I and Thou

I and thouI and Thou by Martin Buber, trans. Walter Kaufmann, 5/5

If not for the encouragement offered by Kaufmann’s excellent prologue, which establishes his credentials as a translator and philosopher in his own right, while assuring the new reader that Buber’s obscurity of style does not conceal lack of content, I doubt very much that I would have made it through this book once, much less twice.  Fortunately, my second reading was as rewarding as the first was unenlightening and I found myself shredding my bookmark up in order to mark individual passages of particular impact.

Talking much about this book would require a deeper understanding of it than I have.  And even if I had perfect understanding, the topic itself is one that is particularly difficult to put into words, as explained in the prologue:

Buber’s most significant ideas are not tied to his extraordinary language.  Nor do they depend on any jargon.  On the contrary, they cry out to be liberated from all jargon.

The sacred is here and now.  The only God worth keeping is a God that cannot be kept.  The only God worth talking about is a God that cannot be talked about.  God is no object of discourse, knowledge, or even experience.  He cannot be spoken of, but he can be spoken to; he cannot be seen, but he can be listened to.  The only possible relationship with God is to address him and to be addressed by him, here and now – or, as Buber puts it, in the present.  For him the Hebrew name of God, the tetragrammaton (YHVH), means HE IS PRESENT.  Er ist da might be translated: He is there; but in this context it would be more nearly right to say: He is here (25).

Basically, Buber contrasts the objectifying I-It way of human existence with the more relational, spiritual, I-You way.  While I-It is not too difficult to explain, I-You is necessarily harder to nail down – through Buber’s writings, it is almost more defined by what it is not than what it is.  I observed a definite similarity between Buber’s descriptions of encounters with the You and the Joy that C.S. Lewis describes so beautifully in Surprised by Joy (16-18).  Sadly, I lack the skill and understanding to do much rephrasing and condensing, so what follows is a collection of my favourite passages – the ones I particularly wish to remember.

N.B. Lest I misrepresent the tone of this book through selective quotes, let me be clear that it is not until the third part that Buber (who is Jewish) talks specifically about religion and God.  His philosophical ideas are too big to be limited to Christian apologetics and are equally valid for the religious and non-religious.  The reason I tend to quote the third part more than the others is because it is the part I understand best and is therefore most meaningful to me.

On the contrast between I-It and I-You:

I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air – and the growing itself in its darkness.
I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.
I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law – those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.
I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.
Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.  The power of exclusiveness has seized me.
This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation.  There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget.  Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.
Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars – all this in its entirety.
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it – only differently.
One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.
Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own?  I have no experience of that.  But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible?  What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself (57).

On the I-It:

The man who has acquired an I and says I-It assumes a position before things but does not confront them in the current of reciprocity.  He bends down to examine particulars under the objectifying magnifying glass of close scrutiny, or he uses the objectifying telescope of distant vision to arrange them as mere scenery.  In his contemplation he isolates them without any feeling for the exclusive or joins them without any world feeling.  The former could be attained only through relation, and the latter only by starting from that.  Only now he experiences things as aggregates of qualities.  Qualities, to be sure, had remained in his memory after every encounter, as belonging to the remembered You; but only now things seem to him to be constructed of their qualities (80).

On the I-You:

No prescription can lead us to the encounter, and none leads from it.  Only the acceptance of the presence is required to come to it or, in a new sense, to go from it.  As we have nothing but a You on our lips when we enter the encounter, it is with this on our lips that we are released from it into the world.

That before which we live, that in which we live, that out of which and into which we live, the mystery – has remained what it was.  It has become present for us, and through its presence it has made itself known to us as salvation; we have “known” it, but we have no knowledge of it that might diminish or extenuate its mysteriousness.  We have come close to God, but no closer to an unriddling, unveiling of being.  We have felt salvation but no “solution.”  We cannot go to others with what we have received, saying: This is what needs to be known, this is what needs to be done.  We can only go and put to the proof in action.  And even this is not what we “ought to” do: rather we can – we cannot do otherwise (159).

On “I”:

The I of the basic word I-You is different from that of the basic word I-It.

The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego and becomes conscious of itself as a subject (of experience and use).

The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity (without any dependent genetive).

Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos.

Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons (111).

On the contrast between I-It and I-You with regard to religion:

In the relation to God, unconditional exclusiveness and unconditional inclusiveness are one.  For those who enter into the absolute relationship, nothing particular retains any importance – neither things nor beings, neither earth nor heaven – but everything is included in the relationship.  For entering into the pure relationship does not involve ignoring everything but seeing everything in the You, not renouncing the world but placing it upon its proper ground.  Looking away from the world is no help toward God; staring at the world is no help either; but whoever beholds the world in him stands in his presence.  “World here, God there” – that is It-talk; and “God in the world” – that, too, is It-talk; but leaving out nothing, leaving nothing behind, to comprehend all – all the world – in comprehending the You, giving the world its due and truth, to have nothing besides God but to grasp everything in him, that is the perfect relationship.

One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world.  Whoever goes forth to his You with his whole being and carries to it all the being of the world, finds him whom one cannot seek.

