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Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue by Maurice S. Friedman

Maurice S. Friedman is Professor Emeritus of religious studies, philosophy and comparative literature at San Diego State University. Martin Buber (1878-1965).was a Viennese Jewish philosopher and religious leader who translated the Old Tetament into German. He was a Zionist. He sought understainding between Jews and Arabs. Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1955 and reprinted in 1960 by Harpers, N.Y. as a First Harper Torchbook edition. This material prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 6: Philosophy of Realization

As far as Buber goes beyond transcendental idealism, he still starts with Kant’s teaching that we ourselves impose the order of space and time upon experience in order that we may orient ourselves in it. From Kant, Buber says, he gained an inkling ‘that being itself was beyond the reach alike of the finitude and the infinity of space and time, since it only appeared in space and time but did not itself enter into this appearance.’ But the problem that Buber faced and that he inherited from the age when idealism had begun to break up was that of how man can reach ‘reality’ without returning to the naïve, preKantian ‘objective’ view of the universe. (Between Man and Man, op. cit., ‘What Is Man?’ pp. 136-137, Kohn op. cit. pp. 244 245; Hugo Bergmann, ‘Begriff und Wirklichkeit. Ein Beitrag zur Philosophie Martin Bubers und J. G. Fichtes,’ Der Jude, Berlin, X, No. 5 [March 1928], ‘Sonderheft zu Martin Bubers fünfzigstem Geburtstag,’ pp. 96-97.)

Buber found this reality through perceiving that in addition to man’s orienting function he also possesses a ‘realizing’ function which brings him into real contact with God, with other men, and with nature. The thought of his teacher Wilhelm Dilthey provided an important bridge to this philosophy of ‘realization,’ for Dilthey based his thought on the radical difference between the way of knowing proper to the ‘Geisteswissenschaften’ -- the human studies such as philosophy, the social sciences, and psychology -- and that proper to the ‘Naturwissenschaften’ -- the natural sciences. In the former the knower cannot be merely a detached scientific observer but must also himself participate, for it is through his participation that he discovers both the typical and the unique in the aspects of human life that he is studying. (H. A. Hodges, Wilhelm Dilthey, An Introduction [New York: Oxford University Press, 1944], pp. viii-ix, 12-16.)

Another important influence on Buber’s philosophy of realization, as on his closely related philosophy of Judaism, was the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. In one of his earliest articles Buber spoke of Nietzsche as ‘the first pathfinder of the new culture,’ ‘the awakener and creator of new life-values and a new world-feeling.’ Nietzsche’s influence may account in part for the dynamism of Buber’s philosophy, for its concern with creativity and greatness, for its emphasis on the concrete and actual as opposed to the ideal and abstract, for its idea of the fruitfulness of conflict, and for its emphasis on the value of life impulses and wholeness of being as opposed to detached intellectuality. (Martin Buber, ‘Ein Wort über Nietzsche und die Lebenswerte ‘ Kunst und Leben, Berlin, December 1900; quoted in Kohn, op. cit., p. 36; Kohr, pp. 21-22, 26-27, 227).

Probably the strongest influence on Buber’s concept of realization, however, was the existentialist philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard. In Kierkegaard’s earlier works are found the germ of some of Buber’s most important early and later ideas: the direct relation between the individual and God in which the individual addresses God as ‘Thou,’ the insecure and exposed state of every individual as an individual, the concept of the ‘knight of faith’ who cannot take shelter in the universal but must constantly risk all in the concrete uniqueness of each new situation, the necessity of becoming a true person before going out to relation, and the importance of realizing one’s belief in one’s life. These similarities plus Buber’s own treatment of Kierkegaard in his mature works make it clear that Kierkegaard is one of the most important single influences on Buber’s thought. (Cf. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, translated by Walter Lowrie [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941], pp. 55-56, 118-120, 189-190. For Buber’s treatment of Kierkegaard see Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith, 2nd edition, with Postscript by the Author added [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958], pp. 106-109, Hasidism and Modern Man op. cit., Book VI, ‘Love of God and Love of Neighbor,’ pp. 227-233, Between Man and Man, op. cit., ‘The Question to the Single One,’ pp. 48-82, and ‘What Is Man? ‘pp. 161-163, 171-181; and Eclipse of God, op. cit., ‘On the Suspension of the Ethical,’ translated by Maurice Friedman, pp. 149-156.)

