I and Thou

When we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human: Martin Buber

Migrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea on 20 October 2016. Photo by Yara Nardi/Italian Red Cross/Reuters

M M Owen is a British author of non-fiction. He obtained his PhD at the University of British Columbia, and now runs an animation studio called Misfit Productions and an independent publisher called Misfit Press.

2,500 words

Walter Benjamin; Marc Bloch; Ernst Cohen; Georg Alexander Pick. Some of the finest Jewish minds of the 20th century were lost to Nazi bloodlust. Martin Buber was one of the lucky ones. In March 1938, at 60 years of age, he left Germany for Jerusalem and a professorship at the Hebrew University. He had planned to return before too long, but six months later, Kristallnacht changed his mind. 

Born in Vienna in 1878, Buber seemed fated for Jewish-intellectual fame. His grandfather had been a rabbinic scholar, and his family tree stretched back through centuries of noted Jewish figures. There was a wobble in Buber’s adolescence, a spiritual crisis triggered by his perception of the ‘edgelessness’ of space and the infinite loneliness of time. Despite this crisis, the young Buber drifted back toward the Judaism of his birth. Through his teens – at the universities of Vienna, Leipzig and Berlin – his scholarly interests moved away from art history and toward religious mysticism. In 1904, Buber discovered the writings of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism – a Jewish sect more interested in subjective numinosity than external ritual. The 26-year-old Buber was, in his own words, ‘instantly overwhelmed’ by ‘the Hasidic soul’. Over the next few years, Buber published Yiddish Hasidic folktales in his native German tongue that proved wildly popular with readers. Alongside Buber’s spiritual rediscovery of Judaism came his rise to prominence within Zionism – the soon-to-be-successful movement to establish a Jewish homeland on that patch of earth which, in the Torah, God promises to the descendants of Abraham. 

It was midway through the First World War, already well-established as an author, that Buber began working on his most famous and influential work, Ich und Du – rendered in English as I and Thou. He finished a first draft in 1916, and published the final version in 1923. I and Thou is a slim book, marked by flights of heartfelt lyricism that channel Buber’s encounter with ‘the Hasidic soul’. Its brevity and literary passion has seen it join that small club of philosophical texts that the general reading public are capable of enjoying. (Other examples being Marcus Aurelius’ aphorisms, Michel de Montaigne’s essays, and Albert Camus’s take on the Sisyphus myth.) This same literary quality is often what causes the book to be dismissed by academic philosophers for being loose, unsystematic, overly subjective.

The basic argument of I and Thou goes like this: human existence is fundamentally interpersonal. Human beings are not isolated, free-floating objects, but subjects existing in perpetual, multiple, shifting relationships with other people, the world, and ultimately God. Life is defined by these myriad interactions ­– by the push and pull of intersubjectivity. This conception ties to Buber’s belief in the primacy of the spoken word. One of his life’s great projects was the 37-year process of producing an idiosyncratic German translation of the Bible wherein, to do justice to its oral roots, the text was divided into ‘breath measures’. For Buber, the act of speech embodied the deep-set interrelatedness of human beings. In speech, as in life, no ‘I’ is an island.

I and Thou argues that within this elementally networked reality there are two basic modes of existence: the I-It, and the I-Thou. These two stances make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’. In the I-It mode, an ‘Ego’ approaches another as an object separate from itself. This type of engagement is driven by a sort of instrumentalism; the object is engaged primarily as something to be known or used, and its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard. From the I-It stance, we don’t engage with things in their entirety. Instead, we engage with a web of distinct and isolated qualities notable for how they are useful to us. Buber regarded this kind of self-centred outlook – typified, in his view, by proto-existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – as a grave error.

By contrast, in the I-Thou relationship, rather than simply experiencing another, we encounter them. A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it. The I-Thou stance has a purity and an intimacy, and is inherently reciprocal. In relation to others, he argued, we can step into an intersubjective space where two people coexist in (and co-contribute to) what he called the Between. In this Between lurks the vital, nourishing experience of human life, the real sacred stuff of existence. As he put it: ‘All real living is meeting.’

