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Today considered a landmark of twentieth-century intellectual history, I and Thou is also one of the most important books of Western theology. In it, Martin Buber, heavily influenced by the writings of Frederich Nietzsche, united the proto-Existentialists currents of modern German thought with the Judeo-Christian tradition, powerfully updating faith for modern times. Since its first appearance in German in 1923, this slender volume has become one of the epoch-making works of our time. Not only does it present the best thinking of one of the greatest Jewish minds in centuries, but has helped to mold approaches to reconciling God with the workings of the modern world and the consciousness of its inhabitants.
This work is the centerpiece of Buber's groundbreaking philosophy. It lays out a view of the world in which human beings can enter into relationships using their innermost and whole being to form true partnerships. These deep forms of rapport contrast with those that spring from the Industrial Revolution, namely the common, but basically unethical, treatment of others as objects for our use and the incorrect view of the universe as merely the object of our senses, experiences. Buber goes on to demonstrate how these interhuman meetings are a reflection of the human meeting with God. For Buber, the essence of biblical religion consists in the fact that — regardless of the infinite abyss between them — a dialogue between man and God is possible.
Ecumenical in its appeal, I and Thou nevertheless reflects the profound Talmudic tradition from which it has emerged. For Judaism, Buber's writings have been of revolutionary importance. No other writer has so shaken Judaism from parochialism and applied it so relevantly to the problems and concerns of contemporary men. On the other hand, the fundamentalist Protestant movement in this country has appropriated Buber's "I and Thou encounter" as the implicit basis of its doctrine of immediate faith-based salvation. In this light, Martin Buber has been viewed as the Jewish counterpart to Paul Tillich.
This is the original English translation, available in America only in this hardcover edition of I and Thou. Martin Buber considered Ronald Smith's the best of the English translations and it was prepared in the author's presence. The more poetic rendering, this translation can be looked at as the King James Version of Buber's I and Thou.
Man's world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold. What is manifold is often frightening because it is not neat and simple. Men prefer to forget how many possibilities are open to them.
They like to be told that there are two worlds and two ways. This is comforting because it is so tidy. Almost always one way turns out to be common and the other one is celebrated as superior.
Those who tell of two ways and praise one are recognized as prophets or great teachers. They save men from confusion and hard choices. They offer a single choice that is easy to make because those who do not take the path that is commended to them live a wretched life.
To walk far on this path may be difficult, but the choice is easy, and to hear the celebration of this path is pleasant. Wisdom offers simple schemes, but truth is not so simple.
Not all simplicity is wise. But a wealth of possibilities breeds dread. Hence those who speak of many possibilities speak to the few and are of help to even fewer. The wise offer only two ways, of which one is good, and thus help many.
Mundus vult decipi: the world wants to be deceived. The truth is too complex and frightening; the taste for the truth is an acquired taste that few acquire.
Not all deceptions are palatable. Untruths are too easy to come by, too quickly exploded, too cheap and ephemeral to give lasting comfort. Mundus vult decipi; but there is a hierarchy of deceptions.
Near the bottom of the ladder is journalism: a steady stream of irresponsible distortions that most people find refreshing although on the morning after, or at least within a week, it will be stale and flat.
On a higher level we find fictions that men eagerly believe, regardless of the evidence, because they gratify some wish.
Near the top of the ladder we encounter curious mixtures of untruth and truth that exert a lasting fascination on the intellectual community.
What cannot, on the face of it, be wholly true, although it is plain that there is some truth in it, evokes more discussion and dispute, divergent exegeses and attempts at emendations than what has been stated very carefully, without exaggeration or onesidedness. The Book of Proverbs is boring compared to the Sermon on the Mount.
The good way must be clearly good but not wholly clear. If it is quite clear, it is too easy to reject.
What is wanted is an oversimplification, a reduction of a multitude of possibilities to only two. But if the recommended path were utterly devoid of mystery, it would cease to fascinate men. Since it clearly should be chosen, nothing would remain but to proceed on it. There would be nothing left to discuss and interpret, to lecture and write about, to admire and merely think about.
The world exacts a price for calling teachers wise: it keeps discussing the paths they recommend, but few men follow them. The wise give men endless opportunities to discuss what is good.
Men's attitudes are manifold. Some live in a strange world bounded by a path from which countless ways lead inside. If there were road signs, all of them might bear the same inscription: I-I.
Those who dwell inside have no consuming interest. They are not devoted to possessions, even if they prize some; not to people, even if they like some; not to any project, even if they have some.
Things are something that they speak of; persons have the great advantage that one cannot only talk of them but also to, or rather at them; but the lord of every sentence is no man but I. Projects can be entertained without complete devotion, spoken of, and put on like a suit or dress before a mirror. When you speak to men of this type, they quite often do not hear you, and they never hear you as another I.
