Martin Buber on Eros

[‘Between Man and Man’, 1965/1975]


Buber’s ‘I—Thou’ is the apogee of personal Eros. This permits union of the two ‘as one’, but it does not allow merging, or fusion, in which the otherness between the ‘I’ and the ‘Thou’ entirely disappears, in the name of mysticism.

Buber explicitly denies the claim by mystics that their soul disappears into God, or what amounts to the same, that the soul and God, or the soul and all of existence, becomes a ‘Oneness’ in which all distinctness of being is ‘erased.’ Buber argues that ostensible mystical experiences of Oneness are not really between the soul and God, the soul and all of existence, rather they occur within the soul; they are experiences of the undifferentiated ‘un-grund’, or featurelessness, within the soul [‘The Wordless Depths’, pp 24-28]. Before entering I—Thou, there is a basic undifferentiated unity to the life of the soul. This is not dissimilar to the ‘uncarved block’ of Taoism.


Buber points out that the “powerful, world-begetting Eros” of the Greeks is the same as the “light ..whose sphere was the soul.. For the primal God Desire from whom the world is derived, is the very one who the form of a.. ‘spirit’ enters into the sphere of souls and.. carries out here, as mediator of the pollination of being, his cosmogenic work: he is the great pollen-bearing butterfly of psychogenesis” [p 28].

This pollination by Eros reaches down from the plenitude of the Uncreated into the ontological foundation of the created, the very soul of its body. For Eros does not simply draw the created, like a magnet, ‘back’ to its origin, as in the Far East, reconnecting what had become disconnected; rather, as it comes West, Eros grants the creation more space of its own in which to breathe and grow, and crowning this, the creation is given its own seed of goodness, beauty, aliveness, and Eros fertilises that seed, like the butterfly with the flower, causing it to blossom in its own magnificence as something not copying the divine but developing divine themes in a way that is ‘new.’

Therefore, not to draw everything back to God, but to bring everything forward to its own completeness, becomes the creative power exercised by Eros. We are pregnantly carrying something given by God yet because we are different to God we come to a fulfilment of this gift in our own way. God does not just draw our poverty back to the riches of divinity; God really gives away these riches, planting them like jewels far underground in the soul, so that as the soul ripens, these riches develop in our nature, becoming ours to care for and harvest.

Eros is not just the beauty toward which the entire creation yearns; Eros also beautifies the creation in its own right, and in doing this, urges the creation to accept it is valued for itself, by being the target of divine love.

Both aspects of Eros – the impersonal magnet, the personal pollination – have a certain point in a certain context.

Sexuality illustrates the difference in emphasis. One kind of sexuality, as Freud showed, harks back to the maternal breast. He called this regressive. Another kind of sexuality, which Freud did not understand, is progressive and goes forward in the mutuality of husband and wife — Uncreated and created working together — to create new life, the ‘child’ of husbanding erotic energy and the wifely fertile field of nature wherein a seed potentially of great glory is latent.


Buber distinguishes not between a pure heavenly and profane earthy Eros, a distinction he rejects, but a genuine and a fake Eros, an Eros of dialogue and mutuality which truly has wings, and an Eros of monologue and self-enclosure pretending to the real, but in actuality broken-winged. Buber speaks [pp 28-29] of the “paltry gestures of love.. [which are] lame-winged under the rule of the lame-winged one..” and he refers to lovers who “cower where they are, each in his den, instead of soaring out each to the beloved partner and there, in the beyond which has come near, ‘knowing’.” In the ancient Hebrew of the Jewish Bible, according to Buber’s translator [R.G. Smith, p 207], “lovers ‘knowing’ each other is not limited to the physical, but means a connection comprehending the whole being of the beloved.”

Thus persons who are “loyal to the strong-winged Eros of dialogue know the beloved being.. The two who are loyal to the Eros of dialogue, who love one another, receive the common event from the other’s side as well, that is, they receive it from the two sides, and thus for the first time understand in a bodily way what an event is” [p 29]. An ‘event’ is when the two come together, and a third arises between them.. This is inadequately described as neither subjectivity, nor objectivity, but ‘inter-subjectivity.’

“The kingdom of the lame-winged Eros is a world of mirrors.. But where the winged one holds sway there is no mirroring. ..I do not assimilate into my own soul that which lives and faces me, I vow them faithfully to myself and myself to them, I vow, I have faith” [p 29]. Buber says that the winged Eros has “the simplicity of fullness”, but the pseudo version is manifold. He describes a whole variety of phony versions where there is no ‘soaring’, no ‘ex-stasis.’ There is the person only in love with his desire itself. Another wears his Eros-inspired rich feelings on his sleeve, like medals. Yet another is “enjoying the adventures of his own fascinating effect” [p 29]; he glories in his power to dazzle those he chases after. Still another is “gazing enraptured at the spectacle of his own supposed surrender” [p 28].

And another is “collecting excitement” [p 28]. “There one is displaying his ‘power.’ There one is preening himself with borrowed vitality. There one is delighting to exist simultaneously as himself and as an idol very unlike himself. ..There one is experimenting. And so on and on—all the manifold monologists with their mirrors, in the apartment of the most intimate dialogue” [pp 29-30].

This ‘simulated’ Eros is both narcissistic, self-obsessed, and devouring of its love-object: the other becomes an ‘object of use’, to be exploited, and then discarded. Self-love invariably consumes what it desires. Such consuming by one of the other is the counterfeit of union between the two.

Buber sees much the same dynamic of false Eros in the charismatic leaders who relish the power of their ‘influence’ over gullible followers, justifying this by deceiving themselves and the group that they are “molders of youthful souls” [p 30]. Such people call on Eros as the “tutelary god of this work” [p 30], but that is delusional. By mesmerising the profane and vulgar herd, leaders such as Napoleon and Hitler could draw people into mindless submission to any evil deeds.. Does not the same broken-winged Eros preside at modern day pop concerts?

“They are all beating the air” concludes Buber [p 30]. Only when two say to one another, ‘It is Thou’, does the Shekinah — the ecstatic, feminine, ontological bridge of uniting — dwell between them.

‘God dwells there’, as in the Temple; and so in the winged Eros, the knowing of lovers is a Temple where God dwells, manifest in their joining, physical, psychological, spiritual.