At the highest level, in Buber’s thinking, God represents the ‘eternal Thou’, the only entity with which we can maintain a permanent Between. In any other meeting, there is constant vacillation; even our most treasured Thou occasionally regresses to an It, even if for only a few moments. The quiet tragedy of this, of the impermanence of all true relation, is offset for Buber by the eternal Thou, a sort of Platonic form of encounter. God always escapes the objectifying impulse of the I-It stance, says Buber. He always exists as a unity of being in our minds. And every time we access the I-Thou at the human level, we chip a tiny shard off the shoulder of the towering marble statue of divine encounter.

It’s important to note that, for Buber, the I-It stance is not inherently negative. It is necessary and unavoidable that in life we treat certain things as Its. This is how we change a lightbulb, follow a recipe, collect data or compose a mathematical proof. In Buber’s reading, though, much of the alienation and stupefaction of modern living can be put down to our over-reliance on the I-It. ‘Without It,’ Buber wrote, ‘man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man.’ In Buber’s reading, many of us are dangerously close to living with It alone. We will solve our woes, he argued, by moving both our inner lives and our social structures away from the I-It and toward the I-Thou. Shifting reality toward something we encounter, not just experience, might eventually allow us to concentrate our soul to the point that we witness the truth of that magnificent, trite notion: God is love.

Buber’s consistent recourse to religious language risks putting off modern readers. That all meaningful experience requires tapping into a divine realm will trigger a severe frown in any nonbeliever. However, Buber’s philosophy is interesting – and endures today – in part because it doesn’t need Judeo-Christian theology to be useful. In 1949, the Swiss author Hermann Hesse described Buber as ‘one of the few wise men who live on the earth at the present time’. This wisdom goes beyond Hasidic Judaism.

God or no God, the notion that we should be wary of letting instrumentalism rule our relationships has a profound truth to it. Extreme examples are obvious: there is a cruelty to owning slaves, an emptiness to paying for sex.

The primacy of self-regard plumbs much subtler realms, though. How often do we like people because we want to interface with their whole being? Often, are the reasons we enjoy their company not products of the I-It? You laugh at my jokes; you don’t challenge my half-baked opinions; you praise my recent Instagram output; your perpetual disaster of a love life makes me feel better about my own. You often pay for dinner; you enable my mild drinking problem; you listen without complaint to my meandering anecdotes; when I flirt with you, you flirt back. And so on. Many relationships are like this: we don’t encounter an entire person; we experience a composite of the bits of that person we want. (The felt burden of this is what, in a poem, D H Lawrence termed ‘image-making love’.) The truth is we like to use people. For validation, for entertainment, for simple relief from boredom. Perhaps (as Marx argued) this dynamic is intensified by capitalism, which makes commodities of people, transactions of relationships. But our instrumentalism runs deeper than this. Capitalism only exploits what is already lurking there: our all-too-easy tendency toward a vicious, unwavering selfishness.

The inverse of the I-It demands something else. The I-Thou encounter has an inherent egalitarianism that dissolves self-interest. As Buber outlined, in the human realm there is no full escape from the I-It – we also love people for dull, functional reasons; we make selfish use even of our soulmates. But at the core, the I-Thou always demands vulnerability, weakness, a cracking of the hard shell of the egoistic self. Real love, the sort of love people wander through their lives craving, wants above all to distance itself from lust by shedding its preening self-regard. Falling in love is partly the terrifying realisation that you have stepped into reciprocity; that someone is now able to cause you terrible pain. This is the cost, the gamble. As Buber said, love ‘without real outgoing to the other … love remaining with itself – this is called Lucifer’. A love that can’t travel is the love of a narcissist. A life immersed exclusively in the I-It is the life of a sociopath. Extreme examples again, but what Buber does is show that, without conscious vigilance, innocuous moments can tend in such extreme directions.

Even if indiscriminate love is impossible, it is a glorious and gloriously daunting ideal

A life immersed entirely in the I-Thou hardly seems plausible either. If the world didn’t eat you alive for your kindness, you would be condemned to a glazed and useless hippiedom. The fall from innocence to experience is nothing if not the realisation that, in order to survive, you need to learn a little cruelty. But whatever the root of the human predicament, it clearly isn’t too much compassion. Or not enough self-interest.

