The 20th century has seen a continuation of the battle between reason and romanticism, rationalism and mysticism. With little conflict, Darwin and Freud co-exist in the modern mind. Marx exhibited the split vision, extolling the power of practical, realistic workers who would create a utopian world. In fact, this dichotomy which began in the Renaissance and became a gaping wound in the 17th and 18th centuries as we embraced science and reason as our god, has allowed for 20th century aberrations like Hitler and his Aryan ubermenchen or Stalin and his totalitarian state.
Clearly, the 20th century mind is in dire need of healing. But only reinventing a healthy vision of humans in the world, one which integrates both the rational bent and the mystic bent of every human mind, will effect a healing. This vision seems to have been given to us by Martin Buber. Martin Buber sums up the danger of not following such a vision when he states, “What is in question, therefore, is nothing less than man’s whole existence in the world” (Buber 1949, 129).
The logical answer, is what some would see as a rather romantic cure–utopia. Buber sees only two possibilities for the future: either there will be one world government which strips the individual of personal freedom or power or there will be community which strips the world of centralized political authority. These two paths are parallel . Humans are best served by living in small, autonomous, chiefly self-sufficient communities.
Now, admittedly, utopia has earned a bad reputation in the last century as social engineering gone wild. But what keeps Buber’s vision of utopia from disintegrating into dystopia is his vision of dialogue–open, authentic communication and relationship which allows for moment by moment adjustments to the community. The stakes, according to Buber are very high for the establishment of community. The way to dialogue is relationship–community. The way to community is dialogue.
And the two parts must exist together. Buber’s dialogic form of communication can only truly exist in a utopian community, and true utopia can only exist in the presence of dialogic communication. In 1923 Martin Buber wrote Ich und Du in which he establishes his theory of communication. In this theory Buber forwards the idea that relationships can be defined pronominally: I-I where the individual becomes the center of the universe, I-It where the individual views all things and people as objects o be used, It-It where the individual has lost all sense of personal identity, We-We where the individual is lost in a group identity that recognizes no one but themselves, Us-Them where the group only recognizes its own revealed truth and takes an adversarial stand against all others, and finally I-You where each individual stands in personal relationship with all other individuals, with nature, and with God. This form of communication has been termed dialogic because the basis for the I-You relationship is the ability to verbally give and receive, to dialogue, with one another.
Obviously, we are talking here about authentic communication in which both parties to the act recognize the reality, the emotions, the humanness, the divine spark in the other. As Buber explained, “When I confront a human being as my you and speak the basic I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things . . . . The human being to whom I say you I do not experience, but I stand in relation to him, in the sacred basic word” (Buber 1970, 59-60). Buber draws an intriguing distinction here between experience and relationship.
Experience, the world of I-It, exists in time and space. It is rational, measurable, sensuous. This is easy enough to understand when we talk about things. The maple tree in my backyard is twenty-five feet tall, four and a half inches in diameter and lost a major branch in last September’s unexpected snow storm. It is through these rational, sensuous distinctions that I experience the tree. But what about people? They, too, exist in the I-It world. My wife is five foot three, has short blonde hair, green eyes, and soft skin. All very well, and necessary.
In fact, there is a misconception that Buber discounted the I-It, “undoubtedly caused by the pejorative connotation of the word ‘I’” (Telushkin 1991, 240-241). But Buber realized that I-It is essential for a functioning world. The danger comes in limiting relationship to I-It. If I limit my knowledge of my wife to a physical description, I never enter into relationship with her, into the I-You world. Relationship, therefore, as Buber sees it, is not rational or measurable, but intuitive, open, poised to hear and understand the unseen part of another.
Today we find social emphasis is not on relationships, and this remains just as true seventy-six years after Buber first pointed out the deficiency. In our world we find a bureaucracy that prefers assigning numbers instead of names. We find neighborhoods in name only, for the neighbors don’t know each other or care to. We find streets where violent crimes take place and few even consider helping the victims. Even our language–the path to relationship–has been, all too often, debased to formulaic inanities: “How ya doin? Just great, how ‘bout you? “Let’s do lunch” “Have a nice day. ” The phrases ape fellowship, relationship, but there is no eye contact and no connection. The parties to these conversations remain in the experiential I-It world. Buber would not be surprised at the growing dissatisfaction with society seen in all the industrialized nations today. He would identify it as lack of relationship, and he knew, as we are increasingly recognizing, that such a lack is hurtful to all concerned, both the giver as well as receiver. People are happiest when they feel a sense of connectedness, of belonging, of relationship.
