While we often take for granted that physiology and psychology are intimately linked, that the health of our bodies is often dependent on the health of our minds, Western medicine has not always been so open to this idea. And while there are many schools of thought on what gives us the will to live and thrive, Viennese psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Emil Frankl was among the first to suggest that humans must have meaning before they have the will to live.
Frankl’s ideas on human psychology were very much born of his experience in World War II. A survivor of three years in Nazi work camps, he lost most of his family to the Holocaust, including his beloved first wife. Yet Frankl concluded from his horrific experience that man “can only live by looking into the future.” Carefully studying the attitudes, motivations, faith, desperation and hopelessness of fellow prisoners, Frankl discovered that those few who had the opportunity to survive the Nazi work and death camps did so because they clung to hope for future happiness and fulfillment.
The author of more than 30 books published in 26 languages and the recipient of 29 honorary doctorates from universities all over the world, Frankl re-evaluated 20th century existentialism, refuting the acceptance of life’s meaninglessness posited by philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre, as well as the emphasis on biological drives espoused by psychologist Sigmund Freud. Instead, Frankl recognized the human need for purpose, and he worked hard to give that purpose not just to the patients in his own practice but to the world as a whole.
His most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, published in 1946, has sold more than 9 million copies worldwide, and a survey conducted by the Library of Congress has declared it one of “the 10 most influential books in America.
” When Frankl died in 1997, Vienna Mayor Michael Haeupl said, “Vienna, and the world, lost in Viktor Frankl not only one of the most important scientists of this century but a monument to the spirit and the heart.”
A Critical Decision
Born in 1905, Viktor Frankl was the son of hardworking Jewish middle-class parents. His father was director of the Social Affairs Ministry, his mother a housewife. One of three children, the young Frankl knew from childhood that he wanted to be a doctor of some kind, and he showed an early interest in people and their motivations. While in high school, he began to study psychology.
Before he graduated, Frankl published an essay in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis and had begun to correspond with Freud. As a young man, Frankl coined the term logotherapy, a new school of psychology for which he would become famous, centered on the idea that man is driven by a will to establish meaning in his life.
Concerned with how to help others overcome the roadblocks to contentment, Frankl helped establish free counseling centers for teenagers in Vienna and several other Austrian cities in the late 1920s and began working at the Psychiatric University Clinic. He earned his doctorate in medicine in 1930 and pursued further training in neurology. Rising quickly through the ranks despite his youth, he was given responsibility for the ward for suicidal women at a psychiatric hospital in Vienna, and in 1937 he opened a private practice in both psychiatry and neurology.
But Frankl’s life changed dramatically the following year, and he was forced to close his practice when the Nazis annexed Austria. His medical license was revoked, and he was only allowed to treat Jewish patients out of his parents’ home. Frankl did manage to obtain a visa allowing him to immigrate to the United States. But he was unwilling to leave his elderly parents behind, so he let it expire. That decision was a critical juncture for the young psychiatrist because it ensured he, like so many of his fellow Jews, would be deported to the Nazi’s work and death camps.
Matthew Scully, who interviewed Frankl in 1995 for an article in First Things, said, “Had he used the visa and the excuse of professional obligation, he would not be the same compelling witness.”
The Search for Meaning
"Man can only live by looking to the future. "
"Don't aim at success-the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. "
"There was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage: the courage to suffer."
"Being human is being responsible-existentially responsible, responsible for one's own existence. "
"The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living."
"The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross,gives him ample opportunity-even under the most difficult circumstances-to add a deeper meaning to his life. He may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation, he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not. "
" Guilt is, a priori, personal guilt. I can be judged guilty only for something I have missed, failed to do. But in no way can I be regarded as guilty for something an uncle of mine has done, or a grandmother of mine has done. This is 100 percent nonsense!"
"In a way I do pity these younger people who did not know the camps or live during the war, who have nothing like that to compare [their own hardships] with….Even today, as I lose my sight or with any severe problem or adverse situation, I have only to think for a fraction of a second, and I draw a deep breath. What I would have given then if I could have had no greater problem."
