Life Is Commitment
by J.H. Oldham


The purpose of the present lecture is, without going beyond the common ground of ordinary human experience, to bring out more fully the wide range of experience included in the second of the half circles described by Dr. von Weizsäcker.

The activities belonging to the first half circle have their starting-point and center in the individual self. It is Columbus who discovers America, even though he had to depend on a crew to carry out the enterprise. It may very well come about that when men co-operate in an enterprise, new elements of a different kind – of the kind we are about to consider in this lecture – may enter into the common undertaking. But co-operation in the carrying out of a particular task does not of itself change the individualism of the enterprise. The "we" of a joint activity may be only the enlargement of the "I." There is no change in principle.

The picture of man as individual standing over against an external world, which it is his aim (singly or collectively) to explore and subdue to his purposes is the idea of man which has been dominant in recent centuries and still governs the thought of most people. It is, however, a one-sided, partial, and consequently mistaken, view of the realities of human existence.

A radical change in my outlook was brought about by Martin Buber's small book, I and Thou, 1 which was written during the First World War and has since become a classic. It opens with the assertion that man's attitude to the world is not single but twofold. It is twofold because he has two ways of expressing himself. He may deal with things, in which case his relation is that of an I to an It, or he may relate himself to a person in a relation which is that of an I to a Thou. The important thing is Buber's insistence that these two relations are fundamentally different. Science deals only with one of them and can deal only with one of them. The danger is that because science cannot deal with the other, we should shut our eyes to it, whereas, in fact, it is the most important thing in life. No amount of research in the laboratory, no amount of solitary thinking, will teach you what love is – or, for that matter, hate. You need another person to do that. And when you meet her, if it is a she, you will not learn what love is by any measurements or tests that you may apply, or by psychological observation however acute, but only by surrender, by committing yourself, which is a totally different attitude from that of counting, measuring, weighing and calculating, all of which you can do without being caught yourself.

Buber is not of course the discoverer of the I-Thou relationship. It is so fundamental that no one can be without experience of it or live entirely Outside of it. All of us are familiar with it in the life of the family and in the daily intercourse of friendship. If we think of the humanitarian achievements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it is plain that men in the modern period have not been oblivious of their responsibility for their fellow men. What Buber is trying to do is to show us that this relationship, in which we live and cannot help living, has a far greater significance than we commonly attach to it.

Feuerbach put the whole matter in a nutshell when he wrote a little over a century ago: "The individual man himself does not have the essence of man in himself either as a moral or as a thinking being. The essence of man is found only in the community, in the unity of man with man." 2 You could not put it more forcibly or challengingly than that.

A British thinker who helped about the same time to open my mind to the same truth was professor John Macmurray. 3 His fundamental ideas are that the self is primarily agent, that the philosophical tradition is at fault in starting from the self as thinker, that the self exists in its relations and that persons are constituted by their relations.

My greatest debt in this matter, however, was perhaps to the late Professor Eberhard Grisebach, who, when I knew him, was professor of philosophy in Zurich. What puzzled me when I began reading his Gegenwart 4 was that he kept referring to the world of humanism and science as an unreal world, a world of dreams. What could be more real than the transformations of the conditions of human existence brought about by science, which we see on every hand? Gradually I began to see what Grisebach meant. The whole world of human thought and human achievement, the whole objective world, is, as was said earlier, related in the last resort to the individual self. The self is capable of an infinite expansion. In principle I can absorb all knowledge. Potentially I can make myself master of the whole world. In this infinite expansion of the self I encounter no real limits. I certainly meet with obstacles, but they are, so to speak, accidental limits, potentially removable. Let my powers raised to a higher degree and I could surmount them. I am thus living in an infinite and, for that reason, an unreal world. The real is what limits me – the thing that I cannot alter or do away with.

At only one point in my experience do I encounter a real limit. It is when I find myself confronted by another person than myself, another self, another independent center to which the whole objective world is related in the same way as it is to me, one who has the same desire and the same right that I have to explore and possess the world. When I find myself contradicted, challenged, opposed, limited, I can do one of two things. I can destroy the other person, in which case, if I pursue that policy consistently, I shall find myself in the end in a solitary world in which I alone exist. Alternatively, I can relate myself to the other person, come to terms with him, enter into community with him.

