The Philosophy of Viktor Frankl

Videoscript of ‘The Philosophy of Viktor Frankl’

The meaning of life is to give life meaning.

Viktor Frankl

What keeps a human being going? The purest answer to this question is perhaps to be found in the worst of places. Austrian psychiatrist, philosopher, and author Viktor Frankl spent three years in four different concentration camps. He was at the mercy of sadistic SS guards and the so-called “Capos:” prisoners with special privileges who willingly collaborated with the Nazis and were even more ruthless than their masters. The camp inmates were constantly exposed to famine, sickness, slave labor, and the possibility of punishment or execution. There was no freedom. The prisoners moved around like a defenseless flock of sheep, kicked and beaten by their shepherds, stripped of all human dignity.

What’s left to live for in such a horrible place like a concentration camp? When they’ve taken all your liberties and possessions, and when death at short notice is almost inevitable, is there any reason not to give up on life? Viktor Frankl concluded that there’s always a reason to live even in the worst conditions: there’s always meaning in suffering. And if we can grasp this meaning – this star in the sky – we can overcome even the most painful circumstances. According to Viktor Frankl, it’s not pleasure nor success and power that essentially drives people; it’s finding something – a purpose, a meaning – to live and even die for.

The great divide

What’s the purpose of my life? What’s the meaning of all this? These questions echo the current societal condition, predominantly in the Western World, in which our lives seem to revolve around working a meaningless job to earn money so we can buy stuff as a means to dull our sense of meaninglessness. During times of globalization, secularization, and relative peace, we’re less likely to find meaning in being part of a tribe, religious community, or defending our countries and loved ones against neighboring enemies. Everything has become so dull, so pointless, that we engage in rampant consumerism and distraction just not to feel a deep-seated sense of purposelessness that plagues our existence. And before we know it, nihilism kicks in, and we begin to ask ourselves: What’s the point? Why keep going? 

We cannot compare the circumstances of the modern-day Westerner with those who lived in the concentration camps during the Second World War. But oddly enough, we walk around with similar existential questions and have similar reasons for giving up on life altogether: the lack of purpose, hopelessness, meaninglessness. When we’re trapped in what Viktor Frankl called the ‘existential vacuum,’ what awaits us is despair. During his days in the concentration camps, he noticed a division between two kinds of people: those who had given up on life and those who had not. The first group was more prone to illness and death; the second group was more likely to survive. The difference? A sense of meaning or, more specifically, the discovery of purpose in their unbearable living conditions.

For example, Frankl himself was a doctor and found purpose in helping the inmates who suffered from illnesses. One day, he refused an opportunity to escape the camp so he could stay with his patients. He wasn’t motivated by money, status, power, or even freedom: his purpose, in his case taking care of his fellow human beings and not abandoning them, was so important to him that he was willing to die for it. His life had become a sacrifice of most profound significance. On the other end, Frankl wrote about those who collapsed under the harsh conditions of the camp. They always had the same reasoning for giving up, and I quote: “There’s nothing anymore to expect from life.” End quote. Devoid of meaning and faith that things could turn out more favorable, our bodies and minds begin to wither as we’ve lost our will to live. 

Frankl wrote about a prisoner who had dreamt about the end of the war and his release. His dream also revealed the date on which the liberation would happen: March 13th, 1945. He was full of hope. But when March 13th finally passed, nothing happened. As the prisoner’s prophecy was naive and he had no purpose within the context of his imprisonment, he was struck with disappointment, suddenly got ill, and died of typhus shortly after. But looking at the horrible and hopeless circumstances that some people find themselves in, is it fair to expect that they find meaning? Aren’t some situations simply too overpowering, so much so that they eliminate one’s responsibility to choose? When the war was over, Frankl reflected on the validity of human liberty during the horrors of the concentration camps. He concluded that we are indeed able to preserve a “vestige of spiritual freedom” and of “independence of mind” even in such terrible conditions of mental and physical stress. Thus, we always have a choice. I quote:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Experiences in a Concentration Camp 

The ruthless Capos without morality, the sadistic SS guards with no respect for human life, the prisoners who lost their will to live, the guards who tried to help the inmates, those who found meaning in the deepest of suffering: they were all responsible for their life choices. Hence, regardless of how terrible life is, we still can and must decide in what direction we go. Do we choose to betray our people and commit brutal acts to escape torture and death in the concentration camps? Do we choose to succumb to peer pressure and hateful ideologies? Do we choose to embrace a nihilistic, destructive mindset due to living in a consumerist society that seems spiritually and morally bankrupt? Do we choose to become a plaything of our circumstances? According to Frankl, the spiritual freedom we have (which cannot be taken away) makes life meaningful and purposeful. I quote:

