IN THE MIND OF AN ARTIST“…I think the role of the artist is to try and leverage whatever life throws at them.” — Edge of Humanity Magazine. Click the link below for the full interview
IN THE MIND OF AN ARTIST The Interview Answered By Andrew Abballe @ A Life of Virtue Describe the most joyful and/or the most painful artwork you ever created and why you qualified it as such? 971 more words
Martin Buber’s book “I and Thou” is an inquiry into how our relationships with others shape our reality. His main thesis, which runs throughout the course of the book, is that there are two different modes in which we encounter the world, namely through ‘I-It’ or ‘I-Thou’ relationships.
Let’s take a closer look at these concepts in more detail.
I-It relationships are entered into to achieve some sort of external goal or purpose. Through these type of encounters we engage others with the intent and expectation of attaining some gain or benefit. For those familiar with the language of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, people are treated as means to achieve an end.
With the rise of political and economic bureaucracies, shift towards urbanization and the proliferation of global corporations of the modern era, I-IT relationships have become the predominant mode of interaction in our day to day lives.
They arise when mass institutions transform individuals into mere objects. Consequently, we become subsumed by our particular roles that we play within society.
Think of how politicians look at individuals as voters or companies view the general public as consumers. Moreover, the complexity and uniqueness of each human is stripped away when we see the statistics of those who have passed away from the ongoing pandemic.
As Buber writes,
Institutions yield no public life; feelings, no personal life. That institutions yield no public life is felt by more and more human beings, to their sorrow: this is the source of the distress and search of our age.
Of note, Buber recognizes that at some level I-It relationships are needed for modern society to function. Increased efficiency brought about by socioeconomic institutions have resulted in great material improvement and increased quality of life. However, he warns that living life and existing exclusively in the I-It mode ultimately leads to alienation. Our longing for genuine relationships goes unmet and we consequently feel disconnected and separated from others and the world around us.
On the contrary, the I-Thou relationship is based on mutuality, empathy and being together with someone or something in the present moment. These encounters transcend analytic thought and the categories or roles we assign to others. In these moments, we see individuals as ‘subjects’ rather than ‘objects’ or as ends in themselves. Namely, in this mode of existence we see the beauty and complexity of another human being.
The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experience world. Not as a thing among the ‘internal’ things, not as a figment of the ‘imagination’, but as what is present.
Although temporary and fleeting, these moments are entered into with one’s full presence and attention. Those involved in the I-Thou relationship are mutually transformed and become merged into the experience and life of the other.
We are momentarily put into the shoes of someone else and see the world as they do.
I-Thou moments are not limited to encounters with other humans but can be extended to being in relation with nature or other sentient beings. Writing from the tradition of Jewish Hassidism, Buber notes that the ultimate I-Thou connection, which he calls the Eternal Thou, is to be in relation with God.
For those interested in ‘I and Thou’ I must admit that at times it was a difficult read. Buber writes in aphorisms using poetic and esoteric language that requires one to go over the text a couple of times to understand.
Nonetheless, I found that the concepts explored in the book are increasingly relevant in our hyper technological age. With the advent of social media and exposure to 24/7 news outlets, it is easy to look at other humans as just statistics, numbers or likes on our Instagram posts. Through this type of thinking, we fail to realize the common humanity and uniqueness of others. Each being on this planet is as complex and interesting as each and everyone of us.
‘I and Thou’ reminds us that a much deeper and authentic type of relationship can exists of others. When we see the world as someone else does. When our ‘self’ transcends our body and becomes merged with the world around us. We can’t live forever in these moments, but we can always be prepared for when the next moment arises.
*Quotes taken in the article are from the Walter Kaufmann translation of the book.
In previous posts in this series, I looked at how interconnected we all are in a single global ecosystem. As noted by the philosopher Aristotle, humans are ‘social animals’ who exist and thrive in communities. We have the ability to devise sophisticated institutions enabling us to co-operate with others across cultures and borders.