Buber has spoken of Kierkegaard and Dostoievsky together as the two men of the nineteenth century who will, in his opinion, ‘remain’ in the centuries to come. In Dostoievsky Buber found spiritual intensity, fervour, depth of insight, and an understanding of man’s inner cleavage. He also found in him something of that dynamism and concern for realization in life that mark both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Finally, he found in him a dialectic very similar to his own intellectual processes and a world-affirming mystic religion of ecstasy, love, and brotherhood which bears a remarkable resemblance to his own thought.

In Daniel (1913) we find Buber’s concern for unity, realization, and creativity expressed for the first time entirely in its own terms and not as the interpretation of some particular thought or religious or cultural movement. Daniel is the first mature and comprehensive expression of Buber’s philosophy, and it is at the same time the most creative and organically whole of his books to appear up till that time.

‘In each thing,’ writes Buber in Daniel, ‘there opens to you the door of the One if you bring with you the magic that unlocks it: the perfection of your direction.’ But direction is only complete when it is fulfilled with power: the power to experience the whole event. Power alone gives one only the fullness, direction alone only the meaning of the experience -- power and direction together allow one to penetrate into its substance, into oneness itself.

The vortex of happenings sweeps over one like a sandstorm which threatens to destroy one. Which type of soul one has is decided by how one withstands it. One type of person thinks only of protection, of the inherited arts of self-defence; he educates his senses to perceive in place of the vortex an ordered world conceived within the framework of basic principles of experience. He no longer meets the world but only his own cause-and-purpose oriented conceptions of it. The other type of person lets stand, to be sure, the ordered world -- the world of utility in which he can alone live with other men; he accepts it and learns its laws. But deep within him grows and endures the readiness to go out to meet the naked chaos armed with nothing but the magic of his inborn direction.

Direction is that primeval tension of a human soul which moves it to choose and to realize this and no other out of the infinity of possibilities. In direction the soul does not order reality but opens and delivers itself to it, and not with the senses and understanding alone but with its whole being. Direction is thus a finding of one’s own way and a realization of one’s inmost being that gives one the strength to withstand in openness the confused stream of outer and inner happenings. But direction is neither individuality, determinism, nor arbitrary self-will. It is the realization of what was already potentially the one true direction of one’s personality. Nor does this self-realization exclude fellowship with others. Rather it makes possible true community, from being to being. (Martin Buber, Daniel, Gespräche von der Verwirklichung [Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1913], ‘Von der Richtung,’ pp. 13, 16-22.)

There is a twofold relation of men to their experience: the orienting and the realizing. That which man experiences, doing and suffering, creating and enjoying, he can order in the continuity of experience for the sake of his goals or he can comprehend in its power and splendour for its own sake. If man orders it, he works with it according to its forms and laws. And this ordering is not to be despised. How should we not honour the unsurveyable edifice of science and its wonderful development? But everywhere where orienting knowledge rules by itself, it takes place at the cost of the experience of reality.

Realization refers to that enhanced meaning of life which springs from moments of intensified existence and intensified perception. This is what it means to realize: to relate experience to nothing else but itself. And here is the place where the strength of the human spirit awakens and concentrates and becomes creative. Whereas in the system of experiencing one has only to arrange and order, and living with only one part of one’s being can come to terms with the all; in realizing one. must bring forth the totality of one’s being in order to withstand a single thing or event. But because power thus gives itself to the thing or event, it creates reality in it and through it. For that alone is reality which is so experienced.

There is no purely realizing or purely orienting type of man. As in the life of the community attained reality must ever again be placed in the continuity of experience, so in the life of the individual hours of orienting follow hours of realization and must so follow. But the creative man is he who has the most effective power of realization; he is the man in whom the realizing force of the soul has so concentrated into work that it creates reality for all. The creative man possesses the unbroken power of realization, for in his creativity mature orientation is also included as a dependent and serving function.

Realized experience creates the essential form of existence; only here can what we call ‘things’ and what we call ‘I’ find their reality. For all experience is a dream of being bound together; orientation divides and sunders it, realization accomplishes and proclaims it. Nothing individual is real in itself, for it is only preparation: all reality is fulfilled binding. In each man there lives, utilized or suppressed, the power to become unified and to enter into reality.

