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I and Thou

Martin Buber

Part II, aphorisms 6–8

Part II, aphorisms 1–6: The It-World

Part II, aphorisms 9–13

In these aphorisms, Buber discusses the real destructive power of the It-World: its effect on man's psychology. In such a society, Buber tells us, man feels oppressed by causality. Man feels that he is a cog caught in the inexorable machine of various causal systems—biological, social, historical, cultural, and psychological. It seems to him that he has no freedom, but rather that his entire life is determined by the powerful laws of these various systems. Once he sees himself in this light, he becomes alienated from the world, and concludes that life is meaningless. Therefore, though experience is supposed to be the realm in which man feels his mastery and agency, a man stuck permanently in the real of I–It feels lost and powerless instead (even if he does not often admit this to himself).

The man who is not limited to the It-world, on the other hand, does not feel hounded by causal necessity. Instead, he feels that he is in the safe sway of wise, masterful, caring fate. With fate as the vehicle of necessity, rather than impersonal causal laws as this vehicle, man feels free instead of trapped. He views fate as his completion rather than as his limit, and embraces it as destiny rather than doom.

The It-obsessed sickness of our age, Buber tells us, is particularly dire. We are not only trapped in an It-world, but have actually developed a culture that puts total faith in doom. We have come to believe wholeheartedly that we are at the mercy of various forces of nature. To explain our world we have developed elaborate systems of laws, bound tightly by causal connections. It is this total faith in our scientific and philosophical systems that keeps us from seeking out a means of escape. We do not believe that there is anything outside of these systems, anything like relation or encounter, and so we do not attempt to enter these states. Therefore, we have very little hope of saving ourselves from the sense of doom that we have created.

Analysis

The most important thing to bear in mind about this discussion is that Buber is not drawing a picture of two parallel worlds, one ruled by divine fate and the other by impersonal laws of causal necessity. Instead, Buber presents to us two ways of viewing the same world. We can view our world as one ruled by strict but relatively random causal laws (since the natural world is, of course, governed by certain causal laws which we can discover through experience) or we can view the world as one ruled by fate (since God does, according to Buber at least, take an intimate interest in the course of the world and of each human life, as we can discover through encounter). Believing in fate would not require a man to give up his belief in the rules of causality, nor would it require him to abandon the mode of experience and simply encounter everything. In fact, a man who did either of these two things would fail to survive through a single day. We need to believe in causality to survive in the world; we need to know, for instance, that putting our hand in fire causes us to get burned, that putting food in fire causes it to be easier to digest, and that getting too near to someone sick can make us sick. But in order to prevent the feeling of doom and alienation, we need to believe in fate. However, why is fate more attractive than causal necessity—in particular, why is causal necessity seen as a threat to man's freedom whereas fate is seen as entirely conducive to this freedom? On the surface of it, both fate and causal necessity seem to take away man's freedom in the same sense: both claim that man's life is subject to forces beyond his control. It seems that if a man's choices are determined by God he has no more freedom than if his choices are causally determined.

However, a man who views his destiny as fate can understand the forces controlling him. He sees a meaning behind his destiny, rather than an arbitrary luck of the draw. This is probably what Buber means when he compares the meaningful law of heaven to the meaningless power of the moving planets; if God is in control then we feel that our life has meaning, whereas if the forces of physics, chemistry, and biology are in control then we see no such meaning in our life. Feeling that we have meaning in our life makes man feel freer only in the sense that he does not feel oppressed by meaninglessness; he does not feel trapped by his fate, but liberated by it, ensured that his life has meaning and that it will not be wasted or arbitrarily ruined.

It is in this same sense of "free" that the last aspect of fate makes men free. Fate is controlled by a caring God rather than impersonal forces of nature, and so man can feel secure in the knowledge that his fate is in his best interest. He is thus able to embrace his fate happily. Of course, as with the idea of meaningfulness, a personal God does not make man any more potent in terms of controlling his fate, but it does make that fate seem more like a blessing than a curse.

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