The society we’ve constructed in the 20th century is a poor fit to our natures. Society yearns for change; Buber’s answer, and mine in this paper, is community. But before we turn to a discussion of community, I want to further clarify the I-You, the language of community. I-You dialogue takes place on three levels, and although our primary emphasis here will be on the second level, man-man, I feel it’s important to look at the other two levels briefly since these are a necessary part of the nature of the whole man. The first level is man’s relationship to nature.
Buber would have us accept the fact that it is possible to have just as deep a relationship with nature as we can with man; “but it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me” (Buber 1970, 58). This idea is a difficult one at first, but if you have ever watched a sunset or sat by an ocean, or listened to the wind gently playing through the trees it is easier to imagine being able to feel a relationship with something inanimate.
Buber makes clear that he is not suggesting a return to animism or totemism. No god, no Grecian dryad, exists in the tree that you are relating to, but only the tree itself. However, another element may help to explain where Buber is coming from, and that element is part of the Chasidic tradition to which Buber belongs. Chasidism tells a wonderful story that at creation God exploded into a great number of sparks and that contained within each molecule of creation is a divine spark. It is man’s job to free those sparks and return them to God. It is further believed that within each spark is the entire image of God. Buber 1958, 187-189). Several years ago I came to understand how this could be when I heard someone explaining about a hologram which is created by laser light. Apparently if a holographic image shatters, every shard of glass will contain the entire image. Perhaps what Buber is really talking about in this relationship with nature is more connected with the idea of the God in the tree than he has admitted. But however you choose to believe it, I don’t believe that our lives are complete without the time and effort and ability to have true dialogic relations with all things around us.
The third I-You relationship stresses the importance of man’s relationship to God. Buber stresses that we cannot find God or seek Him in the sense that He is missing or absent. God is in and of everything, and we can’t encounter God except through relationship: “in truth there is no God-seeking because there is nothing where one could not find him” (Buber 1970, 128). This relationship is a pure one allowing both dependence and freedom to exist side by side for both. “That you need God more than anything, you know at all times in your heart.
But don’t you know also that God needs you . . . ” (Buber 1970, 130). It seems to be common knowledge that in a “good” marriage the “Two shall become one. ” But this too often means, for the insecure dominant partner, that the insecure weaker one will totally submit his or her will, desires, hopes, talents, etc. to the stronger partner. In point of fact, according to Buber, and I agree, there is an omega point here where on the one hand, the parallel lines of true relationship meet and bring about the ecstasy of unification.
On the other hand this relationship actually creates something both equal to and greater than two, and on the third hand this relation leads to the elimination of both so that the two become zero(Buber 1970, 135-137). Buber, however, sees two of these three choices only as temporary by-products of relationship. In fact the true result is the strengthened I and You. And the ultimate goal of this relationship as far as the mystical is concerned is to change the world. But what it depends on is not whether I ‘affirm’ or ‘negate’ the world in my soul, but how I let the attitude of my soul toward the world come to life, life that affects the world” (Buber 1970, 142). Buber makes it very clear that a truly spiritual life does not remove itself from the world any more than God does. And true to Chasidic practice, he presents us with a mystery: God embraces but is not the universe: just so, God embraces but is not myself. On account of this which cannot be spoken about, I can say in my language, as all can say in theirs: You.
For the sake of this, there are I and you, there is dialogue, there is language and spirit, whose primal deed language is, and there is, in eternity, the word” (Buber 1970, 143). Buber here draws a distinction between the divine sparks inherent in all things and God which is much greater than all things. But God is still in every you encountered, which may be, on the practical level, the best way to begin to comprehend God. Every attempt at I-You communication is an attempt at relationship, at restoring something, or even creating something, which is missing in our world.