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.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Experiences in a Concentration Camp 

Why meaning

Imagine having to get out of bed every morning without a meaningful long-term goal. The only reason you get up is that you have to get to work and engage in activities you don’t like, just to financially support a meaningless existence and the many pointless pleasures to cope with it. You blame your past, parents, circumstances, and even your genetics for not having anything going for you. But, in reality, you can still transcend your predicament and find purpose despite any external situation. The question is, of course: how? Before we get into that ‘how’ of meaning, it’s helpful to look at the ‘why’ of meaning. Especially in the current age, there’s a tendency to focus on money, status, power, and pleasure rather than a meaningful life. But, according to Frankl, these pursuits are ways to cope with an existential vacuum. They are a consequence of a lack of meaning. In a society highly concerned with pursuing pleasure and achieving wealth, it’s often difficult to realize that these pursuits don’t fill our existential emptiness and are only cheap substitutes for what truly matters.

A more direct approach for dealing with the pain of meaninglessness we see today is the pursuit of ‘happiness.’ In some circles, like the good-vibes-only movement, happiness has even become a requirement. Frankl describes a characteristic of American culture: one is “commanded” and “ordered” to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with ‘happiness,’ of course, as happiness is probably the ultimate pleasant state of mind and the eventual by-product of following, for example, Stoic and Buddhist teachings. But, so argues Frankl, happiness itself cannot be pursued, as it must ensue. I quote:

One must have a reason to “be happy.” Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation. 

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, The Case for a Tragic Optimism

The same goes for success, according to Frankl. Success must also ‘ensue’ and not be ‘pursued,’ as it’s the unintended side effect of one’s dedication to a more significant cause. It must happen. The more we care about it, the less we can focus on our cause, and the less likely success will occur. But if we dedicate ourselves to a purpose and don’t care about success, the more likely it will happen as a byproduct in the long run. So, it seems that meaning is at the root of happiness and success, and the lack of it at the heart of indulgence in and addiction to pleasure, money, fame, and power. Having explained this, let’s take a look into the ‘how’ of meaning.

Finding meaning

First of all, according to Frankl, the meaning of life depends on the person, the moment, and circumstances. So, there’s no one-size-fits-all type of meaning that suits everyone at any time. He compares the futile quest for general meaning, to a question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There’s none. The best move in chess depends entirely on the situation in the game and the characteristics of one’s opponent. We cannot invent the meaning of our existence, but we can detect it. As Frankl stated, meaning is inherent and dormant in a given situation. We can discover our purpose only if we interact with the world or determine what the world needs. Frankl wrote that we find out the meaning of life in three different ways:

  • (1) by creating a work or doing a deed
  • (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone
  • (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

The first one lies in achievement and accomplishment. Creative pursuits like writing a book, painting, sharing stories about our sufferings and life experiences, or solving today’s problems with science and technological inventions, can help others. We’ll only find out when we get started and engage with the world, so other people’s needs become apparent. The benefit of performing good deeds doesn’t need an explanation. But it probably doesn’t have to be grandiose; even sharing a small piece of bread with a starving inmate can be a profoundly meaningful experience.

The second one lies in the connection we have or find with people and things. The experience of life itself, caring about the environment and its people, can be meaningful in itself. Frankl describes this as love, as he argues that it requires love to know something or someone truly. I quote: “The second way of finding a meaning in life is by experiencing something – such as goodness, truth, and beauty – by experiencing nature and culture, or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness – by loving him.”

The third one lies in finding meaning in suffering. Frankl gives an example of an elderly practitioner who consulted him because of his severe depression after losing his wife. Instead of telling him what to do, he asked: “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, ”for her, this would have been terrible; how would she have suffered!” Frankl pointed out that the Doctor’s wife has been spared from such suffering, and he spared her by paying the price: that he has survived and now mourns her.

We cannot bring back the dead. In many situations, like being imprisoned in a concentration camp, there’s isn’t much we can do about the external factors. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” Frankl stated. By changing our attitude, we can turn adversity into triumph; we can find meaning, even within the worst sufferings imaginable. The philosophy of Viktor Frankl could perhaps be summarized like this: ‘finding something to live (and even die for) transforms a meaningless, hopeless existence into a life worth living, regardless of any circumstances.’ Hence, he quoted Nietzsche, saying: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any ‘how.’” 

Thank you for watching.