I and Thou

The way I read the Jewish theologian, Martin Buber (I and Thou, 1923), he offers a humanist variant of/alternative to existentialism. Where Sartre might say, “Existence precedes essence,” Buber might say, “Relationship precedes essence.” In contrast to the stark “thrownness” of the existentialist, who finds himself alone in an indifferent universe, Buber finds identity itself to be a by-product of the “I-Thou” relation (connections both to fellow humankind and to Being itself). Having shuffled off the existentialist’s burden of aloneness, however, Buber is not exactly the Walmart greeter to Happy Valley. Like the existentialist, he is weighed down with responsibility. For now he carries forever — past, present, and future – the built-in burden of all that connection, the “exalted melancholy of our fate” (16).

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28 thoughts on “I and Thou

  1. A lot of people would seemingly find it simpler if their essence did precede their existence. Adding relationship to the balance helps to shed light both on essence and existence. There’s no need for the existentialist to feel lonely, nor constrained.

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  2. The notion of the sovereign individual has profound political and social implications. The alienation and loss of sense of identity is the inevitable result.

    In fact, we are social beings; our relationships are what define us. Sadly, the current ruling thought is that relationships only restrict the freedom of the sovereign individual. No wonder so many people are depressed these days.

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  3. I think Buber and Sartre are reconcilable—at least on your points. Relationships help define us and are thus part of our essence. Its just a component. I prefer the existentialist approach of completely responsibility. And I don’t think it has to be so depressing. Use Camus as the explanation. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.

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    • It’s not clear to me that Sartre would allow relationships to precede essence. Maybe. But Buber might go so far as to say that existence does not precede relationship. That, at least, I think, would rub Sartre the wrong way. Just guessing. You don’t find something depressing, something close to an admission of defeat, in that dogged insistence that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy”?

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  4. Sorry for the delay I had to take the gun out my mouth. No I don’t see Sisyphus as an admission of defeat. I think part of the problem is we have poor media created definitions of happiness. There is a notion that somehow one is supposed to be smiling, skipping and happy 24/7 in order to meet that definition. That’s not happiness, though it might be mindlessness. It is moments of happiness amid the times ‘red in tooth and claw’, not ongoing happiness. And I misread the Buber quote while on the phone. Still I think relationships are part of the creation of our essence. Whether it precedes or is simultaneous seems immaterial to me. As for Sartre, he was a scoundrel. I’ll have a cup of coffee with Camus any day.

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    • I agree with much of what you say, including the companion-preference for Camus over Sartre, but the whole lot of the existentialists were a bit grim for me — and unnecessarily so. I’d cast my lot rather with Alan Watts per my response to Steve.

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  5. Reblogged this on From guestwriters and commented:
    In life we do have to relate in first instance to our self, next to the creation, and then last but not least to the Creator Himself.

    An “I-Thou” relation with understanding of past, present and future, is essential to build up something positively constructive.

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