Of course, God is “the wholly other”; but he is also the wholly same: the wholly present.  Of course, he is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overwhelms; but he is also the mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own I (127).

The You-sense of the man who in his relationships to all individual Yous experiences the disappointment of the change into It, aspires beyond all of them and yet not all the way toward his eternal You.  Not the way one seeks something: in truth, there is no God-seeking because there is nothing where one could not find him.  How foolish and hopeless must one be to leave one’s way of life to seek God: even if one gained all the wisdom of solitude and all the power of concentration, one would miss him.  It is rather as if a man went his way and merely wished that it might be the way; his aspiration finds expression in the strength of his wish.  Every encounter is a way station that grants him a view of fulfillment; in each he thus fails to share, and yet also does share, in the one because he is ready.  Ready, not seeking, he goes his way; this gives him the serenity toward all things and the touch that helps them.  But once he has found, his heart does not turn away from them although he now encounters everything in the one.  He blesses all the cells that have sheltered him as well as all those where he will still put up.  For this finding is not an end of the way but only its eternal center (128).

One cannot divide one’s life between an actual relationship to God and an inactual I-It relationship to the world – praying to God in truth and utilizing the world.  Whoever knows the world as something to be utilized knows God the same way.  His prayers are a way of unburdening himself – and fall into the ears of the void.  He – and not the “atheist” who from the night and longing of his garret window addresses the nameless – is godless (156).

A modern philosopher supposes that every man believes of necessity either in God or in “idols” – which is to say, some finite good, such as his nation, his art, power, knowledge, the acquisition of money, the “ever repeated triumph with women” – some good that has become an absolute value for him, taking its place between him and God; and if only one proves to a man the conditionality of this good, thus “smashing” the idol, then the diverted religious act would all by itself return to its proper object.

This view presupposes that man’s relation to the finite goods that he “idolizes” is essentially the same as his relationship to God, as if only the object were different: only in that case could the mere substitution of the proper object for the wrong one save the man who has gone wrong.  But a man’s relation to the “particular something” that arrogates the supreme throne of his life’s values, pushing eternity aside, is always directed toward the experience and use of an It, a thing, an object of enjoyment.  For only this kind of relation can bar the view to God, by interposing the impenetrable It-world; the relationship that says You always opens it up again.  Whoever is dominated by the idol whom he wants to acquire, have, and hold, possessed by his desire to possess, can find a way to God only by returning, which involves a change not only of the goal but also of the kind of movement.  One can heal the possessed only by awakening and educating him to association, not by directing his possession toward God.  If a man remains in the state of possession, what does it mean that he no longer invokes the name of a demon or of a being that is for him distorted demonically, but that of God?  It means that he blasphemes.  It is blasphemy when a man whose idol has fallen down behind the altar desires to offer to God the unholy sacrifice that is piled up on the desecrated altar.

When a man loves a woman so that her life is present in his own, the You of her eyes allows him to gaze into a ray of the eternal You.  But if a man lusts after the “ever repeated triumph” – you want to dangle before his lust a phantom of the eternal?  If one serves a people in a fire kindled by immeasurable fate – if one is willing to devote oneself to it, one means God.  But if the nation is for him an idol to which he desires to subjugate everything because in its image he extols his own – do you fancy that you only have to spoil the nation for him and he will then see the truth?  And what is it supposed to mean that a man treats money, which is un-being incarnate, “as if it were God”?  What does the voluptuous delight of rapacity and hoarding have in common with the joy over the presence of that which is present?  Can mammon’s slave say You to money?  And what could God be to him if he does not know how to say You?  He cannot serve two masters – not even one after the other; he must first learn to serve differently.

Whoever has been converted by substitution, now “has” a phantom that he calls God.  God, however, the eternal presence, cannot be had.  Woe unto the possessed who fancy that they possess God! (153)

Man desires to have God; he desires to have God continually in space and time.  He is loath to be satisfied with the inexpressible confirmation of the meaning; he wants to see it spread out as something that one can take out and handle again and again – a continuum unbroken in space and time that insures life for him at every point and moment.

Life’s rhythm of pure relation, the alternation of actuality and a latency in which only our strength to relate and hence also the presence, but not the primal presence, wanes, does not suffice man’s thirst for continuity.  He thirsts for something spread out in time, for duration.  Thus God becomes an object of faith.  Originally, faith fills the temporal gaps between the acts of relation; gradually, it becomes a substitute for these acts.  The ever new movement of being through concentration and going forth is supplanted by coming to rest in an It in which one has faith.  The trust-in-spite-of-all of the fighter who knows the remoteness and nearness of God is transformed ever more completely into the profiteer’s assurance that nothing can happen to him because he has the faith that there is One who would not permit anything to happen to him (161).

On Love:

Less clear is the element of action in the relation to a human You.  The essential act that here establishes directness is usually understood as a feeling, and thus misunderstood.  Feelings accompany the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love, but they do not constitute it; and the feelings that accompany it can be very different.  Jesus’ feeling for the possessed man is different from his feeling for the beloved disciple; but the love is one.  Feelings one “has”; love occurs.  Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in his love.  This is no metaphor but actuality: love does not cling to an I, as if the You were merely its “content” or object; it is between I and You.Whoever does not know this, know this with his being, does not know love, even if he should ascribe to it the feelings that he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses.  Love is a cosmic force (66).

