Lessons from Leaders of the Past: Viktor Frankl

March 26 marks the birthday of Viktor Frankl (1905-1997). Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust and wrote the bestselling Man’s Search for Meaning, originated the idea of logotherapy, which posits that the most powerful motivation for humans is the drive to find meaning in life.

Born and raised in Vienna, Frankl studied neurology and psychiatry, with a particular focus on mental health issues like depression and suicide. Following his medical education, Frankl worked in several Viennese hospitals throughout the 1930s, and, in 1940, he became head of the neurological department at Rothschild Hospital, the only hospital that still admitted Jews. In 1942, Frankl, as well as his wife, Tilly, and his parents, were deported to the Theresienstadt, a Nazi ghetto, and in 1944, Frankl and his wife were processed at Auschwitz. Shortly thereafter, they were separated; Tilly was moved to Bergen-Belsen, and Viktor was sent to Dachau, where he remained until the camp’s liberation by American soldiers in April 1945. Other than his sister, Stella, who had emigrated to Australia, Frankl was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust.

Though influenced by fellow psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, Frankl ultimately diverged from their philosophies, valuing the will to meaning over the will to power or pleasure. Man’s Search for Meaning is more than a recollection of the horrors of the Holocaust; it is a poignant lesson in how a person’s inner strength is the key to survival. It was this strength that helped Frankl survive three years in concentration camps, even though his relative frailty made such survival unlikely. By understanding that his life had meaning, even amidst the most miserable of conditions, he was able to develop an inner life that was even more resilient than his body. This may also explain why Frankl spent much time mountain climbing, a physical manifestation of his theory of mind over matter and pursuing one’s goals despite temporary suffering. As he put it, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

For Viktor Frankl, meaning was found in both celebrating the freedom of the individual and the responsibility to maintain such freedom. As he wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” While most focus on pursuing happiness or finding success, Frankl understood that these are secondary consequences as we pursue meaning—they are not objectives in themselves.

In the Charles Koch Institute’s offices, we have named our classrooms and conference rooms in honor of 28 men and women who spent their lives defending and promoting the ideas that improve people’s lives. Their names remind us of the fact that our work is only made possible by the men and women who came before us. Viktor Frankl is one such man, and his room displays an etching of this quote: “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

This physical reminder connects us to Frankl as we work to continue his legacy of improving people’s lives. Frankl and his unwavering commitment to helping others find meaning, even in the face of the devastation of the Holocaust, was guided by his vision of a free society that would value all of its members, uphold the core principles of liberty and responsibility, and work toward conditions that would help all people flourish. This same vision guides our work today. It is fitting, therefore, to recall a quote by Nietzche, referred to by Frankl through Man’s Search for Meaning: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

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