Philosopher Martin Buber on Love and What It Means to Live in the Present
“We live our lives inscrutably included within the streaming mutual life of the universe.”
By Maria Popova
“Love is the quality of attention we pay to things,” poet J.D. McClatchy wrote seven decades after the brilliant and underappreciated philosopher Simone Weil observed that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
The type of attention that makes for generous and unselfish love is what the Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (February 8, 1878–June 13, 1965) examined in I and Thou (public library) — the 1923 existentialist masterpiece in which Buber laid out his visionary relation modality that makes us real to one another.
Echoing Tolstoy’s insistence that “love is a present activity only [and] the man who does not manifest love in the present has not love,” Buber extends his distinction between the objectifying It and the subjectifying Thou into the most intimate domain of relation, and writes:
The present, and by that is meant not the point which indicates from time to time in our thought merely the conclusion of “finished” time, the mere appearance of a termination which is fixed and held, but the real, filled present, exists only in so far as actual presentness, meeting, and relation exist. The present arises only in virtue of the fact that the Thou becomes present.
True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is in the past.
Love, Buber argues, is something larger than affect — not a static feeling, but a dynamic state of being lived in the present. In a counterpoint to the Proustian model of love, he writes:
Feelings accompany the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love, but they do not constitute it… Feelings are “entertained”: love comes to pass. Feelings dwell in man; but man dwells in his love.
In consonance with psychologist turned pioneering sculptor Anne Truitt’s definition of love as “the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery,” Buber writes:
Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its “content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou. The man who does not know this, with his very being know this, does not know love; even though he ascribes to it the feelings he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses… Love is responsibility of an I for a Thou. In this lies the likeness — impossible in any feeling whatsoever — of all who love, from the smallest to the greatest and from the blessedly protected man, whose life is rounded in that of a loved being, to him who is all his life nailed to the cross of the world, and who ventures to bring himself to the dreadful point — to love all men.
Half a century after naturalist John Muir observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Buber adds:
We live our lives inscrutably included within the streaming mutual life of the universe.
I and Thou, which explores what it means to expand the boundaries of the self and grant others the dignity and sanctity of Thou, is a superb read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Adrienne Rich on how honorable relationships refine our truths, Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, and a lovely illustrated meditation on the many meanings and manifestations of love.
Published July 24, 2018