I, Thou, and It

Martin Buber underlined the deep significance of two complementary ways of relating:  I to It and I to Thou. It is no coincidence that these correspond to parts of speech. For, the relationship of subject to subject (me to you) is above all a function of language, of two-way communication. It is fundamentally unlike the relation of subject to object (me to that), which is unilateral and potentially exploitative. One perceives, uses, and physically interacts with objects; but one communicates with other subjects.

A basic survival mode of organisms is to treat everything as an object to consume, manipulate, or avoid. Human beings live in that biological context. So, for us too, the I/it relationship is fundamental and unavoidable in the material world. Yet, we are social animals that have developed fully grammatical language, and have developed ideals and codes of social conduct as well. One of these ideals (which implies certain conduct) is the notion of person. A person is a subject who gives and receives communications. One is a perceiver (a mind) in relation to various objects of perception and thought. But one is a person only in relationship to other persons.

Buber goes further, to claim the I/thou relation as a stance that can apply where one wills. At the least, it abstains from the I/it stance. By default, it should apply at least to human subjects (though their bodies are objects). But it might be applied as well to animals, plants, non-living things, and abstractions like “nature” or “the universe.” It is a way of relating that does not depend on what is related to. For the mystic Buber, the epitome of this stance is the relationship to God—who is always transcendentally a Thou and never an it. I am content to have this stance be essential within human affairs, without bringing God into it. I understand the motive: to write the principle as large as possible. That might work for Buber, who had the mental fortitude to refuse to conceive God as an object (that is, to refuse to conceive “Him” at all!) In general, however, religious believers have demonstrated again and again their willingness to treat God—and other persons—as mere objects to manage.

The I/thou relationship is a dynamic of mutual respect between peers. The dynamic of the I/it relationship is not respect, but control over objects. It is not a symmetrically mutual relationship, but a one-way stance of mastery. For modern man, “objects” include animals, trees, minerals, and nature-at-large—anything to be used as a resource. Even when the object is incomparably vaster and more powerful than the insignificant subject (such as a planet or the cosmos at large), it is cut down to size by the stance of control. That the universe deigns to tolerate our puny existence absurdly gives us courage to mount an offensive attack.

Reason and analysis are frequently brought to bear to prosecute the I/it stance. But the human psyche is much deeper than reason. Underneath the presumption to dominate nature lurks a primordial fear that we are out of our league. It is the fear that we are dealing with a stupendous Subject, who might be angered by our hubris, rather than a mere object under one’s thumb. I suspect this is where the “fear” of God comes from; for God projects the idea of an all-powerful person with whom one is necessarily a subordinate. We address the divine familiarly as “Thou,” but hardly as a peer. The wrath we fear is retribution for the insolence of presuming to trifle with a powerful superior. At the same time, the ideal of power we humanly aspire to is projected as divine control over everything, including nature and us. This is likely a displaced version of nature’s power over us, personified as a being one could attempt to placate, as a child learns to manipulate its parents. In this way, we vicariously trump nature, on which we are utterly dependent. (If God created the world, didn’t we create God?) However, such a relationship with the Creator does not qualify as I/thou in Buber’s sense. Rather, it merely turns the tables on nature.

The idea of legal rights—especially of universal human rights—hinges on the I/thou dynamic. Persons have rights and responsibilities; objects do not. In patriarchal society, women, children, slaves, and animals fell in an intermediate category. While children have a will of their own, adults generally do not consider them peers, but persons in training, who must be controlled for their own good. In class society, only the ruling class had full rights. Equality is not automatic even within the group, let alone accorded to other groups. It used to be routinely denied on the basis of race, gender, or class. The idea of universal “suffrage” is relatively new. In a long painful process, some groups within society demanded that the dominant group grant them equal status, as though it were not to be assumed. This was resisted, because in theory personhood, with rights, also exempts its bearer from being treated as a useful object. Slavery, for example, was justified on the basis of race, by denying to some people status as persons before the law.

Buber admits that the default stance is I/it. He does not invoke biology, but clearly this is the organism’s natural stance in regard to its environment. Otherwise, natural selection would not have allowed the organism to establish itself. He attributes a spiritual side to humanity, which consists essentially in embracing the relation of I to thou. This does not replace the fundamental relation of I to it, but augments it and puts it in perspective. It reclaims the freedom of the subject to choose an alternative stance. It exercises the ability to transcend mental limits, since one must abandon any preconception, plan, desire, scheme, or intention to use the other. In effect, the other becomes literally useless. To truly meet, one must temporarily lose one’s mind.

This may seem to set a nearly unattainable standard for human relationship. It requires us to push beyond appearances (the literal content of experience) toward some unseen essence of the other, which seems to pull the strings while coyly hiding, as it were, behind the physical puppet we recognize as their body. This is metaphor, but it needn’t mystify. It does not propose an animating soul or a mystical quest. It merely reminds us to treat our fellows as we would have them treat us. It asks us to leave our weapons at the door and our tools as well. It invites us to take the stance of unknowing, at least in regard to any thou. And it is this that enables us to be fully persons ourselves.