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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 11: The World of It

Our culture has, more than any other, abdicated before the world of It. This abdication makes impossible a life in the spirit since spirit is a response of man to his Thou. The evil which results takes the form of individual life in which institutions and feelings are separate provinces and of community life in which the state and economy are cut off from the spirit, the will to enter relation. In both cases I-It is not evil in itself but only when it is allowed to have mastery and to shut out all relation. Neither universal causality nor destiny prevent a man from being free if he is able to alternate between I-It and I-Thou. But without the ability to enter relation and cursed with the arbitrary self-will and belief in fate that particularly mark modern man, the individual and the community become sick, and the I of the true person is replaced by the empty I of individuality.

In the history of both the individual and the human race, writes Buber, the proper alternation between I-It and I-Thou is disturbed by a progressive augmentation of the world of It. Each culture tends to take over the world of It from its predecessors or contemporaries. Hence in general the world of objects is more extensive in successive cultures. As a result, there is a progressive development from generation to generation of the individual’s ability to use and experience. For the most part this development is an obstacle to life lived in the spirit, for it comes about in the main ‘through the decrease of man’s power to enter into relation.’ (I and Thou, op. cit., p. 37ff.)

Spirit is not in the I but between I and Thou. To respond to the Thou man must enter into the relation with his whole being, but ‘the stronger the response the more strongly does it bind up the Thou and banish it to be an object.’ Only silence before the Thou leaves it free and unmanifest. But man’s greatness lies in the response which binds Thou into the world of It, for it is through this response that knowledge, work, image, and symbol are produced. All of these Thou’s which have been changed into It’s have it in their nature to change back again into presentness. But this fulfillment of their nature is thwarted by the man who has come to terms with the world of It. Instead of freeing, he suppresses; instead of looking, he observes; instead of accepting, he turns to account. (Ibid., p.39 f.)

Buber illustrates this statement from the realms of knowledge, art, and action. In knowledge the thing which is seen is exclusively present and exists in itself. Only afterwards is it related to other events or expressed as a general law, i.e. turned into an It so it can enter the structure of knowledge. ‘He who frees it from that, and looks on it again in the present moment, fulfills the nature of the act of knowledge to be real and effective between men.’ But it can be left as It, experienced, used, and appropriated to ‘find one’s bearings’ in the world. (Ibid., p. 40 f.)

‘So too in art; form is disclosed to the artist as he looks at what is over against him. He banishes it to be a "structure".’ The nature of this ‘structure’ is to be freed for a timeless moment by the meeting with the man who lifts the ban and clasps the form. But a man may simply experience art: see it as qualities, analyse how it is made, and place it in the scheme of things. Scientific and aesthetic understanding are not necessary in themselves. They are necessary in order that man ‘may do his work with precision and plunge it in the truth of relation, which is above the understanding and gathers it up in itself.’ (Ibid., p. 41 f.)

Finally, in pure effective action without arbitrary self-will man responds to the Thou with his life, and this life is teaching. It ‘may have fulfilled the law or broken it; both are continually necessary, that spirit may not die on earth.’ The life of such a person teaches those who follow how life is to be lived in the spirit, face to face with the Thou. But they may decline the meeting and instead pin the life down with information as an It, an object among objects. (Ibid., p. 42.)

The man who has come to terms with It has divided his life into two separated provinces: one of institutions -- It -- and one of feelings -- I.

Institutions are ‘outside,’ where all sorts of aims are pursued, where a man works, negotiates, bears influence, undertakes, concurs, organizes, conducts business, officiates, preaches.... Feelings are ‘within,’ where life is lived and man recovers from institutions. Here the spectrum of the emotions dances before the interested glance. (Ibid., p. 43.)

Neither institutions nor feelings know man or have access to real life. Institutions know only the specimen; feelings know only the ‘object.’ That institutions yield no public life is realized by many with increasing distress and is the starting-point of the seeking need of the age. But few realize that feelings yield no personal life, for feelings seem to be the most personal life of all. Modern man has learned to be wholly concerned with his own feelings, and even despair at their unreality will not instruct him in a better way -- ‘for despair is also an interesting feeling.’ (I and Thou, op. cit., p. 44 f.)

The solution to this lack of real public and personal life is not freedom of feeling, writes Buber. True community arises through people taking their stand in living mutual relation with a living Centre and only then through being in living mutual relation with each other. Community cannot be set up as a goal and directly attained, but can only result from a group of people being united around a common goal, their relation to the Eternal Thou. Similarly, true marriage arises through each partner’s revealing the Thou to the other. The erotic literature of the age which is so exclusively concerned with one person’s enjoyment of another and the pseudo-psychoanalytical thinking which looks for the solution to the problem of marriage through simply freeing ‘inhibitions’ both ignore the vital importance of the Thou which must be received in true presentness if human life, either public or personal, is to exist. (Ibid., p. 45 f.)

In communal life as in the individual it is not I-It but its mastery and predominance which are evil. Communal life cannot dispense with the world of It any more than man himself.

