Rollo May Critiques Carl Rogers For Being Naïve About Evil

Rollo May was the first existential psycho-therapist and psychologist of note in America [influenced by and building on Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, and Tillich], though he was also, as Carl Rogers insisted, an original visionary with his own slant, not just an apologist for existentialism. In his ‘Love and Will’ [1969], he speaks of the ‘daimonic’ in humanity which can result in evil, or in creativity. I remember being inspired by this book forty years ago, but if memory serves, May confines ‘love’ to Eros, and only the ‘will’ is regarded as linked to the Daemonic. This is a huge error, for in the end, the Daemonic loves more, because it plumbs the deeps where love fails, and brings love back from that place by paying an unspeakable price for the failure. Nevertheless, Rollo May includes under what he comprehends as ‘daimonic’ an inherent battle in humans between good and evil; or, love and creativity versus a selfish destructiveness. This is a version of the ancient Jewish doctrine that mankind has two hearts, a ‘heart of stone’ and a ‘heart of flesh’, and thus every human being is born into conflict within that invariably expresses itself without. The human heart and the wider world reflect each other, and are intimately connected.

May was much admired by Rogers, but Rogers disagreed with him on one vital point, believing in a basic human goodness interfered with and damaged by society and culture. May, for his part, dismissed this notion, arguing that humans constitute society and culture, and hence it is everyone’s capacity for both good and evil that gets expressed in society and culture. Each side affects and influences the other= the world makes things harder for the heart, but the heart makes things harder for the world. May regards the belief in inherent goodness naive, and thus views the Rogerian style of ‘humanistic’ psychology and therapy as essentially ‘narcissistic.’ It flatters the human and invents a scenario of healing too easy on the human.

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Below some quotes from Rollo May, addressed directly to Carl Rogers..

“The Problem of Evil: An Open Letter To Carl Rogers”, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol 22, No 3, 1982, pp 10-21.

“In my experience, our human adventures from cradle to grave take on a zest, a challenge, an attractiveness, when we see and affirm this human potentiality of both good and evil. ..it is this.. dialectical interaction, this oscillation between positive and negative that gives the dynamic and the depth to human life. Life, to me, is not a requirement to live out a preordained pattern of goodness, but a challenge coming down through the centuries out of the fact that each of us can throw the lever toward good or toward evil. This seems to me to require the age-old religious truths of mercy and forgiveness and.. it leaves no place for moral superiority or self-righteousness.” [p 249]

“I am pleading for a realistic approach to human evil. ..when you had the discussion with Martin Buber in Michigan you said, “Man is basically good”, and Buber answered, “Man is basically good — and evil.” I am arguing that we must include a view of the evil in our world and in ourselves, no matter how much that evil offends our narcissism.” [p 248]

“I am not predicting doom. But I am stating that if we ignore evil, we will move closer to doom, and the growth and triumph of evil may result.

I am not a pessimist. Yes, I believe in tragedy, as Shakespeare’s dramas.. and others portray it, because I perceive tragedy as showing the nobility of human existence. Without it life would be pallid, uninteresting, and flat. ..optimism.. often turns out to be a reaction formation to ..hopelessness; and I turn out to be more hopeful than [those who cling to hope to ward off despair]. This is because.. one needs.. a [faith] that can stand regardless of failure.. or despair.” [p 250]

Rollo May spent 18 months in a sanatorium for tuberculosis as a young man, and he said of this time= “The patients 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.”

A ‘heart involved in struggle’ is the way of passion sparked by the wound of the Daemonic inflicted upon us as a fate.

In passion, the heart suffers and comes through the worst that fate can dish out. Rollo May does not think it is remembering the good times of Eros that gets us through. After the Cross, when Christ Descends into Hell, what is the break through and turn around there, which leads to the Resurrection? For Rollo May Christ is not in the equation, but he does speak of something that is implicated in getting us through the ‘season in hell’, the dark night, the unending desert. He claims the human ‘will’, our ‘intentionality’, is needed and makes the crucial difference to ‘recovery.’ Rollo May has stumbled on something important.

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The will, or intentionality, is the backbone of steel for passion’s fire. It is neither a wilfulness [power over things= master], nor a will-lessness [in the power of things= victim], but is in reality a ‘willingness’ to have a go, jump in, accept all that follows, and see it through to the end, though it cannot be known what that end really will be, or if it will be. Willingness is a deep affirming of it all, a yes to yes and no, the life and the death, the all, and as my friend Andy Harmon says about the hero in drama, this willingness will keep going to the end of the line. It does not give in or give up, even when defeated, broken, fallen down in the dust. It is aggressive, even angry, but most of all, it is willing, cooperative with something it cannot prove, but has to trust, even when all reasons for trust are gone.

