you want to understand Martin Buber's philosophy, there are basically
three routes you could take, three of his writings to which you could
turn. Each of these three writings is, if all its elements and implications
were understood thoroughly, a full, adequate, and rich description
of virtually every one of the main themes in his thought.
The first of the three sources to which
you could turn is his most famous and most influential book, I
and Thou (Ich
und Du- The "Du"
in the title is the familiar form of "you" in German, the
form of address you would use only with intimates and beloveds).
The second source is his small The
Way of Man According to the Teachings of Hasidism,
and the third is his account of a recurring
dream that frequently came to
A few words on each of these sources,
and then a comment about how to read.
If you learn about Buber's life (born, raised, and lived in central
Europe during the decades that saw the rise of the Nazi movement),
you will see how much his life experience influenced and shaped his
whole philosophy. He had been a professor of religion and philosophy
and had both taught and written books about religious experience and
mysticism. And then sometime in the middle decades of his life he
had an experience that had an enormous impact on him. The experience
He had been upstairs in his rooms meditating
and praying one morning, fully engaged in deeply religious intensity,
when there was a knock at his front door downstairs. He was taken
out of his spiritual moment and went down to see who was at the door.
It was a young man who had been a student and a friend, and who had
come specifically to speak with Buber.
Buber was polite with the young man, even
friendly, but was also hoping to soon get back to his meditations.
The two spoke for a short time and then the young man left. Buber
never saw him again because the young man was killed in battle (or
perhaps committed suicide, the story is not entirely clear). Later,
Buber learned from a mutual friend that the young man had come to
him that day in need of basic affirmation, had come with a need to
understand his life and what it was asking of him. Buber had not recognized
the young man's need at the time because he had been concerned to
get back upstairs to his prayers and meditation. He had been polite
and friendly, he says, even cordial, but had not been fully present.
He had not been present in the way that one person can be present
with another, in such a way that you sense the questions and concerns
of the other even before they themselves are aware of what their questions
are. "Ever since then," says Buber "I have given up
the sacred. Or rather it has given me up. I know now no fullness but
each mortal hour's fullness" of presence and mystery. The Mystery,
he says, was no longer "out there" for him, but was instead
to be found in the present moment with the present person, in the
present world. (Between Man and Man, p13 f. ‘It was in the late autumn of 1914, and he died in the war,’ wrote Buber to Maurice Friedman on August 8, 1954.)
He no longer sought The Mystery "out
there," but instead found it disclosed in the sacrament of the
Another person might have seen in this
experience only a reminder to listen to your friends more, or to wake
up and smell the roses, but Buber saw in it much more. It led him
to a major life change and to an ethic, a metaphysic, and a theology,
that brought him to see the world completely differently than he had
seen it before.
He articulated much of this worldview
in I and Thou, a profoundly beautiful work that has had an
enormous impact on the lives it has touched. It has become perhaps
one of the most influential books of this entire century. Its influence
has been felt in disciplines as diverse as poetry and physics, theology
and biology, philosophy and psychology. It is not an easy book to
understand, partly because it puts a demand on the reader to read
it in a certain way (see below), but it richly rewards the reader's
efforts. When colleagues and I have assigned this book in our courses,
students often find it among the most powerful books they have ever
read. (The only worthy English translation is the one by Walter Kauffmann.)
Years later Buber wrote The Way of Man, a 40 page re-telling
of six short Hasidic tales, and an exegesis of the meanings and implications
of those tales.
This book is always a favorite among those
who spend time with it, but it might almost be called "deceptively
simple." A person could read it through and think they have understood
it fully, when in fact they have discovered only one or two dimensions
of its message. Everything that is in I and Thou is also implicit
in The Way of Man, but it is in there in a much more compressed
form. I and Thou is compact too, but The Way of Man
is much more compact, yet still rich and pregnant with meaning. It
almost demands that you read it again and again, and I couldn't guess
the number of students who have told me, years after having first
read the book in a class, that they have gone back again and again
to re-read the wisdom in that little book.
if The Way of Man is short, deceptively simple and heavy with
meaning, the recurring dream that frequently came to Buber is even
more so. His description of this dream is only one page long, but
for those who have a good understanding of how dreams sometimes speak
the deeper language of the heart and spirit, this dream is a rich
and powerful one indeed. And the fact that it recurred to Buber several
times is itself significant. Recurrent dreams are often, according
to Carl Jung, our soul's (or God's?) attempt to tell us something
extremely important about our deepest well-being, and they have to
recur because we are so resistant to hearing whatever the message
is that they are trying to teach us. So Buber saw this dream as a
particularly significant one. (It's short, so I've copied it for you.
Click here to see his description of the
Another lesson a person might also learn
from Martin Buber is what real reading is like. Here's how Walter
Kauffmann says it in the introduction
to his translation of I and Thou:
Among the most important things that
one can learn from Buber is how
Modern man is a voracious reader who has never learned to read well.
Part of the trouble is that he is taught to read drivel that is
hardly worth reading well....
One ends up by reading mainly newspapers and magazines - ephemeral,
anonymous trash that one scans on its way to the garbage can. One
has no wish to remember it for any length of time; it is written
as if to make sure that one won't; and one reads it in a manner
that makes doubly sure that one won't....
In adolescence students are suddenly turned loose on books worth
reading, but generally don't know how to read them....
We must learn to feel addressed by a book, by the human being behind
it, as if a person spoke directly to us. A good book or essay or
poem is not primarily an object to be put to use, or an object of
experience: it is the voice of You speaking to me, requiring a response.
How many people read Buber or Kierkegaard that way? Nietzsche or
Hegel? Tolstoy or Euripides? Or the Bible? Rather, how few do? But
Buber himself wants to be read that way."
I hope you find reading The Way of
Man to be as valuable as others have found it. You may want to
read it in solitude so that you can spend time with it, almost as
if you were having a conversation with Buber himself. He is, after
all, speaking to us through the medium of this book. Or you may at
some point wish to read it aloud to another person or two so that
they too can enjoy and appreciate it.
A few years ago I was invited to conduct
a weekend retreat for the leaders of three combined Catholic parishes
in northwest Washington. The focus of the entire three-day retreat
was this little book. We read each chapter aloud, individually wrote
out responses to some personal reflection questions, and then shared
our insights in small reflection groups. The retreat was a valuable
one for all of us, primarily because the teachings of Martin Buber
were its soul and focal point.
A slow reading of this book may turn out
to be a kind of retreat for you as well.