You are not an object for men like this, not a thing to be used or experienced, nor an object of interest or fascination. The point is not at all that you are found interesting or fascinating instead of being seen as a fellow I. The shock is rather that you are not found interesting or fascinating at all: you are not recognized as an object any more than as a subject. You are accepted, if at all, as one to be spoken at and spoken of; but when you are spoken of, the lord of every story will be I.
Men's attitudes are manifold. Some men take a keen interest in certain objects and in other men and actually think more about them than they think of themselves. They do not so much say I or think I as they do I.
They "take" an interest, they do not give of themselves. They may manipulate or merely study, and unlike men of the I-I type they may be good scholars; but they lack devotion.
This I-It tendency is so familiar that little need be said about it, except that it is a tendency that rarely consumes a man's whole life. Those who see a large part of humanity — their enemies; of course — as men of this type, have succumbed to demonology.
This is merely one of the varieties of man's experience and much more widespread in all ages as a tendency and much rarer as a pure type in our own time than the Manichaeans fancy.
There are men who hardly have an I at all. Nor are all of them of one kind.
Some inhabit worlds in which objects loom large. They are not merely interested in some thing or subject, but the object of their interest dominates their lives. They are apt to be great scholars of extraordinary erudition, with no time for themselves, with no time to have a self.
They study without experiencing: they have no time for experience, which would smack of subjectivity if not frivolity. They are objective and immensely serious. They have no time for humor.
They study without any thought of use. What they study is an end in itself for them. They are devoted to their subject, and the notion of using it is a blasphemy and sacrilege that is not likely to occur to them.
For all that, their "subject" is no subject in its own right, like a person. It has no subjectivity. It does not speak to them. It is a subject one has chosen to study — one of the subjects that one may legitimately choose, and there may be others working on the same subject, possibly on a slightly different aspect of it, and one respects them insofar as they, too, have no selves and are objective.
Here we have a community of solid scholars — so solid that there is no room at the center for any core. Theirs is the world of It-It.
There are other ways of having no I. There are men who never speak a sentence of which I is lord, but nobody could call them objective. At the center of their world is We.
The contents of this We can vary greatly. But this is an orientation in which I does not exist, and You and It and He and She are only shadows.
One type of this sort could be called We-We. Theirs is a sheltered, childish world in which no individuality has yet emerged.
Another perennial attitude is summed up in the words Us-Them. Here the world is divided in two: the children of light and the children of darkness, the sheep and the goats, the elect and the damned.
Every social problem can be analyzed without much study: all one has to look for are the sheep and goats.
There is room for anger and contempt and boundless hope; for the sheep are bound to triumph.
Should a goat have the presumption to address a sheep, the sheep often do not hear it, and they never hear it as another I. For the goat is one of Them, not one of Us.
Righteousness, intelligence, integrity, humanity, and victory are the prerogatives of Us, while wickedness, stupidity, hypocrisy, brutality, and ultimate defeat belong to Them.
Those who have managed to cut through the terrible complexities of life and offer such a scheme as this have been hailed as prophets in all ages.
In these five attitudes there is no You: I-I, I-It, It-It, We-We, and Us-Them. There are many ways of living in a world without You.
There are also many worlds with the two poles I-You.
l-You sounds unfamiliar. What we are accustomed to is I-Thou. But man's attitudes are manifold, and Thou and You are not the same. Nor is Thou very similar to the German Du.
German lovers say Du to one another, and so do friends. Du is spontaneous and unpretentious, remote from formality, pomp, and dignity.
What lovers or friends say Thou to one another? Thou is scarcely ever said spontaneously.
Thou immediately brings to mind God; Du does not. And the God of whom it makes us think is not the God to whom one might cry out in gratitude, despair, or agony, not the God to whom one complains or prays spontaneously: it is the God of the pulpits, the God of the holy tone.
When men pray spontaneously or speak directly to God, without any mediator, without any intervention of formulas, when they speak as their heart tells them to speak instead of repeating what is printed, do they say Thou? How many know the verb forms Thou commands?
The world of Thou has many mansions. Thou is a preachers' word but also dear to anticlerical romantic poets. Thou is found in Shakespeare and at home in the English Bible, although recent versions of the Scriptures have tended to dispense with it. Thou can mean many things, but it has no place whatever in the language of direct, nonliterary, spontaneous human relationships.
If one could liberate I-Thou from affectation, the price for that would still involve reducing it to a mere formula, to jargon. But suppose a man wrote a book about direct relationships and tried to get away from the formulas of theologians and philosophers: a theologian would translate it and turn Icb und Du into I and Thou.
Copyright © 1998 by Charlotte Allen