" Human existence… is always directed to something, or someone, other than itself-be it a meaning to fulfill or lovingly."
" There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life. "
The Search for Meaning
Arrested with his new bride, his parents and his brother in 1942, Frankl spent three years in concentration camps, including Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Dachau. He lost every member of his family to those camps, save a sister who had immigrated to Australia. He also lost the manuscript he’d been working on for years, what he would later reconstruct as The Doctor and the Soul. The camps became the proving ground for Frankl’s theories on what makes people survive even in the most desperate circumstances.
“Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz,” he said. “However, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” Frankl’s experience of the Holocaust led him to reject many of the biological theories of his contemporaries. Instead, Frankl was the psychiatrist who rediscovered the human soul.
“Everything can be taken away from man but one thing—to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” he said, noting that what drove him to survive the terrible deprivation, exhaustion, sickness and brutality of the camps was the image he carried in his mind of his beloved wife and his hope for the future. Frankl said he saw many succumb who had the opportunity to survive because they lacked will, and they lacked will because they lacked hope.
Following his liberation from Auschwitz and his discovery of all he had lost, Frankl published his seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he wrote how the Holocaust had affected his outlook: “For the first time in my life, I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the highest goal to which man can aspire.” He added that the awareness and contemplation of love was “how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss.”
In his book, he recounted how he and other prisoners kept visions of their wives close at hand to inspire them. He remembered one man remarking to him as they marched to a labor site one morning, “If only our wives could see us now!” And Frankl remembered how those words made him realize that these men, including him, were surviving by holding onto images of the ones they loved. He thought of his own wife, Tilly, who would later die in the camps: “My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look.”
The Power of Forgiveness
Frankl returned to Vienna in the wake of the Holocaust, starting his life over again. He headed the neurology department at the Vienna Polyclinic Hospital, a post he would hold for 25 years. During this period, he met a young operating room assistant, Eleonore Schwindt, and fell in love. He often credited Eleonore with helping him re-establish his will to live. The two married in 1947. A year later, Frankl obtained his doctorate in psychiatry and became a professor at the University of Vienna.
Despite the fact that Man’s Search for Meaning sold millions of copies and became as important a work about the Holocaust as The Diary of Anne Frank, Frankl received a fair amount of criticism in his lifetime for de-emphasizing his “Jewishness” and forgiving the Viennese neighbors who stood by as the Nazis rounded up the city’s Jews and deported them to concentration camps.
Frankl, however, did not feel there was anything to forgive. “People forget what it meant at that time to join the resistance,” he said in an interview. “More or less, it meant at any moment being caught, being arrested and sentenced to death, as my best friend at the time was sentenced to death.” He added that he knew people were angry with him for continuing life as normal in a city that many felt had betrayed its Jewish citizens, but Frankl conceded to having a reconciling spirit. “Is it bad to be reconciling?” he asked.
To Heal, Not Save, the Soul
Considered the founder of the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, following the work of Freud and Alfred Adler, Frankl developed the theory of logotherapy, focused not on saving the soul, as some of his critics argued, but on healing it. Frankl believed man could obtain meaning in life in one of three ways: by engaging in fulfilling deeds, through relationships with another person or persons, or in his attitude toward the unavoidable suffering of life, that is, finding meaning even in the midst of pain.
He was very much concerned with medical schools placing too much emphasis on physiology, while overlooking the importance of spiritualism in people’s lives. He felt that psychotherapy should involve the soul as well as the mind and body. He also emphasized that life’s meaning was unique to each individual, noting “meaning must be found and cannot be given.” Frankl was quick to point to research that showed drug addiction and criminal behavior were symptoms of a life in which subjects felt they had no purpose.
His theories won him many followers, and in 1961, Frankl began working in the United States, where he held five professorships, including positions at Harvard and Stanford universities. He also received the Oskar Pfister Prize from the American Society of Psychiatry and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Never one to give up on the possibilities of life, Frankl was an avid mountain climber well into old age and earned his pilot’s license at 67. In 1997, the year of his death, he finished his final book, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. The American Journal of Psychiatry called Frankl’s life’s work “perhaps the most significant thinking since Freud and Adler.”