I And Thou | Notes & Reflections

Martin Buber. I And Thou. Scribner Classics, 1958. (126 pages)


It is understandable why this book is a classic. It is both deeply profound and literarily esoteric. It is also a poetic tragedy to review this book, rather than to let it be pure relation with me, the reader. This just proves, I suppose, that I have a long way before the Thou transforms my It into I. May the journey be… just be.


The two traditions, the Jewish and the Christian, are indeed separated by a specific confession about certain historical events; but they are looking all the time at the same events. (5)

…the now familiar categories of I-Thou and I-It … are pointers to the human situation, in its intricate interweaving of the personal and the impersonal, of the world to be “used” and the world to be “met.” (8)

There is one world, which is twofold; but this twofoldness cannot be allocated to (let us say) on the one hand the scientist with a world of It and (let us say) on the other hand the poet with a world of Thou. Rather, this twofoldness runs through the whole world, through each person, each human activity. (8)

If it [revelation] is brought down to the level of a conversation between two beings, it is blasphemous and ridiculous. – Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, I, 127

Part One

So, waiting, I have won from you the end: God’s presence in each element. – Goethe

Every It is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds. (20)

As EXPERIENCE, the world belongs to the primary word I-It.
The primary word I-Thou establishes the world of relation. (21)

Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual. (23)

I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou. | All real living is meeting. (26)

…in so far as man rests satisfied with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no present content. He has nothing but objects. But objects subsist in time that has been. (27)

The feeling of Jesus for the demoniac differs from his feeling for the beloved disciple; but the love is the one love. Feelings are “entertained”: love comes to pass. Feelings dwell in man; but man dwells (28) in his love. (29)

RELATION IS MUTUAL. … We live our lives inscrutably included within the streaming mutual life of the universe. (29)

Hate is by nature blind. Only a part of being can be hated. He who sees a whole being and is compelled to reject it is no longer in the kingdom of hate, but is in that of human restriction of the power to say Thou. (30)


…in the mother’s body man knows the universe, in birth he forgets it.

In the beginning is relation–as category of (38) being, readiness, grasping form, mould for the soul; it is the a priori of relation, the inborn Thou. (39)

Through the Thou a man becomes I. (39)

…a world that is ordered is not the world-order. (41)

…without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man. (44)

Part Two

The true community does not arise through peoples having feelings for one another (though indeed not without it), but through, first, their taking their stand in living mutual relation with a living Centre, and, (53) second, their being in living mutual relation with one another. The second has its source in the first, but is not given when the first alone is given. Living mutual relation includes feelings, but does not originate with them. The community is built up out of living mutual relation, but the builder is the living effective Centre. (54)

…if there were a devil it would not be one who decided against God, but one who, in eternity, came to no decision. (59)

Destiny and freedom are solemnly promised to one another. Only the man who makes freedom real to himself meets destiny. (59)

…to be freed from belief that there is no freedom is indeed to be free. (63)

Individuality makes its appearance by being differentiated from other individualities.
A person makes his appearance by entering into relation with other persons.
The one is the spiritual form of natural detachment, the other the spiritual form of natural solidarity of connexion. (67)

The person looks on his Self, individuality is concerned with its My–my kind, my race, my creation, my genius. (68)

| Individuality neither shares in nor obtains any reality. It differentiates itself from the other, and seeks through experiencing and using to appropriate as much of it as it can. This is its dynamic, self-differentiation and appropriation, each exercised on the It (68) within the unreal. (69)

There are not two kinds of man, but two poles of humanity. (69)

The more a man, humanity, is mastered by individuality, the deeper does the I sink into unreality. (69)

…how powerful, even to being overpowering, and how legitimate, even to being self-evident, is the saying of I by Jesus! For it is the I of unconditional relation in which the man calls his Thou Father in such a way that he himself is simply Son, and nothing else but Son. (70)

The universe beholds us!