Man’s will to profit and to be powerful have their natural and proper effect so long as they are linked with, and upheld by, his will to enter into relation. There is no evil impulse till the impulse has been separated from the being; the impulse which is bound up with, and defined by, the being is the living stuff of communal life, that which is detached is its disintegration. Economics, the abode of the will to profit, and State, the abode of the will to be powerful, share in life as long as they share in the spirit. (Ibid., p. 48)

Man’s will to profit and to be powerful are impulses which can be given direction by I-Thou in the life of the individual and of the community. I-Thou is not only a direction, it is the direction; for it is itself the ultimate meaning and intrinsic value, an end not reached by any means, but directly present. I-Thou is the foundation underlying I-It, the spark of life within it, the spirit hovering over it.

What matters is not that the organization of the state be freer and economics more equitable, though these things are desirable, but that the spirit which says Thou remain by life and reality. To parcel out community life into separate realms one of which is spiritual life ‘would mean to give up once and for all to tyranny the provinces that are sunk in the world of It, and to rob the spirit completely of reality. For the spirit is never independently effective in life in itself alone, but in relation to the world.’ (Ibid., p. 50.) Thus what is good is not pure spirit, any more than what is evil is matter. Good is the interpenetration of spirit into life, and evil is spirit separated from life, life untransformed by spirit.

‘Causality has an unlimited reign in the world of It’ and is ‘of fundamental importance for the scientific ordering of nature.’ But causality does not weigh heavily on man, who can continually leave the world of It for the world of relation. In relation I and Thou freely confront each other in mutual effect, unconnected with causality. Thus it is in relation that true decision takes place.

Only he who knows relation and knows about the presence of the Thou is capable of decision. He who decides is free, for he has approached the Face.... Two alternatives are set side by side -- the other, the vain idea and the one, the charge laid on me. But now realization begins in me. For it is not decision to do the one and leave the other a lifeless mass, deposited layer upon layer as dross in my soul. But he alone who directs the whole strength of the alternative into the doing of the charge, who lets the abundant passion of what is rejected invade the growth to reality of what is chosen -- he alone who ‘serves God with the evil impulse’ makes decision, decides the event.... If there were a devil it would not be one who decided against God, but one who, in eternity, came to no decision. (Ibid., p. 51 f.)

Direction alone is not enough. To be fulfilled it must be accompanied by all of one’s power. If power of impulse is regarded as an evil to be suppressed, then it will accumulate in the soul and turn negative and will frustrate the very fulfillment that direction and the conscious self desire. But if the passion of the temptation is brought into the service of responsibility, then what otherwise appears a mere duty or an external action is transfigured and made radiant by the intention which enters into it.

To use the evil impulse to serve the good is to redeem evil, to bring it into the sanctuary of the good. It is this which is done by the man whose life swings between Thou and It, and it is this which reveals to him the meaning and character of life. ‘There, on the threshold, the response, the spirit, is kindled ever anew within him; here, in an unholy and needy country, this spark is to be proved.’ (Ibid., p. 53.) Thus man’s very freedom to do evil enables him to redeem evil. What is more, it enables him to serve the good not as a cog in a machine but as a free and creative being. Man’s creativity is the energy which is given to him to form and to direct, and the real product of this creativity is not a novel or a work of art, but a life lived in relation, a life in which It is increasingly interpenetrated by Thou.

We make freedom real to ourselves, says Buber, by forgetting all that is caused and making decision out of the depths. When we do this, destiny confronts us as the counterpart of our freedom. It is no longer our boundary but our fulfillment. ‘In times of healthy life trust streams from men of the spirit to all people.’ But in times of sickness the world of It overpowers the man who has come to terms with it, and causality becomes ‘an oppressive, stifling fate.’ Every great culture rests on an original response, and it is this response, renewed by succeeding generations, which creates for man a special way of regarding the cosmos, which enables him to feel at home in the world. But when this living and continually renewed relational event is no longer the centre of a culture, then that culture hardens into a world of It. Men become laden with the burden of ‘fate that does not know spirit’ until the desire for salvation is satisfied by a new event of meeting. The history of cultures is not a meaningless cycle but a spiral ascent to the point ‘where there is no advance or retreat, but only utterly new reversal -- the break-through.’ (l and Thou, op. cit., p. 56. Except here, Smith changes ‘reversal’ to ‘turning’ in the 2nd edition.)

Thus there is a limit to the evil which man can bring on himself, a limit to the overrunning mastery of the world of It. Smith’s translation of Buber’s ‘Umkehr’ as ‘reversal’ does not adequately convey the idea of the Hebrew teshuvah, man’s wholehearted turning to God, and it is in this sense that Buber has used ‘Umkehr’ in earlier works (‘Die Erneuerung des Judentums,’ ‘Zwiefache Zukunft.’ Der Geist des Orients und das Judentum,’ and Gemeinschaft) and continues to use it in later ones. It is not merely that man arrives at the last pitch of desperation, the place where he can no longer help himself. When he arrives there he himself performs the one great act which he can perform, the act which calls forth God’s grace and establishes new relation. At the very point when man has completely given over his life to the domination of the lifeless mechanism of world process, he can go forth with his whole being to encounter the Thou.