This world of contradiction, of the continuous clash of different finite perspectives, is in the eyes of Grisebach the real world. In the academic, scientific, technical world you are master. You decide what you will study, you choose your methods, you get your results, you make up your mind to what use you will put them. But in the world of encounter you do not know in advance what the other is going to say or what demand he will make on you. That lies entirely outside your own control. When he speaks, you have to respond – to commit yourself. That is something quite different from being in command of the situation and being yourself the judge. In the way you respond you yourself come under judgment; it reveals the kind of person you are.

One can, of course, in many instances evade the encounter. One may shut one's ears to the voice of the other, or refuse to respond to what he says. But when one does that one has escaped out of the real; one has retreated into a solitary world of dreams. Or one may avoid the encounter by taking up the situation between oneself and the other person into one's own thought, in order that one may understand it psychologically and deal with it. Biography is full of instances of men who have thought themselves settled and secure until a chance encounter with a stranger suddenly made everything seem different. To take the most familiar illustration: Jesus, we are told, was walking one day by the lake of Galilee and saw Simon and Andrew mending their nets and called them; and they left their nets and followed him, with consequences that are written large in the history of the world.

A thinker, who shows no signs of acquaintance with the authors whom I have thus far mentioned, is H. J. Morgenthau, Professor of Political Science in the University of Chicago, who published a few years ago a book called Scientific Man Versus Power Politics. 5 It is a lively and vigorous assault on what he regards as the prevailing philosophy of our time, which is "the dominant and widespread belief in the power of science to solve all problems and, more particularly, all political problems which confront man in the modern age." The view which he is combating is the confident belief in the ability of the human mind to mold both the physical and the social worlds through increasing knowledge and the application of rational principles. That view, Professor Morgenthau reminds us, is common to thinkers as different as Jeremy Bentham and Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer and John Dewey. Whatever else may separate the White House from the Kremlin, they share the belief that if not now, at least ultimately, politics can be replaced by science. At the heart of this belief is the assumption that all problems are in the last resort technical.

That assumption, Professor Morgenthau contends, is fundamentally mistaken; and its acceptance is preventing us from facing the real problems of politics. The truth is that everywhere we find the conflict of life with life, the opposition of what in themselves are perfectly legitimate egoisms, the reaching out for space, for opportunities for growth, for the control of scarce resources. And everywhere too in human life we find the struggle not only for life but also the struggle for power. You may do a great deal by fuller knowledge and skillful engineering to mitigate these conflicts, but you cannot eliminate them. To deal with them you require not only the technical skill of the social engineer but the practical wisdom of the experienced statesman.

The view of life as fundamentally encounter finds powerful support in M. Gabriel Marcel's recent book, The Mystery of Being. 6 He maintains in this that what he calls intersubjectivity, that is, our relation with other persons, is basic to the whole of our experience; and he argues that if this is true, there are strong grounds for believing that it is a clue to the nature of reality. Not in the objective world, but in the network of relations between persons, is reality most fully revealed to us.

The view which I wish to assert in this lecture is that the choice between the two attitudes we have been considering is decisive for the future of mankind. The belief that man is essentially man with man, that life is essentially dialogue, is not one among a thousand other interesting ideas. In the assertion man's humanity is at stake.

The most formidable Opponent of the view that man is man with man is Nietzsche. In spite of his violent antagonism to Christian morality I have the feeling that Nietzsche is insisting on something for which a place has to be found in a true view of man. None the less life for him was the will to power. "This world is the will to power – and nothing else." 7 It would be unjust to Nietzsche not to recognize that his insistence on self-realization and the will to power was far removed from crude self-aggrandizement or easy self-indulgence. It was not to rule over others that his ambition was directed. It was his own highest, noblest self that the superman must set himself to realize and this can be achieved only at a high cost. Life has to be lived dangerously. It is a struggle toward unattained heights that calls for stern asceticism, severe discipline, an unending audacity.

If it were only these competing philosophical views of man that we had to deal with, we could enter the lists and contend with them in debate. But the tragedy of our times is that conceptions which treat the human person as of no account have become embodied in systems of power. Windows have been opened for us today into the deliberate inhumanities that have been perpetrated in concentration camps – and not only in concentration camps. There is now a vast literature on the subject. In a book like Gustav Herling's A World Apart 8 we can read an objective, dispassionate, detailed account of the ways in which all available resources may be brought to bear to disintegrate, dismantle, and destroy human personality. In former times men could maltreat and kill the body; science and technology have given them powers to disrupt and annihilate the whole personality.

