By Steven McGuire, August 13, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, Interviews, Professional Development
An Interview with J. Budziszewski, Professor, Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin
By Steven F. McGuire
1. Why did you decide to become a political theorist?
For the most foolish of reasons. As a left-wing undergraduate who had abandoned his faith, I wanted to study politics because I was waiting for the revolution. By the time I was in graduate school, stuffed to the gills with Nietzsche, I had decided that ethics is an illusion and that personal responsibility is an even bigger one. Why go on studying, then? Partly in order to make some sort of home in the abyss, although that rather missed the point about it being an abyss. Partly also to find excuses for myself, because I knew better.
2. How did you come to focus your studies on the natural law?
After my mental censors crumbled and I discovered what an ass I had become, I wanted to try to understand the realities that I had been denying. There is a right and wrong; I am personally responsible for what I do; the law of God is inscribed on my nature and conscience, “written on the heart.” The continuing connection with political theory was that I wanted to understand not just personal ethics but the ethical foundations of politics.
3. You’ve written a lot about the inexpungibility of the natural law. What led you in that direction?
A few moments ago I remarked that in my "ass" phase, I really did know better. For all my self-deception, I hadn’t been able to blot out my conscience; I had only suppressed and obscured it. Discovery of the reality of natural law, then, meant rediscovery of realities that had been pretty obvious all along, but that I had been trying not to see. It seems to me that this phenomenon is quite general. The real difficulty isn’t that there is insufficient light to find our way, but that we shut our eyes to it. The mystery of self-deception raises all sorts of questions. How is it even possible? What motive could we have for it? When we tell ourselves we don’t know what we really do, what happens to us?
4. As a teacher of the natural law, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced in the classroom? Are students open to the idea of natural law? Do they care? How do you attempt to lead them toward the natural law?
I am still finding that out. Some students are not only open to hearing about natural law, but hungry to do so. Others find it offensive, and consider the fact that it offends them a good reason not to inquire into whether it is true. The biggest challenge in teaching is the interweaving of honest confusion with what might be called motivated confusion. One part of us desperately seeks to know; another part desperately tries not to know, because then we may have to change. A good teacher tries to love wisdom, tries to help the wisdom-loving part in his students to look for it, and tries to help the wisdom-hating part in them to see through its own pretensions.
5. As a political theorist, do you believe you can play a role outside the academy? If so, what do you envision that role to be?
Any role I might be able to play outside of the academy is an extension of my role inside it, and my vocation is to teach. For that reason, I try to write in such a way that no matter what I am writing about, I can be understood not only by fellow scholars but by intelligent and literate general readers. Besides, the subject of a political theorist is ultimately how to live. What is the point of looking into how to live, if living people can’t understand what you are trying to say?
6. The idea that there is a natural law appears to be very far from many people’s minds today. Do you believe that natural law language can still play a role in contemporary American public discourse?
The answer depends on what you mean by natural law language. I don’t think we get far in everyday conversations by using the technical vocabulary of natural law theory, which means nothing to most people today (even, by the way, to most scholars). But natural law theory begins with everyday moral experience; its aspiration isn’t to kick aside common sense, but to elevate, purify, and illuminate it. If you throw around expressions like “sexual complementarity,” you will leave people behind. But suppose you put it this way instead: “It’s a good thing men and women are different, don’t you think? We’re incomplete. We balance each other.” That makes sense of their latent knowledge, and they agree. If the discussion continues long enough, as with a few people it will, there will come a point at which some of the technical apparatus does have to be deployed – substance and accident, actuality and potentiality, synderesis and conscientia. By that time, though, they are willing to put up with it because they see that it actually clarifies.
7. What in your experience are the major obstacles to recognizing or accepting the natural law in today’s society?
Several years ago I suggested that we are passing through an eerie phase of history in which the things that everyone really knows are treated as unheard-of doctrines, a time in which the elements of common decency are themselves attacked as indecent. Nothing quite like this has ever happened before. Although our civilization has passed through quite a few troughs of immorality, never before has vice held the high moral ground. Our time considers it dirty-minded to treat sexual purity as a virtue; unfeeling to insist too firmly that the sick should not be encouraged to seek death; a sign of impious pride to profess humble faith in God. The moral law has become the very emblem of immorality. I still think this is true. The question is why it is true, and what can be done.
8. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the moral and political future of American society?
I never predict; I hope. If I believed in extrapolation, I would be pessimistic, because things are falling apart more and more rapidly. But I don’t believe in extrapolation, partly because human beings are not iron filings in a magnetic field (as I once believed), and partly because we have help. Doesn’t our very nature long to love better than it does? Doesn’t this longing leaven the listless dough of culture so that it quickens, rises, and glances upward? And what of that veiled and clandestine grace obscurely moving among the nations, silently entreating them to feel after the unknown God, darkly inciting them to long for light and purity, prickling them with sparks from hidden fire?
9. In your most recent book, The Line Though the Heart, you talk about the importance of revelation for the natural law. What are the implications of this relationship for the reception of natural law arguments in modern secular societies?
Quite apart from revelation, there are compelling reasons to believe in natural law. However, revelation helps to see more deeply into it. To give but a single example, we are at odds with our own nature, and natural law theory alone does not contain the resources to explain either why this is true, or what the cure may be. Our actual inclinations are at war with our natural inclinations; our hearts are riddled with desires that oppose their deepest longings; we demand to have happiness on terms that make happiness impossible. These disorders merely stun the mind when contemplated apart from the graces of creation and redemption. For this reason, a truly adequate understanding of nature’s malaise requires some hint, some glimpse, some trace of its supernatural remedy.
Some thinkers would find these remarks scandalous. The philosophical method of our day is minimalist. It assumes that people can consider propositions about reality only in small doses, one dry pill at a time. I suggest that at least sometimes, the very opposite is true. The reason the pill goes down so hard is that it is only a pill, for the mind, like the stomach, desires a meal. Just as some foods are digestible only in combination with other foods, so also some insights are difficult to take in except in combination with other insights. In order to stand firm they need context, as the single stone requires the arch.
10. What advice would you give to students or young scholars who are interested in studying the natural law? What problems or topics might you recommend to them?
Take your pick! As I mentioned earlier, some natural law thinkers try to understand what happens when we tell ourselves that we don’t know what we really do – that’s a topic in moral psychology. Some look into the moral foundations of political and legal order – that’s political theory and jurisprudence. Some investigate how we know what we “can’t not know,” and how to find out more – that’s epistemology. Some puzzle out the implications of natural law for moral persuasion – that’s rhetoric, dialectic, and apologetics. Some delve into what else would have to be true of reality for there to be a natural law in the first place – that’s metaphysics. Some ask whether the classical tools of natural law theory, such as natural teleology, might inform fields of study outside of the liberal arts – that’s science. Some explore how the book of Nature and the book of Scripture co-illuminate each other – that’s theology. Some study the origins of the natural law tradition – that’s intellectual history. Some try to unravel how Western civilization lost its grip on natural law – that’s cultural history. Some read great writers like Dante and Shakespeare to understand what they learned from natural law – that’s literature. Some study how our cultural institutions both mock natural law and unconsciously bear witness to it – that’s sociology. Some ask what light natural law theory sheds on difficult moral problems – that’s practical ethics. Some try to work out how natural law illuminates vocations like counseling, teaching, and raising children – needless to say, these are innumerable. Our sort of education encourages students and young scholars to think that natural law is a “topic.” It isn’t; it is a whole matrix of questions and topics, and I am barely scratching the surface.
11. What are you currently working on yourself?
I’m finishing a book on the meaning of sex. My colleagues will probably scold me by saying that sex doesn’t have anything to do with politics.
12. Could you recommend a few recent books on natural law that everyone interested in the subject should read?
That everyone should read? That means the books should be fairly accessible. And how recent? Books on natural law don’t age quickly. An eclectic starter set might include Hadley Arkes, First Things; Russell Hittinger, The First Grace; and C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. Robert George, The Clash of Orthodoxies, defends a somewhat different theory of natural law. John Paul II, in Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendor, places natural law in the context of Christian revelation. David Novak, Natural Law and Judaism, provides a Jewish perspective on the tradition. Jacques Maritain, The Rights of Man and the Natural Law, illustrates the post-World War II neo-Thomist revival and the foundations of humans-rights jurisprudence. If you want to take a chance on one of my own books, try The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction.