Power, Innocence & Violence: Part IV. Violence

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 a relationship between power, powerlessness, violence and innocence.


May describes simple violence as “ an eruption of pent-up passion” with a dynamic “physical event” (p. 182). However, as we ponder the relationship of violence to innocence and lack of power, violence presents a complex and deeper experience for human beings, both destructive and constructive.

Impotence with loss of self-hood impeding psychological movement and growth leaves violence to act out aggressively as a ‘will to power’ through destruction.

Violence then acts as a possession—unleashing large amounts of physical and psychological energy to individuals, communities and societies.

In the throes of violence a type of transcendent power overcomes one unless one knows how to hold the tension between the will to power and the will to meaning.

The will to meaning requires understanding the symbolic process. This awareness will determine each person’s intention  in the difficult task of holding this tension of opposites in order to find meaning in the aggressive moment. A task that is influenced by the “way a person sees and interprets the world about him…(p. 184).

If an individual, community or nation see themselves as lacking self-power and potency then as Sartre writes “ violence is the creating of the self…It is the organization of one’s powers to prove one’s power, to establish the worth of the self” (May, p. 197).

May outlines 5 varieties of violence:

1). Simple violence: the experience of impotency with high self-righteous demands.

2) calculated violence: the experience of planned violence, such as demonstrations

and terrorism

3). fermented violence: When political persons or others with an extreme

addenda stimulate long standing impotence and frustration.

4). absentee violence: An example of political requirements by citizens to pay taxes

that support wars and other laws we may not agree with. When we do not participate

in government we by neglect give over our power. We are absent and violence can

result that we do not agree with.

5). Violence from above: This is violence that is handed down from above,

the government feeling a threat to the status quo, the police who both apprehend

and then punish with violence in the name of law and order etc. This type of violence

is more destructive because the power from above changes from

protecting to destruction.

“Be ye wise as serpents but harmless as doves”,  Jesus in the “Gospel according to Saint Mark


                   Violence has the face of the fallen angels. But what are the fallen

                   angels except human beings and what are human beings except

                 fallen angels?    

                                 Bronowski “ The Face of Violence”