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I and Thou

Martin Buber

Study Questions

Key Facts


Why does Buber adopt a non-philosophical literary style? Why might he think that this is the best way to present his ideas?

Buber actually borrows his aphoristic style from his philosophical hero, Friedrich Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche, his motivation in abandoning the usual philosophical style—in not laying out premises and drawing conclusions from these, but rather writing in bits and pieces seemingly put together in a haphazard order—is to try to get us to appreciate something that is opposed to philosophy, something that is opposed to logic and reason. Like Nietzsche, Buber tries to move us away from strict argumentation, as it represents the very way of thinking he criticizes. (Though unlike Nietzsche he does not want us to discard this way of thinking entirely, only to recognize that it is not the only method available.)

Buber's goal in I and Thou is to make us recognize that we are ignoring one of the two modes available to us for engaging the world. He wants us to realize that the mode of experience does not exhaust the possibilities. We can do more than gather data through our senses, and analyze, classify, and theorize about this data. We also need the mode of encounter. The usual philosophical style is the style of experience. In that style the emphasis is on analysis, categorization, reasoning from data. By writing instead, in a poetic, somewhat mysterious way, Buber hopes to awaken in us the inherent desire for another kind of engagement with the world, for the unpredictable, unanalyzable mode of encounter.

According to Buber, what is the connection between relationships among human beings and the relationship between human beings and God?

Religion, for Buber, is tied essentially to human relations. The link between human-human association and divine-human association takes place on three levels: First, the relation between human beings is seen as a model for the relation to God. Second, we only arrive at the encounter with God through our encounters with human beings. And third, our encounter with God improves our relations with human beings.

First, Buber sees the model for our relation to God in human relations. The religious moment is an encounter with the eternal You, with the entire universe, with the infinite. However, the model for the religious moment is in our encounters with particular human You's. Though we can have encounters with animals or even inanimate objects, the human encounter serves as model for the divine encounter because the human You can respond to our address. The human encounter, in other words, is dialogical, or exists in the form of the dialogue, much like the divine encounter. (God's answer in the dialogue is in the form of his revelation).

Second, we find our way to a relation with God through human relations. At first, we satisfy our need for encounter by encountering earthly You's, in particular the human You's with whom we enter into the relation of love. These encounters prepare us for the divine encounter because they teach us what it is like to exist in a relation that is larger than ourselves, to dwell in a force that transforms us. Further, these encounters actually lead us to the divine encounter. Because they are fleeting they do not satisfy us, and through this transient nature we become aware that there is a higher sort of encounter that is possible. Once we realize this, we open ourselves up to it, and thus enter into an encounter with God.

Finally, once we have encountered God, we develop a sense of loving responsibility for our fellow human beings. After the encounter we are not supposed to attend to God, but, rather, we are supposed to prove the meaning of revelation though action in the world. Revelation does not consist of any knowledge that we can impart, but, rather, we become intimate with the whole universe, and love every person. We cease to feel duty or obligation toward our fellow human beings, and instead feel the need to do everything we can for them out of love. Revelation, in this view, is a humanitarian calling. Community is the place where the I–You relationship is realized.

What is love according to Buber, and what role does it play in the pursuit of a relation to God?

According to Buber, we can encounter all sorts of things: nature, animals, God, and other human beings. Encounter with human beings, he tells us, is best described as love. Love, according to Buber, is not a feeling. A feeling is something that one has, whereas love is something that one can dwell inside of, and a feeling exists inside one person, whereas love exists between two people. Love, he tells us, is a cosmic force: we can dwell in love, and if we do so we are transformed by it. In the moment of love, the You is everything, it is the whole, and by standing in relation to it, you stand in relation to the entire universe. The experience of loving another person, therefore, prepares us for the divine encounter because it allows us to live in a relationship that is larger than ourselves.

Suggested Essay Topics

Explain what Buber means when he says that there is no I independent of the basic word pairs.

In the second part of the book, Buber brings forth Napoleon as a prime historical example of a particular type of man. What type of man is this?

Buber argues for his two modes of engaging the world by appealing to both primitive people and to developing children. What are his arguments?

According to Buber, why does modern man feel alienated from the world?

At the end of part two of I and Thou, Buber presents two bizarre pictures of the world that he claims can temporarily calm man, but will ultimately horrify him. What do you think these pictures are meant to represent? Why would they ultimately horrify the one imagining them? Do you think that this passage has anything to do with Buber's discussion of the "doctrines of immersion" in part three (aphorism six)?

Explain how Buber views prayer and sacrifice. How are they different from magic?

What need does Buber identify as the origin of faith? How can faith lead us astray?

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