The inclusion of Rollo May as an existential thinker
remains controversial, based on the email I have received. However, May
and Viktor Frankl were the major proponents of “existential
psychotherapy” and should be studied by anyone interested in the influence
of existential philosophy on other disciplines. May’s primary theme of
“anxiety” fits neatly within the framework of existentialism and free will.
Rollo Reece May was born in Ada, Ohio, on 21 April
May began his university education at Oberlin College
in the late 1920s, graduating in 1930 with a degree in English. May took
a teaching position at Anatolia College in Saloniki, Greece. During his
summer breaks, May traveled to Vienna, Austria, to attend the seminars
of psychoanalyst Alfred Adler. Adler had had abandoned Freudian teachings
for what he called an individualized approach. May returned to the United
States in 1933.
May was ordained as a minister shortly after his return
to the U.S. His further academic studies were interrupted several times
for his ministries.
As a student at the Union Theological Seminary, May
studied theology under Paul Tillich. May
completed his master of divinity degree in 1938.
May spent the next two years serving as a Congregationalist
minister in Verona, New Jersey. As a minister, May came to see the problems
of his congregation not as merely religious matters, but also as matters
of psychology. He left the ministry determined to pursue a doctoral degree
in clinical psychology, a field growing in prestige during the early
In 1942 May was diagnosed with severe tuberculosis
and voluntarily committed himself to a sanatorium. May was told there
was an even likelihood he would not survive the illness. May remained
in the sanatorium for eighteen months. These months gave him the opportunity
to observe how people deal with the fear of death, their grieving families,
and other complex issues.
May eventually earned his doctorate from Columbia University,
graduating in 1949. May’s dissertation was published as The Meaning
In 1983 May published a work that attempted to explain
how “classic” existential thought related to psychoanalysis. The
Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology was a collection
of essays exploring the views of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche,
and Freud, among others. May was determined to illustrate that psychology
and existentialism were concerned with the same issues and could cooperate
towards a better understanding of the human condition.
May died on 22 October 1994.
The concept of intentionality, of the exercise of will, is a
major theme in the works of Rollo May. This free will means that we,
not fate or God, must decide how we will deal with issues ranging from
social change to death. Every reaction to an external pressure is a matter
As with many philosophers, May linked social changes to an apparent
increase in anxiety and alienation within society. According to May,
the breakdown of myths and social rituals contribute to personal and
social ills. The anxiety and alienation, therefore, are results of modern
life. It is tempting to dismiss such complaints about modern society
since Isocrates and Plato offered similar complaints. Every generation
thinks “today’s youth” is in decline and society is nothing like in the
“good old days.”
However, May did not leave readers with a mere complaint about modernity.
Instead, he suggested that the end of specific myths and rituals is part
of a cycle, with the myths of the past becoming the stored wisdom of
a society. Unfortunately, new myths and rituals can take decades or even
centuries to rise and stabilize, leaving indivisuals isolated from the
security such rituals provide. May wondered if people in such a transition
period could be helped.
[It is questionable whether] psychology can do more in the interim
than patch people up.
May developed his “humanistic” psychotherapy with the belief that anxiety
was not a negative to be overcome, but rather a force that could be channeled
within the individual to acheive and live a meaningful life. Instead
of seeking conformity to what is an often absurd existence, the individual
should be authentic to his or her self. Instead of questioning your sanity,
accept that the world can seem insane.
May’s essays and texts are filled with allusions to Western literature.
This also fits with the existential notion that art is often the best
expression of the human condition.
The Meaning of Anxiety
After surviving tuberculosis, May decided struggling against the disease
had been the key to remaining alive. His “perpetual anxiety” and fear
of dying had been helpful, he determined, because it kept him from becoming
resigned to death. May wrote about this experience in The Meaning
of Anxiety, which was both his first major book and his doctoral
[P]atients who were gay and hopeful and tried to make light of the
disease frequently died. Those of us who lived with it, accepted it,
struggled against it, recovered. Whether or not I lived depended not
upon the doctors or medicine but on me.
Man’s Search for Himself
In May’s popular text Man’s Search for Himself, he attempted
to define his basic theories on psychology, and philosophy, in language
that was more approachable for a mass audience. The text managed to not
only be a popular success, but critics also received the text favorably.
May’s underlying religious tone probably helped the book’s reception
at a time when cultural criticism was associated with radicalism.
Love and Will (1969)
Always aware of social change, May decided to address changing attitudes
twoards love and sex in the text Love and Will. By 1969,
the “Sexual Revolution” had begun in the United States and was challenging
long-held notions of sexuality. Love and Will examined the
implication of sex becoming a physical act, devoid of the emotional and
social implications it had carried during the previous decades or centuries.
For May, the choice to love is one of will, intentionality, unlike
the base, instinctive, drive for sexual pleasure. Instead of surrendering
to such impulses, real human existence demanded thought and consideration.
To be free would not be to embrace the oxymoron ”free love” and the associated
hedonism, but to rise above such notions and realize that love demands
Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence
The “master-slave” relationship described by Hegel was
recast by May in his controversial book Power and Innocence: A
Search for the Sources of Violence. May suggested that “innocence”
was often a conscious effort to appear virtuous or pure. This is a slightly
more nuanced version of the slave, the oppressed, seeming to have special
purity. Actual powerlessness could give rise to violence, as could feigned
powerlessness. However, people with power who acknowledged their power
would have little reason to be violent.
Some reviewers and critics considered this an attack on Christian virtue,
but May was not arguing against real innocence. He was suggesting that
some intelligent adults could position themselves as innocent and pure,
even opporessed, to gain control over others. If we consider this carefully
it is likely examples of this from daily life can be identified: the
student who feigns confusion so the teacher will solve tough problems
is one such example. Likewise, the helpless “damsel in distress” is another
Is real innocence possible? May challenged his readers to ask themselves,
“Am I acting virtuous, or am I virtuous?” The difference is extremely
important to Christian theology. If we cannot be virtuous, if innocence
is always a conscious choice, then Christians cannot be Christ-like.
Others argue that even Christ had to choose: he faced temptations and
rejected them. For May, to be innocent and informed was almost impossible,
since we learn the ways of corruption throughout our lives.
The Courage to Create
The Courage to Create is a collection of lectures May prepared
on creativity and human potential. May suggested that creativity was
a fundamental part of human existence, even a reason for existence. This
was a rejection of the notion that creativity was merely for adaptive
purposes, which some scientists suggested. For May, the idea that creativity
was nothing more than an evolutionary adaptation was dismissive of humanity
and free will.
Freedom and Destiny
For May, destiny was still a factor in our choices and the outcomes
of our lives. In Freedom and Destiny May wrote that to be
truly free an individual must also accept the sometimes absurd limitations
imposed by destiny. This expresses a difference between what we might
want to do and what we can really do. We are destined to die... which
sets some specific limits on existence. However, when and how we are
to die is not predetermined, according to May’s philosophy.
As Heidegger suggested, knowing we will
die gives life meaning. It reminds us that we must do something now,
or never do anything.
[T]he vast popularity of psychology is that it is
all we have left for coping; from the myth of an afterlife to the more
modern beliefs in the virtues of family and state, the myths and symbols
that once drained off anxiety, assuaged guilt feelings, comforted people,
and gave them strength to face the problems of life have lost their vitality.
It follows that the only real cure for the psychological problems that
ail us is to develop new forms of our historic symbols and myths. — from Psychology