Friday, August 20, 2010

Written on the heart

J. Budziszewski, a political philosophy professor who has written much about the natural law tradition, is interviewed here about that subject and about his new book The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction. Parts of the interview:
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. ....

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 in 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. [more]
Thanks to Insight Scoop for the reference.

An Interview with J. Budziszewski