Part Three

…all God’s names are hallowed, for in them He is not merely spoken about, but also spoken to. (77)

…to step into pure relation is not to disregard everything but to see everything in the Thou, not to renounced the world but to establish it on its true basis. To look away from the world, or to stare at it, does not help a man to reach God; but he who sees the world in Him stands in His presence. (80)

Of course God is the “wholly Other”; but He is also the wholly Same, the wholly Present. Of course He is the Mysterium Tremendum that appears and overthrows; but He is also the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I. (80)

…actually there is no such thing as seeking God, for there is nothing in which He could not be found. (81)

Every relational event is a stage that affords him a glimpse into the consummating event. (81)

It is a finding without seeking, a discovering of the primal, of origin. (81)

God is the Being that is directly, most nearly, and lastingly, over against us, that may properly only be addressed, not expressed. (81)

You know always in your heart that you need God more than everything; but do you not know too that God needs you–in the (82) fulness of His eternity needs you? How would man be, how would you be, if God did not need him, did not need you? You need God, in order to be–and God needs you, for the very meaning of your life. (83)

All modern attempts to interpret this primal reality of dialogue as a relation of the I to the Self, or the like–as an event that is contained within the self-sufficient interior life of man–are futile: they take their place in the abysmal history of destruction of reality. (85)

All doctrine of absorption is based on the colossal illusion of the human spirit that is bent back on itself, that spirit exists in man. Actually spirit exists with man a starting-point–between man and that which is not man. (91)

The beginning and the extinction fo the world are not in me; but they are also not outside me; they cannot be said to be at all, they are a continuous happening, connected with an dependent on me, my life, my decision, my work, and my service. But they do depend not on whether I “affirm” or “deny” the world in my soul, but on how I cause my attitude of the soul to the world to grow to life, to life that acts upon the world, to real life–and in real life the ways of very different attitudes of soul may intersect. But he who merely “experiences” his attitude, merely consummates it in the soul, however thoughtfully, is without the world– … So long as a man is set free only in his Self he can do the world neither weal nor woe; he does not concern the world. Only he who believes in the world is given power to enter into dealings with it, and if he gives himself to this he cannot remain godless. If only we love the real world, that will not let itself be extinguished, really in its horror, if only we venture to surround it with the arms of our spirit, our hands will meet the hands which held it fast. (92)

For actually there is a cosmos (κοσμος) for man only when the universe becomes his home, with its holy hearth whereon he offers sacrifice; there is Eros(ερος) for man only when beings become for him pictures of the eternal, and community is revealed along with them; and there is Logos(λογος) for man only when he addresses the mystery with work and service for the spirit. (98)

Woe to the man so possessed that he thinks he possesses God! (102)

Life cannot be divided between a real relation with God and an unreal relation of I and It with the world–you cannot both truly pray to God and profit by the world. He who knows the world as something by which he is to profit knows God only in the same way. (102)

The Word of revelation is I am that I am. That which reveals is that which reveals. That which is is, and nothing more. (106)

THE ETERNAL Thou can by its nature not become It; for by its nature it cannot be established in measure and bounds, not even in the measure of the immeasurable, or the bounds of boundless being; for by its nature it cannot be understood as a sum of qualities, not even as an infinite sum of qualities raised to a transcendental level; for ti can be found neither in nor out of the world; for it cannot be experienced, or thought; for we miss Him, Him who is, if we say “I believe, that He is”–“He” is also a metaphor, but “Thou” is not. (106)

Meeting with God does not come to man in order that he may concern himself with God, but in order that he may confirm that there is meaning in the world. (109)


If–as the book says–we can stand in the I-Thou relationship not merely with other men, but also with beings and things which comes to meet us in nature, what is it that makes the real difference between the two relationships? Or, more closely, if the I-Thou relationship requires a mutual action which in fact embraces both the I and the Thou, how may the relation to something in nature be understood as such a relationship? (116)

The existence of mutuality between God and man cannot be proved, just as God’s existence cannot be proved. Yet he who dares to speak of it, bears witness, and calls to witness him to whom he speaks–whether that witness is now or in the future.

Martin Buber
Jerusalem, October 1957

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