dialogue and the essence of freedom


martin buber argued that all real life is encounter. he also said “at the beginning it was the dialogue”. following buber, and in an important sense also emannuel levinas, i’ve argued that dialogue is first philosophy. dialogue does not derive as a corollary from any antecedent system of thought, but all follow from it.

a way to reason our way to affirming dialogue as at the essence of humanness is to consider the issue of free will. we seem to understand that ethics is predicated on our ability to make free choices. a forced action is ethically neutral. we sometimes go even further and explain the existence of evil in a world created by a wholly-good god on account of god’s desire to provide us with the attribute of free will.

but from a theistic viewpoint, free will runs into inherent categorical contradictions. an all-knowing god knows our future and therefore it has already been predetermined by a will other than ours. at the same time if god controls all aspects of the life of the universe, we, humans, are no more free than any other sentient or insentient being on earth. the talmud sages have tried to capture these dichotomies with clever formulations which in essence declare that reason is unable to offer a proper solution to the inherent contradiction in the theistic definition of free will. in pirkey avot 3-18 we find the maxim that “everything has been predetermined but we are free to chose”. another version of the same idea in berachot 33b but more focused on the purported goal of life itself states that “all is in the hands of heaven, except for the fear of heaven”. looking at these teachings with a modern philosophical eye, it is clear that the rabbis were directing us to the existential aspect of free-will, away from its philosophical disambiguation. the purpose of life, its logos, is the fear of heaven, and therefore there is no point arguing this point, we just need to engage in the deed itself an stay with it and within it.

outside of the theological realm of intellectual conundrums, we face the issue of free-will and ask: what are we free from and what are we free for? we were born into the world not of our own free will, nor do we die of our own choosing. and in between birth and death, our lives have been predetermined by a constellation of facts and events none of our own choosing: the time, place and family of our birth, our gender and ethnic predominances, all the needs of our bodies that we must meticulously comply with, the flow of time and the composition of space. what are we then free from and free for? what small aspect of our lives are we still free to chose by the will of our wills?

spinoza spoke of the chain of causes and effects that determine each of our actions and our emotions. we arrive at this deed and at this thought by virtue of another that preceded it and so forth. it is like a karma reason is able to psychologically and physically dissect. shopenhouer reflected on the fact that we are free to chose at will, but not to will what we will. everything that exist, including humans, are the effects of causes which in turn are the effects of previous causes and the causes of other effects.

another perspective on free will is that of sunyata. if there is no-self, there can be no-will, free or otherwise. or yet another variation to the concept of no-self is the mystical merging of one’s will with that of god’s. but if my will is wholly god’s, then it no longer reflects a category of existence any attributes could be predicated of. based on the theistic definition of god, in the self of god all human categories are absorbed and transcended. from my personal perspective, the entire concept of the unity of self and god is not comprehensible in any manner that will allow me to draw any conclusions concerning freedom of will. i am drawn back to the dialogical concept that the “i” of the i-it pair, which is the ego, is devoid of free will. the “i” of the i-thou pair, which is the self, is the only possible locus for freedom of the will.

if we turn our focus away from the intellectual or religious perspectives and we place it instead it on the existential aspect of the free will question, since our lives are always lived in relationship, the realm of existence in which we are still able to practice freedom of will is in the dialogical life. freedom exists only in the between of an i and a thou. we need therefore to revert back to the existential stance if we are to attempt an answer to the problem of free will. we should know that living within the framework of our own un-free lives, we can still chose to say “it” or to say “thou” to all beings in the world, and that includes our own minds and the contents that reside within it. we live always in relationship and never outside of it, and from an existential viewpoint we can say that the philosophical answer to free will may not be fully apparent, but my relationship between i and the other is given to me. the presence of the other is a deed-answer of our own free will. therefore, the only answer we can attempt is in the way we chose to live the lives we have, in all of their concrete, ordinary, day-to-day ways life has given itself to us. there is no other possible life but the one as it was given to us and we happen to live. in other words, free will is to live the life of encounter.

it is for that reason that the basic premise of a free life is to realize that the limited realm of free-will we seem to be able to exercise is the freedom to dialogue. if we part from this basic existential fact, we can adopt for ourselves buber’s premise that all real life is i-thou dialogue. dialogue is the real or the genuine life, because in it we are able to live as free beings, and despite whatever nature dictates in regards to freedom, to live an enlightened life is to learn to accept life-as-is. and it’s not a coincidence that enlightenment is also called “liberation”. even if we argue that all has been predetermined and our freedoms have been surrendered to the hands of heaven or the composite laws of the universe into which we are fully-integrated, all has been predestined except for our choice to either say thou or say it to all beings.

and it is within the practice of dialogue, in the between of an i and a thou, that god emerges and takes its stand. there is no god outside of us nor within us, there is only the god that is the between of an i and a thou. for that reason at the beginning is the dialogue, since without god, we could not actualize our freedom to exist.

© Hune Margulies



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