Viktor Frankl s calling came early. Long before the Holocaust took its horrific toll and became the ground from which sprang his most influential book, Man s Search for Meaning, Frankl s own search for meaning was already underway. At the tender age of 16, he gave his first public lecture, On the Meaning of Life. Two years later, for his high school graduation essay , he wrote On the Psychology of Philosophical Thought. It was almost as though on some level he was preparing for the tragedy that lay in his future and the role he would play in giving hope to all of humankind after the hopelessness and despair of the Holocaust. At a young age, Frankl had become convinced that the human spirit is what makes us unique and that reducing life and human nature to nothing but, along the lines of many existentialist philosophers and psychiatrists of his time, denied or discounted any such spirit.
And it was not until he went through the hell of despair over the apparent meaninglessness of life, and struggled with the pessimism that was associated with such a reductionist and, ultimately, nihilistic or meaning-less view of life, that he was able to develop his therapeutic system of Logotherapy. At a conference in San Diego, in 1980, Frankl said that he had wrestled with this view that undercut faith in life s meaning, like Jacob with the angel did, until he could say yes to life in spite of everything. Interestingly, an earlier version of Man s Search for Meaning had this very quotation as its title.
Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1905.
It was the day Beethoven died, and in his autobiography, he is quick to note this coincidence and reveal his sense of humor by sharing a comment made by one of his schoolmate s, One mishap comes seldom alone. [ 2] His father, who had been forced to drop out of medical school for financial reasons, was a public servant who instilled in the young Viktor a spartan rationality along with a firm sense of social justice . For thirty-five years, Viktor s father had worked for the department of child protection and youth welfare. His mother, with whom he was very close, helped him develop his emotional side ”the feelings and human connectedness that would inform his work as deeply as did his rationality and reasoning.
He was the second of three children and at an early age was afflicted with perfectionism. . . . I do not even speak to myself for days, he said, referring to his anger at himself for not always being perfect. His astonishing and precocious interests led him to write to Sigmund Freud, with whom he had a correspondence throughout his high school years. It was a correspondence lost to Gestapo destruction years later, when Frankl was deported to the concentration camps.
In 1924, at Freud s request, Frankl published his first article in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. He was 19 years old and had already developed two of his fundamental ideas: First, that we ourselves must answer the question that life asks us about the meaning of our lives, and that we ourselves are responsible for our existence. Second, that ultimate meaning is beyond our comprehension , and must remain so. It is something in which we must have faith as we pursue it. These ideas, established when he was a young man, were the basis for his observations during the years of his Nazi imprisonment. They survived the very darkest tests imaginable and, in fact, grew in strength for Frankl even as they were most challenged.
In 1924 he also started medical studies, and his growing professional recognition included a developing relationship with the renowned psychiatrist Alfred Adler. It was Adler who invited him to publish another article, this time in the International Journal of Individual Psychology. Frankl still was only 20 years old.
A year later, during public lectures in Germany, Frankl used the word Logotherapy for the first time. Frankl was not drawn to the dehumanizing nature of reductionism in psychotherapy. His work acknowledged human weakness but it went further to acknowledge the underlying meaning behind weakness and the potential we all have to learn from and transform our weaknesses. I am convinced, he said, that, in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it a seed of meaning. [ 3] This early belief of an idealistic young man became the foundation of Logotherapy, which continues today to inform and inspire our human struggle to search for and find meaning in our lives.
But, as in most scientific disciplines, it was not a simple, unchallenged path . By the time he received his medical degree in 1930, Frankl was banished from the Adler circle because he chose to support an alternative point of view. He had already gained an international reputation for his work in youth counseling , however, and from 1930 to 1938 was on the staff of the psychiatric University Clinic in Vienna. When in 1938 the Germans invaded Austria, he had an established private practice in neurology and psychiatry .
During the early part of the war, Frankl and his family were afforded a measure of protection because of his position as chief of the neurological department at Rothschild Hospital, the only Jewish hospital in Vienna. He risked his life and saved the lives of others by sabotaging, through the use of false diagnoses, the Nazi procedures requiring the euthanasia of mentally ill patients . It was during this time that he started writing his first book, The Doctor and the Soul, later to be confiscated by the Nazis.
In September 1942, Frankl and his family were arrested and deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp near Prague. This was the beginning of three dark years of imprisonment during which Frankl lost his wife, Tilly, his parents, and his brother to the horrors of the Nazi prison camps. He was incarcerated at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, and finally, at T ¼rkheim, where he nearly died from typhoid fever and kept himself going by reconstructing his manuscript on stolen bits of paper from the camp office. In his autobiography, Frankl recollected that, I am convinced that I owe my survival, among other things, to my resolve to reconstruct that lost manuscript. [ 4]
In his book, Man s Search for Meaning, Frankl writes about his experiences in the concentration camps. He writes graphically and unflinchingly about the treatment, torture and murder of the prisoners . He also writes about the beauty of the human spirit; how it could transcend the horror and find meaning under the most unimaginable circumstances. Frankl s experiences and his observations served to reinforce the principles of knew that his theories of Logotherapy had greater authenticity and ever deeper meaning. He wrote about the ongoing nightmares resulting from his experiences, but he also knew the same experiences laid the real groundwork for his belief in self- transcendence and the will to meaning. meaning he had developed in his youth. At the end of the war, as a survivor and as a psychiatrist, he
I can see beyond the misery of the situation to the potential for discovering a meaning behind it, and thus to turn an apparently meaningless suffering into a genuine human achievement. I am convinced that, in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning. [ 5 ]
After the war, Frankl returned to Vienna and became director of the Vienna Neurological Policlinic, a position he held for twenty-five years. He also started a long and distinguished academic career that took him to the University of Vienna, Harvard, as well as many other universities throughout the world. He received twenty-nine honorary doctorates during his life and wrote thirty-two books, which have been translated into twenty-seven languages. Man s Search for Meaning is considered to be one of the ten most influential books in America.
In 1992 the Viktor Frankl Institute was established in Vienna. Today, the institute continues to serve as the center of a worldwide network of research and training institutes and societies dedicated to advancing his philosophy and therapeutic system of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. Frankl died peacefully on September 2, 1997, at the age of 92. He remained creative, productive, and passionate to the end of his life. His very presence touched and helped others. Indeed, psychologist Jeffrey Zeig, who was privileged to know Frankl and his family, anchored his sentiments about the influence of Frankl in words taken from Albert Camus s The First Man, There are people who vindicate the world, who help others just by their presence. Without a doubt, Viktor Frankl was a man whose presence vindicated the world.