And because we are social creatures, the lack is a social and political one requiring a social and political resolution. Underlying lack of relationship is the much more insidious problem of centralization of power. At each point that power is either taken away from or given away by the people, we lose some sense of our identity. In any culture where power is centralized and this would certainly begin with the establishment of any type of monarchy, the power of individuals submits to that of the ruler; even the power of speech becomes altered to reflect the will of the monarch.
According to Harold Stahmer in Speak That I May See Thee , “In the ancient Near East the force of the king or suzerain’s word, his command, was regarded as the power that conditioned and shaped social existence” (Stahmer 1968, 17). If the ability to create relationship is dependent in large part on language, and I think that we can agree that it is, then investing the word of one individual, the king, with control of the people’s language detracts from the ability of the people to create relationship. Ultimately it [the suzerain’s word] gave unity and meaning to their individual roles and none could speak meaningfully apart from its influence and without the king’s command and blessing” (Stahmer 1968, 17). It is clear from the biblical story of Israel’s request for a king that some enlightened individuals recognized this problem of centralized power. In this story Israel had lived for about 200 years as a loose confederation of tribes, each with its own identity. But continual fighting with those around them had brought the people to clamor for a king.
They thought centralized government would provide them with a more efficient military. “We must have a king over us that we may be like all the other nations: let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles (I Samuel 8. 19-20). The prophet Samuel warns them of what a king would take from them: their possessions, their children, their autonomy, in short their freedom and all that defines them as individuals: “The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen” (I Samuel 8:18).
What the Israelites, and most of us today, did not understand is that when people are truly living individual lives they must relate to each other in order to make decisions. A king or a centralized power sidesteps that individual action and thus curtails genuine relationship. But even the misguided decision to have a king was the Israelites way to create a new and better world, a utopia. It may be that man’s first recollection of utopia is related in the Genesis story whose roots probably lie in the oldest recorded text of the Sumerians.
According to Utopian Thought In The Modern World by Frank and Fritzie Manuel, an epic poem written about 1500 BCE tells of a beautiful garden that was the home of men. And in this place “the world was free of noxious creatures and the supremacy of man was unchallenged” (Manuel and Manuel 1979, 36). The inhabitants of this land were all healthy and ageless, secure and unified, wanting for nothing. They were also free to worship as they desired. In most of these early stories, man lost his perfect home through greed or pride.
But there always seemed to be some hope proffered that we could return there someday when we had learned our lesson or when we died nobly as in the Greeks story of the Elyssium fields. The Greeks also had their version of the garden story written around 700 BCE by Hesiod relating the Golden Age of Cronus. This myth would be used many time by utopian dreamers. According to Doyne Dawson’s Cities Of The Gods, “The legend of Cronus time would provide serious utopists with a stock of metaphors . . . ” (Dawson 1992, 14). The Greeks seemed to be richly endowed with utopian stories.
In the sixth century BCE, we find the existence of the Pythagorean Order who formed their own communities within Greek society where they developed an early communistic society of shared property and lives. Pythagorean Order communities very much influenced Plato and the writing of The Republic as some were still around during his time, but by 300 BCE they had been persecuted out of existence. Many other serious utopias appear in the 5th century and are catalogued in the second book of Aristotle’s Politics. And then in the 4th century Plato records his view on the perfect society.
But his paradise once again stops to worship at the tree of knowledge. There is equality and beauty for the elite, the intellectuals, but for the rest and even to some degree for the elite there is a limited forum for discussion, freedom, and true relationships among equals. Nevertheless, Plato and Aristotle would form the foundation for utopian thought for many centuries afterwards. Rome carried on little commerce with utopias, and certainly for the elite during the Pax Romanum, utopia must have seemed to have arrived.
For others, however, the dream would seem unattainable until a small Jewish sect who followed the teachings of one they claimed to be the messiah appeared on the scene. We see very clearly in the epistles of Paul and from the historical records of the day that this persecuted group of people had chosen a new lifestyle–koinanea–fellowship, community. In this lifestyle we once again see a sharing of property and ideas, but the big difference here is that the community is made up from people of all classes, rich and poor, educated and uneducated.