The one thing that can prevent this turning, says Buber, is the belief in fate. It is this belief which threatens to engulf our modern world as a result of the quasi-biological and quasi-historical thought of the age. Survival of the fittest, the law of instincts and habits, social process, dialectical materialism, cultural cycles --all work together to form a more tenacious and oppressive belief in fate than has ever before existed, a fate which leaves man no possibility of liberation but only rebellious or submissive slavery. Even the modern concepts of teleological development and organic growth are at base possession by process -- ‘the abdication of man before the exuberant world of It.’

All consideration in terms of process is merely an ordering of pure ‘having become,’ of the separated world-event, of objectivity as though it were history; the presence of the Thou, the becoming out of solid connexion, is inaccessible to it. (I and Thou, op. cit., p.57 f.)

The free man is he who wills without arbitrary self-will. He knows he must go out to meet his destiny with his whole being, and he sacrifices ‘his puny, unfree will, that is controlled by things and instincts, to his grand will, which quits defined for destined being.’

Then he intervenes no more, but at the same time he does not let things merely happen. He listens to what is emerging from himself, to the course of being in the world; not in order to be supported by it, but in order to bring it to reality as it desires, in its need of him, to be brought.... The free man has no purpose here and means there, which he fetches for his purpose: he has only the one thing, his repeated decision to approach his destiny. (Ibid., p. 59 f.)

In the ‘free man’ of I and Thou we meet once again the ‘non-action’ of the Tao and the kavanah, or consecrated action, of the Hasid.

In contrast to the free man stands the self-willed man who, according to Buber, neither believes nor meets. He does not know connection but only the outside world and his desire to use it. He has no destiny, for he is defined by things and instincts which he fulfills with arbitrary self-will. Incapable of sacrifice, he continually intervenes to ‘let things happen.’ His world is ‘a mediated world cluttered with purposes.’ His life never attains to a meaning, for it is composed of means which are without significance in themselves. Only I-Thou gives meaning to the world of It, for I-Thou is an end which is not reached in time but is there from the start, originating and carrying-through. The free man’s will and the attainment of his goal need not be united by a means, for in I-Thou the means and the end are one.

When Buber speaks of the free man as free of causation, process, and defined being, he does not mean that the free man acts from within himself without connection with what has come to him from the outside. On the contrary, it is only the free man who really acts in response to concrete external events. It is only he who sees what is new and unique in each situation, whereas the unfree man sees only its resemblance to other things. But what comes to the free man from without is only the precondition for his action, it does not determine its nature. This is just as true of those social and psychological conditioning influences which he has internalized in the past as of immediate external events. To the former as to the latter, he responds freely from the depths as a whole and conscious person. The unfree person, on the other hand, is so defined by public opinion, social status, or his neurosis that he does not ‘respond’ spontaneously and openly to what meets him but only ‘reacts.’ He does not see others as real persons, unique and of value in themselves, but in terms of their status, their usefulness, or their similarity to other individuals with whom he has had relationships in the past.

‘Individuality,’ the I of I-It, becomes conscious of itself as the subject of experiencing and using. It makes its appearance through being differentiated from other individualities and is conscious of itself as a particular kind of being. It is concerned with its My -- my kind, my race, my creation, my genius. It has no reality because it has no sharing and because it appropriates unto itself. ‘Person,’ on the other hand, the I of I-Thou, makes its appearance by entering into relation with other persons. Through relation the person shares in a reality which neither belongs to him nor merely lies outside him, a reality which cannot be appropriated but only shared. The more direct his contact with the Thou, the fuller his sharing; the fuller his sharing, the more real his I. (I and Thou, op. cit., p. 62 f.) But the I that steps out of the relational event into consciousness of separation retains reality as a seed within it.

This is the province of subjectivity in which the I is aware with a single awareness of its solidarity of connexion and of its separation. . . . Here, too, is the place where the desire is formed and heightened for ever higher, more unconditioned relation, for the full sharing in being. In subjectivity the spiritual substance of the person matures. (Ibid., p. 63)

No man is pure person and no man pure individuality; no man is entirely free and none, except a psychotic, entirely unfree. But some men are so defined by person that they may be called persons, and some are so defined by individuality that they may be called individuals. ‘True history is decided in the field between these two poles.’ (Ibid., p. 65.)

When it is not expressed outwardly in relation, the inborn Thou strikes inward. Then man confronts what is over against him within himself, and not as relation or presence but as self-contradiction, an inner Doppelgänger. The man who has surrendered to the world of outer and inner division ‘directs the best part of his spirituality to averting or at least to veiling his thoughts,’ for thinking would only lead him to a realization of his own inner emptiness. Through losing the subjective self in the objective whole or through absorbing the objective whole into the subjective self, he tries to escape the confrontation with the Thou. (Ibid., pp. 61,65-72) He hopes to make the world so ordered and comprehensible that there is no longer a possibility of the dread meeting which he wishes to avoid. And because he dares not meet the Thou in the casual moments of his daily life, he builds for himself a cataclysmic reversal, a way of dread and despair. It is through this way at last that he must go to confront the eternal Thou.

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