Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

I and Thou ()

There are two basic ways to interpret the story of the Fall of Man as it appears in Genesis.  The first is that Man had an ideal relationship with God in the Garden of Eden, which he ruined by eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.  The subsequent interplay between Man and God since then consists of an elaborate attempt to reestablish that original Edenic bliss.  In this view, Man essentially makes himself worthy of God by returning to a passive, submissive role and yielding to God's will.

The alternative understanding of the story is that when God created Man he withheld two things from him: knowledge/reason and eternal life.  Having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, Man acquired the capacity to reason and develop knowledge.  In order to make sure that Man did not also acquire the infinite lifespan in which to develop this knowledge, God banished him from the Garden.  In this view, Man is in the process of becoming God.  The subsequent relationship between Man and God consists of God putting obstacles in Man's way, like the multiplicicity of tongues as a result of the Tower of Babel, and man overcoming them.

The difference between these two views is stark and explains much of Western history.  The first view is a more spiritual and inspirational view; it is grounded in the emotions and the inchoate yearnings of human beings to be comforted.  It is a slave ideology, conveying the message that externalities are insignificant and what really matters is a personal relationship with God.  It requires no action on the part of Man, merely submission.  On the other hand, the second understanding is a call to action on the part of Man and a challenge to God.  It is an aspirational view, grounded on the belief that Man is perfectable.  It reflects the belief that through reason, increasing knowledge and expanding life spans, Man will one day be God's equal. In this context, Genesis is not a tragedy but a revolutionary manifesto.

All of which brings us to Martin Buber's I and Thou.  We had to read this in Philosophy and Religion my Freshman year at Colgate and I found it excrutiating reading.  Returning to it twenty years later has not helped.  Stripped of all the obtuse language, repetition and other kerfluffle, Buber's point is this:  humans are capable of two types of relationships, the I-It relationship is what we have with things or people whom we treat as objects.  The I-Thou relationship is the type of mutual relationship we have with some people and which he thinks we should have with God.  In the I-Thou relationship we recognize others as beings rather than things.

Here is an excerpt from the book that gives a nice flavor for how impenetrable its prose is:

    To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives what exists
    round about him - simply things, and beings as things; and what happens round about him - simply
    events, and actions as events; things consisting of qualities, events of moments; things entered in the
    graph of place, events in that of time; things and events bounded by other things and events,
    measured by them, comparable with them: he perceives an ordered and detached world. It is to some
    extent a reliable world, having density and duration. Its organization can be surveyed and brought
    out again and again; gone over with closed eyes, and verified with open eyes. It is always there, next
    to your skin, if you look on it that way, cowering in your soul, if you prefer it so. It is your object,
    remains it as long as you wish, and remains a total stranger, within you and without. You perceive
    it, take it to yourself as the "truth," and it lets itself be taken; but it does not give itself to you. Only
    concerning it may you make yourself "understood" with others; it is ready, though attached to
    everyone in a different way, to be an object common to you all. But you cannot meet others in it.
    You cannot hold on to life without it, its reliability sustains you; but should you die in it, your grave
    would be in nothingness.

    Or on the other hand, man meets what exists and becomes as what is over against him, always
    simply a single being and each thing simply as being. What exists is opened to him in happenings,
    and what happens affects him as what is. Nothing is present for him except this one being, but it
    implicates the whole world.  Measure and comparison have disappeared; it lies with yourself how
    much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you. These meetings are not organized to make the
    world, but each is a sign of the world-order.  They are not linked up with one another, but each
    assures you of your solidarity with the world. The world which appears to you in this way is
    unreliable, for it takes on a continually new appearance; you cannot hold it to its word. It has no
    density, for everything in it penetrates everything else; no duration, for it comes even when it is not
    summoned, and vanishes even when it is tightly held. It cannot be surveyed, and if you wish to make
    it capable of survey you lose it. It comes, and comes to bring you out; if it does not reach you, meet
    you, then it vanishes; but it comes back in another form. It is not outside you, it stirs in the depth of
    you; if you say "Soul of my soul" you have not said too much. But guard against wishing to remove
    it into your soul - for then you annihilate it. It is your present; only while you have it do you have
    the present. You can make it into an object for yourself, to experience and to use; you must
    continually do this - and as you do it you have no more present. Between you and it there is mutual
    giving: you say Thou to it and give yourself to it, it says Thou to you and gives itself to you. You
    cannot make yourself understood with others concerning it, you are alone with it. But it teaches you
    to meet others, and to hold your ground when you meet them. Through the graciousness of its
    comings and the solemn sadness of its goings it leads you away to the Thou in which the parallel
    lines of relations meet. It does not help to sustain you in life, it only helps you to glimpse eternity.

If you actually made it through those two paragraphs without your eyes glazing over, you need help.

Buber's concept of I and Thou, with it's emphasis on recognizing interrelations and dependencies and then immersing oneself in them, resembles Taoist or Buddhist ideas, but it also harkens back to the first reading of Man in the Garden of Eden above.  The goal is to experience this kind of completely internalized relationship with God.  It is, by and large, an attempt to comfort Man with the notion that it is in fact possible to enjoy such a relationship with mysterious spiritual forces which we can perceive in the world around us but which we can not understand through pure reason.   It is static, passive and wholly inner directed.

If I understand him properly, which I doubt, the following analogy might help:  think of Alexander Pope's image of the chain of being; in Buber's philosophy it suffices to recognize your place as a link in the chain and how you interlock with the other segments and that together you all form God's creation Through this realization, and acceptance of your role, you can then approach God.   Simply being and accepting being is enough.  It is this understanding of existence that has resulted in Buber being termed a religious existentialist.

Buber's theology though, like Existential philosophy, has been utterly rejected in Western culture and a good thing it is.  Instead we, by and large, believe in the infinite perfectability of Man.  We are not content to live out our existence as mere links in a chain; we believe that we can follow that chain to it's end and understand God's secrets, thereby becoming God ourselves (see Orrin's review of A Brief History of Time: from the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988)(Stephen W. Hawking  1942-)  (Grade: B-).  It is easy to see how this activist, outer directed understanding of Man's role in the Universe has led to the ascendancy of Western Civilization.  While other peoples, believing in a Buberesque sufficiency of their current existence, have dithered away their days in purely spiritual and contemplative pursuits, we in the West have been driven by the idea of Progress.  Perhaps this is even the best term to oppose to Existentialism; our culture is, in nonpolitical terms, Progressive rather than Existential.  We refuse to just be, choosing instead a process of becoming, always becoming, whether that means becoming more intelligent, longer lived, or whatever.

At any rate, the book is still just godawful--impenetrable prose joined to silly ideas--and whoever decided that eighteen year olds should start out their college educations by being required to read it should be flogged.


Grade: (F)


Martin Buber Links:

   -OBIT: Martin Buber, 87, Dies in Israel; Renowned Jewish Philosopher (The New York Times, June 14, 1965)

Book-related and General Links:
    -MARTIN BUBER (1878 - 1965)
    -Martin Buber Homepage
    -Existentialism and Martin Buber (Katharena Eirmann, Realm of Existentialism)
    -Philosophy of Religion Course Notes: "I and Thou" by Martin Buber (Longview C.C.)
    -Martin Buber: Toward a Greater Humaneness (Ida Postma)
    -ESSAY: Avishai Margalit: Prophets With Honor (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Henry David Aiken: Right-wing Existentialists (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of MARTIN BUBER'S LIFE AND WORK The Middle Years 1923-45. By Maurice Friedman  (Peter L. Berger, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Letters of Martin Buber: A Life of Dialogue by Nahum Glatzer (Werner Dannhauser, First Things)