Thursday, March 20

Martin Buber on neighborliness

I came across this quote from Martin Buber, the influential Jewish thinker, in 1969:

"The unavowed secret of man is that he wants to be confirmed in his being and his existence by his fellow men and that he wishes them to make it possible for him to confirm them, and not merely in the family, in the party assembly or the public house, but also in the course of neighborly encounters, perhaps when he or the other steps outside the door of his house and the greeting by which they greet each other will be accompanied by a glance of well-wishing, a glance in which curiosity, mistrust, and routine will have been overcome by a mutual sympathy: the one gives the other to understand that he affirms his presence. This is the indispensable minimum of humanity."

Buber is known for a work published early in his career, "I & Thou," which sets the backdrop for this quote. Although it's clearly an existentialist essay, it sidesteps the presumptions of radical freedom and individual autonomy characteristic of other existentialist writings. Instead an encounter with another, fundamentally with God but also with other people, is considered as basic to human existence itself. This sort of dialog is contrasted with the "I & it" relationship that is pervasive to modernity, a relationship which is fundamentally instrumental and designed for the singular benefit of the individual.

This consistent emphasis on relationality also played itself out in Buber's politics. He once said, "Individualism understands only a part of man, collectivism understands man only as a part; neither advances to the wholeness of man." In terms of 20th century architecture, the two options of collectivism and individualism can find expression in both Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. On the one hand there is Corbusier's radiant city, with giant buildings to house people and extensive public parks surrounding them. On the other hand is Wright's Broadacre city, with a separate acre lot for single-family dwellings spread out onto the landscape. Buber advocated for a communitarian third option, for if the "I & Thou" encounter is to be at all authentic the individual and the Other can neither collapse into one nor ignore the other.

According to Buber, these encounters need not be particularly intimate, sustained, or formal. The simple neighborhood is the perfect proving ground for this essential aspect of our humanity.

1 comment:

Anakha Coman said...

Thank you for sharing this...I just came across this quote from Buber, "When two people relate to each other authenticaslly and humanly, God is the energy that surges between them." I believe that one of our modern dilemmas is around sharing presence with on many are dying from a lack of sufficient adoration and connection. I like the idea of starting in our own backyard!