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A Guide for Those Unwilling to Know Themselves | Fr. James V. Schall,
S.J. | Ignatius Insight | April 26, 2011
"The reason it is so difficult to argue with an atheist—as I
know, having been one—is that he is not being honest with himself."
— J. Budziszewski, What
We Can't Not Know. (Revised and Expanded Edition; San Francisco:
Ignatius Press, 2011), 66.
"If Sophists are to run the courts and the civil service, they need
plenty of help. From somewhere there must come a stream of people, who think as
they do, to fill vacancies as they open up. Universities fill this need.
Ordinary people who have not spent time on college campuses find it difficult
to believe just how thoroughly they subvert the mind and how little they train
— J. Budziszewski, What
We Can't Not Know. 181.
Among those scholars who write so well on natural law—Rommen,
Lewis, Finnis, George, Matlary, Hittinger, Veatch, Kries, Simon, Grisez,
Maritain, Kreeft, McInerny, Fortin, Syse, Dennehy, Koterski, Bradley, Glendon,
Smith, Rice, Sokolowski—J. Budziszewski, at the University of Texas,
holds a special place. In addition to a first-rate mind, he is probably the
best rhetorician of them all. He leaves no argument before he has taken it step
by step to its logical conclusion.
Budziszewski does not allow those who refuse to see the truth of an
issue to have the satisfaction of thinking that the problem is with the truth
and not with their own minds and souls. The only protection against the
Budziszewski logic is to refuse to listen, to refuse to engage in argument,
mindful of those fierce men in the Acts of the Apostles who, at the stoning of
Stephen, held their hands over their ears lest they hear the truth they refused
to listen to (Acts 7). In argument, Budziszewski combines the tenacity of a
Georgia Bulldog with the weight of a Texas Longhorn. It is thus not surprising
that he is a professor of philosophy and politics at the University of Texas.
Budziszewski's first book on natural law—Written on the Heart:
The Case for Natural Law (InterVarsity
Press, 1997)—was published while he was a Protestant. It is a remarkable
book that I have used in class. It is an especially useful book that approaches
natural law with the full armor of Scripture behind it. Obviously, as mentioned
in the introductory citation above, before Budziszewski was a Protestant, he
was an atheist. So he has been around the bend with considerable experience,
which happily shows in this book, What We Can't Not Know. He became a Catholic a number of years ago, much to
the relief of his admirers. The notion that someone with the noble name
Budziszewski was a Protestant or an atheist, with all due respect to both, just
did not sound right, especially since everything he said seemed so Catholic.
But that is another story.
A book that should be given as a Christmas gift to your favorite lawyer
or law student is Budziszewski's short, to the point, Natural Law for
Lawyers. His recent study from ISI Books, The
Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction, begins with the profound sentence from Alexander
Solzhenitsyn: "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every
human being," a passage with an obvious debt to Plato. And, of course, it is
the theme of this book. All things, both of order and disorder, begin and end
in the wills and souls of men and—even more obviously in this
We are used to hearing that the natural law is old hat, that no one
agrees with it any more, that we have a "new" morality. This is pretty much the
case. But that is precisely the point where Budziszewski begins the argument.
Is it really possible to deny the natural law? What happens when we do seek to
justify our "reasons" for rejecting it? What happens is that someone like
Budziszewski will come along to examine just what we use for arguments against
the natural law.
In every case, it turns out that the denial of any element in classical
natural law depends on the natural law for its validity. When we sort out the
meaning of the argument that is purportedly against the natural law, we find
that we are necessitated to claim some basis in truth that justifies our
position that opposes the natural law. When we dance around this issue, we find
ourselves implicitly affirming one natural law principle against another. Once
we straighten out this confusion or deliberate blindness, we can see that
classical natural law position was in fact the correct one and the more human
The present book has eleven chapters and four appendices, and is
divided into four sections: 1) "The Lost World," 2) "Explaining the Lost
World," 3) "How the Lost World Was Lost," and 4) "Recovering the Lost World."
The "lost world" obviously refers to Budziszewski's provocative title, What
We Can't Not Know. Clearly, there are things
that we do not know, or do not know yet, or have forgotten. Likewise, there are
divine things that we only know if they are revealed to us. But once they are
revealed, much of our ingenuity is spent on avoiding the implications that what
God intended for us to know is either important or required of us. We find that
this revelation and thinking about it makes us more philosophical, not less.
Budziszewski does not confuse reason and revelation. His first three
appendices are devoted to brief but accurate statements about how the
Decalogue, and the Noahide Commandments, as well as Isaiah, several of the
Psalms, and Paul are related to the natural law. Basically, the natural law and
revelation on these basic points say the same thing. This agreement suggests to
us that they are both from the same source. Indeed, this fact of the same
content suggests that revelation was directed to the human mind itself as it
thinks what it means do "do good and avoid evil."
The "lost world" means basically the issue of first principles of the
theoretical and practical intellects. It means that the principle of
contradiction cannot in fact be denied without affirming it. Try it. It means
that doing evil has an intelligible content which can be spelled out in a logical
sequence, what Aquinas called the les fomitis. The natural law is not just arbitrary, nor is it indifferent to human
The modern notion that we postulate our own definition of what is good
and what is evil is a disorder that in fact goes back to Genesis and the Fall.
It claims that we make what is good and what is evil by our own wills and
power. To make this latter claim means logically that we propose ourselves as
gods. Then we try to create a better human world only to see our efforts
deviate more and more from what it is to be human. Benedict XVI's encyclical Spe
Salvi also spelled out this decline.
