Frankl's Logos

Recounting his three years between four concentration camps throughout Auschwitz and Krakow under Nazi-German oppression, Viktor Frankl (1959) found that levels of suicidality were significantly lower than in the welfare state of Austria, nearly three decades later. He had endured the execution of his mother, father, and wife, and was witness to many other prisoners experiencing similar tragedies. Every horrific circumstance had conspired to make Frankl and his comrades lose grip of their lives, and some of them were devoured by these evils. However, Frankl found the capacity to rise above his outward fate and inspired many others to do the same. This is his philosophy behind Logotherapy—the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy (preceded by Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, respectively). The existential aim of logotherapy is the essential search for meaning—both despite, and in light of, one’s suffering. Hence, Frankl’s aptly named magnum opus, Man’s Search for Meaning (1959).

In his esteemed work Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (1889), Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. Found in the same chapter titled Maxims and Arrows is perhaps his better-known aphorism: “Out of life’s school of war—what does not kill me makes me stronger” (Nietzsche, 1889). Nietzsche constructs an academic lens for which to analyze the perennial dogma of ancient Stoicism, dating back to Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. The essence of both claims is that suffering is inevitable, but suffering of one’s suffering is optional. Everyone feels bad sometimes, but it is both masochistic and counterintuitive to feel bad about feeling bad. Edith Weisskopf-Joelson (1955), before her death professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, contended in her article on logotherapy that the “current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.” In another paper, Weisskopf-Joelson (1958) expressed the hope that logotherapy “may help counteract certain unhealthy trends…where the incurable sufferer is given very little opportunity to be proud of his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading”. Weisskopf-Joelson’s (1958) biggest grievance with mental health culture was that we are doomed to be “not only unhappy, but also ashamed of being unhappy”. Frankl (1959) coined a term for the trap of internal process that Weisskopf-Joelson outlines called paradoxical intention: the idea that “fear brings about that [of] which one is afraid” and “hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes”.

Frankl (1959) found that POWs who maintained hope and sought meaning of their suffering, rather than succumbing to it, more often survived the horrors of them. He argued that suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds meaning, and that “when we are no longer able to change our situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”. We alone choose our reactions to life’s happenings; behavior is dependent on decisions rather than conditions. During his life, Frankl had been criticized of being an idealist, of overestimating man, or thinking him to be more capable than he is. He responded by echoing a quote originally credited to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795-6), though it was popularized during the transcendentalist literary movement spearheaded by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Treat a man as he is and that is what he remains; Treat a man as he can be, and that is what he becomes.” This is the ab maxim for any psychotherapeutic activity—to presuppose that man is good is to elicit goodness from man, so goes the self-fulfilling prophecy.


  1. Frankl, V. (1959). Man's search for meaning. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

  2. von Goethe, J. W. (1795-6). Wilhelm Meister's ApprenticeshipJohann Friedrich Unger (Berlin, Germany).

  3. Nietzsche, F. W. (1889). Twilight of the Idols or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. Verlag von C.G. Nerneer (Leipzig, Germany).

  4. Weisskopf-Joelson, E. (1955). Some Comments on a Viennese School of Psychiatry. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, p. 701-703.

  5. Weisskopf-Joelson, E. (1958). Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. Acta Psychotherapeutica, 6, p. 193-204.