Martin Buber’s Perspective
What is being? There are two different ways we can exist in the world the philosopher Martin Buber said. One way is being or through I-Thou relationship. The other is seeming or through I-It relationship. If the I-Thou attitude is the predominant one in our life, we live a life of dialogue with others, with nature, with animals, with creative works. We transcend ourselves in meeting what is at a distance from us. If I-It is our predominant attitude, we live a life of monologue, absorbed in our own desires and concerns, only concerned with others insofar as they are useful to us.
In a relationship of being two people are genuine and affirm each other. The relationship is neither subjective with an I all wrapped up in himself or objective, rather it takes place in the between. Being is found in the between, the middle ground, wherein we make a response to that which addresses us, said Buber. I make the other present by seeing her as unique, as different from me, not as an object of my thought, but rather I try to know her concretely. Nothing conceptual interferes. No categorizing. No labeling. All speech within ceases in I-Thou relating, said Martin Buber.
In I-Thou relationship there is real listening and real speaking. People surprise one another. There is newness, the unrepeatable, making our response impossible to prepare beforehand. We understand this person before us is unlike any we have ever known. Even when I disagree with him, I still affirm his right to become what he will become. I accept him for who he is. I understand being is for itself. I can only enter into relationship with it.
In I-Thou relationship I am willing to be open, to freely communicate my being to the other. I don’t have to say everything that’s on my mind. I just can’t let seeming creep in. “To yield to seeming,” Buber said, “is man’s essential cowardice - to resist it his essential courage.”“One must at times pay dearly for life lived from being,” said Buber, “but it is never too dear.” The real meeting of I-Thou relationship is made possible, Buber said, by will and grace. It takes commitment. In each particular Thou, Buber believed, we glimpse God. God is present in such meetings. It is God who makes real meeting possible, said Buber. The eternal Thou is there in all forms of relating, Buber contended, in I-Thou relating with man, with nature, in art with embodying form. Being speaks to us in immanence. God was not, Buber said, to be found in a special place. He was omnipresent. He was there in the everyday. Revelation comes, Buber said, in the voice that is addressed to us. It is in that we find the Absolute. Buber believed to the extent we respond to our own Thou, our own nature, we live in the spirit.
The I of I-It is different than the I of I-Thou, Buber said. It sets itself apart from being and speaks from the ego. It lives out of an image of what it learned it is in relationship with others, what it learned was possible for itself. Whereas, the I of I-Thou is not knowing, the I of I-It is a known self, Buber said, that stands outside itself and treats itself as an object. It’s not unified. Inner conflict exists from a socialization process that was mainly imposition rather than allowing the unfolding of our unique nature.
When you treat yourself like an It, Buber said, you treat others that way, too. I-It relationship is totally subjective. There is no mutuality. It doesn’t take place in the between. The I looks at everything in relation to himself. His desiring and concerns are a barrier to real meeting. In I-It relation the I is most concerned with the impression the other has of her. There is contrivance and hypocrisy. Imposition characterizes I-It relation as the I tries to impose her views, her wants on the other. In I-Thou relation we also might want to influence the other, but we believe in actualizing forces operating in the other and accept the other as unique, an individual who can only grow in his own personal way. In I-It relationship we meet the other with only a part of our being, the part we let into the relationship and we are interested in only
part of the other. We relate to the other on the basis of what happened in our past, or what we want in the future.
In I-Thou relationship we meet the other with our whole being holding nothing back and see the other in his wholeness, uniqueness. An I-Thou relationship takes place in the present. For Buber speaking of presence means Thou becomes present. In I-Thou relation, Buber said, we do not go out to meet another. We are the meeting. Buber conceived of the self as activity.
Buber said he had no doctrine. He advocated no rules. He held no dogma. Truth, for Buber, was not a content, it was authenticity. Truth was, he said, participation in being. The search for truth was enriched by viewing it from the different perspectives of people who have different natures. Sin for Buber was our failure to respond as we should to our fellowman. It was inner division caused by decisionlessness or lack of direction. He saw his time as a time of unspirituality, a time of tension in the spirit of man which led to a proneness to violence.
Each person, Buber believed, is potentially unique, but he needs to discover the direction in which to authenticate his uniqueness. He does that, Buber said, by making decisions in the concrete situations of his life as he responds to what is addressed to him. Our lives become whole, Buber said, through constant meeting. The words “is” and “ought,” he said, need to be transcended. We need to replace it-structures and situations dominated by law with relation. As free people we need to hear the summons of the concrete situations we find ourselves in. The I of I-It tries to impose his will on reality. The I of I-Thou listens and responds to the concrete situation. The I of I-It, Buber said, is the slave of instinct or habit. The I of I-Thou meets the concrete present reality with what wells up from the depths of his being. In meeting I with all my wholeness meet Thou in all his wholeness.
We find direction in life, Buber said, in relationship. Buber believed that each person existed to fulfill a unique purpose. Our only duty, he said, is to be what we are. We learn what to do when we hear what is addressed to us: we find direction in response to the concrete situations of our lives. It is in responding to situations that our potential is actualized, said Buber.
“Everyone,” Buber said, “should carefully observe what way his heart draws him to, and then choose this way with all his strength.” Others can inspire us, he felt, but there is no one we can imitate. We find our vocation by listening to the voice within. We find our destiny in the events of our life which is God’s address to us. We only find out what we are capable of by going in a certain direction.
Buber believed that our uniqueness was given to us for a purpose. We are all part of creation moving toward a goal. Our qualities and inclinations, he held, needed only our will to take us in a particular direction. Our uniqueness, he said, was given to us to be executed. Each person needed to develop his individuality to the fullest to live a meaningful life. In this way, Buber believed, man could create something in God.
Moral decisions, Buber held, are not easily made. It is never easy or simple to know the right thing to do. Decisions could only be made by looking at the particular demands of each concrete situation. In this way we enter into a relationship with being. If we listen, Buber said, we would hear a call and understand the direction we were meant to take. For Buber there is God in the events of our life. We answer the call, we respond to the events in our life with our action and attitude. It is direction which brings all our conflicting parts into unity. The forces of the soul are measured, Buber said, by using them. We need to take a leap of faith and direct our energies to a certain path. We need to learn to live, Buber said with “holy insecurity.” There is no moral program, Buber believed, that can save us from walking the narrow ridge. We make truly moral decisions only after much struggle and searching.
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Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York: Simon & Schuster
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Friedman, M. (1960). Martin Buber The Life of Dialogue. Chicago: The University of Chicago