CAUTION 1: I'm going to steal from and then seriously over-simplify Martin Buber here, so if you're sophisticated, and strict, about philosophy or theology, you might want to stop reading right now or risk getting really pissed off.
2, and here I'll get into something I know about — There's a good
chance even sophisticated English-speakers, for example many of my
readers, have exactly the wrong understanding of the English word
readers encounter "thee's" and "thou's" in old translations of the
Bible or reading Shakespeare, and most, I suspect understand "thou" as a
formal word: The way we wretched, finite, mortal sinners address God.
That's wrong. "Thou" is the English cognate of the Germanic "du" and is
like Spanish "tu" plus similar words in the Romance languages: it's the informal
second person, used for addressing one's social inferiors, assuming one
has social inferiors, or for addressing children or friends. "Thou" is
for people and other beings with whom one can be informal, truly
I'll modernize "thou" to "you-my-friend, or quite possible friend" and
note that one of the nicer things about old Biblical translations is
"Thou" for God: God not as Creator and Lord and King but as, at least
potentially, friend or lover — or one's opponent in a wrestling match
Jacob wrestling with the angel is
a primitive dumb-ass story taken literally; as an image out of a
healthy relationship with the divine, it's pretty profound.
Anyway, an I-thou relationship is a personal one, as with a friend,
including a friend with whom one wrestles or makes love: a relationship
that's face-to-face, hand to hand: human-to-human, person-al.
As I interpreted Buber for literary-critical purposes — it's a long story and
irrelevant here — my "take-away" from Buber is that human relationship
with God, the great and Eternal Thou, allows significant relationship
with humans and other creatures, with the Others in our lived worlds.
Whether through God or "immanent Being" or something totally mundane,
there is always and necessarily a potential for human relationship with
other humans, and that potential is of central importance.
It's just a potential however, and that, too, is important.
Look, last estimate I heard was that we humans can "maintain stable social relationships" with maybe 150 other people. Back
when I was in a fraternity, our estimate was that a guy could associate
fairly closely with maybe fifty other guys; so I think "Dunbar's
number" of 150 is about right for a maximum. Obviously the great
majority of us live and deal with far more than fifty to 150 other
people, so the great majority of those relationships will not be
Most will be I-it relationships — dealing with Others instrumentally, as if they were things — and that's okay.
Here's a thought experiment. You go to a bank and deal with a clerk.
You are polite to her — quite likely a "her" — and she back to you.
Still, next time you go to the bank you may decide to use an ATM: an
Automated Teller Machine, which we often redundantly, but usefully here,
call "an ATM machine." In the colloquial sense of the word, the essence
of your relationship with the teller was I-it: a machine clould replace
her. Indeed, if she said to you, "Good morning! And how are you today?"
And you said "Fine." And she said, "No, really: you look miserable. How
are you?" and waited for a serious answer — if she switched to
I-thou communication, it would be indecorous, improper, rather
Similarly, back when I taught college, I saw my students as human
beings, and at least on occasion I think they saw me that way as well.
Still, they were to me primarily generators of papers to grade, and —
given the limits of what they wanted to talk to me about — I think I
appeared to them mostly as a generator of grades, eventually course
credit, and, intermittently, of information that might prove useful, at
least useful for getting a desired grade and course credit.
If one of my students walked into my office and said, "Hey, how are
you?" and I didn't feel fine and gave an honest and detailed answer — I
suspect I'd have gotten into trouble. Our relationship wasn't really
"I-thou" and an "I-thou" answer wouldn't have been, as they say (often
But sitting face-to-face in the office, our relationship wasn't exactly
I-it. It was, or I think should have been, I-you: a relationship that
might develop into friendship, in other contexts, and which might allow,
in emergencies, intimate conversation, but was now more formal. It was
an interaction not totally instrumental —our just using one another like
things — but not quite personal either.
I'll try to clarify that with three stories and a quotation, and then
repeat my point. (Hey, I taught for a long time; trust me: repetition
can get annoying, but it's useful.)
Two of the stories are background, and all can be told quickly.
On my first day of teaching at Miami University, Oxford, OH (my first
job out of grad school), I had my students write writing samples, and
for the rest of the week I had tutorials with them, and I graded and
discussed with them what they had written. On my second day of teaching,
the first day of the tutorials, the second student talked about the
essay for a little bit and then started crying, telling me "This is
about me!" and he told me how he'd knocked up his girlfriend … and wanted to know, in a sense, "What are you going to do about that?!"
Uh, huh. Welcome to the Ed Biz, Rich; and welcome to a bit more I-thou
than I was ready for, though I gave what advice I could. (And if in my
writing I return to the subject of condoms fairly frequently, it's not
only because I worked a summer in a public health lab and know the
dangers of STDs.)