Men of realization are few in our time, which makes up for them with the doers and performers -- those who act without being, who give what they do not have, who conquer where they have not fought. The undue predominance of orientation has settled in the blood of our time and has dissolved its reality. Men have objects and know how to attain them. They have a milieu, and they have information about their milieu. They also have spirituality of many kinds, and they talk a great deal. Yet all of this is outside of reality. Men live and do not realize what they live, for their experience is ordered without being comprehended. Their limitations are so closely bound to them that they call them elegant names -- culture, religion, progress, tradition, or intellectuality; ‘ah, a thousand masks has the unreal!’ (Ibid., ‘Von der Wirklichkeit,’ pp. 29-47)

All living with the whole being and with unconstrained force means danger; there is no thing, relation, or event in the world that does not reveal an abyss when it is known, and all thinking threatens to shatter the stability of the thinker. He who lives his life in genuine, realizing knowledge must perpetually begin anew, perpetually risk all; and therefore his truth is not a having but a becoming. The orienting man wants security and security once for all: he wants to know his way about, and he wants a solid general truth that will not overturn him. But the man who forgets himself in order to use his power of realization loves the underived truth which he who ventures creates out of the depths. He does not want to know where he is at; for he is not always at the same place, but is ever at the new, at the uttermost, at God. God cannot realize Himself in men otherwise than as the innermost presence of an experience, and the God of this experience is therefore not the same, but always the new, the extreme. Orientation which acts as the all-embracing is thoroughly godless; godless also is the theologian who places his god in causality, a helping formula of orientation, and the spiritualist who knows his way about in the ‘true world’ and sketches its topography.

The realizing man is unprotected in the world, but he is not abandoned; for there is nothing that can lead him astray. He does not possess the world, yet stands in its love; for he realizes all being in its reality. He has that before which all security appears vain and empty: direction and meaning. When he comes to a crossroads, he makes his choice with immediate decision as out of a deep command. When he acts, he does his deed and no other, and he decides with his being. The deed is not limited for him, as it is for the orienting man, to causality and evolution; he feels himself free and acts as a free man. The orienting man places all happening in formulas, rules, and connections; the realizing man relates each event to nothing but its own intrinsic value. He receives what befalls him as a message; he does what is necessary as a commission and a demonstration. He who descends into the transforming abyss can create unity out of his and out of all duality. Here no ‘once for all’ is of value; for this is the endless task. This is the kingdom of God: the kingdom of ‘holy insecurity.’ (Martin Buber, ‘Daniel. Gespräche von der Verwirklichung [Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1913], ‘Von dem Sinn,’ pp. 55-82. ‘Today,’ writes Buber, ‘I would not any more describe the kingdom so extravagantly! [Daniel is still too much a book of the "easy word"].’ From a letter from Professor Buber to the author of August 8, 1954.)

All wisdom of the ages has the duality of the world as its subject. However it names the two forces that it makes known -- spirit and matter, form and material, being and becoming, reason and will, or positive and negative element -- it has in mind the overcoming of their tension, the union of their duality. The longing for unity is the glowing ground of the soul; but the man who is true feels that he would degrade this longing if he surrendered something of the fullness of his experience to please it. He feels that he can only become obedient to it in truth if he strives to fulfill it out of his completeness and preserves his experienced duality undiminished in the force of its distance.

For this reason the faithful man rejects the Absolute of the Vedantic non-dualist as a life-denying unity found apart from the main highroad on which the faithful man must travel. He rejects in like manner the abstract unity of European idealist philosophy and the empty unity of the Taoist who indifferentiates all opposition in himself. True unity is the unity of the world as it is, a unity which excludes nothing and destroys nothing but transforms the stubborn material of life into oneness through the realizing action of men. It is the unity of man and man, of man and the world, of life and death; the unity which is realized by the man who in his own life has direction and meaning. It is the unity which includes all evil, even the kingdom of Satan; for it can accept nothing less than the whole. But just because this is a realized unity, it is one that is never completely attained, one which ever again comes forth as purer and sharper duality. This new duality, in turn, provides the material for an ever higher and more nearly perfect oneness. Each new act of inner unification enables the individual to take unto himself ever greater tensions of world-polarity and bring them to unity. (Ibid., ‘von der Einheit,’ pp. 139-152. Erich Przywara, S.J., identifies the three wrong ways in Daniel as the Hindu, the European, and the Chinese, respectively in ‘Judentum und Christentum,’ Stimme der Zeit, CX [1925-26], 87.)

Hereafter, however Buber may change his philosophy, he never forsakes his belief in a redemption which accepts all the evil of real life and transforms it into the good. Between the extremes of pantheism and an absolute divorced from the world lies the duality of a God who is real in Himself yet must be realized in the world through man’s life. In this middle sphere the mystic’s demand for a life lived in terms of the highest reality and the existentialist’s demand for self-realization and genuine existence may meet in spirit. In Daniel this meeting has resulted in a new unity -- the philosophy of realization.

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