I AND YOU
I and Thou was written by the Jewish scholar and theologian Martin Buber in the 1920’s and first translated into English in 1937. I’ve used a 1970 translation by Walter Kaufmann*, who prefers the term ‘I and You’ since ‘I and Thou’ sounds formal and churchy in modern English. The subject is ‘I-ness’ and the way it comes into existence only through alterity, though linkage to the other: for Buber this means other humans, other life in nature, and spiritual beings. Buber distinguishes two forms of such linkage: ‘I-It’ and ‘I-You’. The second demands more of us – and it brings “the breath of eternal life” into the world. Buber makes this distinction very clearly in the passage below.
“The I of the basic word I-You is different from the basic word I-It.
“The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego and becomes conscious of itself as a subject (of experience and use).
“The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity (without any dependent genitive).
“Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos.
“Persons appear by entering into relation with other persons.
“One is the spiritual form of natural differentiation, the other that of natural association.
“The purpose of setting oneself apart is to experience and use, and the purpose of that is ‘living’ – which means dying one human life long.
“The purpose of relation is the relation itself – touching the You. For as soon as we touch a You, we are touched by the breath of eternal life.
“Whoever stands in relation, participates in an actuality, that is, in a being that is neither merely a part of him nor merely outside him. All actuality is an actuality in which I participate without being able to appropriate it. Where there is no participation, there is no actuality. Where there is self-appropriation, there is no actuality. The more directly the You is touched, the more perfect is the participation.
“The I is actual through its participation in actuality. The more perfect the participation is, the more actual the I becomes.”
Buber has been described as a ‘religious existentialist’, though he personally didn’t like the term. Whilst willing to share with all, He was not a Universalist and always saw himself as speaking specifically out of his ancestral tradition. He also wrote Tales of the Hasidim about the intensely devotional form of mystical Judaism that first developed in Central and Eastern Europe and then found new homes elsewhere, especially in North America and the Holy Land itself.
*Martin Buber, I and Thou Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York City, NY, USA, 1970 (A translation with a Prologue I and You and notes, by William Kaufmann)