Chapter 4: Mysticism

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

Chapter 4: Mysticism

The development of Buber’s thought from his earliest essays in 1900 to the statement of his mature philosophy in 1922 can best be understood as a gradual movement from an early period of mysticism through a middle period of existentialism to a final period of developing dialogical philosophy. Most of the ideas which appear in the early periods are not really discarded in the later but are preserved in changed form. Thus Buber’s existentialism retains much of his mysticism, and his dialogical philosophy in turn includes important mystical and existential elements.

The revival of mysticism at the turn of the century was in part a reaction against determinism and against the increasing specialization of knowledge. It was also a continuation of the mystical tendencies of the German romantics who could trace their ancestry back through Goethe and Schelling to the Pietists and Jacob Boehme. It was, finally, a result of the growing interest in mythology and in the religions of the Orient. All of these movements exercised a strong influence on Buber’s thought. The influence of Hinduism and Buddhism was most important at an early period. That of Taoism came slightly later and has persisted into Buber’s mature philosophy. At least as important was the influence of the German mystics from Meister Eckhart to Angelus Silesius. Of these mystics, the two most important for Buber were Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme, the former of whom Buber has called ‘the greatest thinker of western mysticism.’ These mystics provided a bridge for Buber to Jewish mysticism. The German mystical idea of the birth in the soul of the Urgrund, or godhead, resembles the Kabbalistic and Hasidic idea of the unification of God and His exiled immanence. The two concepts together led Buber, he says, ‘to the thought of the realization of God through man’ which he later abandoned for the idea of the meeting of God and man. )Hans Kohn, Martin Buber, Sein Werk und seine Zeit, Ein Versuch über Religion und Politik [Hellerau: Jakob Hegner Verlag, 1930], p. 56; Hasidism, op. cit., ‘God and the Soul,’ p. 148; Between Man and Man, op. cit., ‘What Is Man?’ pp. 184-185. In addition to his many translations and recreations of Hasidic tales and other Jewish legends, Buber edited and wrote introductions to a selection of the parables of Chuang-Tse -- Reden und Gleichnisse des Tschuang-Tse [Leipzig: Insel-Verlag, 1914], a book of Chinese ghost and love stories -- Chinesischen Geister- und Liebesgeschrchten [Frankfurt am Main: Rütten & Loening, 1911], a book of Celtic sayings --.Die yier Zweige des Mabinogi [Leipzig: Insel-Verlag, 1914], and a translation of the national epic of Finland.--.Kalewala [Munich: Georg Müller, 1914]. Buber’s introduction to the Kalewala was reprinted under the title ‘Das Epos des Zauberers’ in Hinweise, op. cit., pp. 84-103.)

One of the basic motivations for Buber’s interest in mysticism in this period was his concern with the problem of the relation between the individual and the world. On the one hand, he recognized as prime facts of his experience the division between the ‘I’ and the world and the duality within man. On the other, he posited the unity of the ‘I’ and the world in both intellectual and emotional terms. It is this very experience of aloneness and division which may have provided the great attraction of the mystic unity of all things. But it is this experience, too, which probably caused Buber to reject his earlier monistic formulations of an already existing unity which only needs to be discovered for a later emphasis on the necessity of realizing unity in the world through genuine and fulfilled life.

‘God is not divided but everywhere whole, and where he reveals himself, there he is wholly present.’ This wonderful world-feeling has become wholly our own, writes Buber. We have woven it in our innermost experience. There often comes to us the desire to put our arms around a young tree and feel the same surge of life as in ourselves or to read our own most special mystery in the eyes of a dumb animal. We experience the ripening and fading of far-distant stars as something which happens to us, and there are moments in which our organism is a wholly other piece of nature. (Martin Buber. ‘Ueber Jakob Böhme,’ Wiener Rundschau, V, No. 12 [June 15, 1901], pp. 251-253.)

The unity which the ecstatic experiences when he has brought all his former multiplicity into oneness is not a relative Unity, bounded by the existence of other individuals. It is the absolute, unlimited oneness which includes all others. The only true accompaniment of such experience is silence, for any attempt at communication places the ecstatic back in the world of multiplicity. Yet when the ecstatic returns to the world, he must by his very nature seek to express his experience. The need of the mystic to communicate is not only weakness and stammering; it is also power and melody. The mystic desires to bring the timeless over into time -- he desires to make the unity without multiplicity into the unity of all multiplicity. This desire brings to mind the great myths of the One which becomes the many because it wishes to know and be known, to love and be loved -- the myths of the ‘I’ creates a ‘Thou,’ of the Godhead that becomes God. Is not the experience of the ecstatic a symbol of the primeval experience of the world spirit? (Ekstatische Konfessionen [Jena: Eugen Diedrichs Verlag, 1909], pp. xi-xxvi.)

