Frankl: He who has a WHY can bear any HOW

Despair = Suffering – Meaning

So Viktor Frankl says in the video above, summarizing his theory of logotherapy, which I’ve read at greater length in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. In other words, if people suffer but see meaning in their life, and even in their suffering, they do not despair, as he himself did not despair when he was in Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

He is therefore, as he also says in this video, the anti-Sartre. Sartre and the other existentialists believed that we have to accept the meaninglessness of our existence. I, in my black-turtleneck and Gauloise phase (everyone has one), used to think that was cool. But Frankl thinks it is nonsense.

Or rather, he thinks that it is unhealthy and unhelpful. Hence logotherapy, which

focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future. (Logotherapy, indeed, is a meaning-centered psychotherapy).

He calls it logotherapy because

Logos is a Greek word which denotes “meaning.” Logotherapy, or, as it has been called by some authors, “The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy,” focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning.

According to logotherapy,

this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the will to power on which Adlerian psychology, using the term “striving for superiority,” is focused.

Speaking of the will to power, Frankl likes to quote Nietzsche:

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy. In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.

Those people who do see meaning in their lives, says Frankl, are able to

transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.

And here you see how this is relevant for my book, which is about the two impostors, triumph and disaster.


I want to agree with Frankl, but the trouble starts when he describes how he applies his approach to actual therapy. To me it sounds like semantic trickery. He meets desperate people and tries to change their attitude, but really he only does some conceptual gymnastics and calls that meaning.

Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how could I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

I don’t doubt that the old man, out of love for his wife, preferred to bear the pain of being the survivor so that she did not have to. But his wife was still gone. His job (surviving her) was done. Pointing out that he had saved her pain did not give him meaning for his life from that point forward.

So my critique of logotherapy is really the same as my critique of religion: Sure, it might be helpful to see meaning (= believe in God), but that does not mean that there actually is meaning (=God). Sartre might be right after all.

That said, I am impressed enough with Frankl to include him in my pantheon of great thinkers.

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Meaning in suffering: Frankl on Auschwitz


I promised to ruminate on Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.

First, for those of you who have not read the book, a quick overview:

The book is short and easy to read. It has two parts:

  1. In Part I, Frankl talks about his own survival in Auschwitz and several other concentration camps, and his psychological observations about himself and others during that time.
  2. In Part II, Frankl gives an overview of his psychiatric theory, which is called logotherapy, and which his observations about camp life were meant to prove/affirm.

As for Part I, I recommend it for everybody. I believe it is a timeless piece of writing, all the more so for its brevity and simplicity. In a compassionate, measured and compelling writer’s voice, Frankl gives us a view of what it was like. His tone is the opposite of shrill or sensationalist. He makes especially the “ordinary” details of this extraordinary experience unforgettably vivid.

And he gives order to his account. In particular, he describes the mental stages that inmates like himself went through.


First there was shock. Frankl particularly emphasizes how he found it hard to part with a manuscript that he was carrying with him when he was being admitted to Auschwitz. It already contained his complete logotherapy theory–and thus a large part of what he considered to be the meaning of his life–and having to surrender it was his first big shock.


Then there was apathy. Apathy is usually a bad word nowadays, but Frankl shows us how it was a necessary reaction for survival. Consider this passage (Kindle locations 388-93), in which he is looking out of a window in his cottage at a dead man:

The corpse which had just been removed stared in at me with glazed eyes. Two hours before I had spoken to that man. Now I continued sipping my soup. If my lack of emotion had not surprised me from the standpoint of professional interest, I would not remember this incident now, because there was so little feeling involved in it. Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings.


And then there was the issue of meaning. Inmates had one of two reactions:

  1. Some inmates saw no meaning in their suffering and in their lives anymore. Those inmates eventually gave up. They might one day be seen smoking the cigarette butt they had been hoarding while lying in their feces on the bunk, not intending to get up again, consuming their last pleasure while resigned to dying.
  2. Other inmates, including Frankl, saw or found meaning in their suffering and had a chance at survival. Frankl found meaning, for instance, in the ideas that had been contained in the manuscript that was now lost, and that he now had a duty to resurrect by surviving the camps. And he found meaning in the idea that his wife, also in the camps and perhaps dead, might still be alive and need him.

In Frankl’s words (locations 1168-70):

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Here he talks about one moment when he felt his wife’s presence (locations 632-41):

I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet”—and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.

Captivity in liberation

And then, for the lucky ones like himself, there was the challenge–yes, challenge–of liberation. Most inmates found it very hard to be set free at last. Many had lost their moral fiber, their personality, their optimism, their humanity in the camps and were now at a loss, unable to enjoy freedom.

Here are just a few insights worth pondering:

Humor: It’s necessary.

From locations 670-73 and 681-85:

Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humor.

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. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.

Humanity: Not guards versus inmates but decent men versus indecent

This is surprising, perhaps, but Frankl did not observe the camp as Nazis versus Jews, or guards versus inmates, but as decent versus indecent.

Among the guards he saw some decent men along with the indecent. And among the prisoners, he saw some of the most indecent, in particular the ones they called the “capos”–inmates who had made themselves complicit with the guards for personal favor and who were often the most sadistic men in the whole camp.

The primacy of attitude

What made some prisoners resilient and others not? In a word, attitude.

Loc. 973-74 and 981-82

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.

The sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

With the wrong attitude, a prisoner saw life as pointless, meaningless:

Loc. 1056-61

It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist. Regarding our “provisional existence” as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.

But with the right attitude, prisoners saw a positive opportunity even in a concentration camp:

Loc. 1065-67

Most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.

Obviously, there is a lot more to say about Frankl and logotherapy, but let’s pick that up in another post.