Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of numerous books, including What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Ignatius Press), Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purpose (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), as well as the forthcoming How and How Not to Be Happy (Regnery). He currently is Professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.
He spoke recently with CWR about his new book, Thomism, happiness, and virtue.
CWR: Professor Budziszewski, you are an accomplished writer of many academic and popular books as well as a government and philosophy professor at one of the most prestigious public universities in the US. Can you tell us a little bit more about your background? How did you become a Thomist?
Professor J. Budziszewski: As a young man, I had abandoned Christian faith in a big way, becoming not just a practical atheist but a kind of nihilist. I denied the very of good and evil, of persons, and of personal responsibility. After returning to Christian faith – that’s a long story – I came to realize, not only that I had never had good reasons for my nihilism in the first place, but that I had deceived myself. What I mean is that I hadn’t really believed that there is no good or evil, but had only told myself that I did. My rescue came about because God broached the walls of my mental censors.
You will not be surprised that during the period of my intellectual convalescence, I was avid to understand not only the natural moral law, but also self-deception. Some moral realists are what I would call “thin” moral realists. They believe that although there are real rights and wrongs, humans may be entirely ignorant even of the most general and fundamental. On the basis of my own experience with denial, I considered this naïve. As to the moral basics, when we seem to be ignorant, we are only self-deceived – and at some level, the self-deceived person still knows what he pretends that he doesn’t.
Ironically, I had first encountered Thomas Aquinas, along with Dante Alighieri, Augustine of Hippo, and others, while I was still in the nihilist wasteland. St. Thomas wasn’t a thin but a thick moral realist, in whom I found ringing affirmation that the general principles of the natural law are the same for everyone “both as to rectitude and as to knowledge.” In other words, they are not only right for everyone, but at some level really known to everyone. This was the beginning of a much deeper exploration of all the interconnected facets of his thought.
CWR: Although many postmodern philosophers—Umberto Eco and Slavoj Žižek come to mind—express admiration for the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, there is a sense among many academic philosophers that the thought of St. Thomas has been superseded by modern and then postmodern thought. Is the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas still relevant to contemporary philosophical discourse?
Budziszewski: Thomas Aquinas has been “superseded” only in the sense that an inattentive driver may “supersede” or bypass the gasoline station when his tank is almost empty. Yes, yes, he is a smart fellow, but we still smarter fellows see through all that medieval stuff now. We see through believing in God (and so we make ourselves little gods), we see through believing that thoughts must correspond to things (and so we think we can alter reality just by thinking of it differently), we see through believing that we must never do evil so that good will result (and so we make excuses for our wrongdoing), and we see through believing in divine revelation (for since Christianity is not the only religion, how can we possibly take it seriously?)
Modernity is said to be characterized by doubt; postmodernity, which is really hypermodernity, by “suspicion.” I have nothing against doubt. As St. Paul says, “Test everything.” But there is no such thing as absolute doubt; one can only test something which is uncertain by comparing it with something less uncertain. I don’t think moderns and postmoderns are sufficiently honest with themselves about the things they don’t doubt.
Sometimes this sort of thing becomes ridiculous. We are told, for example, that modern science has left teleology behind, for we now know how silly it is to think that things act for ends. Try to tell a biologist that the heart is not adapted to circulating blood. Try to tell a physicist that light does not follow the path of least optical distance. Teleology is everywhere in modern science, even in quantum mechanics. Always some end is being sought, though not in the manner of a mind; always some quantity is being minimized, maximized, or held constant.
CWR: Some have argued that Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange was the last great Thomist (the implication is that Neo-Thomism, Transcendental Thomism, and Analytic Thomism are deviations from the Angelic Doctor’s thought). Are there authentic heirs to St. Thomas’s thought teaching and writing today?
Budziszewski: Although at present there may not be any Thomists in the larger-than-life mold of Garrigou-Lagrange, do there have to be? The present and recent past have featured a lot of excellent Thomists, some of them highly readable. The work of most Thomist thinkers is not very visible to the public because it is addressed exclusively to scholars and zeroes in on specialized questions, such as whether there can be said to be natural penalties for violating the natural law. However, there is a lot of excitement among young scholars, a lot of interest in reaching a broader audience, and an unusual amount of ecumenical discussion – especially among Catholics, Evangelicals, and Neo-Calvinists. The revival of ethical philosophy and philosophy of religion, after a half-century in the doldrums, has certainly helped. We may be at the edge of another great burst of writing; I hope so.
Let a hundred flowers bloom. I wouldn’t warn anyone away from the post-World-War-II Neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain; we are all “Neo” in the sense that we are liberated by St. Thomas’s brilliance rather than imprisoned by it. Transcendental Thomism is not my cup of tea, but I would not say that there is nothing to be learned from any of its proponents. The application of the tools of analytical philosophy to St. Thomas’s thought is welcome, so long as one is careful; for example, if one makes use of the currently fashionable modal view of essences, one must not get mixed up and imagine that it is his view of essences. And I wouldn’t warn anyone away from, say, Joseph Pieper, one of the luminaries of the preceding generation, just because he is so brilliant, original, and fun to read.
