“Philosophy of dialogue: An Imaginary Dialogue with Martin Buber during COVID 19 times” by Neha Aggarwal
Care Consciously! # DEFEAT CORONA
Series’s Editor’s Note:
As we are gradually coming into terms with the ‘new normal’ formed by COVID 19, the situation is still far from what could be called as normal. The cases of COVID 19 have been on the rise and consequently overburdening the existing medical facilities. The people are suffering and dying like anything. This also has raised the serious theological questions regarding the existence and nature of God. Does God exist? Is he really merciful? Why does he allow the unnecessary sufferings? All the existing channels of communicating with God seem to be unavailable like religious places, pilgrimages etc. This is the time where we are also reflecting on the questions regarding God, our relationship with God and with the Others. This episode tries to engage with these questions through an imaginary dialogue with the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965). Buber argues that man’s nature is beyond himself, in the relationship which he forges with the Other. Man’s destiny is not in becoming the self or the Other but in between, the narrow ridge which combines the Self with the Other.
In continuity with our ongoing series on imaginary dialogue with philosophers, poets and thinkers with our peers outside NIAS, I today present the conversation written and imagined by Dr Neha Aggarwal with the great thinker Martin Buber.
– Dr. Saurabh Todariya
Manjiri, a college student, during the Covid-19 lockdown found herself struck with her limitations to overcome the domineering effects of the situation. She not only battled with the high distress resulting from her helplessness but a deeper sense of death anxiety surrounded her. One day when she left for the market to get some essential commodities, she trembled along the way as she witnessed some migrant workers passing by the main road. They were a lot in number and their appearance revealed the poor state of their well-being. Apart from reading in the news, it was for the first time since the lockdown in the real world when her attention shifted from self-concern to the other people of the world. As she found others in a much more miserable state than herself, she experienced a deep empathy with the cause. With this restlessness, her mind wandered to seek answers about the human existence, the matter of life and death, and the meaning of life as well. With these thoughts in mind, Manjiri slept off. In her sleep, as she reached the REM state of dreams, the philosopher Martin Buber was standing next to her when she got up from the bed early morning. Manjiri got shocked as to what one of his favourite philosophers is doing in her house. She recalled Buber as the 21st Jewish political philosopher, who is best known for his philosophy of dialogue in I and Thou. But she had never expected that her dream of meeting him would come true. As she settled, they had a long conversation about the situation.
Manjiri:Oh, Good Morning sir. I am very surprised to see you here. I mean…
Martin Buber: I know Manjiri, I thought, since so much is going around, I will come and check with you if you are fine.
M: I am fine, or maybe not. I don’t know. I am more troubled about the world, the state that we have reached. I don’t know how to make sense of it, and quite hopeless about the future.
MB: Yes, I am aware of the intensive effects of this contagion. Many people have lost their lives and livelihood. A pandemic like this is a huge tragedy for the whole civilization
M: Since you are here, I wouldn’t lose the opportunity to get some answers from you. I will go and make tea for us both first?
MB: Sure. I would love to have this conversation over a cup of tea.
(Manjiri prepares tea and sets ready for the conversation)
MB: See, Manjiri, first of all, I would say that this pandemic is the result of an I-It relation between man and nature. As the grammatical expression implies, the I-It expression is the typical subject-object relationship.
M: Let me guess, in the context of Covid-19, it implies that man has been treating nature as an object.
MB: Yes, as an object of use and experience. In his I-It life, there is the objectification of people and things without allowing them to exist for themself in their uniqueness. There is also an excessive tendency to consume things for one’s use.
M: That’s true. During the lockdown, due to a lack of resources, people realized that they could survive with fewer resources and that they were living a life of overconsumption.
MB: One cause of this manipulation is that Man views himself as isolated from nature. He has lost sight of a holistic picture where he is a part of nature and not separate from it. On the contrary, an I-Thou relation is one in which there is a mutual dialogic relationship of openness, directness, mutuality, and presence. It is the one in which each experiences one ‘other’, implying that seeing the other as it is, and not from the lens of one’s biased perspective. One doesn’t always need an ecologist to understand the mutual exchange between nature and the man. One can observe and see how both man and nature help and shape each other.