This has to be put mystically and radically to get anywhere near it..

Coming through hell involves the will, or intentionality, affirming its passion for the mystery which passion serves. Thus, even in the deepest hopelessness, there is something in us that keeps going. It can be called an ‘affirmation’, a final yes to all we suffer, cannot understand, and must let go, but this sounds too positive. It is not ‘positive’, because it operates where the negative has vanquished all positive. This is our yes in our no, our yes beyond yes and no. We do not know. Passion starts where knowledge ends, and keeps going even in the bowels of despair and under the hammer of the fate most unsupportable. We are down and out. Yet something ultimately mysterious in the heart cannot be killed off. It may be laid out as on a slab in the mortuary, for all intents and purposes dead, finished, undone and all over, yet there is a word that Christ speaks from the same place in the heart to our heart, and this word is an angry cry, a willingness to go to any lengths and beyond all lengths; this is the word Christ shouted into the cave where Lazarus lay dead, and it says only one thing, ‘get up!’

And the heart gets up.

You cannot count the human heart out. We may need another heart to say this word to us, and in the final reckoning we may need Christ to shout its anger at us, but there is something in the human heart that can get up, and can come at you again. It may be battered to shreds over ten rounds, and put down in the fourteenth round for good, yet in the fifteenth it can get up and come at you again.

This is passion’s willingness, its utter self-giving and complete self-sacrifice that cannot be exhausted, because it comes out of a depth that is fathomless and bottomless. This is not Nietzsche’s pathetic ‘will to power’, but a different will, a will to trust God’s passion in our passion, no matter what. ‘Bring it on’, bring it ‘all’ on, this willingness declares to God, nature, world, evil spirits, the whole cosmos. Its strength, its power, rolls like a giant wave through everything. In ancient Celtic myth there was a ‘shout’ which, if uttered, could kill enemies, even shake the foundations of the earth. This willingness, when pushed to extremis, and especially in the midst of the blackest and most inexplicable pain, in the depths of deadness, is that shout of life even in death, that going on even in hitting the wall and crashing. Even if we can do no more, and are truly finished in what we can humanly give, it cannot be extinguished.

The flame smoulders even when it has gone out. The steel is scorched, scarred, broken into pieces, yet it is not finished.

We are defunct, our heart is broken, yet we are not ‘done and dusted.’ Even in our breaking, the fire flickers and the steel can be reforged. This is the willingness in our passion that says yes to God, even in hell. And as the Passion Week services hint, it is to those in hell that God reveals the secrets and wisdom that are ultimate, and hidden from both ordinary everyday life and even hidden from the mystic’s enlightenment. What passion’s willingness has faith in, without knowing or comprehending it, is that hell is, and can be, the mysterious place of turn around, where victory comes from true and comprehensive defeat. It is here that Christ is present, and needed, for through him, we receive the second chance precisely in the midst of where the first chance is well and truly defunct.

This is about where we draw a halt and cry, ‘enough, I can take no more.’ Yet even in heartbreak, the willingness in passion remains strangely ‘available.’ Even if it cannot get up by its own exertion, when the shout comes to get up and come forth, it can respond.

Recovery will always reside in this affirmation when there is nothing left to affirm, this affirmation of existing in fire, upheld in steel, even though we have reached the point where it does not work, and seems to have come to nothing.

This affirmation of life in the midst of death, this affirmation that is not affirmation, but affirms its willingness when there is nothing left to affirm or deny, is the ‘spark’ in us that cannot go out. The paradox is not that any evil spirit puts it out; we put it out when we foreclose upon the irrationality of it all. We judge it as not good enough, like Satan, and declare our negation of it all.. Such is the victory of hell.

The willingness remains quiescent, even when the heart is over thrown. We are truly done, yet we await in patience the moment when the shout arrives, and commands us, get up, come out!

Lazarus stumbles out of the cave, into the bright light. Peter weeps, but his heart is strengthened. Christ goes to the Cross, but from hell, he is Resurrected.

You have in your heart, though you do not know it, something that can go through it all, and yet not close accounts, but await the shout.

When you hear it, the heart in you that you never knew will get up, and come out.