On Spirit:

All doctrines of immersion are based on the gigantic delusion of a human spirit bent back into itself – the delusion that spirit occurs in man.  In truth it occurs from man – between man and what he is not (141).

On the Human Condition:

At times when man is overcome by the horror of the alienation between I and world, it occurs to him that something might be done.  Imagine that at some dreadful midnight you lie there, tormented by a waking dream: the bulwarks have crumbled and the abysses scream, and you realize in the midst of this agony that life is still there and I must merely get through to it – but how? how? Thus feels man in the hours when he collects himself: overcome by horror, pondering, without direction.  And yet he may know the right direction, deep down in the unloved knowledge of the depths – the direction of return that leads through sacrifice.  But he rejects this knowledge; what is “mystical” cannot endure the artificial midnight sun.  He summons thought in which he places, quite rightly, much confidence: thought is supposed to fix everything.  After all, it is the lofty art of thought that it can paint a reliable and practically credible picture of the world.  Thus man says to his thought: “Look at the dreadful shape that lies over there with those cruel eyes – is she not the one with whom I played long ago?  Do you remember how she used to laugh at me with these eyes and how good they were then?  And now look at my wretched I – I’ll admit it to you: it is empty, and whatever I put into myself, experience as well as use, does not penetrate to this cavern.  Won’t you fix things between her and me so that she relents and I get well again?”  And thought, ever obliging and skillful, paints with its accustomed speed a series – nay, two series of pictures on the right and the left wall.  Here is (or rather: happens, for the world pictures of thought are reliable motion pictures) the universe.  From the whirl of the stars emerges the small earth, from the teeming on earth emerges small man, and now history carries him forth through the ages, to persevere in rebuilding the anthills of the cultures that crumble under its steps.  Beneath this series of pictures is written “One and all.”  On the other wall happens the soul.  A female figure spins the orbits of all stars and the life of all creatures and the whole of world history; all is spun with a single thread and is no longer called stars and creatures and world but feelings and representations or even living experiences and states of the soul.  And beneath this series of pictures is written: “One and all.”

Henceforth, when man is for once overcome by the horror of alienation and the world fills him with anxiety, he looks up (right or left, as the case may be) and sees a picture.  Then he sees that the I is contained in the world, and that there really is no I, and thus the world cannot harm the I, and he calms down; or he sees that the world is contained in the I, and that there really is no world, and thus the world cannot harm the I, and he calms down.  And when man is overcome again by the horror of alienation and the I fills him with anxiety, he looks up and sees a picture; and whichever he sees, it does not matter, either the empty I is stuffed full of world or it is submerged in the flood of the world, and he calms down.

But the moment will come, and it is near, when man, overcome by horror, looks up and in a flash sees both pictures at once.  And he is seized by a deeper horror (120).

On freedom and fate:

The man to whom freedom is guaranteed does not feel oppressed by causality.  He knows that his mortal life is by its very nature an oscillation between You and It, and he senses the meaning of this.  It suffices him that again and again he may set foot on the threshold of the sanctuary in which he could never tarry.  Indeed, having to leave it again and again is for him an intimate part of the meaning and destiny of this life.  There, on the threshold, the response, the spirit is kindled in him again and again; here, in the unholy and indigent land the spark has to prove itself.  What is here called necessity cannot frighten it; for there he recognized true necessity: fate.

Fate and freedom are promised to each other.  Fate is encountered only by him that actualizes freedom.  That I discovered the deed that intends me, that, this movement of my freedom, reveals the mystery to me.  But this, too, that I cannot accomplish it the way I intended it, this resistance also reveals the mystery to me.  He that forgets all being caused as he decides from the depths, he that puts aside possessions and cloak and steps bare before the countenance – this free human being encounters fate as the counter-image of his freedom.  It is not his limit but his completion; freedom and fate embrace each other to form meaning; and given meaning, fate – with its eyes, hitherto severe, suddenly full of light – looks like grace itself (102).

Free is the man that wills without caprice.  He believes in the actual, which is to say: he believes in the real association of the real duality, I and You.  He believes in destiny and also that it needs him.  It does not lead him, it waits for him.  He must proceed toward it without knowing where it waits for him.  He must go forth with his whole being: that he knows.  It will not turn out the way his resolve intended it; but what wants to come will come only if he resolves to do that which he can will.  He must sacrifice his little will, which is unfree and ruled by things and drives, to his great will that moves away from being determined to find destiny.  Now he no longer interferes, nor does he merely allow things to happen.  He listens to that which grows, to the way of Being in the world, not in order to be carried along by it but rather in order to actualize it in the manner in which it, needing him, wants to be actualized by him – with human spirit and human deed, with human life and human death.  He believes, I said; but this implies: he encounters (108).

[Why I read it: I Stumbled on E. E. Cummings lovely poem “i carry your heart with me,” which led me to his Wikipedia page, which states that he tended towards an “I Thou” view of God, so I briefly looked at the book’s Wikipedia page and then ordered it from the library.]


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