My recent reading of Bonds That Make Us Free, along with a chance encounter in a bookstore (a gift of grace that rewarded my browsing of disorganized Indian bookstores), finally led me to read Martin Buber’s I and Thou. I’ve known of it for a long time, but it has a well-deserved reputation as a challenging work. The reputation is well deserved, but the effort proved worthwhile.
The premise of Buber’s work isn’t difficult. We encounter Nature, other humans, and even God in either an I-It manner or in an I-Thou relation. (Some suggest “You” a better choice of words than the archaic “Thou”.) Indeed, an I-It relation isn’t a relation at all. The “I” experiences as subject and the “It” is just an object. I-Thou, on the other hand, is the essence of relationship. The relationship is the thing, so to speak.
Buber’s book takes this basic framework and explores the details and repercussions that flow from it. Buber, a great Jewish-German thinker, published this in 1923 in German. Much of his language proves challenging to us, even in translation. Sometimes I felt as if I was reading lightning bolts: impressive, enlightening, and fleeting. I marked a great deal of the book to come back to.
When in high school and early college I saw many copies of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet or posters celebrating his work. I read The Prophet, and I can recall that it said some nice things about love and life in an aphoristic style. Buber’s work, which contains an aphoristic aspect, reminds me of Gibran’s work, only I think of The Prophet as greasy kids’ stuff compared to Buber’s masterpiece. This is The Prophet for adults (if any comparison is legitimate).
Think about the consequences of Buber’s idea. What if we considered everyone we encounter as a “You” with whom we are in a relationship? Each Other is a person with whom we relate and not a thing that we use. Consider how we would treat the natural world if we considered flora and fauna as a “Thou” with whom we experience a relationship not subject to simple manipulation and calculations as things. And what if we considered God—however we might understand God—as a relationship of the greatest importance and magnitude and not as a thing for us to manipulate through various forms of spiritual materialism? If you follow Buber very far, you realize how deeply you can go in this direction.
I’ll have to return to this book. I feel I’ve only skimmed the surface, and as to living this book (the greatest compliment one can give to a book), I’m not sure how to monitor my progress in doing so. If you’re ready for the deep end of the pool, this is a good place to dive in.