This world of reason was once understood but it is "lost" because of
developments in modern philosophy and politics that presumably have replaced these
classic principles with "new" ones. But, as Budziszewski shows, what ended up
being lost was our understanding of ourselves and our proper place in the order
filled with coherence. Nothing is more ordered than the human being's own
structure, something Leon Kass showed quite clearly in The Hungry
Soul. Budziszewski again goes over the
evidence for design in the universe and in ourselves, evidence that has not
gone away with modern science. Just the opposite, in fact. Budziszewski's
observations correspond with those of Robert Spitzer in his New
Cosmological Proofs for the Existence of God.
The book is filled with pertinent illustrations of the points that
Budziszewski wants to make, from his own conversation with students, from his
controversies with other scholars, and from what is available in the public
order, where human disorder is more and more being legalized and enforced.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this book is not so much the "what
we can't not know," something that C. S. Lewis had also made clear. Rather, it
is the "furies," as Budziszewski calls them, the "what happens to us"
individually and as a society when we reject what cannot be denied. Our souls
are never left in peace.
In a sense, this book is a treatise on evil. Budziszewski cites
Chesterton's observation that good may stay at a certain even level, but evil
never does. It goes downhill, often rapidly, one step at a time.
Having made our
peace with forty million abortions, we will make our peace with forty million
infanticides. As we begin to see already, there is no way to welcome the one
without the other. If a fetus is not enough like an adult to be a "person,"
then neither is a babe in arms. If an unborn child is an 'intruder' in the mother's
womb, then a toddler is an intruder in her home. If an embryo is an "aggressor"
against her liberty, then an infant is an aggressor against her heart. Adoption
is good, but adoption will not solve the problem. If a pregnant mother can say,
"I would never give up my
baby"—yet kill him—then the mother or the father of a born child
can do the same (230-31)
All of these reasonings and deeds have happened. It is not like these
things might happen. The same
consequences happen when we try to justify euthanasia, homosexuality, or fetal
Behind this logic is the fact that God will not be mocked. Budziszewski
is very sober here. We are allowed in our freedom to reject elements of the
natural law, but not without impunity or remorse or judgment. Budziszewski is
quite clear. We will descend further and further and more quickly if we do not
"go back," if we do not return to what was lost.
And the first step has to be the simple fact of acknowledging what we
are doing. We need to call things by their proper names. We must not call
abortion "choice" but killing. We must not, in other words, deny the design in
our nature, a design that in fact guides to what we want if we could have it.
We must not lie to ourselves. This is what the "lost world" of sensible
understanding of human life meant.
This welcome book is, as I called it, "a guide for those who are
unwilling to know themselves." Budziszewski does those promoting the most
heinous disorders in human history the honor of taking their arguments seriously.
He knows that he deals also with principalities and powers, not just flesh and
blood. Yet, it seems to be the irony of human history that the principal
sufferers from intellectual and moral disorders are the innocent, born and
From this angle, it is apparently obvious why Christ had to become man
to redeem us from our own refusal to know ourselves. But He too can be rejected
because He tells us what we are. This is why there is judgment, as both Plato
and the Creed tell us.
This was the teaching of John Paul II, that Christ fully reveals man to
himself. And part of that revelation is not just that we can reject what we
are, but that in our rejection we can carry many, many along with us. There is
room for repentance and hope, but not apart, as Budziszewski says, repentance
and acknowledgement of how, in our actions and laws, we reject God's design for
what we are and ought to be.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Interviews:
Natural Law and Bearing False Witness | J. Budziszewski
The Scandal of Natural Law | Interview with J. Budziszewski
Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance | Interview with J. Budziszewski
Pope Benedict XVI On Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Why the Bewilderment? Benedict XVI on Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Jacques Maritain and Dignitatis Humanae: Natural Law as the Common Language of Religious Freedom | Brian Jones, M.A.
What We Can't Not
Know: A Guide
by J. Budziszewski
Related Products: What We Can't Not
Know - Electronic Book Download
Revised and Expanded Edition
In this new revised edition of his groundbreaking work, Professor J. Budziszewski questions the modern assumption that moral truths are unknowable. With clear
and logical arguments he rehabilitates the natural law tradition and restores confidence in a moral code based upon human nature.
What We Can't Not Know explains the rational foundation of what we all really know to be right and wrong and shows how that foundation has been kicked
out from under western society. Having gone through stages of atheism and nihilism in his own search for truth, Budziszewski understands the philosophical and personal
roots of moral relativism. With wisdom born of both experience and rigorous intellectual inquiry, he offers a firm foothold to those who are attempting either to
understand or to defend the reasonableness of traditional morality.
While natural law bridges the chasms that can be caused by religious and philosophical differences, Budziszewski believes that natural law theory has entered a
new phase, in which theology will again have pride of place. While religious belief might appear to hamper the search for common ground, Budziszewski
demonstrates that it is not an obstacle, but a pathway to apprehending universal norms of behavior.
"In What We Can't Not Know, J. Budziszewski shows that even the most sophisticated skeptics unwittingly reveal their moral knowledge in attempts to justify killing,
lying, stealing, committing adultery, and other sins. In the very process of attacking Judaeo-Christian moral principles, they confirm them." -- Robert P. George,
Professor of Jurisprudence, Princeton University
J. Budziszewski, who holds a Ph.D. from Yale
University, is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is
the author of several books, including The Revenge of Conscience, How to Stay Christian in College, and
The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007),
and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age,
is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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