Victoria Shackelford, MFA. MA. PhD

Licensed Professional Counselor


210.602.3002 & 512.461.9544

Part I.

Power and Powerlessness

The psychologist and author Rollo May (1909-1994) in his 1972 book, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence, lays out a compelling argument for investigating the relationship between power, powerlessness, violence and innocence.

In particular, May asks controversial questions about our own personal and cultural responsibility toward violence and it’s relationship with innocence resulting in a feeling state of powerlessness. He goes right to the heart of his query with this question: Is violence a symptom exploding from the powerlessness of perceived innocence?

The original source of the word ‘power’ offers the first clue to understanding the significant of the relationship between power, innocence and violence. Power comes from the Latin word ‘posse’ that means, “to be able” (May, p. 19). Rollo May defines power as the ability to assert ones self, be witnessed and be in movement in living, to be significant in being able.

He maps out five levels of the movements of power that have a potentiality in ones life. The first and over arching concept as defined above is 1) “the power to be” (p. 40). He describes the power ‘to be’ as essential for survival in the human infant setting the stage for the development of one’s personality going forward. The second tier of power is 2) “self-affirmation”. Going forward from the power to be one must then be able to acquire the ability to “affirm his own being”. Self-assertion 3) becomes the third level and developmental movement. May writes that self-assertion is a stronger stance for the individual, resulting in the ability to say with force: “Here I am, I demand that you notice me!” (pp. 40-41).

The forth level, 4) aggression, leads us straight to the heart of May’s argument concerning the relationship between power, innocence and violence. Aggression has the potentiality to establish itself in every individual, community or nation when the first two are limited. May defines aggression as…”the movement into the positions of power or prestige of the territory of another and taking possession of some of it for one’s self” (p. 42).

May (1972) gives us violence 5) as the fifth level or stage of power development. He writes that when the first three levels of power are limited and ineffective through reasoning or persuasion then aggression in the form of physical violence and destruction erupts (p. 43). May writes, “If the other phases of behavior are blocked, then explosion into violence may be the only way individuals or groups can get release from unbearable tension and achieve a sense of significance (p. 44). May says that these five developmental movements exist as potentialities in every human, community, nation and society: 1) the power to be; 2) self-affirmation; 3) self-assertion; 4) aggression and 5) violence (May, pp. 40-44).

The opposite of posse (to be able) becomes the metaphor of the Jacob Bronowskis poem (in The Face of Violence) as a reference to the… “terrible dreams of boys, whose adolescence repeats all” (in May, 72,  p. 15). The loss of ‘to be able’ in the human being transforms into a generational pattern of violence that attempts to assert the life force.

Stay tuned for, Part II of this review of Rollo May’s book “Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. We explore the kinds of power (exploitative; manipulative; competitive; nutrient; integrative) separate from the stages of power, described earlier, as essential for human development and psychological movement. In Part III of May’s concepts we look at the ‘Limits of Innocence’ and May’s investigation of the source of violence.