We can see how interwoven our lives all are through the complex interdependencies in our economies, societies and in the natural environment. As humans, we exist in broader networks and are involved in systems and feedback loops at the local, national and global level. Further, we are immersed in interdependent and reciprocal relationships with the outside world as we both shape and are shaped by our external environment.
In this article I will look at philosophies and spiritual exercises which can expand one’s perspective helping us go beyond our narrow self-interest and embody a cosmopolitan worldview.
The Stoics developed a system of ethics based on two key premises deduced from human behavior:
Humans have the capacity for reason through our ability for critical thinking and self-reflection. We can plan for the future and can think abstractly, devising systems of thought which stretch beyond our immediate sensory experience.
In comparison to other species, we are highly social creatures who depend on mutual co-operation and assistance from others to survive. This is especially true as newborns – think of how dependent we are on our mothers\caregivers for our growth and survival. Some unique features of humans separating us from other animals include the development of language, culture and the division of labor, all pointing towards our inclination towards social living.
The concept of oikeiōsis, which roughly translates to ‘appropriation’ or ‘familiarization’, is the idea of gradually treating the concerns of others as our own. The Stoics notion of ethical development, was based upon using our capacity of reason to continually expand our care towards more and more people.
The Circles of Hierocles
The second century Stoic Hierocles put forth a model which links human development and our capacity for reason with ethical development and expanding circles of care.
Starting as infants, we are highly instinctual and therefore our self-interest is limited towards our own self-preservation. However, as we grow and develop as children, our oikeiōsis expands towards our family and caregivers with the realization that our wellbeing is tied to theirs.
Hierocles develops this logic to gradually empathizing and sympathizing with more distant individuals including our community, fellow citizens and eventually humanity as a whole.
Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci further explains how reason enables us to expand our circles of concern in his blog Figs in Winter,
When we reach the age of reason, around 7 to 8 years old, and continuously thereafter, we begin to apply our reflective thinking to further extend the process, realizing that other people, who are not related or otherwise close to us, are essentially like us, with similar wants, needs, worries, and so forth. The wise person, extrapolating the process of oikeiôsis to its logical outer limit, would then feel “at home” not just with relatives, friends, and fellow townspeople, but with humanity at large.
In breaking down the barriers of identity and finding commonality with others, the Stoics align themselves with the famous sentiment expressed by Socrates who claimed to be a ‘a citizen of the world’.
Buddhism: Mettā Meditation
One may object to the idea of cosmopolitanism stating that humans are also inherently tribal and favor the well-being of our tribe or culture at the expense of those who are different from us. As Jonathan Haidt notes, our moral systems both ‘bind and blind.’
Although I don’t disagree with Haidt, I do think nonetheless we can overcome our tribalistic tendencies and move towards greater altruism through continual spiritual practice.
The Buddhist exercise of mettā meditation (loving kindness), which aligns closely with the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, is something that can be put into practice to increase our capacity for altruism. The practice begins with the meditator visualizing someone close to them and repeating a mantra to wish the person in their mind’s eye safety, security and happiness. The meditator then repeats this process as they continue repeating the mantra extending their sympathies to someone they think of as ‘neutral’ and then eventually someone who they have a hostile relationship with.
The goal of mettā meditation is for one to see the common humanity in everyone, regardless of our relationship to another. This has similarities with the golden rule found in so many religious/spiritual traditions of ‘treating others how we would like to be treated.’ This of course is difficult, especially with those who we think of as our enemies. However, like anything worthwhile, it requires repetition as we will gradually see positive results.
The Pale Blue Dot
In the final analysis, all of us humans occupy one planet – a tiny blue marble orbiting the sun in a vast cosmos. We are finite mortal beings who one day will all meet our end. The petty concerns that ruminate in our minds throughout the day are likely trivial.
So in the short time that we do have here, is it really productive to cling onto self-righteousness, anger or resentment?
It may be difficult to let go and see others as ourselves, but in our highly interconnected global community, it is definitely worth a try.