I and Thou

Since 1923, Martin Buber’s poetic masterpiece, I and Thou, has had an enormous impact. As Nick J. Watson wrote:

Similar to a number of his predecessors, such as Blake, Dostoyevsky and Pascal, Buber foresaw the desacralisation of western society…. He believed that modern thinking, characterized by secularism, scientism and rampant individualism had become so entrenched in modern life that humanity was becoming more and more isolated from God and each other.

According to My Jewish Learning:  

In I and Thou, Buber describes two kinds of relationships, the “I-It”, and the “I-Thou”. The I-It relationship is one based on detachment from others and involves a utilitarian approach, in which one uses another as an object. In contrast, in an I-Thou relationship, each person fully and equally turns toward the other with openness and ethical engagement. This kind of relationship is characterized by dialogue and by “total presentness.” In an I-Thou relationship, each participant is concerned for the other person.

Pearls of Wisdom includes a brief selection of passages from I and Thou, including:

To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude….

Thou can only be spoken with the whole being….

I-It can never be spoken with the whole being….

I perceive something. I am sensible of something. I imagine something. I will something. I feel something. I think something….

This and the like together establish the realm of It.

But the realm of Thou has a different basis.

When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing for his object…. Thou has no bounds…. He has indeed nothing.….

Man travels over the surface of things and experiences them. He extracts knowledge about their constitution from them: he wins an experience from them. He experiences what belongs to the things….

These present him only with a world composed of It and He and She and It again…

If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.

This human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbor, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light…

I become through my relation to the Thou…

But this is the exalted melancholy of our fate, that every Thou in our world must become an It…. As soon as the relation has been worked out or has been permeated with a means, the Thou becomes an object among objects… Genuine contemplation is over in a short time; now the life in nature, that first unlocked itself to me in the mystery of mutual action, can again be described, taken to pieces, and classified — the meeting-point of manifold systems of laws…. The human being who was … only able to be fulfilled, has now become again a He or a She, a sum of qualities, a given quantity with a certain shape…. But so long as I can do this he is no more my Thou…

…The It is the eternal chrysalis, the Thou the eternal butterfly….

…These are the two basic privileges of the world of It. They move man to look on the world of It as the world in which he has to live, and in which it is comfortable to live, as the world, indeed, which offers him all manner of incitements and excitements, activity and knowledge. In this chronicle of solid benefits the moments of the Thou appear as strange lyric and dramatic episodes, seductive and magical, but tearing us away to dangerous extremes, loosening the well-tried context, leaving more questions than satisfaction behind them, shattering security — in short, uncanny moments we can well dispense with. For since we are bound to leave them and go back into the “world,” why not remain in it? Why not call to order what is over against us, and send it packing into the realm of objects?…

It is not possible to live in the bare present. Life would be quite consumed if precautions were not taken to subdue the present speedily and thoroughly. But it is possible to live in the bare past, indeed only in it may a life be organised. We only need to fill each moment with experiencing and using, and it ceases to burn.

And in all the seriousness of truth, hear this: without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man.

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