existential primer

Rollo May
anxiety and psychotherapy

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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.

Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…

Do not use this site as a study guide. The Existential Primer is a “living” academic project, unlike a static text. This primer is only a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result in misunderstanding the profiled individuals. These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations included because within them is where you will find the experts. Read their works!

NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:

Work; Author, p. Page


Rollo Reece May was born in Ada, Ohio, on 21 April 1909.

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 twentieth century.

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 of Anxiety.

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.

1909 April 21 Born in Ada, Ohio to Earl Tittle and Matie (Boughton) May.
1926–1928 Attends Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (Michigan State University)
1930 Graduates from Oberlin College, A.B.
1938 Obtains a Master's in Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, New York, graduating cum laude
1938 Ordained a minister of the Congregational Church
1938–1940 Minister of Congregational Church in Verona, New Jersey.
1938 June 5 Marries Florence DeFrees
1942 Diagnosed with tuberculosis, enters a sanatorium for 18 months.
1948—1974 Professor of psychiatry at William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Psychoanalysis, New York
1949 Earns his Ph.D. at Columbia University, summa cum laude
1950–1975 Private psychoanalysis practice in New York.
1955–1975 Lecturer at New School for Social Research, New York.
1964 (summer) Visiting Professor, Harvard University
1967 Visiting Professor, Princeton University
1968 Divorces Florence
1971 Marries Ingrid Schoell
1972 Visiting Professor, Yale University
1973 Regents’ Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz
1975 Divorces Ingrid
1975–1994 Private psychoanalysis practice in Tiburon, California.
1994 October 22 Dies



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 of choice.

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 dissertation.

[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 effort.

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 stereotypical example.

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 Today


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