But these unspeakable inhumanities are only the culminating manifestations of tendencies in society to deprive the individual of all significance by subordinating him entirely to impersonal ends. There are, of course, in the world today counteracting influences at work. Never, perhaps, in the history of this country has there been a more extended and intelligent care for the individual. But the world is one, and it is folly to shut our eyes to the dangers so vividly portrayed in George Orwell's 1984 and Georghiev's The Twenty-fifth Hour. What we have to realize is that powerful, though often unrecognized, forces are at work all the time silently undermining men's belief in the reality of reason and morality and conditioning their minds to think of values as unimportant. Mr. C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, 9 has given illustrations of the way in which these corrosive ideas are penetrating into the literature of schools. Unless we set ourselves resolutely to combat these influences we may wake up too late to find that the bulwarks against totalitarianism have silently crumbled and that we are left defenseless.

Those who envisage man as primarily discoverer and transformer, scientist and technician, have dropped Out the ethical dimension of his life, and man in consequence shrinks to incomparably lesser proportions. That is the trouble in the world today. Experience is showing us that when men surrender themselves unreflectingly to the task of transforming their environment, as their plans assume larger and larger scope, they are driven on to control human beings as the instruments of executing their schemes. Engineering leads on to social engineering. Men are exploited and enslaved. Slavery, which the nineteenth century thought it had abolished, is again a reality of our world. Moreover, the system which is set up for the realization of men's soaring ambitions becomes so intricate, inelastic, and rigid that even those who seem to be directing it are caught in its toils and deprived of real freedom.

Man is fundamentally and primarily not an individual but a social being, who finds the fulfillment and satisfaction of his nature in intercourse and communion with his fellow men. In reality life is an arena in which innumerable individuals and groups of individuals, with endlessly varying points of view and conflicting purposes, are in continual encounter and collision. That is the setting and framework within which all discovery and transformation takes place.

When we consider this real world of the encounter of persons, we have to start from the fact of contradiction and conflict, since this is inherent in the existence of distinct and separate individuals. As an individual person I see life from my individual perspective – from the perspective of the particular situation into which by no choice of my own I have been pitchforked. When I meet another person I encounter someone who with equal right sees the whole world from his perspective. How are those two perspectives – or two billion perspectives – to be reconciled? That is the basic problem of human existence.

The truth is that it is only through the other person that I can myself become a person. It is only through communication with other persons that I can realize my own manhood. ... "I am through the other." What would I be if there had not been from the moment of my birth persons who loved me, nourished me, taught me, shared their life with me and made me what I am through what they were? By the very fact that he sees life from a different perspective every person is a source of potential enrichment for me. The greater the number of my relations with other persons, the deeper and more intense those relations are, the greater is my fullness of life.

This second view of life as primarily communication between persons can come to people with the force of a new revelation. Life is seen in an entirely new aspect. If we can imagine a creature living on a flat surface, and knowing only the dimensions of length and breadth, but not that of depth, the drawing of a cube would necessarily appear to it only as a number of lines connecting points on a flat surface. The drawing of a cube can be seen that way. Only a new experience of the dimension of depth could disclose the possibility of another meaning. In a similar way, those who have learned, or are learning, to see life not from the standpoint of the individual self but from that of persons in communication begin to view everything with fresh eyes.

Professor von Weizsäcker, from whom we took the illustration of the two half circles, reaches the conclusion at the end of his book that man is a being who cannot remain what he is. He cannot go back; he must go forward or perish. The knowledge and power that man has acquired are good and safe only in the hands of good men. Their work depends on the power that they serve. "The salutary potentiality of knowing is knowing in love. ... Anti-Christ is the power in history that leads loveless knowledge into the battle of destruction against love." 10

The vision of life as having its fundamental meaning in relations of persons is bound to have in the long run a transforming influence on politics, industry, and social activities generally. This influence will be exerted not so much by new rules or codes of behavior, as by the fact that those who see life in the one way will in many matters reach certain decisions, while those who see it in the other way will arrive at different decisions. Everything hinges in the last resort on, what we believe to be the reality of human existence. For example, the philosophy of life as encounter, interpreted in the sense in which I have tried to interpret it, will give us a tolerant society, and what greater political boon can we look for? In this philosophy the other man is just as much entitled to his perspective as I am to mine. I shall never be tempted to think that the whole of truth is the possession of any individual, or group, or school, or party, or nation.