Surely to the early Christians and to any sensitive observers this must have seemed to be the dawn of the messianic age. But gradually there was trouble in paradise as the leadership began to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, fancying themselves gods who must rule over the ignorant masses. Finally what to some may have seemed like a wonderful gift from God–a Christian emperor, actually turned out to be the expulsion from paradise, destroying the fabric of community as Christian leaders, now part of the political hierarchy, scrambled for power.
These were indeed the dark ages, and for the next twelve centuries the dream of utopia was again buried in the hearts of the people with occasional sproutings in the form of religious communities. The next major proponent of utopia would not appear until the 16th century when Sir Thomas More wrote of and coined the term for utopia, forming it from the Greek topos meaning place and the prefix ou meaning a general negative, noplace. Modern cynicism has crept into the vision of perfection. But there is also mention in the forward of More’s work of the prefix eu which would change the meaning of utopia from no place to a good or ideal place.
Over the years the definition of what is good or ideal has changed with each author of utopia. And with each new utopia since More, the same problem arises. Each author projects a personal ideal with strict rules, dogmas, and a centralized authority, whether a single person or group of people, to bring it about. The voice of the individual is sacrificed on the altar of centralism. On the other side utopian authors see utopia not as an ideal, but as a tyranny and for this very reason they proffer a nightmare world brought about by Newtonian notions of order and reason unstained by individual voices.
In all of these worlds communication or lack thereof or control of is a central issue in these writings. In the positive the elite and wise rulers set up rules and conditions to guide the people as to correct words and thoughts, in the negative the evil and tyrannical rulers would set up rules and conditions to guide the people as to correct words and thoughts. In both we see the power of speech recognized by the Utopianist. Perhaps buried deep within our DNA memories is a longing to return to that perfect communal state from which we came.
And if the history of the human race is a struggle to return to paradise perhaps our path so far has always ended at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–the tree of reason. In comparison to the lust and greed rampant in the church of More’s day, Utopia was a place that afforded religious freedom to all and was run as a communist city-state ruled by reason. According to Manuel, “In the Utopia the root of all evil is the lust for possessions . . . ” (Manuel 1979, 125). More’s vision was more a criticism of his time than a blueprint for a real society, and even the name reflected More’s pessimism that it could ever come about.
But at least the world had a new vision of an ideal towards which we could strive. Many voices spoke for utopia over the next several centuries: Giardano Bruno sought the inner perfection of man as well as that of society, Francis Bacon wedded science to utopianism and clearly separated the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, Tommaso Campanella placed high stock in the physical sciences and men of science to provide a utopian community, but he took a dangerous step forward by proposing to abolish the family and private property.
Still, politically his system was primarily monarchical. Johann Andreae, a Lutheran pastor proposed an unabashedly christocentric utopia and formed the basis for what we know of today as the Rosicrucian cult. From the Renaissance on, intelectuals seemed to explode with the repressed yearnings for a peaceful world. During the Enlightenment the idea of utopia slightly altered in the hopes of actually attaining it. In keeping with this age of reasonableness, the idea of the enlightened despot who would bring about utopian reforms emerged.
Men like Voltaire and Rousseau attributed perfected characteristics to monarchs of their day, but unfortunately the reality was far different than the dream, and once again we find the path to the Garden stopping at the tree of reason. In spite of all the revolutionary rhetoric, the view seems to emerge that the people cannot govern themselves but must be cared for by the elite intellectuals. On the surface the ideals of liberty and equality were seen as worth fighting for, which intitiated a time of revolutions–a time when the longing for utopian ideals was so strong that it broke the back of those who would keep us from it.
But each revolution missed the same point. “Community, the real living and working together of people is the goal of the utopian urge. Fidelity to the utopian ‘idea’ must be measured by the degree of commitment to the restructuring of society for the purpose of community. To make community secondary to any other goal, to utilize it for its side effects or its tactical value is to take a false path in utopia” (Susser 1981, 58). 20th Century visions of utopia are very negative because as Buber says “They have become wholly technical . . . and society like nature is to be mastered by technological calculation and construction” (Buber 1949, 9).
