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Excerpts from I and Thou: Part Two
by Martin Buber
Following are excerpts from Part Two of I and Thou by Martin Buber (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970, translation by Walter Kaufmann). Since much of the book is obscure, I’ve selected some of the clearer, more compelling passages. Since the book presents itself in a spiral argument, often repeating or elaborating on the same points, I’ve rearranged these excerpts into certain categories. (Therefore, not every excerpt here was in the Part One in the original.)
The First Part begins with an introductory overview and then deals with the personal. The Second Part deals with community. The Third Part deals with God. Even people who do not relate to Buber’s theology can benefit from the first two Parts.
A note of clarification concerning his language: Buber’s basic conviction is that human beings can adopt one of two attitudes toward the world -- they can treat others, the world, and themselves as objects, or they can stand ready to engage in authentic relationships that are mutual and reciprocal. So when Buber says that human beings can “speak” one of two “basic words,” he is using a metaphor to summarize those two attitudes.
Words in italics alone were italicized in the original. Words that in both italics and bold are words that I have chosen to emphasize for clarity. Words in [brackets], including the sub-sections, were added for clarity.
|SECOND PART: [Community]|
…The history of the individual and that of the human race…both signify a progressive increase of the It-world….
The basic relation of man to the It-world includes experience…and use…. The improvement of the capacity for experience and use generally involves a decrease in the power to relate – that power which alone can enable man to live in the spirit.
Standing under the basic word of separation which keeps apart I and It, he has divided his life with his fellow men into two neatly defined districts: institutions and feelings. It-district and I-district.
Institutions are what is “out there”….
Feelings are what is “in here” where one lives and recovers from the institutions….
…Neither knows persons or community. Neither knows the present…. Neither has access to actual life. Institutions yield no public life; feelings, no personal life.
That institutions yield no public life is felt by more and more human beings to their sorrow: this is the source of the distress and search of our age. That feelings yield no personal life has been recognized by few so far; for they seem to be the home of what is most personal. And once one has learnt, like modern man, to become greatly preoccupied with one’s own feelings, even despair over their unreality will not easily open one’s eyes; after all, such despair is also a feeling and quite interesting.
Those who suffer because institutions yield no public life have thought of a remedy: feelings are to loosen up or thaw or explode the institutions, as if they could be renewed by feelings, by introducing the “freedom of feelings.” When the automatized state yokes together totally uncongenial citizens without creating or promoting any fellowship, it is supposed to be replaced by a loving community. And this loving community is supposed to come into being when people come together, prompted by free, exuberant feeling, and want to live together. But that is not how things are. True community does not come into being because people have feelings for each other (though that is required, too), but rather on two accounts: all of them have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to a single living center, and they have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to one another. The second event has its source in the first but is not immediately given with it. A living reciprocal relationship includes feelings but is not derived from them. A community is built upon a living, reciprocal relationship, but the builder is the living active center.
Even institutions of so-called personal life cannot be reformed by a free feeling (although this is also required). Marriage can never be renewed except by that which is always the source of all true marriage: that two human beings reveal the You to one another. It is of this that the You that is I for neither of them builds a marriage. This is the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love which is merely accompanied by feelings of love. Whoever wishes to renew a marriage on another basis is not essentially different from those who want to abolish it: both declare that they no longer know the fact. Indeed, take the much discussed eroticism of our age and subtract everything that is really egocentric – in other words, every relationship in which one is not at all present to the other, but each uses the other only for self-enjoyment – what would remain?
True public and true personal life are two forms of association. For them to originate and endure, feelings are required as a changing content, and institutions are required as a constant form; but even the combination of both still does not create human life which is created only by a third element: the central presence of the You, or rather, to speak more truthfully, the central You that is received in the present.
Don’t we find that modern developments have expunged almost every trace of a life in which human beings confront each other and have meaningful relationships?
…The state is no longer led: the stokers still pile up coal, but the leaders merely seem to rule the racing engines…. They tell you that they have adjusted the apparatus to modern conditions, but you notice that henceforth they can only adjust themselves to the apparatus…. There is nothing to be inherited but the despotism of the proliferating It under which the I, more and more impotent, is still dreaming that it is in command.
Man’s communal life cannot dispense any more than he himself with the It-world – over which the presence of the You floats like the spirit over the face of the waters. Man’s will to profit and will to power are natural and legitimate as long as they are tied to the will to human relations and carried by it…. as long as they participate in the spirit…. Loosening the framework of the economy or the state cannot make up for the fact that neither stands any longer under the supremacy of the You-saying spirit…. The statesman or businessman who serves the spirit is no dilettante. He knows well that he cannot simply confront the people with whom he has to deal as so many carriers of the You, without undoing his own work. Nevertheless he ventures to do this, not simply but up to the limit suggested to him by the spirit; and the spirit does suggest a limit to him, and the venture that would have exploded a severed structure succeeds where the presence of the You floats above. He does not become a babbling enthusiast; he serves the truth, which though supra-rational, does not disown reason but holds it in her lap. What he does in communal life is not different from what is done in personal life by a man who knows that he cannot actualize the You in some pure fashion but who nevertheless bears witness of it daily in the It, defining the limit every day anew, according to the right and measure of that day – discovering the limit anew. Neither work nor possessions can be redeemed on their own but only by starting from the spirit. It is only from the presence of the spirit that significance and joy can flow from all work... And all that is worked and possessed, though it remains attached to the It-world, can nevertheless be transfigured to the point where it confronts us and represents the You….
…Whether the institutions of the state become freer and those of the economy juster, that is important, but not for the question concerning actual life that is being posed here; for they cannot become free and just on their own. What is decisive is whether the spirit – the You-saying, responding spirit – remains alive and actual….
…Even violence against a being one really confronts is better than ghostly solicitude for faceless digits!…
…In healthy ages, confidence flows to all the people from the men of the spirit…
But in sick ages it happens that the It-world, no longer irrigated and fertilized by the living currents of the You-world, severed and stagnant, becomes a gigantic swamp phantom and overpowers man. As he accommodates himself to a world of objects that no longer achieve any presence for him, he succumbs to it.
…When a culture is no longer centered in a living and continually renewed relational process, it freezes into the It-world which is broken only intermittently by the eruptive, glowing deeds of solitary spirits….
The sickness of our age is unlike that of any other….
The biologistic and the historiosophical orientations of this age, which made so much of their differences, have combined to produce a faith in doom that is more obdurate and anxious than any such faith has ever been…. The point is always that man is [supposedly] yoked into an inescapable process that he cannot resist, though he may be deluded enough to try…. It is considered foolish to consider any freedom…. The dogma does not know the human being who overcomes the universal struggle by returning; who tears the web of drives, by returning; who rises above the spell of his class by returning; who by returning stirs up, rejuvenates, and changes the secure historical forms….
…Two basically different notions are confused when people use the concept of the social: the community built of relation and the amassing of human units that have no relation to one another – the palpable manifestation of modern man’s lack of relation.
One gains power over an incubus [nightmare] by addressing it by its real name….
The more a human being, the more humanity is dominated by the ego, the more does the I fall prey to inactuality. In such ages the person in the human being and in humanity comes to lead a subterranean, hidden, as it were invalid existence – until it is summoned.