This relation occurs between man and man, but extends to animals, nature, all living and nonliving beings, objects, and all forms of beings. The ultimate relation is that with God, and man has the responsibility to co-create the world with God.
M: Since your philosophy is that of God, is it the same as popular Jewish or biblical tradition?
MB: I differ from the traditional view of religion which means passivity- taking upon oneself inherited laws. Religion is a sum of customs, crystallized in dogmas. On the other hand, I believe in religiousness which means activity- an elementary setting oneself in relation to the absolute. Religion is true only as long as it is fruitful and it is fruitful only as long as religiousness can fill precepts and dogmas with new meanings and inwardly transform them to meet the needs of each new generation.
M: So, you have sort of re-defined religion for the modern world. In your worldview, has man created this pandemic or God?
MB: Man’s evil acts have caused the pandemic. Man’s relation with animals, trees, and man has lacked a genuine relationship which is the cause of evil. A modern man is misled in the new world of individualism. What is called as individualism is just self-will, a whimsical self- based action devoid of any concern for the other and the world. A true individuality is one in which one deeply engages with the other, has a dialogic relationship, experiences the other, and yet holds its uniqueness. Such a relation can unfold the uniqueness of both the people and is formed on mutual care, concern, and understanding of each other. Not that collectivist culture is better, in modern times, collectivism has failed too, it is superficial and lacks a true engagement of the community.
M: Is modernity evil then?
MB: It can be said that there are 4 types of evil of modern age- Loneliness, inner duality, technology, and totalitarian state. Loneliness leads to excessive I-It indulgence, and technology is one of the mediums of that. The inner duality is caused by a difference in thought, feeling, and act of the man. A ruling state is evil when there is excessive power in their hands but an absence of direction.
M: Yes, okay, but modernity also brought art, culture, and development.
MB: Yes, but as I said, it lost its direction. There is a tendency of metaphysics, politics, etc. to become independent of religious life. The way politicians and states today carry out environmental degradation, and build corporations by taking away the land of the poor in the name of development and economy is a clear example of that. Modern man enjoys aesthetic and religious experiences independent of one another. Thus, there are meditation and yoga camps where only paid membership customers are allowed and given privilege. The socio-economic inequality goes against the religious principles. Modernity has separated ‘living in god’ and ‘living in the world’.
M: I can think of an example. An urban city dweller modern man, a factory owner, out of work during the pandemic, stops paying his poor tenant/migrant labourer to join a paid online yoga class for that amount of money.
MB: Correct. You see, as a result, religion for this person is only one aspect of his life rather than its totality.
M: But that landowner is also relatively poor and hence his action of saving money and building his wealth for his future can be justified.
MB: This distinction of relativity and absolutism-obedience to what we desire and what is right, is very sharp. If the value of helping doesn’t stand apart from the person, it also doesn’t stand in his subjective feeling or interest. The domination of subjective-objective duality is the source of a lot of problems. There is no such thing as pure selfishness or unselfishness since no self originates or exists in isolation from others. Whether the help provided is for one’s self or the other can’t be located. I am against any extreme, instead, the answer lies in between, the narrow ridge. The value lies in between I and Thou which is not IT yet and is other than the I. The Thou is realized in the constant process of becoming.
M: Okay, so modern man has done this evil. What is the way out of it, this pandemic?
MB: Hasidism, a mystical movement of Judaism, gives man a responsibility to bring about the redemption of the world, and the freedom to do evil as well as good. Evil can’t be seen in isolation of goodness. Evil and good have a dialectical relationship. Evil exists to be turned into good. One must also love evil…even evil wishes to be loved; good can be maximized not through the rejection or conquest of evil but only through the transformation of evil, the use of its energy, and passion in the service of the good.
The isolation which is now being called as quarantine and lockdown is for the man to contemplate the source of this pandemic. Man has to take on a collective responsibility to turn evil into good.
M: Where to begin with?
MB: A good beginning would be by turning inwards. Evil exists and it always will. By acknowledging the evil, man has to not rid of it but turn the passion underlying the evil into good. By knowing himself, one discovers evil first of all in the meeting with oneself. Evil is the absence of direction and relation. The turning has to be towards God, which will give the man a direction to be ethical.
M: Can it be said that evil is I-It and good is I-Thou?
