Home » Theology » I and Thou by Martin Buber Part II: I-Thou in the Public and Private World of Man

I and Thou by Martin Buber Part II: I-Thou in the Public and Private World of Man

buber 2I am continuing today with my week long summary and reflection on Martin Buber’s monumental work, I and Thou. If this confuses you, I recommend reading or re-reading my previous two posts on Buber’s work. I-thou represents the attitude of man in communion with God and his creation. I-It is the world of practical interaction, use and abuse. Both are necessary, but the one without the other warps into unseemly shapes. And so, we go on…

In keeping with his depiction of the growth of ancient man from a being in relation with the universe into a self-conscious entity engaging the universe, Buber pictures both the individual and humanity as a whole as progressing through history and digressing deeper and deeper into the world of I-It, and spiraling further and further from the world of I-Thou.[1]

I-Thou is the living vitality of a meeting of spirit, which is not in man like blood in his veins, but between man and his Thou, like the air around him and in his lungs.[2] The power of the meeting of spirits by nature degenerates into reflections upon the experience, which belongs to the world of I-It.

This is not bad, since this is how spiritual knowledge is gained, but, too often, this reflection is more comfortable than reaching out again and again for the meeting of I-Thou, simply because it is controllable, and, thus, it comes to replace I-Thou, to snuff out the possibility for the I-Thou that gave birth to it originally.

The world of I-It is not bad, it is part of nature, and necessary for life. Humanity must classify, compare, and attach ideas in order to do their work of living with precision. So long as this aspect is born of I-Thou, and remains open to the I-Thou, then all is well.[3]

The word of I-It speaks of both public and private worlds – institutions and feelings. Institutions make up the world of work and public affairs. Feelings fashion the private place from which men recover from institutions, cultivating like and hate, pleasure and pain.[4] Some institutions, like marriage, seem to exist in two spheres.

In both of these areas, the tension between I-Thou and I-It is great, and complex. Both institutions and feelings are necessary for life, but neither can provide real life, for that comes from the relation of I-Thou.[5] These are only evil when devoid of the other primary word.[6] Men often sense that something is wrong with institutions. Indeed, they are sterile, a “Soulless Clod,”[7] but what is the remedy?

People often think that the infusion of feeling will remedy the ailments of institution, claiming that the state should be replaced by a community of love. One element of the world of I-It, however, cannot remedy the ailments of another. A community of love does not arise from feeling, even though some feeling accompanies love, for love goes beyond mutual enjoyment and care. Feeling is “an uneasy fluttering soul bird.” Neither institutions nor feelings know man as anything but an object, and despair awaits the man who trusts in them.[8]

The frightening thing about the tension between the worlds of I-Thou and I-It is that the whole world of I-It, at least at the institutional level, appears to thrive on remaining only in the world of I-It. Buber says, “Causality has an unlimited reign in the world of It.”[9] History to Buber is not a “repetitive relay,” but the “progress” of man in a downward spiral through hell. He goes on, “The dogma of progress is the abdication of man before the exuberant world of It,” and “This dogma does not know the man who through reversal surmounts the universal struggle, tears to pieces the web of habitual instincts, raises the class ban, and stirs, rejuvenates, and transforms the stable structures of history.” This dogma gives only the choice “to observe the rules or to retire.”[10]

Buber does, however, hold out Dante’s hope that the path ends in an ascent. He says, “With trouble, the spirit of rescue increases.” One asks what would happen to the world if those who ran institutions concerned themselves with men in an I-Thou relationship?[11] I-Thou relation cannot be sustained or controlled, so how can it become the staple of society. It cannot sustain life on this planet, though Buber would insist that it breaths life into it. Again, Buber does not call for one to replace the other, but for one to shape the other. The two worlds must both exist in man and among men, as the nature of things dictates.

In biblical terms, the one hovers like the spirit of life over the other. He goes on, “Man’s will to profit and be powerful have their natural and proper effect so long as they are linked with and upheld by his will to enter into relation.”[12] A man’s ability to flow between the world of I-It, which is bound to cause-effect, whose only teleology is a natural one, and between the world of I-Thou, where “freedom and destiny are promised to each other,” sustains him in the world of I-It, for he knows that the holy/Thou is his destiny.[13]

This man alone can truly build society, for he comes to it with the “spark of the ultimate Thou.”[14] He has conquered the incubus, the world of It without Thou, because he has seen it for what it is, and for what it is not, and has named it.[15] Even in this, one senses the almost indistinguishable harmony that Buber sees between I-Thou relation between men, and the I-Thou relation between man and God.

There are not two kinds of men in this world, only two aspects to a man. It. These latter are not real; their true self, that aspect of themselves that has the ability to commune with another, lives a “subterranean, and as it were, canceled existence.”[16] The declaration I in the mouth of such an “individualist” can sound sweet or bitter, touching or repulsive depending on how it is said, but it is still empty.

Such is the case in men like Napolean, whom Buber calls the “demonic thou.”[17] He epitomizes the man who is not even real with himself. For him, life was only the pursuit of valor, real or fictional, and men were machines to be utilized in the cause. Such men are incapable of responding out of the sphere of personal genuineness. Napolean, he says, was an It even to himself. He is “the thou to which nothing is a thou.” Buber calls such men “the barrier of human history.” [18]



[1] Buber, 38.

[2] Buber, 39.

[3] Buber, 40-1.

[4] Buber, 43.

[5] Buber, 46.

[6] Buber, 47.

[7] Buber, 43.

[8] Buber, 45.

[9] Buber, 51.

[10] Buber, 57.

[11] Buber, 47-8. Many Christians previously, and since, have asked the question another way – “What would Jesus do?” Charles M. Sheldon. In His Steps (Advance Publishing Company, 1899, original copyright Charles Sheldon, 1897) (Elgin, IL: David C. Cook Publishing Company, 1899)

[12] Buber, 48.

[13] Buber, 52-3.

[14] Buber, 53-4.

[15] Buber, 59-62.

[16] Buber, 65.

[17] Buber, 68.

[18] Buber, 67-8.

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