Get our latest staff recommendations, award news and digital catalog links right to your inbox.
I And Thou
Table of Contents
About The Book
Considered to be one of the most influential books of Western thought since its original publication in 1923, Martin Buber’s slender volume I and Thou influenced the way we think about our relationships with one another and with God. Buber unites currents of modern German philosophy with the Judeo-Christian tradition, powerfully updating faith for modern times.
I and Thou is Martin Buber’s pioneering work and the centerpiece of his groundbreaking philosophy. In it, Buber—one of the greatest Jewish minds of the 20th century—lays out a view of the world in which human beings can enter into relationships that enhance their mutual existential dignity (I–Thou relations). These “dialogical” relations contrast with those that tend to prevail in modern society, namely the treatment of others as objects to advance personal and collective interests (I–It relations). Buber demonstrates how I-Thou interhuman meetings reflect and embody the human meeting with God. For Buber, the essence of biblical religion affirms the possibility of a dialogue between man and God.
Man's world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold. What is manifold is often frightening because it is not neat and simple. Men prefer to forget how many possibilities are open to them.
They like to be told that there are two worlds and two ways. This is comforting because it is so tidy. Almost always one way turns out to be common and the other one is celebrated as superior.
Those who tell of two ways and praise one are recognized as prophets or great teachers. They save men from confusion and hard choices. They offer a single choice that is easy to make because those who do not take the path that is commended to them live a wretched life.
To walk far on this path may be difficult, but the choice is easy, and to hear the celebration of this path is pleasant. Wisdom offers simple schemes, but truth is not so simple.
Not all simplicity is wise. But a wealth of possibilities breeds dread. Hence those who speak of many possibilities speak to the few and are of help to even fewer. The wise offer only two ways, of which one is good, and thus help many.
Mundus vult decipi: the world wants to be deceived. The truth is too complex and frightening; the taste for the truth is an acquired taste that few acquire.
Not all deceptions are palatable. Untruths are too easy to come by, too quickly exploded, too cheap and ephemeral to give lasting comfort. Mundus vult decipi; but there is a hierarchy of deceptions.
Near the bottom of the ladder is journalism: a steady stream of irresponsible distortions that most people find refreshing although on the morning after, or at least within a week, it will be stale and flat.
On a higher level we find fictions that men eagerly believe, regardless of the evidence, because they gratify some wish.
Near the top of the ladder we encounter curious mixtures of untruth and truth that exert a lasting fascination on the intellectual community.
What cannot, on the face of it, be wholly true, although it is plain that there is some truth in it, evokes more discussion and dispute, divergent exegeses and attempts at emendations than what has been stated very carefully, without exaggeration or onesidedness. The Book of Proverbs is boring compared to the Sermon on the Mount.
The good way must be clearly good but not wholly clear. If it is quite clear, it is too easy to reject.
What is wanted is an oversimplification, a reduction of a multitude of possibilities to only two. But if the recommended path were utterly devoid of mystery, it would cease to fascinate men. Since it clearly should be chosen, nothing would remain but to proceed on it. There would be nothing left to discuss and interpret, to lecture and write about, to admire and merely think about.
The world exacts a price for calling teachers wise: it keeps discussing the paths they recommend, but few men follow them. The wise give men endless opportunities to discuss what is good.
Men's attitudes are manifold. Some live in a strange world bounded by a path from which countless ways lead inside. If there were road signs, all of them might bear the same inscription: I-I.
Those who dwell inside have no consuming interest. They are not devoted to possessions, even if they prize some; not to people, even if they like some; not to any project, even if they have some.
Things are something that they speak of; persons have the great advantage that one cannot only talk of them but also to, or rather at them; but the lord of every sentence is no man but I. Projects can be entertained without complete devotion, spoken of, and put on like a suit or dress before a mirror. When you speak to men of this type, they quite often do not hear you, and they never hear you as another I.
You are not an object for men like this, not a thing to be used or experienced, nor an object of interest or fascination. The point is not at all that you are found interesting or fascinating instead of being seen as a fellow I. The shock is rather that you are not found interesting or fascinating at all: you are not recognized as an object any more than as a subject. You are accepted, if at all, as one to be spoken at and spoken of; but when you are spoken of, the lord of every story will be I.
Men's attitudes are manifold. Some men take a keen interest in certain objects and in other men and actually think more about them than they think of themselves. They do not so much say I or think I as they do I.
They "take" an interest, they do not give of themselves. They may manipulate or merely study, and unlike men of the I-I type they may be good scholars; but they lack devotion.
This I-It tendency is so familiar that little need be said about it, except that it is a tendency that rarely consumes a man's whole life. Those who see a large part of humanity -- their enemies; of course -- as men of this type, have succumbed to demonology.
This is merely one of the varieties of man's experience and much more widespread in all ages as a tendency and much rarer as a pure type in our own time than the Manichaeans fancy.