MB: Man, also has to acquire a realization. As opposed to orientation, which divides, man has to realize: the realization is that of non-duality between spirit and matter and other forms, between being and becoming, reason and will, and negative and positive.
M: Is this similar to the idea of oneness that others have talked about?
MB: Yes, the perception of the oneness of the universe is to be realized. A realized person can see how pandemic in China and the USA will affect India as well, and thus such a person won’t be a hyper-nationalist- loving one’s own country at the cost of another. Such a person will be equally concerned for people in other countries as much as in India not as a self-defense but in genuine care for the other.
M: In today’s popular language, such a person will be anti-national!
MB: A realized person is not defined by public opinion, social status, and free from social and psychological conditioning. He responds and does not react to the external world. Hence, he is free to act in response to concrete external events. Taking an informed action towards the building of the community is an act of meeting God.
M: Can you elaborate more on how to become self- realized?
MB: For that, man has to enter the I-Thou relation. There are two steps to that. First is, ‘primal setting at a distance’. This includes seeing oneself from an objective position, as an outsider, and setting oneself free from the social and psychological conditioning. In this way, every individual in this pandemic has to generate a distant perspective of the pandemic, separate from his present identity in his world, separate from others’ interpretation of it. The second step is ‘entering into relation’ which includes entering into relation with the world as the apperception of being as a whole and unity. Distance will provide the human being with his situation, and relation will provide man his becoming in that situation.
M: It isn’t easy to be spiritual in such times when people are surrounded by death, are grieving over their losses, and fearing the potential losses ahead.
MB: Yes, I am aware that civilization is going through a mental breakdown with a destruction bigger than war. However, it is in these very times of destruction that creation is understood. It is in fact, the best time to be spiritually inclined. There is a norm of social distancing, but no one is stopping anyone to meet themselves. It is in such grieving times of suffering and wonder of existential crisis when one discovers themselves.
M: So, does that mean that we should stay in solitude and discover ourselves at this time?
MB: Partly. God is realized only when individual beings open to one another, communicate with one another and help one another. The true place of realization is the community, and the true community is that in which the godly is realized between men. To reiterate the two steps told above, social distancing and self- reflection in solitude is the first part that man has to do, and the other half of realization would occur when a man helps the community to come out of the pandemic.
M: It sounds like a mix of religion and socialism.
MB: You can say, religious socialism. A true state is not dependent on socialist or capitalist principles but will of individuals and groups to establish a communal economy.
M: So, God can be realised by helping other men. But, how to enter into relation with God?
MB: Man can enter into a relationship with God by the mediation of not just senses, but through the symbolic communication with forms such as language, music, art, and ritual. In this, one moves from I-It of engagement with the symbol to I-Thou, a deeper and mutual relation. There are ‘signs’ of ‘becoming aware’. A sign is an indication that doesn’t speak to everybody but just to the one who sees that it ‘says’ something to him. That way, the communication goes beyond one’s senses. By observing the signs, one becomes open to be present and willing to see each event as unique and unexpected.
M: Is that personal sign not indicative of a mental illness? Psychosis?
MB: Psychosis and other forms of mental illnesses would occur when one has lost touch with the reality and the self. On the contrary, in entering into a relation with God, one is much more aware of one’s self, one’s evil nature, and is willing and directed to turn it into a greater good for society.
M: I understand now.
MB: Remember, “A person cannot approach the divine reaching beyond the human. To become human is what that individual person has been created for.”
….nnnnnn…(a bird noise in the window plane, awakes Manjiri)
M: (reorienting herself to the reality)…was it really a dream?
Manjiri gets up, prepares the tea for herself and reflects over the dream conversation with Martin Buber.
(Dr. Neha Aggarwal is an Assistant Professor of Psychology. She did her Ph.D. from JNU, New Delhi, in the area of Dialogic Pedagogy. She is currently working as a faculty in the North Cap University, Gurgaon.)
(Dr Saurabh Todariya is PhD in Philosophy from JNU and is currently exploring the intersections between Phenomenology and Kashmiri Shaivism in NIAS-CSP)
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Disclaimer: The opinions endorsed by the speaker is solely the author’s and not in any way endorsed by the Institute/Programme.