On the question of freedom — an excerpt from the book “I and Thou”

Recently finished reading the book I and Thou by Martin Buber (1958) and I’d like to transcribe a little, beginning on page 51:

Causality has an unlimited reign in the world of It. Every “physical” event that can be perceived by the senses, but also every “psychical” event existing or discovered in self-experience is necessarily valid as being caused and as causing. Further, events to which a teleological character may be attributed are as parts of the unbroken world of It not excepted from this causality; the continuum to which they belong certainly tolerates a teleology, but only as the reverse side worked into a part of causality, and not impairing its continuity and completeness.

The unlimited reign of causality in the world of It, of fundamental importance for the scientific ordering of nature, does not weigh heavily on man, who is not limited to the world of It, but can continually leave it for the world of relation. Here I and Thou freely confront one another in mutual effect that us neither connected with nor coloured by any causality. Here man is assured of the freedom both of his being and of Being. Only he who knows relation and knows about the presence of the Thou is capable of decision. He who decides is free, for he has approached the Face. 

The fiery stuff of all my ability to will seethes tremendously, all that I might do circles around me, still without actuality in the world, flung together and seemingly inseparable, alluring glimpses of powers flicker from all the uttermost bounds: the universe is my temptation, and I achieve being in an instant, with both hands plunged deep in the fire, where the single deed is hidden, the deed which aims at me—now is the moment! Already the menace of the abyss is removed, the centreless Many no longer plays in the iridescent sameness of its pretensions; but only two alternatives are set side by side—the other, the vain idea, and the one, the charge laid on me. But now realization begins in me. For it is not decision to do the one and leave the other a lifeless mass, deposited layer upon layer as dross in my soul. But he alone who directs the whole strength of the alternative into the doing of the charge, who lets the abundant passion of what is rejected invade the growth to reality what is chosen—he alone who “serves God with the evil impulse” makes decision, decides the event. If this is understood, it is also known that this which has been set up, towards which direction is set and decision made, is to be given the name of upright; and if there were a devil it would not be one who decided against God, but one who, in eternity, came to no decision.

Causality does not weigh on the man to whom freedom is assured. He knows that his mortal life swings by nature between Thou and It, and he is aware of the significance of this. It suffices him to be able to cross again and again the threshold of the holy place wherein he was not able to remain; the very fact that he must heave it again and again is inwardly bound up for him with the meaning and character of this life. There, on the threshold, the response, the spirit, is kindled ever new within him; here, in an unholy and needy country, this spark is to be proved. What is called necessity here cannot frighten him, for he has recognized there true necessity, namely, destiny.

Destiny and freedom are solemnly promised to one another. Only the man who makes freedom real to himself meets destiny. In my discovery of the deed that aims at me—in this movement of my freedom the mystery is revealed to me; but also in failure to fulfill the deed as I intended it to be—in this resistance, too, the mystery is revealed to me. He who forgets all that is caused and makes decision out of the depths, who rids himself of property and raiment and naked approaches the Face, is a free man, and destiny confronts him as the counterpart of his freedom. It is not his boundary, but his fulfillment; freedom and destiny are linked together in meaning. And in this meaning destiny, with eyes a moment ago so severe now filled with light, looks out like grace itself.

No; causal necessity does not weigh heavily on the man who returns to the world of It bearing this spark. And in times of healthy life trust streams from men of the spirit to all people. To all men indeed, even to the dullest, meeting—the present—has come somehow, naturally, impulsively, dimly: all men have somewhere been aware of the Thou; now the spirit gives them full assurance.

But in times of sickness it comes about that the world of It, no longer penetrated and fructified by the inflowing world of Thou as by living streams but separated and stagnant, a gigantic ghost of the fens, overpowers man. In coming to terms with a world of objects that no longer assume present being for him he succumbs to this world. Then smooth causality rises up till it is an oppressive, stifling fate.

