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I and Thou | Study Guide

Martin Buber

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I and Thou | Afterword | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • Martin Buber wrote the afterword to this text for the second edition of I and Thou, published in 1957.
  • He wrote the first edition of the book because a vision that possessed him since youth gained a "constant clarity" beyond the personal. Thus, the reader should understand the text as growing out of the author's personal spiritual vision or experience.
  • Since that time, he has continued to explain this vision. He addresses some of the questions he has been asked most frequently.
  • One question is how the I-You relationship differs when carried on with a person, as opposed to beings and things in nature. The relationship with nature is a "reciprocity of being itself," since we share being with nature. Buber calls this relation to nature a "pre-threshold of mutuality."
  • In the sphere of the spirit, he sees a twofold movement—having entered the world and having not yet entered the world but being ready to do so.
  • Buber can't say much about the second type of spirit, but he talks about the first kind as a master who enters the world (for example, a Jesus or a Buddha, although he mentions neither in this part of the text). He advises people to receive the "saying" of spiritual masters with their whole beings.
  • Buber reiterates that there is nothing mystical about the I-You relationship. Both in nature and in the realm of the spirit, "what acts on us may be understood as the action of what has being," or existence.
  • In speaking of the realm of spirit, Buber is referring to the saying and works produced by the spirit (for example, the words or actions of spiritual masters) as well as the spirit striving to become sayings and works (striving to come into manifestation).
  • Buber next addresses whether the I-You relationship must always be reciprocal and whether it is, by necessity, imperfect. Buber admits that complete mutuality is not inherent in human beings.
  • Mutuality, or reciprocity, is a type of grace we prepare ourselves for but cannot count on. The limits are especially apparent in a helping or healing relationship—such as teacher-student, therapist-client, or doctor-patient.
  • For true help or healing to take place, the healer must be able to both objectify the person they are working with and enter a mutuality with them. They wish to act on another person for their benefit but at the same time to understand that person in depth, confronting them in the I-You relation.
  • Buber then addresses what he sees as the most important question of all: How can God be both exclusive and inclusive? People ask how a person's You-relationship with God, which requires "unconditional turning toward God, without distraction," but includes all other I-You relationships, brings them to God.
  • Buber says, first, we can speak only about God's relationship with us, which is still a paradox. To call God a person is necessary for anyone who doesn't view God as a principle, but assigning personhood to God is problematic. God enters into direct relation with humans "through creative, revelatory, and redemptive acts, and thus makes it possible for us to enter into a direct relationship with him." Therefore, Buber calls God also a person, "an absolute person who cannot be relativized." As this absolute person, he enters a relationship with humans.
  • Meanwhile, when we turn to God, we need not turn our backs on other I-You relationships. Instead, we bring them to God, where they "become transfigured ... in ... [God's] countenance."
  • The conversation with God that Buber speaks of in I and Thou as well as in other works happens "apart from or above the everyday." But God's conversation enters our lives and the events of the world, and God uses the manifest world as instruction, demanding we "endure and decide."
  • Even as it is impossible to prove the existence of God, it is equally impossible to prove a mutuality between God and human beings.
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