CWR: Your book, How and How Not to Be Happy, presents an accessible Thomistic account of human happiness. Why are so many people unhappy today?
Budziszewski: There are a great many reasons, none of them unique to our day, but some of them intensified. Ironically, the very explosion of Happiness Studies has done some damage. For example, Harvard Business School teaches a course aiming to teach future leaders the “an elusive skill—managing happiness.” Already one sees a problem, for happiness has more to do with virtues than with skills. A skill is directed to producing or obtaining something separate from itself, as skill in rhetoric obtains votes. Virtue isn’t like that. It isn’t an external means to a good life, but intrinsic to it. I might practice the skill of clever pickup lines to “get” girls, but the virtues of friendship don’t “get” friends; they are about the very practice of friendship. So with the other virtues.
Another common fallacy is that happiness is the same as pleasure, or, as the Happiness Studies crowd say, “positive emotions” or “emotional benefits.” I’m sorry, happiness isn’t something we feel, but something we do. It is the activity of a certain kind of life. If you pursue pleasure or “positive emotions” as your end, instead of enjoying them as byproducts of what is truly worth pursuit, then you won’t have any.
People seem to experience hedonistic burnout at younger ages than previously. This is probably due largely to sexual disorder. Once when I asked a group of freshmen students what they took happiness to be, the first half-dozen all gave variations on the answer “nothing but absence of pain and suffering.” They were unable to conceive that happiness might be anything but freedom from the pain that results from the pursuit of its counterfeit. That’s what hedonistic burnout looks like.
But the deeper problem is that although a certain happiness is available in this life by the use of our natural powers, it is fragmentary, vulnerable, and incomplete – even if we are spared from bad fortune. Not only pleasure, but every finite good fails to keep the promises it seems to make. Even when we get what we pursued, we still suffer desire. A certain something whispers to us that it was not what we really wanted.
Through history the race has come up against and rediscovered this disillusionment many times. Giacomo Samek Lodovici points out three possible negative responses: Fanaticism, despair, and resignation. The fanatic demands more and more of what didn’t bring happiness before, thinking that this time it will be different. Despair prompts the impossible pledge, I will stop wanting to be happy. Resignation prompts the equally futile resolve that if frustrating partial satisfactions are all I can attain, then I will “settle” and take what I can get.
The temptation to fall into these attitudes arises from forgetting that each of the finite and limited goods in our natural experience derives whatever goodness it has from the infinite and unlimited good that it reflects and anticipates. We see this among finite goods too; for example, charm anticipates true beauty but is not the same thing. Thomas Aquinas has the great merit of pressing on to ask in what this greater good may lie. The answer is the vision of God – but I need hardly say that God-phobia is at record levels today. Anything but that! Anything but the perfect good which leaves nothing further to be desired! I may have to change to be happy – and wouldn’t that make me unhappy?
It doesn’t help that we no longer teach our students practical logic. People think “isn’t this just a religious argument?” somehow counts as refutation.
CWR: As you mention in your book, some thinkers argue that we are hard-wired not to be happy. Is this true?
Budziszewski: In my book, my example is Rafael Euba, a psychiatrist affiliated with King’s College, London, who falls neatly into one of Lodovici’s categories. Dr. Euba’s category is resignation. He urges that humans aren’t designed to be happy, so we should stop trying. “We should take comfort,” he says, “in the knowledge that unhappiness is not really our fault. It is the fault of our natural design. It is in our blueprint.” Contentment is “discouraged by nature because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival.” (I wonder why nature didn’t just wire us so that contentment didn’t lower our guard?) In some cases even depression can be good, “by helping the depressed individual disengage from risky and hopeless.”
But although Dr. Euba says we aren’t made to be “content,” yet he says we can “take comfort” in knowing that this is so. Taking comfort sounds a lot like seeking contentment. Though he argues that we should “stop trying” to be happy because we aren’t made for it, yet he says we are meant to “seek gratification” and “avoid pain.” Seeking sounds like trying, and gratification and avoidance of pain sure sound as though they have something to do with happiness. And what does it mean to say that unhappiness can sometimes do us good? Doesn’t it mean that unhappiness in the short run can help make us happier in the long run?
So stripping his prose of its exaggerations, dissonances, and curtsies toward Darwin, not even Dr. Euba really denies that happiness is attainable. In fact, he thinks we are designed to seek such happiness as we can reach. What he denies is that abiding happiness can be reached. And why is it so important not to want abiding happiness? Because wanting it will make us unhappy!
CWR: It has been argued that many people—especially millennials—are in a “somatic state” in which they are perpetually drugged by legal and illegal drugs as well as by internet use. Perhaps people are so vegetated that they no longer even want to be happy. Is this true?
