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A Guide for Those Unwilling to Know Themselves | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | April 26, 2011

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"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 it."
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 book—women.

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 one.

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 life.

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 of things.

Reality—what is—is 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 experimentation.

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 unborn.

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 Contradiction.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

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