A Stoic Search for Meaning: Stoicism and Viktor Frankl

‘A Sketch of the Stoic Influences on Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy’

Stephen J. Costello, PhD.

For centuries, Stoicism was the most influential philosophy in the Graeco-Roman world. Founded by Zeno of Citium in the fourth century BC who taught from a stoa (a painted porch or colonnade) in Athens, it was to attract into its ranks men as diverse as Epictetus the slave, Seneca the lawyer and Marcus Aurelius the emperor. In the context of the Ancient classical Greek tradition, philosophy was understood to be a therapy of the soul and the site of spiritual exercises, persuasively argued for and highlighted by Pierre Hadot in his What is Ancient Philosophy? and Philosophy as a Way of Life.

It was Stoicism, arguably, that was the preeminent practical philosophy of the time. This older view of philosophy as praxis, as a care of the self or cure of the soul, may be traced back to Socrates’ maieutic method and more systematically to Plato’s understanding of the nature of philosophy itself (therapie der Seele). This applied interpretation was alive and well with the Stoics but ruptures in the Middle Ages and in modernity and returns in the nineteenth-century with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and in the twentieth-century with various thinkers such as Viktor E. Frankl, Eric Voegelin, Jan Patocka, Michel Foucault, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others who retrieve the ‘ancient consolation’. That said, there were some notable exceptions down the centuries such as Michel de Montaigne and the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Viktor E. Frankl

In this present paper, I want to state the case for some Stoic sources underlying Frankl’s logotherapy and existential analysis.

This takes the form of a preliminary sketch or outline rather than analysis or exhaustive exegesis. There have been hints in the literature on the subject, threads to follow, sparse as they are, interestingly and curiously however, not from Frankl himself. For example, William S. Sahakian in ‘Logotherapy’s Place in Philosophy’, (Logotherapy in Action. Ed. Joseph Fabry, Reuven Bulka, William S. Sahakian. Foreword by Viktor Frankl. New York and London: Jason Aronson, 1979) has written: ‘Logotherapy and stoicism share a number of ideas’ (ibid., p. 54) and points to two such ones: the existence of attitudinal values and the non-existence of purposeless evil. For the Stoics, as for Frankl, all suffering can be made meaningful. Sahakian states: ‘Frankl’s attitudinal value theory is unquestionably stoic in character’ (ibid., p. 55). Both logotherapy and Stoicism would argue that if a situation cannot be changed, we are challenged to change ourselves; a person has the freedom to alter his attitude to his problem. This is essential to both schools.

Epictetus exclaimed that the essence of good and evil lies in the (attitude of) the will in his Discourses (Bk. II, chapter I). Similarly Frankl advances the notion that where we can no longer control our fate and reshape it, we must be able to accept it (see, for example, Psychotherapy and Existentialism). To an extent, the sting of life lies in a state of mind, in a condition of the soul. Conditions and circumstances do not determine me; I decide them.

The role of the ‘will’ has a prominent and paramount place in both Stoic philosophy and logotherapy. Indeed, two of the three pillars on which logotherapy is constructed concern the will, viz., freedom of the will and the will to meaning. Both schools stress that the will is unconquerable – invincible and inviolate – and that a person needs to transform his circumstances or, if he can’t, alter his attitude towards them. The will ultimately rests within our power – what Frankl called ‘the last of the human freedoms’. To take an example, Socrates was resolute in the face of his own execution despite Anytus and Meletus trying to break his spirit. As Socrates realised: ‘Anytus and Meletus have the power to put me to death, but hurt me they cannot’. In logotherapy, the exercise of the will not only effects a change of attitude but is also capable of producing self-detachment/distancing, through the technique of paradoxical intention (indeed, there are many comparisons between logotherapy and CBT), and some important differences too. What is common to Stoicism and logotherapy are multiple exercises such as the review and preview of the day (in logotherapy) and the evening reflection (in Stoicism): a kind of examen of consciousness.

