Martin Buber on Spirit. (10/18/2001)

Many European philosophers have used the term "spirit" over the years to signify a disparate number of concepts loosely joined under a vague sense that the word refers to some form of invisible power, usually Godly (Holy Spirit) or Demonic (Satanic servants), that affects the world to the good or the ill of human beings. Another use seems to refer to a generally motivating force, not necessarily good or evil, but capable of being either kind, that moves through society to shape or guide the direction in which the majority of people respond to this or that stimuli. A "spirit of resistance," for instance, can be said to arise when people react negatively to forces that seem to threaten their peace or security. A "spirit of the times" refers to conditions, perceived as mostly beneficial if it serves majority interests, as dangerous if it does not, that define the manner in which most people behave in the context of the demands or expectations of their society. In too many instances, however, as these attempts at definition are meant to suggest, the word is used in a way to imply that the meaning of the term is universally known, that it goes without saying, when, in fact, the actual meaning of the word, even in a specific context, does not shine through as clearly as its author assumes. In other cases, it seems that the author leaves the term as undefined, as vague as possible, not in order to confuse his/her audience, though that can certainly be a motivation, but because he/she does not possess a clearly articulated sense of what the term is meant to signify. In other words, there is a force, a power, a "spirit," out there that is influencing the course of events but it is too hidden, too mysterious, too insubstantial, too invisible, to submit to ready and clear definition.

In the course of reading Martin Buber's I and Thou, I found several uses of the term "spirit," which generally left me wondering precisely what he was trying to communicate. Buber argues that a form of conscious life, but perhaps not its actuality, arose in the earliest years of human existence. He seems to define or qualify "conscious life" by saying

"But conscious life means the return of cosmic being as human becoming. Spirit appears in time as a product-even as a by-product of nature, yet it is in spirit that nature is timelessly enveloped.

The opposition of the two primary words [I-It and I-Thou] has many names at different times and in different worlds; but in its nameless truth it is inherent in creation." (23-24)

Mostly I am defeated in my effort to comprehend what any of these statements mean. Anything I say about them, therefore, should be taken with a huge grain of salt, maybe even of the kind used to rub in an open wound. My first question is: if "cosmic being" returned "as human becoming," in order to generate "conscious life," then it was here at some point prior to that "event," but left, went somewhere else (where did it go? why did it leave?), and then came back. My problem here is making sense of what seems to be a temporal sequence, here-gone-back, involving something Buber calls "cosmic being" which seems to be a necessary element in the production of "human becoming." Then spirit is described as a "product" of nature, as something or another that is produced by nature and, apparently, after spirit is produced, it then comes to "envelop" nature in some timeless sense. My problem with these two sentences, apart from the fact that they are over-packed with abstractions so remote from my ordinary modes of thought that they seem meaningless to me (what exactly is "cosmic being"?), is that they generally violate my sense of how things are related to each other in those modes of thought that I do employ when reading and analyzing someone else's philosophical discourse. Taking the last sentence here first, for instance, I do not know what Buber means when he says that spirit is a "product" or a "by-product" of nature. How does nature "produce" spirit? In native American perceptions of the relationship between nature and spirit, which is the orientation that informs my sensibility, spirit is the force, the power, that animates nature. There is no way in that context that spirit could be subjugated to nature as a "product" of its action or existence. If anything Buber has it backwards in the sense that the animating force (spirit) that underlies a material reality (nature) produces the perception human beings have of it. The spirit that animates a tree is slow, extremely powerful over long periods of time, since it can literally move mountains as its roots grow and expand, and lasts for incredible durations through time. There are live-oaks in New Orleans that began growing before Columbus reached Hispaniola. They have withstood hurricane force winds countless times in the past 500 years. That spirit is not the "product" of the tree; rather, the tree is the result of the spirit that animates it. That nature is "timeless," if Buber means it will last forever, runs counter to both Judeo-Christian tradition, since only the Creator is eternal, where His creation is temporal, and against native American perceptions because we do not grant eternity to anything at all.