Corresponding to this dialectic between primal unity and the multiplicity of the world is the dialectic between conflict and love. The movement of conflict leads to individuation, that of love to God. Conflict is the bridge in and through which one ‘I’ reveals itself in its beauty to another ‘I.’ Love is the bridge through which being unites itself with God. Out of the intermixture of the two comes life, in which things neither exist in rigid separation nor melt into one another but reciprocally condition themselves. This concept finds its completion, writes Buber, in Ludwig Feuerbach’s sentence: ‘Man with man -- the unity of I and Thou --is God.’ The most personal lies in the relation to the other. Join a being to all beings and you lure out of it its truest individuality. (‘Ueber Jakob Bohme,’op. cit., p. 252; Lesser Ury,’p. 45f.)

God is immanent within the world and is brought to perfection through the world and through the life of man. The world is no being over against one. It is a becoming. We do not have to accept the world as it is; we continually create it. We create the world in that we unknowingly lend our perceptions the concentration and firmness that make them into a reality. But deeper and more inwardly we consciously create the world in that we let our strength flow into the becoming, in that we ourselves enter into world destiny and become an element in the great event. )‘Ueber Jacob Böhme,’ p. 251.)

Human life itself is the bearer and reality of all transcendence. Tao, ‘the way,’ is unity in change and transformation, and the perfect revelation of Tao is the man who combines the greatest change with the purest unity. Though Tao is the path, order, and unity of everything, it exists in things only potentially until it becomes living and manifest through its contact with the conscious being of the united man. Tao appears in men as the uniting force that overcomes all deviation from the ground of life, as the completing force that heals all that is sundered and broken. (Martin Buber, Die Rede, die Lehre, und das Lied [Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1920], pp. 40-79. ‘Die Lehre von Tao’ was originally published as a ‘Nachwort’ to Reden und Gleichnisse des Tschuang-Tse. It was most recently reprinted in Hinweise, op. cit., pp. 44-83, and in Pointing the Way, op. cit., ‘The Teaching of the Tao,’ pp. 31-58.)

The lived unity of the Tao cannot be attained by knowledge and action as men ordinarily conceive them; for what men call knowledge consists of the sunderance of the senses and mental power, and what men call action consists of the sunderance of intention and deed. Moreover, what men call human love and righteousness has nothing in common with the love of the perfect man, for it is perverted by being the subject of a command. The true action, the appearance of which is non-action, is a working of the whole being. To interfere with the life of things is to harm both them and oneself. But to rest is to effect, to purify one’s own soul is to purify the world, to surrender oneself to Tao is to renew creation. He who performs this action, or non-action, stands in harmony with the essence and destiny of all things. )‘Die Lehre von Tao,’ op. cit., pp. 80-94. Cf. Buber’s important Foreword to Pointing the Way, p. ix-x, in which he states that he has included ‘The Teaching of the Tao’ in this collection because it belongs to that ‘mystical’ ‘stage that I had to pass through before I could enter into an independent relationship with being.’ This experience of the unity of the self is understood by the mystic as the experience of the unity, and this leads him to turn away from his existence as a man to a duality of ‘higher’ hours of ecstasy and lower’ hours in the world which are regarded as preparation for the higher. ‘The great dialogue between I and Thou is silent; nothing else exists than his self, which he experiences as the self. That is certainly an exalted form of being untrue, but it is still being untrue.’)

Thus for Buber’s early mystical philosophy, evil is equivalent to inner division and separation from the ground of life, and the redemption of evil is the realization of a lived unity which not only removes the dissension in the individual but makes actual the unity and perfection of the world. Buber does not treat evil as pure illusion but as a negative force interacting with the good in a process leading back to the original unity. For Buber, as for the Baal-Shem, evil is no essence but a lack -- the throne of the good, the ‘shell’ which surrounds and disguises the essence of things. Though negative, evil is real and must be redeemed through the wholeness and purity of man’s being.