On another occasion, I had become friendly with a former student — repeat: former
student — and offered him a lift, and he asked if he could talk to me,
and we talked, human to human, and his crying there in my car was not an
imposition. He asked for advice, and I gave it, and he fairly quickly
followed it: I advised him to get out of a relationship where he could
not help a woman in great pain but was only hurting himself. Or, more
exactly, allowing the woman and her friends to hurt him, repeatedly,
And if I sometimes point out that survivors of horrors can move on to
do damage themselves, it isn't only because I absorbed that lesson from
Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964), Art Spiegelman's Maus (1991), and, preeminently, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). The
woman hurting my former student and (now) apparently former friend
survived a plane crash that killed her family. The main point of the
story for this essay is that my conversation with the former student was
an I-thou interaction that was decorous, appropriate. If you think my
advice cruel, a secondary point is that a moment of truly human
communication is just truly human communication: if you've dealt
seriously with any humans, you know we often fuck up, sometimes in the
form of giving bad advice. This advice I'll stand by, however; and if
you're a woman reader who dislikes such insensitive advice, please
imagine yourself with a woman friend in an abusive relationship with a
guy who has suffered and/or is suffering horribly; now consider the
question, Can she really help him, or is she mostly just getting hurt
herself? I-thou, person-to-person, truly intimate human relationships —
sometimes suck; and one should run, not walk, away from some of them.
The last story leads to the quotation and back to my point.
For a long time I was "Student Mediator" for the good-sized English
Department at Miami U. Most of the time, I just shuffled paper in this
job and helped students through a fairly complicated complaint process;
every now and then, though, I actually mediated. In the relevant case,
the student, teacher, and I got together, and I couldn't quite figure
out at first what the issue was; and then it became clear, and I said
something like, "Oh, you two dislike each other."
Neither was comfortable with my observation. The teacher was far, far
too professional to react emotionally to a student; and the student was
much, much, much too good a good Catholic boy to dislike an authority figure.
I told them, "You don't have to like one another. You just have to get
along for a few hours a week for the next ______ [whatever] weeks." And I
explained to them one form of what I'm calling here an I-you
relationship, with a "you" being "a 'somebody' but not somebody I like" —
but in a neutral sense of not liking.
And here I'll throw in the quotation.
In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the highly-flawed protagonist, Brutus — yeah, he's the protagonist; like, are you going to pay money to see a play called Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger?
— Brutus asks his messenger Lucilius how Lucilius had been received by
Cassius, a main co-conspirator in the assassination of Caesar, and
Brutus's current ally in the following civil war. Lucilius says he was
treated "With courtesy and with respect enough" but without the little
touches of easy-going friendship he was used to when dealing with
Cassius. Ever the analyzing intellectual, if not good at it, Brutus
tells Lucilius that Lucilius has described "A hot friend cooling" —
i.e., a close friend growing more distant (and that's all; Brutus was a
puritanical republican Roman, not an aristocrat from the Empire who'd
hump most anything mammalian and breathing). "When love begins to sicken
and decay," Brutus continues, "It useth an enforced ceremony" (4.2).
If Brutus's attitude here is a good indication, and it is, cool
correctness wasn't much appreciated in Shakespeare's time, and
Shakespeare makes plausible that even ancient, aristocratic, republican
Romans would feel the same way. We Americans, strongly into friendliness, have
a problem with not liking someone — which is a big problem since there
is no reason you should feel one way or another about the vast majority
of human beings; there are very few you will actually like, actually know and like as individuals.
I'm suggesting that a little "enforced ceremony" can be a damn good
thing: cool correctness to people we actively dislike but must deal
with, a warmer courtesy to those whom we might potentially like and
where we can move beyond an I-it relationship to something a bit more
personal and humane: I-you.
As a practical matter, I'd eliminate the friendliness gestures of asking people, "And how are you
this morning?" when we don't give a rat's ass and would barely hear an
answer like, say, "Depressed, but not quite suicidal" (a great line I
heard from the son of a friend). A generalized wish of "Good morning" is
fine for now, although it'd be nice to go to something like aloha, or shalom or as-salam alaykum
or "Peace, you-all" or "Hi; I'm _______" and state your name. As a
practical matter I'd have us admit that the potential for intimate
I-thou relationships is crucial — but that it's just a potential. We can
have honest I-it relationships with people — coolly correct with
enemies or those we just don't take to — and behave more warmly neutral
I-it, I-you, and, at least on occasion I-and-thou. "Love one another"
when you can; rest of the time, let's try be polite and mildly cordial —
and let it go at that.