This is clear in both Huxley’s Brave New World where the inhabitants come from a chemical factory and their every thought and action is controlled by mind altering technology and in Orwell’s 1984 where the inhabitants are subject to an all invasive technology. In both cases removing will from the people is the chief aim of the Utopia. From these popular works Utopia has become a negative stereotype of the police-state. One of the stereotypes about “dystopia,” or the evil utopia is that a good idea is taken to such an extreme that the solutions to the problems end up worse than the problem itself.
In most modern novels of Utopia this is exemplified by the use of science to control genetics or happiness, or crime, which ends up eliminating all freedom. Obviously the novelists have absorbed the idea that there can be no Utopia without it becoming Dystopia. Buber would agree that the potential is certainly there for this to happen, but only if a community is unwilling to allow for change; Only if the beginning rules set up to guide the community are translated into unbreakable, unchangeable dogma.
What the utopian dreamers of old failed to see is that you cannot bring about a change only of the head if you haven’t developed a comprehensive plan to treat the diseased body. We cannot return to the Garden when we hide in fear from the god within us who asks where are you and we cannot answer. We cannot return to the Garden when we blame others for our own problems. We cannot return to the Garden with our guilt and pride because we think we know what is good and what is evil and that turns us into judges of ourselves and others.
We cannot return to the Garden with our intellect, but with our voices as we communicate with one another and live in relationship so that we are indeed our brother’s keeper. Martin Buber understood this and has finally provided us with a way back to the Garden. Buber doesn’t see utopia in terms of limits or rules or dogmas and certainly not in terms of centralization of power, but rather in terms of relationship. “The vision of ‘what should be’–independent though it may sometimes appear of personal will–is yet inseparable from a critical and fundamental relationship to the existing condition of humanity” (Buber 1949, 7).
Which, of course, is where I-You comes in, especially the second level of relationship, man-man. It is here that Buber differs from other Utopists because the emphasis for him is not science or a charismatic leader or an elite few who provide all the answers, but rather it is the people themselves who encounter one another in I-You dialogue that make the difference. We mistrust and disbelieve in utopia today because we know how difficult it will be. I used the analogy of the good marriage to describe he I-You dialogue, and everyone knows how difficult and how rare a truly good marriage is. And the hard work of effective, honest communication is multiplied when we speak not just of two parties to a marriage, but of hundreds or thousands in a community. Only really trying to understand and hear another’s point of view will work here. But as difficult and seemingly unattainable as such a community wide I-Thou relationship is, there exists a 20th century model, one that Buber helped shape, one that works: the Israeli kibbutz.
The kibbutz is often thought of as merely an agrarian community, but for three generations it’s been more than that. Within a socialist model, the kibbutz can include industry and technology. They are mostly self-sufficient and, embodiying Buber’s plan of the moment’s solution for the moment’s problem, have experimented with various ways to attain gender equality, the best child-rearing practices, and for the last two generations, have provided the state of Israel with a disproportionate number of leaders and visionaries.
It’s the melding of utopian community and dialogic relationship in a kibbutz-like framework which makes Buber’s vision different from all others. As Bernard Susser says: “The life of dialogue and its quintessential case, the I-Thou relationship, breathe a “soul” into what was often a mechanical body politic” (Susser 1981, 78). It is this relationship which can only exist in community for all the powers of the State war against the existence of I-You for it is I-You man’s relation to man that transcends the space and time of political systems and keeps man imprisoned to the tree of knowledge and reason.
It is the I-You relationship of man to nature, man, and God together that bring us to what Chasidism calls Hitlahavut or ecstacy and it is this alone that destroys the fiery sword that guards the way to paradise. As Buber says of this, “A fiery sword guards the tree of life. It scatters into sparks before the touch of hitlahavut, whose light finger is more powerful than it” (Buber 1969, 17). In Paths In Utopia, Martin Buber expresses his belief that man’s destiny has always been to live in “Utopia,” but not the visions of it that have been expressed to date.
