Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1160
Although brief in form, I and Thou presents a distillation of the early life, learning, and thought of Martin Buber, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century and usually ranked among the existentialists. Like other European thinkers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Buber reacted to the depersonalization of all facets of human life, to the scientific determinism that seemed to take away moral responsibility for one’s actions, and to the superficial optimism of earlier epochs. He advocated the recovery of unique personality, living life to its fullest, and making responsible choices by working with others of good will to achieve common social and political goals.
Unlike the ideas of Sartre and Camus, however, Buber’s ideas were thoroughly grounded in the classic religious traditions of the West. Although committed to Jewish idealism, Buber also was influenced by Christian thinkers; indeed, he became a pioneer in the Jewish-Christian rapprochement that emerged after World War II and the Holocaust. Though there have been notable Jewish students of Buber’s thought, his largest influence has been on Christian thinkers. They have found his concept of dialogue—outlined most forcefully in I and Thou—especially relevant to their endeavors to fully understand the teachings of Jesus and the biblical prophets. Buber expressed in public forums his belief that committed Jews could understand Jesus from within, “from the impulses and stirrings of his [Jesus’] Jewish being,” in a way that few Christians could.
Buber’s unique life influenced the direction of his thought. Although he was born into an educated, wealthy family in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was deserted, along with the rest of the family, by his mother when he was just a child. He was brought up in the home of his grandfather, a famous Hebrew scholar. From his home environment, he received a thorough Jewish education. Later, he came to cherish the teachings of the Eastern European Jewish mystics, the Hasidim, who were major influences on his thought and the subjects of several of his books. Further studies at universities in Vienna and Berlin equipped him with a strong secular education, particular in philosophy and the history of art. His long marriage to Paula Winkler, who originally was Roman Catholic, deepened his understanding of the power of human relationships.
I and Thou, the best known of Buber’s numerous writings, strikes some readers as a poetic reverie, vague and repetitive. Buber admitted that he often expresses simple ideas in a convoluted fashion. Even some of his admirers lament his “pretentious pseudo-oracular style.” Nevertheless, I and Thou continues to influence those in the fields of sociology, psychology, pedagogy, and Christian theology.
Undergirding I and Thou is Buber’s understanding of Scripture and the prophetic tradition of Judaism. He found the Bible to be a record of God’s dialogue with humans, the divine initiative and the human response. In the Hebrew Bible, the prophets argue with God, bargain with Him, and even call Him a liar. However, it was in these encounters that the purposes of God were revealed and the vocation of each human understood. The two great commandments, according to the great rabbis of Judaism and Jesus himself, is the love of God and one’s neighbor. Humans find fulfillment in personal encounters. To become an authentic human being it is necessary to understand that God speaks through temporal circumstances and personal encounters. Each person is a unique work of God. Buber was fond of quoting the Hasidic masters. One of them had told his disciple: “In the Day of Judgment, God will not demand ’Why were you not Moses?’ He will ask you why you were not authentically yourself.”
Buber identifies two dimensions of human experience, the encounter between I and It, and the relationship between I and Thou. In the first encounter, a person experiences merely an object—perceived and perhaps used—yet is neither touched nor transformed by that object. However, when something is known in the mode of Thou, reciprocity exists and a relationship is established. Human beings are able to experience the I-Thou relationship primarily with other human beings, but also sometimes with animals (Buber was especially fond of cats), nature, and art.
Buber uses the example of a tree, which might be perceived and analyzed scientifically as a mere object. However, it also might be fleetingly experienced in a manner involving one’s fuller being, sensing the common bond of vitality and “creaturehood.” This deeper encounter also might arise through art and literature. When the teaching of an old master—perhaps Buber was thinking of his beloved Hasidic teachers—is received as a living word, people are enabled to communicate across time and space.
Some of Buber’s critics found his examples using trees and animals too close to classical mysticism, which reduces the entire universe to an essential unity. Buber always rejected this interpretation, stressing that only individual beings encounter one another, while the mystic strives to eliminate such distinctions in his or her contemplated absorption with the universe.
Buber also taught that God, though he always remains “the other” and never melts into some pantheistic oversoul, is present when people truly relate to one another. The love of God is inclusive of all other loves. Humans are made in God’s image; the shadow of divinity is to be found in each individual. Always fond of analogies, Buber uses the analogy of the poet and his or her readers. In each poem, a reader perceives a facet of the poet but can never know the poet’s fullness. Each human may reflect a facet of divinity, yet never exhaust the infinity of God.
Buber believed that God communicates with men and women in multiple ways: through history, biography, world events, and daily situations. Each new moment may be considered a gift from the Creator, each encounter a challenge requiring responses. Morality consists of responsible and loving responses to each new set of circumstances that life presents.
Though Buber honored Jewish tradition, he did not follow all the rabbinical laws. He felt that each period of history and each human being must appropriate what seems necessary from the law. Loving responsibility for a Thou, whether one’s equal, a child, or an animal, must determine morality and ethics.
Buber was critical of much that passed for formal religion, finding most of it inadequate. The monk of Eastern tradition, for example, who leaves the world to contemplate the eternal is escaping the essential responsibilities of life. God is to be found primarily on the streets, and not so much on the high altar. This was a chief message, Buber believed, of the Hebrew prophets (whom he studied and celebrated in his influential book Torat ha-Nevi’im (1942; The Prophetic Faith, 1949). Likewise, true spirituality is not found in following the numerous rules laid down by sages of the past. True spirituality is found in accepting the challenges of each day.