Martin Buber’s I and Thou
We all human beings are born social animals and owe our existence in a certain bond of relationship to each other and to God. This is an essence of our life. Generally, our perception towards the world is towards the materialistic objectification of each existence and has set certain parameters in relation to each other. Martin Buber deepens our thoughts on the relationships and bindings that we feel toward each other and with our God. In 1923, he made us understand the “Thou and I” relationship we all are bound into.
Martin Buber was a Jewish philosopher who in 1923 replicated the relationships in relation to our own existence. We involve in relationships or relationships involve within us through two pivotal words, I-IT & I-Thou. The I-IT relationship makes us an entity in ourselves, creating a certain division between each other. There is a mechanism of treating humans as ‘object humans’ and we try to exert our control on nature and people. ‘I’ in this type of relationship is self-interested and is possessive and acquire according to its own needs. ‘I’ here is an individual who tries to set standard and cultivate the world according to his own perceptions. There is a smell of selfishness around the perceived ‘I’. It would try to dominate others as it has made himself segregated and isolated from the real source of life. This relationship is confined in the particular space and destroys with time. It includes our involvement in relation to others in the activities like industrial production, technical mechanization and scientific involvement.
Here Buber is not saying that I_IT is evil rather than it makes us feel belonging to this world. It is very difficult for us to live unless we manipulate the things and nature surrounding us according to our needs and aspirations. But the problem lies in the proportion. But as analyzed by John Barich, “If we allow the ‘I-It’ way of viewing the world to dominate our thinking and actions, we will be spiritually emaciated and pauperized, and live lives of ‘quiet desperation.’” 1
When Buber said the word ‘I’, he meant it in context to identify the human beings in solidarity with each other. It is related to the meaning of the Hebrew word shibboleth. Hebrew considered Shibboleth as a test word and used it to understand the difference between orthodox teaching and practice from unorthodox teaching and practice. The word “I” creates a bond of solidarity with the species known as humans but for Buber, the word implies in relation to I-IT and I-Thou. In other words I am responsible if I say the word ‘I’ and the way I speak the word ‘It’ makes me fix my position in the world and it holds true when there is a meeting with the other person.
2 We look at other things around the people and us by their role and activities. For e.g. Doctors look at us as we are organisms not as individuals and that is good for us. Even scientists give the view of the others we are unaware about and make our life comfortable by talking to all the inanimate and animate objects, sharing with them, understanding them, talking to them but they are not bonded into any relationship with them. A sense of solidarity is always there. But it is possible, said Buber, to keep ourselves into a complete relationship without any pretensions, hidden thoughts -truly selfless and innocent, this moment of relationship in known as I-thou relationship. Every person at one point of his or her life enters into such relationship that is not without selfish interest and without any precondition. When a person enters into a relationship without any condition or any selfish interest, the bond that is created increases the esteem of a person and the result of this relationship is true talks and true feelings. This I–thou relationship is not constant but changes into I-It relationship. People sensitivities and emotions
1. John Barich, A Few Thoughts on Martin Buber’s I, Available from http://www.rjgeib.com/barich/papers/martin-buber.html Accessed 28 August 2008.
2. Kenneth Kramer and Mechthild Gawlick, Martin Buber’s I and Thou: Practicing Living Dialogue (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2003), 97.
enable them to move in and out of this relationship. But often the efforts to attain the I-thou relationship fails because we have so much evolved ourselves into the pursuit of materialistic wealth and worldly pleasures that this ‘I’ hovers our mind and soul and we easily get deviated from I-Thou. Even the description of the movement I-IT hinders our path towards the attainment of I-Thou. The Buber entails us to follow the process of I-Thou movements to attain real relationship. You can’t make the description of it but you have a feeling of it. And it is also quite true that you can have an I-Thou relationship with everything in this world and we can attain this relationship through the medium of art, music, dance etc.
What are the communities that make the I-Thou relationship, Buber interposed by giving the example of what is truly universal. It’s a relationship of marriage. As Buber said, “Love is responsibility of an I for a thou, and given that feelings are within the person while love is between I and thou, it follows that marriage renews itself through its true origin-namely through its two persons revealing their thou to each other.” 3 In other words Buber said that a person never should feel perplexed or confused through the feeling of love, which can or cannot be presented with the feelings of true rational love. With her relationship with his wife Paula, Martin realized his essence of thou in marriage. Paula gave him greatest amount of emotional and intellectual energy and realized that she was in number of ways stronger than him. In his wife Paula, Martin found that they were both equal in every aspect and it was Paula who created a harmony of community and dialogue. In Martin Bubar’s life and works, Friedman too wrote, “To grasp the full significance of Buber’s approach to love and marriage in I and Thou, we must
speak first of his relationship with his wife Paula- an influence more probably decisive of this
3 Kenneth Kramer and Mechthild Gawlick, Martin Buber’s I and Thou: Practicing Living Dialogue (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2003), 85
I-Thou philosophy than any of the events or meetings we have discussed.” 4 The most important reality of the I and Thou is to give one-self totally to others and take others totally to oneself is understood in the relationship of marriage which is too pure and authenticated.
Like love, it is beyond the capacity of man to define God and we cannot also set any condition for this relationship. We only have to make ourselves available and open oneself to the attainment of the eternal thou and we don’t need words also for the same but we only have to be available for it and have to open our relationship for it. The depth of the intensity of this love is also not important- but the important is our feeling of closeness to the eternal being and its creators. Hereby, one thing has to be clear that Buber was not telling us to give ourselves to mysticism but the relationship happens so naturally, so pure and sometimes so indiscernible.
In the end, Buber gave us the Jewish concept of I-Thou relationship. Jews says when we redeemed ourselves from Egypt, we found ourselves encountering God. We have found ourselves available and open. Humans who had imbibed themselves in I-Thou relationship with the Eternal Thou wrote the Torah, the prophets, and the rabbinic texts. By getting into the words of the texts, we made our relationship to them and through them to the Eternal Thou. Here they also juxtaposes the concept that there is no condition, and no expectations in the relationship and if we have, we would reduce ourselves into our relationship with God, and create an I-It moment and if we make efforts to even conceptualize the text, we are yet again making ourselves expose to an I-It relationship because by analyzing the text we would be keeping ourselves away from the dialogue, and would retain only as an outsider without any total participant. If we perform
4 Kenneth Kramer and Mechthild Gawlick, Martin Buber’s I and Thou: Practicing Living Dialogue (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2003), 85
any preconceived action, it would lose any meaning, but only the response to the situation of I-Thou can have any meaning.
It is quite true that we all human beings are tied with each other in a bond and how we conceive this bond and be a participatory of it makes us have an essence of depth of closeness. If we are more deeply close without any motive or preconceived notion, we have attained I-Thou relationship else we are confined ourselves in I-IT.
Barich, J. A Few Thoughts on Martin Buber’s I. Available from http://www.rjgeib.com/barich/papers/martin-buber.html Accessed 28 August 2008.
Kramer, Kenneth, and Gawlick, Mechthild. Martin Buber’s I and Thou: Practicing Living Dialogue. New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2003.