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


In his combination of spiritual tension, breadth of scope, and central unity Martin Buber is similar to three of his most important intellectual and spiritual masters, Kierkegaard, Dostoievsky, and Nietzsche. He has gone beyond them, however, in his unwillingness to emphasize intensity for its own sake or to sacrifice one element of thought for the dramatization of another. He has held in tension and brought toward unity the various elements that they tended to isolate or to convert into irreconcilable antinomies. He has sacrificed the simpler intensity of the ‘Single One,’ the ‘God-man,’ and the ‘Superman’ for the tremendous spiritual tension of the ‘narrow ridge.’ He has not, like Kierkegaard, devalued man’s relation to man and to culture in favour of his individual relation with God; nor has he, like Nietzsche, stressed the dynamic realization of culture and value in individual life at the expense of the relation to God and fellow-man in all their independent ‘otherness.’ Like Dostoievsky, he has embraced rather than chosen between the opposites of self-affirmation and turning to God, of the individual and society, but he has gone beyond Dostoievsky in his ability to bring these opposites into true unity.

Buber’s philosophy of dialogue has made possible a new understanding of the problem of evil because it has reaffirmed the basic significance of the personal relation between the Absolute, the world, and man as against the tendency to submerge man in a mechanistic universe or to reduce God to an impersonal and indirect first cause, an abstract monistic absolute, or an immanent vital force. The answer which Buber finds in the Book of Job, as in the I-Thou relationship, is not an answer which solves or removes the problem. Wrong does not become right, yet God is near to Job once again, and in this nearness Job finds meaning in what has happened to him, a meaning which cannot be stated in any other terms than those of the relationship itself. This answer is not implied in the statement of the question, as it might seem to be, for God’s relation to man as the eternal Thou which never becomes an It does not make any the less real the ‘silence’ or ‘eclipse’ of God when He appears to hide Himself and we cut ourselves off from relation with Him. If He comes near to us again, this must be experienced as a real happening and not as a logical deduction from a set of basic assumptions.

Buber has demanded, as no other modern thinker, the hallowing of the everyday -- the redemption of evil through the creation of human community in relation with God. Does this attitude toward evil meet the challenge of Sartre’s existentialism, which sees evil as radical and unredeemable? Those who understand Buber’s philosophy will not hesitate to answer yes, for that philosophy is essentially concrete, close to experience, and realistic as only a life open to the reality of evil in the profoundest sense could produce.

It is the inclusion of tragedy within the redemption of evil which marks Buber’s deepest realism. Tragedy for Buber, as we have seen, is the conflict between two men through the fact that each of them is as he is. It is the tragedy of the contradiction, which arises from the fact that men cannot and do not respond to the address that comes to them from that which is over against them. They thereby crystallize this overagainstness into simple opposition and prevent the realization of its possibilities of relationship. This concept of tragedy is not an alternative to a religious view of life but an integral part of it. Not only Moses, but the prophets, the ‘suffering servant,’ Jesus and the Yehudi are to be understood in its light. Tragedy is not simply an event that should be removed, but in its deepest meaning an integral part of life. ‘We cannot leave the soil of tragedy,’ Buber has said, ‘but in real meeting we can reach the soil of salvation after the tragedy has been completed.’ For Buber the real distinction is not between a naïve acceptance of the world and the experiencing of its tragedy, but between the Gnostic belief in a contradiction that cuts the world off from God and the Jewish belief that ‘tragedy’ can be experienced in the dialogical situation, that the contradiction can become a theophany.

There is a movement from I-Thou to I-It even as from I-It to I-Thou, and one is sometimes tempted to believe that these movements are of equal force. To believe in the redemption of evil, however, means to believe that the movement from I-It to I-Thou, the penetration of I-It by I-Thou, is the fundamental one. This is a faith born out of the I-Thou relationship itself: it is trust in our relation with the Eternal Thou, in the ultimate oneness of the world with God. But redemption does not depend on God alone. Each man helps bring about the unity of God and the world through genuine dialogue with the created beings among whom he lives. Each man lets God into the world through hallowing the everyday.