Dr Stephen J. Costello is a philosopher and practising analyst, specialising in the work of Viktor Frankl. He holds a doctorate in philosophy and has lectured on the subject for over 25 years. Stephen is founder-director of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland. He has addressed two parliaments: Stormont on human rights and the European Parliament in Brussels on mental health. He is the author of eleven books, with his most recent being Beyond Hope: Philosophical Reflections (Cambridge Scholars, 2020), which draws on Advaita Vedanta. Stephen is a student and tutor in Plato at the School of Philosophy and Economic Science in Ireland.
On Viktor Frankl
Stephen Costello, Ireland
Prof Viktor Frankl, (1905-1997), the world-renowned Austrian psychiatrist, neurologist, and philosopher, went for a walk to ask for, as he put it, a ‘hint from Heaven’. His visa permitted him to leave for America, but he didn’t want to abandon his elderly parents as he knew their fate would be deportation to a concentration camp. The year was 1941.
When he returned to their apartment in Vienna, he saw a piece of marble lying on the table. His father told him he had found it in the rubble of a burnt down synagogue and that it represented one of the Ten Commandments. “Which one?” Viktor asked eagerly, to which his father retorted “Honour thy father and thy mother so that thy days may be long in the land of the living.” Viktor was rooted to the spot. He let the visa lapse and stayed in Vienna.
He spent three and a half years in four concentration camps, where his entire family, including his wife, was put to death by the Nazis except for one sister who managed to escape to Australia.
By accident or design, Dr Frankl was saved from the gas chambers even after Dr Mengele selected him for them. He crossed from one line to another, only because he didn’t recognise anybody in the first queue. This act saved his life.
Finding ultimate purpose
Another time, Dr Frankl was put to work in a trench. He writes: ‘The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above us; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces …. 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 … in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria.’ To Viktor this was an image of “Et lux in tenebris lucet” – ‘and the light shineth in the darkness’.
While in the concentration camps, he observed that those who found meaning and maintained a positive outlook were better able to change, adapt to the situation they found themselves in and ultimately survive. He also observed that those who lost hope soon perished in that harsh environment.
Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy
This Viennese Jew did, in fact, survive the Holocaust and went on to live a long life, dying at the age of ninety-two. He founded the healing method called logotherapy. This is a therapy based on the idea that identifying meaning in life can help you overcome all suffering, and therefore stay healthy. He wrote over thirty books, including the famous Man’s Search for Meaning, which was voted one of the ten most influential books ever written.
Finding meaning in life
When I met Dr Frankl’s second wife Elly, alive today and in her nineties, for the first time in Vienna, I told her that it was a privilege to meet the ‘warmth (Elly) that accompanied the light (Viktor)’ – a beautiful description from philosopher Jacob Needleman. It was a moving moment, as was the time when his grandson endorsed one of my books, saying that I give ‘the authentic interpretation of his grandfather’s thought’. It was my honour to introduce logotherapy into this country – it’s a legacy of which I am proud. To this day, I remain close to members of the Frankl family.
Dr Frankl’s logotherapy is a philosophical and spiritual form of therapy, one which may be described as ‘healing through meaning’. For we are not just pushed by the drives, we are pulled by meaning and purpose. We are not just driven, we are drawn. Recall, Plato’s beautiful image of the golden cord situated on the crown of the head gently guiding us upward to the divine realm, while the steely cord on the sole of the foot drags us down to Hades.
For Frankl, there are three ways to find meaning (logos):
• Creatively: through the work we do, to what we contribute to creation;
• Experientially: through our loving, through all our encounters, to what we receive from the world;
• Attitudinally: to how we meet through our mindset with blows of fate. The Nazis took everything from Dr Frankl – his family, his finances, and his freedom. What they couldn’t take was his attitude, which he described as ‘the last of the human freedoms’.
Finding meaning even in suffering entails mobilising our rich inner resources and marshalling the ‘defiant power of the human spirit’. Frankl’s psychiatric credo is that ‘the spirit [Self] can never be sick’. Even in those who who are broken in their bodies or minds, there is uninjured humanity present in the depths of the person.
Frankl’s main message
The essence of human existence is self-transcendence, that is to say, living a life of service to something greater than the ego. It is to obey a call, a Socratic summons that invites, enjoins, exhorts. As Frankl puts it: life always asks something of us. We are ordered to and ordained by meaning. Every moment matters, is moral, and potentially meaningful. This is Frankl’s main message, his mandate and manifesto. The greatest way we live out of self-transcendence is through love understood as spiritual union.
Like Frankl, we too can find our meaning and our courage, say ‘yes’ to life and love, and hear against the shrill clamouring of the empty ego which cries out with Beckett: ‘I can’t go on, I won’t go on’, a deeper and unshakeable voice, the sound of the divine Self within us all, proudly proclaiming, exclaiming, exalting: ‘I will go on!’, in spite of the sometimes-sad human scene.