NOTES on Martin Buber (1878-1965): I and Thou


Illustration: By Hetty Krist (Bodo Kamp) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Martin Buber is a Jewish theologian who is best known for his book Ich und Du. Buber is very concerned with what it means to be a human being; because of this, he is often classified as an existentialist theologian. (The existentialists were concerned with what it means to be a human being.) Buber’s writing, therefore, is interesting to me, because understanding Humankind (and who Iam) is one of my main concerns.

One important thing to do in this essay is to talk about the terms “thou” and “you” which can be used to translate the term du. Duin German is an familiar personal pronoun. By using duBuber used the personal pronoun that is used among family and friends. He could have used a more formal pronoun — one that is used when speaking in formal situations and to people you hardly know.

In the English language, we don’t have this distinction between a familiar pronoun and a formal pronoun. However, the English language used to have two sets of pronouns. At one time, English speakers used “thee” and “thou” for the familiar pronouns, and “you” for the formal pronoun. When the King James Bible was being translated (it appeared in 1611), “thou” still had its familiar meaning and was used to refer to family and friends. It is interesting to note that the King James Bible used the familiar pronoun when speaking about God.

So how should we translate duin Buber’s writing? We can make a case for either “thou” or “you.” Today, “thou” has a formal connotation because we hear it only during religious rites. For that reason, someone may want to translate duas “you.” However, if one is aware of the history of the word “thou” and knows that at one time it was used as a familiar pronoun, then one may argue that dushould be translated as “thou.”

That said, we can focus on two relationships that Buber writes about. For Buber, there are two primary words that focus on relationships. One such word (some of us may prefer “word-pair”) is “I-It”; the other is “I-Thou.”

I-Thou Relationships

I-Thou relationships are relationships of intimacy, mutuality, sharing, and trust. A good marriage is an example of an I-Thou relationship. Good friends have I-Thou relationships. Baking cookies to give to a friend because you like him or her is evidence of an I-Thou relationship.

In an I-Thou relationship between people, the two people having the relationship treat each other as ends, not as means. When you treat someone as an end, you treat that person with respect and dignity — you treat that person as being valuable. I would argue that everyone — simply by virtue of being human — is worthy of a certain amount of respect and dignity. Even a criminal in prison ought to be kept safe from harm. Criminals ought not to be tortured for the pleasure of other people.

We have many examples of I-Thou relationships throughout the World. If you are fortunate, your parents are involved in an I-Thou relationship with each other. If you are fortunate, you are involved in several I-Thou relationships with family, friends, and a significant and much-loved other.

Among the famous, I believe that Mother Teresa had an I-Thou relationship with other people. Many people dislike the poor, but she devoted her life to taking care of the poor. Albert Schweitzer also was involved with many I-Thou relationships. A famous concert pianist, he became a Christian and decided to help people. At that time, there were no hospitals in Africa, and so Schweitzer decided to start the first hospital there.

I-It Relationships

I-It relationships are those of exploitation. For example, if you make a lying promise that you will pay back money if it is lent to you although you have no intention of ever paying it back, you are exploiting the person you are borrowing money from. What you regard as valuable is the money, not the person lending you the money. All relationships of exploitation are I-It relationships.

Examples of I-It relationships can be multiplied. Crimes such as child abuse, murder, and robbery are examples of I-It relationships. Obviously, a rape is evidence of an I-It relationship.


The kind of person you are will be different according to whether you are involved in an I-Thou relationship or an I-It relationship. Imagine a person in an I-Thou relationship. Such a person gives his or her whole being — as does the other person in the relationship.

According to Buber, “The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being.

“The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being.”

Now think of a person in an I-It relationship; for example, a slave-owner. Slavery degrades the slave, yes, but it also degrades the slave-owner — possibly worse than the slave is degraded. (The slave is the victim of evil, while the slave-owner is the perpetrator of evil. Which person would you think God regards as worse?)

According to Buber, “… the Iof the primary word I-Thou is a different Ifrom that of the primary word I-It.”


People can have I-Thou relationships with nature. This is a relationship that many American Indians, who spoke of Mother Earth and Father Sky, had with nature. In a famous oration, Chief Seattle said, “Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant-lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender, fond affection over the lonely-hearted living, and often return from the Happy Hunting Ground to visit, guide, console and comfort them.”

Another example: A person who mourns because a tree on his property cannot be cut and sold for lumber because it is old and gnarled has an I-It relationship with that tree. A person who enjoys the shade beneath the tree and who enjoys looking at the tree’s gnarled trunk and branches has an I-Thou relationship with that tree.

As shown above, people can also have an I-It relationship with nature. For example, people who litter are engaged in an I-It relationship with nature. In Athens, Ohio, I sometimes walk on a sidewalk and discover that empty fast-food containers have been pushed into the shrubbery. A person who litters in this way regards a living shrub as a trash dump.

Buber’s work is relevant to our understanding of Nature. Formerly, many people have regarded Nature as a thing — an It — to be exploited. However, if we are to survive on this planet for any length of time, we need to have more respect for Nature — to regard it as a Thou. In addition, a pet can be involved in an I-Thou or an I-It relationship. Some pets are a very important and loved part of the family; others are not.

I-Thou Relationships and God

Buber’s main point is that if we are to have meaningful relations with God, we must have meaningful relations with other people. Indeed, Buber writes, “All real living is meeting.” According to Buber, God is present in every I-Thou relationship. Even if one of the participants of the I-Thou relationship is an atheist and denies that God exists, God is still present in that I-Thou relationship.

Buber believes that God is the “Eternal Thou,” and we can experience this Eternal Thou. To have an I-Thou relationship with God, it is necessary to have I-Thou relationships with other people. Buber writes, “Every particular Thouis a glimpse through to the Eternal Thou; by means of every particular Thouthe primary word addresses the eternal Thou.”

One can have an I-It relationship with God. The way to do this is to argue about God, to try to prove God’s existence (something that Buber believes is impossible). Obviously, this is something that many philosophers do. However, having an I-It relationship with God at first may lead you to have an I-Thou relationship with God later. After all, our true friends were at first only acquaintances.

One consequence of Buber’s thought is that anyone can experience an I-Thou relationship with God; all that is needed is an I-Thou relationship with another person or with nature. As philosopher David Stewart writes, “God is present in every genuine I-Thou relationship, and each genuine I-Thou relationship whets the appetite for a relationship with God as the Eternal Thou.”

In conclusion, I think Buber would agree that these are the two most important commandments: Love thy neighbor as thyself, and love thy God with all thy heart.

Note: The quotations by Martin Buber that appear in this essay are from hisI and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith (1958).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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2 Responses to NOTES on Martin Buber (1878-1965): I and Thou

  1. Pingback: davidbrucehaiku: I-IT RELATIONSHIP | davidbruceblog #2

  2. Pingback: davidbrucehaiku: I-THOU RELATIONSHIP | davidbruceblog #2

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