Budziszewski: In the case of drugs and vegetative practices, some people seek pleasure, others to banish pain. In the case of social media, some seek amusement, others to be noticed, and others to enjoy the illusion of connection. All of these are misguided attempts to be happy – and there are so many others.
I don’t think it is possible not to desire happiness. Even people who seek annihilation haven’t stopped wanting to be happy; rather they think that the closer to nothingness they get, the happier they will be. It doesn’t work. Those who use narcotics don’t obliterate their thoughts, but merely replace them with stupid thoughts. Those who meditate on emptiness don’t empty their minds, but merely fill them with thoughts of emptiness. Whatever unhappiness may make the thought of nothingness attractive, such choices are likely to make unhappiness worse.
The person contemplating suicide fancies that if only he no longer exists, he will be happier, because then he will no longer suffer. But if he does cease to exist, then how can one speak of how happy he is? On the other hand, if his future self really does exist, then how can he know whether that future self is better off or worse? Why shouldn’t he be worse?
CWR: We obviously no longer live in the age of the Enlightenment, but we still have a notion that “doing good” can make us happy. Is it enough to practice virtue in order to be happy?
Budziszewski: There seem to be two questions here. The first is whether virtue is merely enlisting in good causes. No, and it’s curious that many people who enthusiastically embrace this view embrace a shallow relativism about personal conduct, have never heard of the cardinal virtues, and couldn’t tell what they are.
The second question is whether virtue is its own reward. This is mistakenly touted as a Christian view, though it is really Stoic. Even if we have a more adequate view of the virtues, virtue alone will not make us happy. Certainly we cannot flourish without virtue, but virtue alone is not fulfillment. Will having the virtues of a good father make me happy if my children are taken away by a totalitarian state? How glorious the martyrs, patient even under torture, singing in prisons and the arena, trusting in divine vindication. I believe that they are now in beatitude. But were they happy at the very moment of evisceration?
If anyone could have proven that virtue suffices for happiness, it would have been the Stoics. Influenced by them, Cicero says “You do not know, foolish man, you do not know what power virtue possesses; you only usurp the name of virtue; you are a stranger to her influence. No man who is wholly consistent within himself, and who reposes all his interests in himself alone, can be other than completely happy.” Epictetus goes so far as to say that virtuously reposing all our interests in ourselves alone makes us independent not only of enemies but of friends. We may be forgiven for thinking that this kind of “virtue” is more like a vice – or perhaps two vices, selfishness and pride.
In the end, not even the Stoics could make their theory work. The most convincing testimony is their defense of suicide. Epictetus says that when life is too difficult, we should say, like discouraged children, “I will no longer play.” Augustine saw that this was nothing but despair, sarcastically exclaiming “O happy life, which seeks the aid of death to end it!”
CWR: The twentieth century saw the rise and global dominance of American style capitalism, which brought tremendous wealth and leisure to millions of people. This capitalist system seems to be in a state of collapse in the twenty-first century. Wealth made us comfortable, but it obviously did not make us happy. Why?
Budziszewski: Every error contains a grain of truth, or nobody would ever find it plausible. The grain of truth in the fallacy of thinking happiness lies in wealth is that we do need a certain sufficiency of goods. Destitution is not happy; it is hard to raise my family if I cannot provide food, clothing, and shelter. Yet wealth beyond our needs brings sloth, false confidence, and vanity, and suicide rates are higher in wealthy communities. Aristotle remarks that “even good fortune itself when in excess is an impediment, and perhaps should then be no longer called good fortune.”
Much of the craving for wealth is not about wealth per se, but about such things as status. But ultimately, high status is no more fulfilling than wealth. As Judith Warner remarks, “Competitive, insecure, status-obsessed communities operate like lifelong middle schools” – a chilling thought indeed.
CWR: What does the human heart long for in order to be happy?
Budziszewski: Our hearts burst with longings that can be satisfied by things in this world. Love is sweet. Knowledge is precious. A good meal with friends can delight. Yet no matter what we have, something in us asks, “Is this all there is?” If I attain the object of my pursuit but it leaves me unsatisfied, the proper conclusion is that what I really wanted — or at least the strange something that I also wanted — was something else
Someone might say that this longing is a delusion, for nothing can satisfy it. But a strong, natural, yet absolutely futile desire would be not just useless but perilous. It would involve us in tempests of longing, seeking, and wasted energy for nothing. Such an expensive futility shouldn’t exist. It should have died out long ago. Yet the desire for something else, something other than we find in this world, is universal, immensely powerful, and shows no sign of dying out. The various evolutionary arguments for it are all hand-waving. For example, an interviewer told me recently that he knew we evolved genes for believing in God because people who believe in God live longer. Why not just evolve genes for living longer?
If this mysterious longing has a purpose, yet nothing in this world can satisfy it, doesn’t it follow by sheer logic that it points beyond natural experience? That we must go, so to speak, out of this world? If nothing in Creation can satisfy us, there is nothing left to seek but the Creator.
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