Every great culture that comprehends nations rests on an original relational incident, on a response to the Thou made at its source, on an act of the being made by the spirit. This act, strengthened by the similarly directed power of succeeding generations, creates in the spirit a special conception of the cosmos; only through this act is cosmos, an apprehended world, a world that is homely and houselike, man’s dwelling in the world, made possible again and again. Only now can man, confident in his soul, build again and again, in a special conception of space, dwellings for God and dwellings for men, and fill swaying time with new hymns and songs, and shape the very community of men. But he is free and consequently creative only so long as he possesses, in action and suffering in his own life, that act of the being—so long as he himself enters into relation. If a culture ceases to be centred in the living and continually renewed relational event, then it hardens into the world of It, which the glowing deeds of solitary spirits only spasmodically break through. Thenceforth smooth causality, which before had no power to disturb the spiritual conception of the cosmos, rises up till it is an oppressive, stifling fate. Wise and masterful destiny, that reigned, in harmony with the wealth of meaning in the cosmos, over all causality, has been changed into a demonic spirit adverse to meaning, and has fallen into the power of causality. The very karma that appeared for the forefathers as a charitable dispensation—for what we do in this life raises us up for a future life in higher spheres—is now recognized as tyranny: for the karma of an earlier life of which we are unconscious has shut us in a prison we cannot break in this life. Where hitherto a heaven was established in a law, manifest to the senses, raising its light arch from which the spindle of necessity hangs, the wandering stars new rule in senseless and oppressive might. It was necessary only to give oneself to Dike, the heavenly “way,” which means also our way, in order to dwell with free hearts in the universal bounds of fate. But now, whatever we do, we are laden with the whole burden of the dead weight of the world, with fate that does not know spirit. The storming desire for the salvation is unsatisfied after manifold attempts, till it is stilled by one who learns to escape the cycle of births, or by one, who saves the souls, that have fallen to alien powers, into the freedom of the children of God. Such an achievement arises out of a new event of meeting, which is in the course of assuming substantial being—out of a new response, determining destiny, of a man to his Thou. In the working out of this central act of the being, one culture can be relieved by another that is given up to the influence of this act, but it can also be given new life in itself alone. 

The sickness of our age is like that of no other age, and it belongs together with them all. The history of cultures is not a course of æons in which one runner after another has to traverse gaily and unsuspectingly the same death-track. A nameless way runs through rise and fall: not a way of progress and development, but a spiral descent through the spiritual underworld, which can also be called an ascent to the innermost, finest, most complicated whirlpool, where there is no advance and no retreat, but only utterly new reversal—the break through. Shall we have to go this way to the end, to trial of the final darkness? Where there is danger, the rescuing force grows too.

The quasi-biological and quasi-historical thought of today, however different the aims of each, have worked together to establish a more tenacious and oppressive belief in fate than has ever before existed. The might of karma or of the stars no longer controls inevitably the lot of man; many powers claim the mastery, but rightly considered most of our contemporaries believe in a mixture of them, just as the late Romans believed in a mixture of gods. This is made easier by the nature of the claim. Whether it is the “law of life” of a universal struggle in which all must take part or renounce life, or the “law of the soul” which completely builds up the psychical person from innate habitual instincts, or the “social law” of an irresistible social progress to which will and consciousness may only be accompaniments, or the “cultural law” of an unchangeably uniform coming and doing of historical structures—whatever form it takes, it always means that man is set in the frame of an inescapable happening that he cannot, or can only in his frenzy, resist. Consecration in the mysteries brought freedom from the compulsion of the stars, and brahman-sacrifice with its accompanying knowledge brought freedom from the compulsion of karma: on both redemption was represented. But the composite god tolerates no belief in release. It is considered folly to imagine any freedom; there is only one choice, between resolute, and hopeless rebellious, slavery. And no matter how much is said, in all these laws, of teleological development and organic growth, at the basis of them all lies possession by process, that is by unlimited causality. The dogma of gradual process is the abdication of man before the exuberant world of It. He misuses the name of destiny: destiny is not a dome pressed tightly down on the world of men; no one meets it but he who went out from freedom. But the dogma of process leaves no room for freedom, none for its most real revelation of all, whose calm strength changes the face if the earth: turning. This dogma does not know the man who through reversal surmounts the universal struggle, tears to pieces the web of habitual instincts, raises the class ban, and stirs, rejuvenates, and transforms the stable structures of history. This dogma allows you in its game only the choice to observe the rules or to retire: but he who is turning overthrows the pieces. The dogma is always willing to allow you to fulfill its limitation with your life and “to remain free” in your soul; but he who is turning looks on this freedom as the most ignominious bondage.

The only thing that can become fate for a man is belief in fate; for this suppresses the movement of turning.

Belief in fate is mistaken from the beginning. All consideration in terms of process is merely an ordering of pure “having become,” of the separated world-event, of objectivity as though it were history; the presence of the Thou, the becoming out of solid connexion, is inaccessible to it. It does not know the reality of the spirit; its scheme is not valid for spirit. Prediction from objectivity is valid only for the man who does not know presentness. He who is overcome by the world of It is bound to see, in the dogma of immutable process, a truth that clears a way through the exuberant growth; in very truth this dogma enslaves him only the more deeply to the world of It. But the world of Thou is not closed. He who goes out to it with concentrated being and risen power to enter into relation becomes aware of freedom. And to be freed from belief that there is no freedom is indeed to be free.

Let’s stop there for today, on page 58. That was a very timely piece that I’m glad to have just now reread while transcribing. Let it be known that I type up pages from books for others to enjoy, but mostly I do it for myself, to force myself to go over the words more carefully and to more deeply consider the content.

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