Lessons in Manliness: Viktor Frankl

by Brett on August 8, 2008 · 18 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness


Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Cory Edwards. Cory is a professional musician and songwriter. He lives with his wife and two children in St. Louis, MO.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was a psychotherapist and brain surgeon who specialized in treating depression, especially for those prone to suicide. Being a Jew in Nazi Germany, he was sent to Auschwitz where he was reduced to nothing but his “naked existence.” As he entered the camp, they took the last of his belongings, including his clothes, his wedding ring, and the manuscript of a book he was writing. Then, every inch of his body was shaved as he was escorted into a shower room. His only consolation was that real water dripped from the shower heads instead of gas.

Frankl was a studious man who didn’t get a lot of physical exercise in life. One of his fellow prisoners said Frankl was the least likely to survive the torturous regimen in store for him. But by leaning on his rich inner life and helping other prisoners, along with some strokes of good luck, he lived to tell the tale. His story is a lesson in manliness for times of suffering, whether that suffering is small or great.

Have a sense of purpose. Frankl kept himself alive by developing a purpose: to keep other prisoners from committing suicide. He did so by helping them to achieve their own sense of purpose. He would encourage one man that he had to survive in order to return to a daughter that was safe in a foreign country. He would encourage another, who had no living relatives left, that he must return to his profession to complete the work he had begun.

In addition, part of his sense of purpose was to suffer well. He wrote, “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

Develop a rich inner life. The man in the concentration camp who had a strong mind would often prove to be the stronger prisoner. These were men who could appreciate, on a cold march in the snow, the beauty of the mountains, the forest, or the sunrise. They kept their minds active by composing speeches, reconstructing lost manuscripts, and imagining life after imprisonment. They had prayer meetings to keep a strong connection to their religious beliefs.

Frankl said, “Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.”


Develop a fervent love for your wife. For those who were married and truly in love with their wives, an extra source of strength was available to them. This was not a place where mere sexual fantasy could relieve a man from suffering (the sexual drive was mostly dead for the underfed and overworked prisoners). However, thinking of his wife – her features, her voice, and little incidents from their life together – a man found considerable strength for endurance. Frankl found this to be the case whether the wife was alive or dead. He often thought of the words of Solomon: “For love is strong as death.”

Frankl wrote, “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”

Choose your attitude. Frankl wrote, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” This does not mean to think rainbows on a cloudy day, though it can. It can mean choosing indignation over coldness, joy over sorrow, strength over weakness, hope over despair. No man’s behavior is dictated solely by circumstance. His behavior can be directed by choice – the choice every living man has.

Viktor Frankl’s story can be found in Man’s Search for Meaning, a book about the psychotherapeutic ideas that he honed while in concentration camps. It is recommended reading for any man, showing the depths to which one can sink and the heights to which one can rise in the middle of the most horrific suffering imaginable.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 ChristianPF August 8, 2008 at 4:54 am

I like to think that I live with the mindset that Frankl suggests, but it has never been put to the test like it was for him and the others there. It is encouraging to know that even under those terrible conditions having a sense of purpose can help sustain…

2 Rob August 8, 2008 at 5:08 am

Great post. “Man’s Search for Happiness should be essential reading for all men, especially those who feel the need to take anti-depressants to be happy. If a man could choose to live with purpose and happiness in a concentration camp, certainly he could make that choice when he’s living a fantastically comfortable middle-class life.

3 Shanel Yang August 8, 2008 at 5:46 am

It’s so true that people who has overcome a lot of hardship from an early age, though they seem less extroverted and perhaps less hardy on the outside are nevertheless quite strong on the inside. I wrote about that in “Fan Your Inner Flame Till It Burns Bright” at http://shanelyang.com/2008/05/10/fan-your-inner-flame-till-it-burns-bright/

4 Marshall August 8, 2008 at 5:57 am

This is by far one of the best articles here. Thank you, Cory.