The fundamental and revolutionary importance of what I have been trying to assert in this lecture will be missed unless three things are kept clearly in view.

The first is that an emphasis on the significance of personal relations may mean one or the other of two very different things. It may mean a retreat on the part of the privileged few from the harsh and bitter realities of actual existence into a private world of the enjoyment of favorite pursuits in the company of like-minded friends. In that sense it is one of the many forms of escape from life and has none of the significance which has been attached to it in this lecture. It can have the importance that has been ascribed to it only in so far as it is a penetration into the "kingdom of the real," 11 with all the discipline and cost that that involves.

Second, the re-creation of living relations between man and man does not absolve us from, nor diminish the difficulties of, the colossal task of harnessing the Great Leviathan of modern society to genuinely human purposes and of reshaping its political and economic institutions in accordance with true human values. The fundamental fact of human existence, says Martin Buber, is neither the individual as such nor the aggregate as such. Each considered by itself is a mighty abstraction. The individual is a fact of existence in so far as he steps into a living relation with other individuals. The aggregate is a fact of existence in so far as it is built up of living units of relation. The fundamental fact of human existence is man with man. 12

Third is the ultimate question of the nature of reality. You have to choose, Nicolas Berdyaev says, between two ways of viewing the world. You can give priority to the cosmos, that is, the objectified world, and try to interpret history, which is the sphere of the free response of persons to the claims of their fellows, to the challenge of events and circumstances and to God speaking through these events and circumstances, in accordance with what seem to be the laws of the cosmos. Or you can give priority to history and seek to understand the objectified world in relation to it. In other words, you can interpret man in terms of the cosmos or you can interpret the cosmos in terms of the man. In the former case man tends to become a thing, like everything else, and in the end meaning and value disappear. In the latter case the way is open for endless creative adventure. 13

We may perhaps in closing take note of one point, made by Professor Karl Barth in his monumental work on Christian Dogmatics. How do we know, he asks, what man really is, what is normal human nature? For Christians, he answers, the decisive thing is the manifestation of the true, the perfect, man in Jesus Christ. A Christian anthropology, that is, a Christian doctrine of man, must rest on a view of Christ. Christ was indubitably, unmistakably, the man with men, the man for men. That for Christians must be decisive. Barth sees clearly that mankind is standing at the crossroads. A vast debate is taking place about the nature of man. In that debate, he holds, Christians ought not to need to spend time making up their minds where they stand. They ought to be able to jump straight into the fight. It ought to be for them as plain as daylight that man is man with man. Free from all hesitations, they ought to be in the van of the fighting army of those who are working to save mankind from the doom that hangs over it, and to create a social order resting on trust and loyalty between man and man. Whether Christians will, in fact, give that lead, whether they are capable of doing so, is, Barth freely admits, another story.

1. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1937.
2, Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft (1843), p. 344, quoted in John Cullberg, Das Du und die Wirklichkeit (Uppsala: Lundequistska Bokhandeln, 1933).
3. See John Macmurray, Freedom in the Modern World and Interpreting the Universe (London: Faber & Faber, 1938, both books).
4. Eberhard Grisebach, Gegenwart (Halle-Salle: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1928). 5. London: Latimer House, 1947.
6. London: Harvill Press, 1950, 2 vols.
7. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938).
8. London: Heineman, 1951.
9. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1946.
10. The History of Nature, op. cit., pp. 168-173.
11. The title of a profound exposition of the opening chapters of the Fourth Gospel by "Nicodemus," M. Chaning Pearce, The Kingdom of the Real (London: Lutterworth Press, 1951).
12. Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1947), pp. 202-203.
13. See Nicolas Berdyaev, The Beginning and the End (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950), pp. 197 ff.


Back to Life is Commitment – Contents

Home | Introduction | Biography | Berdyaev's Philosophy | Quotes
Articles & Essays | Bibliography | Discussion List | Images | Links | Search
Last revised: December 17, 2002.