Both Marcus Aurelius and Frankl, I would say, are pioneers of philosophical practice. There is a strong connection between the spiritual exercises of the ancient philosophers, particularly the Stoics and the methods and techniques of Franklian logotherapy and existential analysis (LTEA). We may list some of them:

  • Socratic dialogue
  • Modification of attitudes
  • Paradoxical Intention
  • Dereflection
  • Existential Analysis of Dreams

These logotherapeutical methods have always been part and parcel of ancient philosophy even if they have received different names. Logotherapy is a type of spiritual and Socratic midwifery. As Reinard Zaiser writes in, ‘Working on the Noetic Dimension of Man: Philosophical Practice, Logotherapy, and Existential Analysis’, (Philosophical Practice, July, 2005: 1(2), 83-85): ‘You can find dereflexion, for example, in the meditations by the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius’ (ibid., p. 84). Both systems emphasise the role of attitudinal modulation, and paradoxical intention, arguably the most famous of logotherapeutical techniques, has its precursor and parallel in the ancient paradoxical suggestion therapy. There is a case to be made for Socrates being the first logotherapist!

My aim below is simply to show ten points of commonality and connection, especially in the context of some other commentators correctly drawing a link between Stoic philosophy and cognitive-behavioural therapy. It points the way to further elucidation.

A Comparison between Stoicism and Logotherapy’s Fundamentals

Stoics: Stoics see the world as a single community, in which all men are brothers (cosmopolis).

Logotherapy: Frankl speaks of ‘monoanthropism’ ( ‘universal humanity’).

Stoics: The universe is ruled by a supreme providence – the Logos/ divine reason/ nature/ spirit.

Logotherapy: Logos is meaning. We should pay heed to the voice of our conscience as it is the organ of meaning – it comes to us as a ‘hint from Heaven’.

Stoics: Our duty is to live in accordance with the divine will; to live in line with nature’s laws, its inborn gift of reason (the divine element).

Logotherapy: Flourishing is living in accordance with all three dimensions: soma (body), psyche (mind) and noös (rational spirit).

Stoics: We need to discipline the passions,realising that reason is higher than instincts, inclinations, and impulsions (vigilance).

Logotherapy: The passions need to be integrated,and the unconscious made conscious. Noös (the noetic core of resilience) transcends soma.

Stoics: We must resign ourselves or accept what fate (Fortuna) may bring us.

Logotherapy: We need to harness the ‘will to meaning’ and the ‘defiant power of the human spirit’ to deal with ‘blows of fate’, without flinching.

StoicsWe must not set too high a value on things that can be taken from us, (externals) but cultivate a cosmic consciousness and focus on inner values.

Logotherapy: Man must orient himself to the eternal such as the True, the Good and the Beautiful more than the ephemeral and put things in proper perspective (dereflection).

Stoics: We are disturbed not by the things themselves but by the view we take towards them (our interpretations).

Logotherapy: What’s important is how we respond rather than react to things (the  attitude we adopt or stance/stand we assume).

Stoics: The aim is to procure peace of mind and freedom from fear.Moral goodness (virtue) is the end. Happiness is a by-product.

Logotherapy: Happiness is a by-product of meaningful existence. To find it we must forget about it.

Stoics:  The summum bonum (supreme good) is a combination of the four cardinal virtues: wisdom or sophia (moral and spiritual insight), courage (fortitude), justice (fair dealing), and temperance (self-control).

Logotherapy: The essence of human existence is ethical and spiritual self- transcendence, as we journey from the existential vacuum to ethical values.

Stoics: Philosophy is both practical and therapeutic – the site of spiritual exercises, whose aim is to form more than inform.

Logotherapy: Logotherapy is a form of Socratic or noetic therapy and a philosophy of life, whose ultimate aim is self-transformation.

More about Dr. Stephen Costello:

Stephen Costello is the founder and director of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland. He is a philosopher, logotherapist/existential analyst and author. He has been lecturing philosophy and psychology for over twenty years in UCD, Trinity and, more recently, in the Dublin Business School. He is the author of The Irish Soul: In Dialogue, The Pale Criminal: Psychoanalytic Perspectives, 18 Reasons Why Mothers Hate Their Babies: A Philosophy of Childhood, Hermeneutics and the Psychoanalysis of Religion, The Ethics of Happiness: An Existential Analysis, What are Friends For?: Insights from the Great Philosophers.