The best I can do with the first sentence is to think that Buber is somehow referring to the Myth of Eden in his assertion that "cosmic being" (God) left or abandoned an emerging "conscious life" (prelapsarian Adam and Eve), when His initial effort at creation failed to achieve its potential (through original sin), but then changed His mind and returned (from wherever He had gone) to continue working toward true "human becoming" in the realization of "conscious life" that could not occur on its own without the help and assistance of the "cosmic being" who is God's presence in time. Exactly what that has to do with spirit being a "product" of nature is beyond my comprehension but I am forced to assume that it does out of simple grammatical juxtaposition, since the second sentence follows the first and they seem to be connected in some way.

The final assertion, that the "opposition" between the "I-It" and the "I-Thou" is an "inherent" truth in "creation," goes without saying because the existence of binary opposition is always the predominant perception of the nature of reality in all versions and forms of creationist ideology. That the idea has anything to do with "truth" is a stretch beyond what is, or might be, credible in a philosophy that does not recognize the existence of the Creator, on the one hand, and refuses to grant the notion that the universe was created by anything, or anyone, on the other. In short, Buber's oppositional terms are essentially meaningless in native American perceptions of reality. This is not to say, however, that native people do not perceive a difference between objects and subjects, where that difference is overshadowed and elided by the fact that spirit, which animates both, makes them equally significant in the minds that see them, where, furthermore, one is not ever seen as being superior to another, because we certainly do see the distinction but that distinction does not become the occasion for spinning out webs of abstraction that obscure rather than illuminate what it takes to be and remain human.

In his "Postscript," Buber adds a few words to his observations about spirit that are probably meant to clarify his views but he also seems to change the object the term is meant to signify-this seems likely if for no other reason that he uses lower case in the first statement but changes it to upper case in the second one; that is,

"He who knows the breath of the Spirit trespasses if he desires to get power over the Spirit or to ascertain its nature and qualities. But he is also disloyal when he ascribes the gift to himself." (129-130)

Here it seems reasonable to suppose that Buber is referring to something like the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit, one of the tripartite aspects of God as Trinity. With respect to the notion of desiring "to get power over the Spirit," there is a long-standing European tradition of projecting that motivation onto native practice and belief, since Europeans traditionally characterize animism as a religion always bent on acquiring power over spirits so that they can be manipulated and coerced into performing actions that are impossible or very difficult for ordinary human beings to accomplish. If, for instance, as shaman, I desire to punish someone who has offended me, who has threatened to harm me, I simply "get power over" the spirit of the Bear and coerce an actual bear to attack, even kill, my enemy. If not that, I cause that person harm by forcing the spirit itself to attack and injure my enemy. The act of ascertaining the "nature and qualities" of the spirit, in Buber's view, is also forbidden because Europeans believe that the way to control a spirit is to learn (cognosco in Latin) as much as possible, or as much as necessary, about the spirit. That knowledge, then, gives one the power necessary to manipulate the spirit successfully. In a Christian context, gaining power over the Holy Spirit falls out on the side of the prohibition against simony, the sin of buying and selling the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are not bought or sold but freely given by God's grace to sinful man. This is what he alludes to when asserting that one should not "ascribe the gift to [one]self," since no one can own what God freely gives.

When Buber says that he cannot find any element of a "cognosco ergo sum" in the "primitive function of knowledge" (21), he is attributing or applying a European prohibition against knowing the "nature and qualities" of spirit to native American, to all tribal, practices in general. In native culture, the primary purpose spirit serves is as a vessel, as a repository, for the accumulated knowledge of the clan about the nature and qualities of the spirits that animate various aspect of the real world. This is done, not in order to control or manipulate spirits, but only in order to know how one should properly respond to the presence of the entity that is animated by a particular spirit. The idea of the Evil witch-doctor who sends spirits forth to threaten or destroy Europeans who are invading tribal lands, a hallmark of Hollywood movie mentality, is pure and absolute invention, which would be laughable were it not for the fact that such images were used to justify the genocide practiced against native people when they attempted to defend themselves against the invaders. Being made Evil-doers, because we practiced witchcraft against innocent settlers, was only the first necessary step in the process of annihilation that European colonization of tribal lands used to clear the way for appropriating what they desired but did not possess. Buber, wittingly or not, simply repeats the clich as if were truth, as if it described something other than the ground that justifies the worst atrocity ever perpetuated in human history.

Back to Index