Man’s Search for Himself

A work of existential psychology—a movement which I make no claims to understanding. But May’s text is intelligent and engaging, with prose as lovely as the insights are profound. Written in the middle of the 20th century, his guidance is no less relevant today.

Reading notes

Language and history

The loss of the effectiveness of language…is a symptom of a disrupted historical period. When you explore the rise and fall of historical eras, you will note how the language is powerful and compelling at certain times, like the Greek language of the fifth century B.C. in which Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote their classics, or like the Elizabethan English of Shakespeare and the King James translation of the Bible. At other periods the language is weak, vague and uncompelling, such as when Greek culture was being disrupted and dispersed in the Hellenistic period. I believe it could be shown in researches…that when a culture is in its historical phase of growing toward unity, its language reflects the unity and power; whereas when a culture is in the process of change, dispersal, and disintegration, the language likewise loses its power.

May, Man’s Search for Himself, page 43

See also: language during Bush’s administration versus that of Obama.

Truth in fiction

As shown so vividly in 1984, if a government sets out to take away people’s freedom, it must siphon off their hatred and direct it toward outside groups—otherwise the people would revolt, or go into collective psychosis, or become psychologically “dead” and inert, no good as people or as a fighting force. This is one of the most vicious aspects of McCarthyism: it capitalizes on the impotent hatred many people in this country feel toward those who keep us in a stymied position in Korea, namely the Russian Communists, and it turns this hatred of citizens towards their fellow citizens.

May, Man’s Search for Himself, page 111

Remarkable both for the timing—written during McCarthy’s rampage—and for the face-value acceptance of a tale of fiction as evidence of a social truth. Often the stories a society tells are more valuable than the history books.

On strength

William James once remarked that those who are concerned with making the world more healthy had best start with themselves. We could go farther and point out that finding the center of strength within ourselves is in the long run the best contribution we can make to our fellow men. It is said that when a fisherman in the sea around Norway sees his boat heading for a maelstrom, he reaches ahead to try to throw an oar into the boiling whirlpool; if he can do so, the maelstrom quiets down, and he and his boat go safely through. Just so, one person with indigenous inner strength exercises a great calming effect on panic among people around him. This is what our society needs—not new ideas and inventions, important as these are, and not geniuses and supermen, but persons who can be, that is, persons who have a center of strength within themselves.

May, Man’s Search for Himself, page 54