14 thoughts on A Stoic Search for Meaning: Stoicism and Viktor Frankl

  1. Stephen
    Thank you for your very interesting article
    I gave a workshop on Frankl last week and also made the connection with Stoicism.
    Frankl has always seemed to me to blend Stoicism, existentialism and his own ideas.
    I have also sometimes put forward Frankl as an example of a modern Stoic ie someone who put Stoicism into practice himself.
    I do have a question.
    Are you aware of anywhere where Frankl himself mentions Stoicism or the Stoics? You make a very powerful case for the connections between Stoicism and Logotherapy, how direct do you think the influence was?

  2. Hi Tim,
    Thank you so much for your kind comment. Love to read your piece. Yes, i am convinced of the stoic influences on Frankl and totally agree with you he is an outstanding case f a modern Stoic but strangely there are no references to Stoicism or to Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus in his English writings. I will get in touch with Vienna and try to discover if there are any references in his German writings. But I couldn’t find any references which I find perplexing to say the least. As you say logtherapy draws on stoicism (its secret source perhaps) and existential phenomenology (esp Max Scheler). If I find anything out I will get back to you!

  3. Michael Kalish says:

    Very interesting article. Along with Montaigne I would also include Spinoza.

  4. Ali says:

    Even though Viktor Frankl never makes direct references to Stoicism himself it is interesting to note how the theme is picked up in his writings by followers. Being a recent newcomer to Marcus’s “Meditations” I immediately saw the similarities between how these two great men thought. I see that Gordon W. Allport in the Preface of “Man’s Search for Meaning” refers to Frankl’s quote “the last of human freedoms”- the ability “to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances” as “the ultimate freedom, recognised by the ancient Stoics as well as by modern existentialists.”

  5. Thank you for your kind comments. For Frankl, the essence of human existence is s elf-transcendence – living for somethng bigger than ourselves so very akin to the Marcus quote you cite.

  6. In Psychotherapy and Existentialism, Vikor Frankl asserts: ‘The aims of both the hedonistic philosophy of the Epicureans and the quietistic philosophy of the Stoics, i.e., happiness and peace of mind (or, as the latter was called by the ancient Greeks ataraxia) cannot possibly be the real aim of human behaviour, and they cannot for the a priori reason that they elude man exactly to the same degree that he strives for them’ (Frankl, 1967, p. 53). Thus, for Frankl, the very intention of procuring peace of mind or tranquillity (one of the Stoic aims) is that which thwarts its attainment as it should remain a by-product or side-effect of meaningful living.

    • Črtomir says:

      I believe Frankl is wrong here about the aim of the Stoics being happiness. As I understand the aim of the Stoics is moral excellence (thinking and acting virtuously) and happiness is a by-product as you also identified below:
      “Stoics: The aim is to procure peace of mind and freedom from fear.Moral goodness (virtue) is the end. Happiness is a by-product.
      Logotherapy: Happiness is a by-product of meaningful existence. To find it we must forget about it.”
      It seem very similar to me.
      I read your piece in the book “stoicism today” and find it one of the most interesting.
      thank you

  7. desmoline says:

    Most interesting connection: Frankl’s Psychiatric Credo and Marcus’ Invulnerable Fortress (or the Inner Citadel)
    Frankl’s Psychiatric Credo:
    “There is nothing conceivable which would so condition a man as to leave him without the slightest freedom. Therefore, a residue of freedom, however limited it may be, is left to man in neurotic and even psychotic cases. Indeed, the innermost core of the patient’s personality is not even touched by a psychosis. An incurably psychotic individual may lose his usefulness but yet retain the dignity of a human being”
    Marcus’ Invulnerable Fortress or Inner Citadel of the mind:
    “Remember that when it withdraws into itself and finds contentment there, the mind is invulnerable. It does nothing against its will, even if its resistance is irrational. And if its judgement is deliberate and grounded in logic …?
    The mind is without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever.”
    “…No one can obstruct the operations of the mind. Nothing can get at them – not fire or steel, not tyrants, not abuse – nothing. As long as it’s a ‘sphere …in perfect stillness'”

  8. Jayasinghe says:

    Dr. SC’s article on Dr. Victor Frankel is most interesting at a time when even Europeans have forgotten about the tragedy that was World War 2. Dr. VF was a victim of the Nazis but did not let them diminish him but survived to write about his experiences for the benefit of others. As I read somewhere else Dr. VF defied the Nazis ! Full Kudos to Dr. SC for the meaningful article and conclude !

  9. […] respond, what intention we bring to life that counts. Modern Stoic and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl […]

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