Despite these tendencies, Buber argued, it would be better, surely, if we all lived more by the rule of Thou than by the rule of It. This is the understanding that I and Thou so poetically frames. Even if indiscriminate love is impossible, it is a glorious and gloriously daunting ideal. Within a Christian framework, it is precisely the tragedy of mankind that the one person capable of it was tortured to death. Buber, who was unusual among Jewish thinkers in regarding the Jewish Jesus as a spiritual brother, saw this, and revered ‘him who, nailed life-long to the cross of the world, dares that monstrous thing – to love all men.’

In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-91), the titular prophet declares that ‘Of all that is written, I love only what a person hath written with his blood.’ Buber’s work is certainly this. He was abandoned by his mother at three years old, and said in old age that his lifelong engagement with the nature of human relationships ‘had its origin in that moment’ when he realised she was never coming back. I and Thou is a book of feeling, not cold thought. Buber’s thought is steeped in religious language, but he was an honest thinker who wrote about the real stuff of being human in ways that can be useful to even the fiercest atheist.

In many ways, Buber’s faith was distinctly modern. The Basque essayist Miguel de Unamuno wrote in 1913 that belief in God ‘without anguish in mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair’ is not belief in God at all, but belief in a mere idea of God. On these terms, Buber was a true believer, describing himself as ‘a man struggling ever anew for God’s light and ever anew vanishing into God’s abysses’. He distrusted the systemisation of the spiritual instinct. In the same way that Leo Tolstoy was a passionate Christian who came to loathe his national church, Buber was a self-described ‘arch-Jew’ who thought that institutionalised faith ossified and corrupted the life of the spirit.

At Buber’s memorial service in July 1965, the theologian Paul Tillich said that Buber ‘anticipated freedom from religion, including the institutions of religion, in the name of that towards which religion points’. On these terms, Buber emerges as a sort of mystic. As Buber’s biographer Maurice Friedman writes, I and Thou ‘is a universal book, concerned not with the Jews but with modern Western man’. The general usefulness of his philosophy is shown by I and Thou’s famous cameo in Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). King paraphrased Buber and wrote that segregation ‘substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things’. In the end, I and Thou is a deeply religious text, but it is not about orthodoxy or dogma or tribe. It is about love.

Buber makes relationship godly. Makes loving people, really loving people, the thing

That said, there is a backdrop of tragedy to Buber’s philosophy. He was articulating his vision of redemptive empathy at a time when, in the land of his birth, humankind was mounting the most murderous display of the I-It stance in its history. There weren’t too many redemptive glimpses of the divine You within the walls of Auschwitz. And in the land to which Buber escaped, Jews and Arabs were at each other’s throats. As Judah Magnes, the then-president of the Hebrew University, lamented, Buber had thought ‘Zion could be built’ through ‘untiring creative work’. Instead it was built with ‘blood and fire’.

Even as Buber spoke about the crisis of modern man and the rise of I-It-ness as a global frame of mind, he still believed that we would arrive at a more loving, more ‘I-Thou’ world.

A beautiful vision, though some might find it insultingly sanguine in light of what actually took place during Buber’s lifetime. During anyone’s lifetime. But then, what choice do we have? Pessimism won’t bring back the dead, won’t correct history’s incalculable suffering. We need the best interpretations of our holy books we can muster, and Buber’s is a fine one. It makes relationship godly. Makes loving people, really loving people, the thing. Even ‘in the mud and scum of things,’ said Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘there alway, alway something sings.’ I and Thou certainly does that. ‘Whoever truly goes out to the world,’ wrote Buber, ‘goes out to God.’ You don’t have to believe the second part to think the first part sacred.

With thanks to Paul Mendes-Flohr.

This Essay was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon magazine from Templeton Religion Trust. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton Religion Trust.

Funders to Aeon Magazine are not involved in editorial decision-making, including commissioning or content approval.

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