Relation and Being: Martin Buber’s I and Thou

by David Hawkinson

[Note: David quotes from Walter Kaufmann’s 1970 translation of I and Thou in which “du” is translated “you.” In his own remarks David uses “thou.” —Ed.]

Like a seed that blossoms after a long gestation, some persons take an entire life to grow an idea or theme into fruition. After this fashion, we marvel at the mind that matures toward its fullness in later years, drawing together the threads of thought or creativity until it is a finely woven whole. It also happens that some find the center of their work early in the creative process, leaving the rest of life’s energy to draw out and clarify the implications of the original insight. Martin Buber is the latter. He was only 45-years-old when I and Thou was published in 1923. He will spend the next four decades writing, arguing, and rooting his idea in the difficult soil of the twentieth century.

When I browse down the bibliography that fills these forty years and remember that all this energy emanates from the thoughts contained in this little book, I am reminded of a famous story concerning Hillel, one of the most influential and loved rabbis of the first century. A Gentile goaded the sage to teach him the whole Torah within the time he would be able to stand on one leg. Hillel replied: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man; this is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary; go, complete your study.” Hillel does not let the brash gentile off the hook with a speed reading course on Torah. Nor, does he distill the richness of Torah to a single abstract statement and leave it at that, as if to say, “This is all you need to know.” Rather, he is also reminding him, and us, of the importance of commentary.

The core of Buber’s thought can be spoken while standing on one leg. However, these few words are not easy to speak, or, once spoken, to hold in mind. I have found I and Thou a difficult book to read. It is tightly packed—condensed; at times it flows with a breathtaking prose poetry; at other times it is enigmatic and circular. Short as it is, I have never been able to read it through from beginning to end—even as a college student when energy was abundant. I had been told of its ground-breaking content, but could not make heads or tails of it. I would have passed it over all together had it not been for the commentary: the essays on religion and biblical texts; the Tales of the Hasidim; the biblical translation—recently rendered into English by Everett Fox; Buber’s conversation with Carl Rogers on the nature and practice of psychotherapy; his essays on Zionism, Judaism, and on and on. All these make the commentaries that illumine the original text while at the same time, like a pebble dropped into a still pond, they help us follow the reverberations towards the shores edge.

Quickly, the little book drew a crowd about it. Critics complain that it lacked a consistent and systematic structure. Others expressed an exuberance that comes when a shifting breeze clears the thick air and freshens the day. Buber wrote at the end of his life:

No system was suitable for what I had to say. Structure was suitable for it, a compact structure but not one that joined everything together. …I have no teaching. I only point to something. I point to reality. I point to something in reality that had not or had too little been seen. I take him who listens to me by the hand and lead him to the window. I open the window and point to what is outside. I have no teaching, but I carry on a conversation. (Reply to My Critics, p. 693)

The opening lines of I and Thou open the window and point toward all that lies ahead.

The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.
The basic words are not single words but word pairs.
One basic word is the word pair I-You.
The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It.
Thus the I of man is also two fold.
For the I of the basic word I-You is different from that in the basic word I-It.

The twofold attitude emerges from the word pair we speak. This word pair is either I--It or I-Thou. There is no other utterance. It is a word pair—there is no singular I; no independent and autonomous self; no I isolated from thing or person or God. There is no I! This is the great insight from which the philosophy of dialogue views human life and the world. It represents a fundamental challenge to the western conception of the self, including the dominant psychological architecture of Freud. There is no individual, in the sense that we have come to that others are granted—a stamina, focus, or capacity necessary for the upward climb.

In the face of this, I have come to appreciate and find great comfort in the way Martin Buber has phrased this struggle. Let me recall the phrase I quoted earlier from the introduction to the Tales of the Hasidim.

The world in which you live, just as it is and not otherwise, affords you that association with God, which will redeem you and whatever divine aspect of the world you have been entrusted with. And your own character, the very qualities which make you what you are, constitutes your special approach to God, your potential use for Him. ( p. 4)

We must remind ourselves over and over of these parameters. There is sufficient grace here for the struggle ahead. We are not compelled to become someone other than who we are, even if that were possible. We are not compelled to go to some other place. We are not sent on a mission to acquire what we do not already have. He writes of his own methodology:

I was not permitted to reach out beyond my experience, and I never wished to do so. I witnessed for experience and appealed to experience. The experience for which I witnessed is, naturally, a limited one. But it is not to be understood as a “subjective” one. I have tested it through my appeal and test it ever anew. I say to him who listens to me: “It is your experience. Recollect it, and what you can not recollect, dare to attain it as experience. (Philosophy, p. 693)

Buber describes life. He reads his life as if it were reading a text, a “living human document” as Anton Boisen suggests. We are encouraged to do the same. If we do this, he urges, we discover that the answers to these great questions do not lie outside of ourselves. It does not require us to assume a new nature. Indeed, we are doing it, as we are, in the places we are, every day of our lives. Buber helps to make visible what is already there.

Although it is the basic relationship in the life of each man with all existing being, it was barely paid attention to. It had to be pointed out; it had to be shown forth in the foundations of existence. A neglected, obscured, primal reality was to be made visible. The thinking, the teaching had to be determined by the task of pointing. (op.cit. 692-693)

I am reminded of the final words that Moses addressed to the second generation of those liberated from the brick pits of Egypt. Moses is about to die. He has announced that he will not cross over into the land the people are about to occupy. They are fearful that without his personal guidance, they will be lost. He comforts them with these words.

This commandment, is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to observe (Deut. 30. 11-14).

Perhaps Buber has this same text in mind when he declares: “Whoever speaks one of the basic words enters into the word and stands in it” (54). The word is in our mouth. It waits for us to speak it, out loud, to the other, and to receive and embrace it upon its return. Both of the basic words must be spoken. However, there is a profound distinction between speaking I-Thou and I-It. This distinction between the world of “It” relation and “Thou” relation requires further attention.

David Hawkinson is a teacher of Bible, editor of Pietisten, and Pastor of Covenant Community Church, Jericho, Vermont.

See all articles by David Hawkinson