He felt that the world of his day was on the verge of a major shift in power and that the new political order should be one whose aim is decentralization of power from the state to the individual. Buber also wanted to point out what he felt were errors in interpretation of the socialist and utopian vision especially by Lenin. In order to do this he gave a brief history of the popular writings of his day on this subject. He felt the “novel” writers on this subject were too caught up in a denunciation of technocracy to really deal with the humanity inherent in the idea of Utopia.
Nor is reason alone the answer. Reason would say that if something works once it will always work. From this logic good ideas are turned into rigid inflexible dogmas and the consequences are always fatal. Instead Buber believed that “Community should not be made into a principle. . . The realization of community, like the realization of any idea, cannot occur one and for all time: always it must be the moments answer to the moments question, and nothing more” (Buber 1949, 134).
What needs to happen according to Buber is to begin a community with a certain amount of centralized power and rules in order to establish itself, but built into these rules must be the method for eliminating this power once the initial momentum has been achieved. Under no circumstances should centralized power remain as the status quo. It is in this point that all other communities have broken down including Communism which Buber felt was misguided from the start. He shows that Lenin never really entertained the Marxist vision of this decentralization of power for very long. Buber 1949, 115). Because of misconceptions, when most hear the idea of community or utopia today, we have been conditioned to believe that it will not work. We point to works of fiction to prove it or to a system of government that misappropriated the idea and called themselves communists when they never were. But still we believe that since Communism failed, community is doomed also. Once again we stop at the tree of reason and say it can’t be done because it’s never been successful before. We are running out of choices and time.
Buber saw this in 1949 when he prophesied, “At this point, however, we are threatened by a danger greater than all the previous ones: the danger of a gigantic centralization of power covering the whole planet and devouring all free community” (Buber 1949, 133). With each passing day the world moves closer and closer to this great centralization of power and it is more and more perceived as a good thing. Once again Israel is asking for a King to rule over us, but we don’t realize that this forbidden fruit will move us further from the Garden because it will strip us of our ndividual power and reduce us to slaves of a bureaucracy that makes true relationship and communication possible. That takes away the I-You and replaces it with Us-It world that sees the privileged few controlling the objects of their lust and greed for their own pleasure, and soon the Garden will not even be a memory as the final darkness enfolds the world. We must learn true humility as is taught in Chasidism and given to us by Buber who says, “The individual sees God and embraces Him. The individual redeems the fallen worlds.
And yet the individual is not the whole, but a part. And the purer more perfect he is, so much the more intimately does he know that he is a part and so much the more stirs in him the community of existence. That is the mystery of humility” (Buber 1958, 112) Buber goes on to say, “But it is not humility when one ‘lowers himself too much and forgets that man can bring down an overflowing blessing on all the world through his words and his actions” (Buber 1958, 113). We cannot give up the individual and our liberties.
As Ernst Cassirer state in the conclusion of his Essay On Man , “Human culture taken as a whole may be described as the process of man’s progressive self liberation” (Cassirer 1944, 228). It is the self-liberation that allows us to be I and to see those around us as You not as It only. We must say with Buber “Faced with this medley of correct premises and absurd conclusions I declare in favour of a rebirth of the commune” (Buber 1949, 136). Only this will provide for the true freedom of mankind and allow the I-You to flourish in a world of dialogue rather than rhetoric or demagoguery.
WORKS CITED Buber, Martin. Hasidism and Modern Man, Trans. Maurice Friedman. New York: Harper and Rowe, 1958. ________. I and Thou. Trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970. ________. The Legend Of The Baal-Shem. Trans. Maurice Friedman. New York: Schocken, 1969. ________. Paths In Utopia. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Boston: Beacon, 1949. Cassirer, Ernst. Essay On Man. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944. Dawson, Doyne. Cities Of The Gods: Communist Utopias In Greek Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Manuel, Frank and Fritzie. Utopian Thought In The Western World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979. Stahmer, Harold. Speak That I May See Thee: The Religious Significance Of Language. New York: The Macmillan Co. , 1968. Susser, Bernard. Existence And Utopia: The Social And Political Thought Of Martin Buber. East Brunswick, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 1981. Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things To Know About The Jewish Religion, Its People And Its History. New York: Wm. Morrow And Company,, 1991.