The story of a Holocaust survivor isn’t that original (though it can still inspire me). The life lessons you presented aren’t that original either. But putting them together somehow made for a fresh take on both. You’ve really struck at the core of motivation here, while introducing me to someone with a fascinating story.

5 Dante Explorer August 8, 2008 at 6:27 am

Thank you for your article on Victor Frankl. You can’t read this book and not be changed. It should be required reading for every high school student. Well done.

6 Chris August 8, 2008 at 7:05 am

I have to agree Frankl’s book should be required reading for all HS students. I read it in Abnormal Psych in college, and was truly inspired. After reading this, I want to find the book and read it again.

7 Cameron August 8, 2008 at 7:23 am

Great post, I have not read anything by him, but now I feel very compelled!

8 Hayden Tompkins August 8, 2008 at 8:10 am

I can’t tell you how ecstatic I am to see this article on TAOM. “Man’s Search for Meaning” is one of the most profound books I’ve ever read. If someone can come through the experience of a concentration camp, a holocaust, with their spirit intact – that’s someone who has touched the depths of our souls.

He does go into some ‘technical’ stuff, but I just skipped over those sections. It’s powerful. Great job Cory.

9 Mike Bates August 8, 2008 at 8:24 am

I think that, after 65 years, for many Americans the Holocaust is slowly becoming a faceless, impersonal tragedy along the lines of the Influenza Epidemic of the early 20th century. As more and more survivors die off, it’s becoming harder and harder to relate to the horror that these men and women had to endure. Thank you for putting a face, especially one so inspiring, back into the spotlight.


10 Jen August 10, 2008 at 4:33 am

What an excellent post- I’ve often heard his name, but I didn’t realize what his story was. Now I’m looking forward to reading his book. Very well written, and lots to think about.

11 Karl Staib - Your Work Happiness Matters August 10, 2008 at 2:41 pm

“Choose your attitude.”

That says it all right there. We are our actions. When we choose a positive attitude we will get positive results.

12 Charlie August 11, 2008 at 4:52 am

Really incredible. Thanks for this.

13 NoPeanutz August 15, 2008 at 7:14 am

“Man’s Search for Meaning” is truly one of the most amazing works of Literature of the 20th Century. And this is acknowledged.
Just an incredible story.

He watched his doctoral thesis burn when he was brought to Auschwitz, and survived by giving himself a mission. That he had to make it through the war so that he could eventually publish his research, so that his thesis would not be lost to mankind. What happened was that his experiences in the Concentration Camp enhanced his own research and theories.

Since beginning to read TAOM, the underlying theme for me has been “a man is someone who takes responsibility for his actions. Someone who can be counted to make an impact.”

This was Frankl. The Nazis tried to dictate every aspect of his existence, even when he would live or die. But he found the inner fortitude to take control.
It is a short read, but guaranteed inspiration.

14 Liara Covert February 27, 2009 at 4:27 pm

Viktor Frankle’s life gains deeper meaning because he experienced what it means to lose everything and reconnect with what matters. Each human being in invited to expand his inner journey. You explore your inner self wherever you are.

15 andrei bogolubov January 31, 2010 at 9:53 pm

I would greatly appreciate your expert comment and feedback on a recently published article which referenced the work of Viktor Frankl. As you well know, Frankl’s thinking continues to have a profound influence worldwide.

Please find the link below:

All the best,

Andrei Bogolubov

16 Kohn June 21, 2010 at 1:10 am

I can only repeat what as already been stated. We all mostly live in a fantasy of a life, protected from all the realities of the world, but here is a man exposed to ultimate reality. I am not a fan of most of the recent Psyco-babble because they write their theories off of these fake realities created by poor parenting and a politically correct society. Here was a man learning from the worst parts of life, and seeing only the truth in everything he learned. Nothing he saw was theory, because those around him lived and died by what he applied.

Like the other posts mentioned, we can only hope that should we find ourselves in such circumstances, that we too might show our true strengths, and come out as great as he did…

17 MJ September 19, 2013 at 9:25 am

My favorite story from Frankl’s book:

“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 can 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.” — P.113

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