoble our lives in the face of hardship. First, we can find it through creation, by working toward some larger goal or task. For instance, Frankl was able to keep himself alive in the concentration camps by envisioning a manuscript he wanted to write on the psychology of the camp. This project became Man’s Search for Meaning.
Second, meaning could be found by looking forward to an experience or an encounter with another person—to feel love. For inmates, to have someone waiting for them on the outside, a child or spouse or parent who needs them, could help stave off death. And, third, in the absence of all possibility, when there is nothing that we can do to overcome the suffering of the moment, and we have nothing to work toward and no one waiting for us, there remains a choice: to accept our fate.
It is this last option that makes us human. As Frankl put it in perhaps his most memorable statement: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Being alive means having a bit of freedom, however limited, and taking responsibility for it.
Frankl referred to his vision as “tragic optimism”: to be optimistic about life and possibility in light of tragedy. He outlines the “tragic triad” of suffering, guilt, and death and argues how each can be used to become more human. Suffering can be turned into an achievement by accepting it and uncovering the possibilities hidden within its limitations. Guilt can be harnessed to activate our conscience and make wiser choices. And the inevitability of death can be used to appreciate the preciousness of being alive.
Frankl’s contentions with modern culture were twofold: the nihilism of the modern age, in which nothing means anything, so you might as well do whatever; and the reductionism that removes will from the equation so that it doesn’t matter what you do, anyway. His solution to both was to forge a culture of meaning based on the margin of freedom and responsibility available to us. Meaning does not simply appear; it must be forged. It is ultimately self-generating, and we are self-determining creatures.
Still, Frankl was not an existentialist in the vein of Jean-Paul Sartre. While Sartre argued that man’s struggle was to accept and bear the pointlessness of existence, Frankl reversed the terms: “What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.” It’s not that life is pointless but that it’s so invested with significance that no individual can ever fully grasp it.
Frankl’s relationship with faith was more complicated. He came in for criticism from theologians by remaining publicly agnostic, positing a form of humanism that can be either religious or nonreligious. It wasn’t discovered until after his death that he prayed several times a day and regularly attended synagogue. He would have been the first to say that religious people are predisposed to finding deeper truths under difficult circumstances. The phrase once spontaneously occurred to him: Blessed be fate, believed be meaning. “By this, I meant that whatever we have to go through, life must have ultimate meaning, a supra-meaning. This supra-meaning we cannot comprehend; we can only have faith in it.”
After the war, Frankl married Eleanor “Elly” Katharina Schwindt, with whom he would spend the rest of his life; they had a daughter, Gabriele. He died of heart failure on September 2, 1997, at 92. He had lectured around the world and met everyone from the pope to President Dwight Eisenhower to the former Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, gaining followers from every walk of life. Discovering the use of leverage and body weight like a jujitsu black belt, he continued to do alpine climbing for most of his life.
Frankl once received a letter from a man named Jerry Long, along with a newspaper clipping from the Texarkana Gazette of April 6, 1980, telling his story. Long became a quadriplegic after a diving accident at 17 and found inspiration in Man’s Search for Meaning. Using a pencil-size rod with his mouth to write with, he went to school to become a psychologist. His motivation? “I like people and want to help them,” he explained. When Long finally met Frankl face-to-face, he told the doctor: “The accident broke my back, but it didn’t break me.”
Countless others could give similar testimonies about how Frankl has helped them endure personal trials. In my own case, having lived with a disability for over ten years due to a complicated neuroimmune disease, I can’t begin to explain the impact that Frankl has had on my own life. Perhaps it is something like the analogy he once shared—of an arch that becomes stronger with a heavier burden. “If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together.”
Frankl shared story after story of hardship and transcendence on the part of others—but what was the meaning of his own life? A student at Berkeley gave him an answer: “The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.”
Top Photo: While earlier psychologists (including his mentors Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud) pathologized suffering, Frankl believed that suffering could make us more human by helping us understand the pain of others. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)