Our Alienation in the Modern World Today – are Rollo May’s view still relevant?

[Originally published 20 July, 2013]

I have some questions regarding modern society for those who are up for a bit of philosophical reflection. I have been reading the book ‘Man’s Search for Himself,’ which was written by existential psychologist Rollo May in 1953. It seems to me that his observations 60 years ago still ring true to a significant degree today. I am curious as to what other people think (keep in mind he was writing for primarily an American audience, but I think it can fit other societies as well).

His starts off early on with: “people today no longer live under the authority of church or moral laws, but under ‘anonymous authorites’ like public opinion.  The authority is the public itself, but this public is merely a collection of many individuals each with his radar set adjusted to finding out what the others expect of him.” (p.12)

It is in part because of this that he says we feel ‘hollow’ – that we have a sense of alienation and loneliness in the world.  A few pages later he elaborates on this idea:

“[O]ur society lays such a great emphasis on being socially accepted.  It is our chief way of allaying anxiety, and our chief mark of prestige.  Thus we always have to prove we are a ‘social success.'” (p.14)

Regarding how we communicate, May says “What is important is not what is said, but that some talk be continually going on.” (p.16)  “Every human being gets much of his sense of his own reality out of what others say to him and think about him.” (p.17)

Assuming you think this might have been true in his time, do you think it is still true now with the advent of things like the internet and online social media?  Is it worse now?  Better?  Different somehow?

What about our modern mind-set or worldview?  May thinks that some of the problem has to do with our impersonal, mechanical worldview:

“Modern Western man, trained through four centuries of emphasis on rationality, uniformity, and mechanics, has consistently endeavored, with unfortunate success, to repress the aspects of himself which do not fit these uniform and mechanical standards.” (p.18)

In May’s time he saw this reflected in fascist and nazi totalitarianism (think Hitler or Mussolini, which were quite prominent in his mind at the time since WWII had just recently ended).  If his assessement of ‘modern’ anxiety has truth to it, in what ways might it be reflected in our even more recent world – what current events might align themselves and support this interpretation?

One of the roots of our malady, according to May, was that we were experiencing the loss of the centre of our societal values.  Here are his thoughts on the progression of our values and goals over time:

“One of the two central beliefs in the modern period since the Renaissance has been in the value of individual competition.  The conviction was that the more a man worked to further his own economic self-interest and to become wealthy, the more he would contribute to the material progress of the community. […] In our present day of giant business and monopoly capitalism how many people can become successful as individual competitors?” (p.28, 29)

“The second central belief in our modern age has been the faith in individual reason…individual reason also meant ‘universal reason’ […] reason became separated from ’emotion’ and ‘will’ […] we find reason (now transformed into intellectualistic rationalization) used in the service of compartmentalizing the personality.” (p.30-31)

What of these two points – is our focus on individual competition still workable in a world of global corporations stomping out home-grown businesses?  What about the separation of intellect and emotion (with the emphasis on intellect and rationality being ‘good’ and emotion being ‘less good’)?

May saw authoritarianism appearing and growing in business, politics, religion, and science.  He also thought that where – during the Renaissance – there was an enthusiasm for nature in its many forms, that since (at least) the 19th c., the world has become ‘disenchanted,’ and that our primary concern is now to ‘master and manipulate nature’ (there is now a clear dualistic separation between ‘us’ and ‘nature’ which further increases our alienation and sense of anxiety and loneliness).  Is this true?

Lastly (for what I want to cover in this note), what about our selfhood and the way we go about living our lives? Consider one of the modern trends in our society – activity.  May thinks we use activity as a substitute for awareness:

“By activism we mean the tendency, so common in this country, to assume that the more one is acting, the more one is alive…Many people keep busy all the time as a way of covering up anxiety; their activism is a way of running from themselves.  They get a pseudo and temporary sense of aliveness by being in a hurry, as though something is going on if they are but moving, and as though being busy is a proof of one’s importance. [He thinks we should re-think this:] Aliveness often means the capactity not to act, to be creatively idle…Self-awareness…brings back into the picture the quieter kinds of aliveness.” (p.83, emphasis mine)

What do you think – are we too busy rushing around trying to ‘do things’ and convincing ourselves that this is good and healthy for us?  Are all these so-called ‘accomplishements’ we think we are achieving necessary or even real?