No Man is an Island 

Thor May

14 June 2013

There is a vast amount of literature on human interdependence and all cultures have their favoured patterns. The notes here were prepared for a Brisbane discussion group. They comprise extracts for discussion only and do not amount to an article. They mostly reflect my personal viewpoint. Their purpose is to give rise to questions and ideas. 

  No Man Is An Island

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

reference: John Donne, 1572-1631


Some personal notes

Self: at the independent end of the scale / 2 y.o. looking out to sea / moving all my life /  doggedly self sufficient, yet paid a price / last barber 46 years ago /can t imagine marriage, yet liked by students / cordial but uncommitted / unhappy? no. / values: live and let live / raison d etre: how do things work /

Others: by nature & conditioning obviously there is a range of dependence. For many it is addictive.


- many can achieve more than the individuals alone.
- safety in numbers
- specialization possible (modern society impossible for loner)


- constriction on individual conscience & action
- people enmeshed in activities which conflict with their values
- corporate culture imposes internal & external censorship

Individualism & the Group

[extract from my essay at ]

... For example, a typical naive set of assumptions about "group oriented" cultures it that the participants within them are basically altruistic, self-effacing, self-sacrificing and sociable. A society of such individuals should exhibit the very best of human civilization working in equitable, democratic communities. By contrast, those from individualistic cultures should be cold, grasping, selfish, egotistical and almost incapable of the cooperation demanded by a civil society. Indeed, a society of individualists, by this stereotype would be a dog eat dog affair, dedicated to conflict, riven with disloyalty and betrayal, forever failing to build a stable and humanistic community.

Now let s take a plane trip and look at the real world.

I come from a supposedly individualistic culture: Anglo/Australian. It has its faults, some of them serious. Anomie and loneliness affect far too many people& . In fairness though, one must also observe that this particular Australian community as a whole is one of the most tolerant and even-handed on the planet, with superb social services, a long tradition of voluntary work for good causes, and a ready acceptance by large numbers of people of their personal responsibility to contribute to the betterment of human-kind. How odd... Is it just possible that these "individualists" are comfortable enough with their own autonomous identities to cooperate freely and altruistically with other human beings as equals?

Even in those world cultures with the most well-developed traditions of civic behaviour and liberal democratic institutions, it is only a small number of people who are ever seriously interested in "the national interest". Most people are family centered. Some can extend loyalty to a neighbourhood, a few to a state or province, some to a company while it employs them. Interest in "human-kind", where it exists at all, is mostly limited to particular issues (environmentalism is a recent example), and focused emotional events (like the Jewish holocaust).

My Fijian students, especially, often spelled out the naive stereotypes outlined above for group and individualistic orientations&

In Fiji I observed a culture that was often brutally hierarchical, and that had deep undercurrents of violence. Large numbers of Fijian men routinely beat women. Fights amongst men were not infrequent. In spite of a rather puritan brand of Christian Methodism that permeated the Fijian communities, anti-social behaviour like lying and stealing was common (in the Indian ethnic community also). Above all, by failing to find a cooperative and fair compromise with the Indians, Fijians had (and have) very nearly destroyed their own country. In other words, the simplistic label of "group oriented" concealed a vastly more complex and contradictory equation than the stereotypes suggested

Chinese Cultural Revolution: There was a reign of terror, yet terror found many willing technicians and passive victims. The very fact that hundreds of millions of people allowed this atrocity to be committed on them, and participated actively themselves, shows how fragile the existing social structure had been beyond the bounds of family.

 Studies of Happiness (sample only)

"With her 2007 book, The How of Happiness, and this year's follow-up, The Myths of Happiness, Sonia Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, caused ripples in her field but also drew a wider audience, cementing her place in a long chain of happiness-industry stalwarts, from M. Scott Peck with The Road Less Travelled and Martin E.P. Seligman with Learned Optimism to Daniel Gilbert and his best-selling Stumbling on Happiness".

Read more: [ this link appears to have been deleted by the Brisbane Times]

"Among the big dials people can tune to affect personal happiness is how much we compare ourselves to others. As Lyubomirsky has found in her lab, unhappy people compare a lot and care about the results. They tend to feel better when they get poor evaluations but learn others did worse, than when they get excellent evaluations but learn others did better."

Read more: [ this link appears to have been deleted by the Brisbane Times]


Donne, John (1572-1631). "No Man is an Island". Poemhunter website, online @

May, Thor (2001) "Individualism or the Group"., online @ 


Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).  


academic repository: at

discussion topics index:
discussion: Thor's Unwise Ideas at


All opinions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

"No Man is an Island " copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2013