There are men who hardly have an I at all. Nor are all of them of one kind.
Some inhabit worlds in which objects loom large. They are not merely interested in some thing or subject, but the object of their interest dominates their lives. They are apt to be great scholars of extraordinary erudition, with no time for themselves, with no time to have a self.
They study without experiencing: they have no time for experience, which would smack of subjectivity if not frivolity. They are objective and immensely serious. They have no time for humor.
They study without any thought of use. What they study is an end in itself for them. They are devoted to their subject, and the notion of using it is a blasphemy and sacrilege that is not likely to occur to them.
For all that, their "subject" is no subject in its own right, like a person. It has no subjectivity. It does not speak to them. It is a subject one has chosen to study -- one of the subjects that one may legitimately choose, and there may be others working on the same subject, possibly on a slightly different aspect of it, and one respects them insofar as they, too, have no selves and are objective.
Here we have a community of solid scholars -- so solid that there is no room at the center for any core. Theirs is the world of It-It.
There are other ways of having no I. There are men who never speak a sentence of which I is lord, but nobody could call them objective. At the center of their world is We.
The contents of this We can vary greatly. But this is an orientation in which I does not exist, and You and It and He and She are only shadows.
One type of this sort could be called We-We. Theirs is a sheltered, childish world in which no individuality has yet emerged.
Another perennial attitude is summed up in the words Us-Them. Here the world is divided in two: the children of light and the children of darkness, the sheep and the goats, the elect and the damned.
Every social problem can be analyzed without much study: all one has to look for are the sheep and goats.
There is room for anger and contempt and boundless hope; for the sheep are bound to triumph.
Should a goat have the presumption to address a sheep, the sheep often do not hear it, and they never hear it as another I. For the goat is one of Them, not one of Us.
Righteousness, intelligence, integrity, humanity, and victory are the prerogatives of Us, while wickedness, stupidity, hypocrisy, brutality, and ultimate defeat belong to Them.
Those who have managed to cut through the terrible complexities of life and offer such a scheme as this have been hailed as prophets in all ages.
In these five attitudes there is no You: I-I, I-It, It-It, We-We, and Us-Them. There are many ways of living in a world without You.
There are also many worlds with the two poles I-You.
l-You sounds unfamiliar. What we are accustomed to is I-Thou. But man's attitudes are manifold, and Thou and You are not the same. Nor is Thou very similar to the German Du.
German lovers say Du to one another, and so do friends. Du is spontaneous and unpretentious, remote from formality, pomp, and dignity.
What lovers or friends say Thou to one another? Thou is scarcely ever said spontaneously.
Thou immediately brings to mind God; Du does not. And the God of whom it makes us think is not the God to whom one might cry out in gratitude, despair, or agony, not the God to whom one complains or prays spontaneously: it is the God of the pulpits, the God of the holy tone.
When men pray spontaneously or speak directly to God, without any mediator, without any intervention of formulas, when they speak as their heart tells them to speak instead of repeating what is printed, do they say Thou? How many know the verb forms Thou commands?
The world of Thou has many mansions. Thou is a preachers' word but also dear to anticlerical romantic poets. Thou is found in Shakespeare and at home in the English Bible, although recent versions of the Scriptures have tended to dispense with it. Thou can mean many things, but it has no place whatever in the language of direct, nonliterary, spontaneous human relationships.
If one could liberate I-Thou from affectation, the price for that would still involve reducing it to a mere formula, to jargon. But suppose a man wrote a book about direct relationships and tried to get away from the formulas of theologians and philosophers: a theologian would translate it and turn Icb und Du into I and Thou.
Copyright © 1998 by Charlotte Allen
- Publisher: Free Press (February 1, 1971)
- Length: 160 pages
- ISBN13: 9780684717258
Browse Related Books
Raves and Reviews
"In this time of social media and value conflicts of every kind, the hundredth anniversary of I and Thou comes at an opportune moment, laying out once again Buber’s heartfelt vision of the dialogical life. In lapidary prose, Buber eloquently exposes the deadening effect of self-referential attitudes on all our relations — with other people, with nature and even with God himself. This book is deeply spiritual and at the same time personal as it lucidly distinguishes the mere experience of “I–It” relations from the profoundly different and dynamic presence of the “I–Thou” encounter. It is utterly timely in its insistent call for openness and genuine meeting, which is precisely
what’s missing in our contemporary lives and in our politics at every level." —JERRY BROWN, former 34th and 39th governor of California
Resources and Downloads
More to Explore
Our Summer Reading Recommendations
Red-hot romances, poolside fiction, and blockbuster picks, oh my! Start reading the hottest books of the summer.
This Month's New Releases
From heart-pounding thrillers to poignant memoirs and everything in between, check out what's new this month.