An Interview with Professor J. Budziszewski

J. Budziszewski is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Budziszewski recently published How and How Not to Be Happy, available now from Regnery Gateway. He writes on classical natural law, political philosophy, legal philosophy, ethics, virtue ethics, and Thomism, with a scholarly focus on the ethical foundations of political orders. He has previously published 17 books, five of which are line-by-line commentaries on various parts of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.

The following is an exclusive Rover interview with Professor Budziszewski on his most recent book, How and How Not to Be Happy, available now from Regnery Gateway. The transcript has been edited for concision and clarity. The full interview with additional questions can be found at the Rover’s website.

Rover: You have written much on the topics of natural law, Thomism, politics, political philosophy, and religion. At first glance, your latest book seems a bit different. Why did you write this book?

Budziszewski: I think people are very unhappy. Now, you say it is different from my other books; I have written about Thomism, for example. I had a couple of years ago, written a line-by-line commentary on Thomas Aquinas’ treatise on happiness and ultimate purpose that was 666 pages. I thought, ‘I am glad that I did this,’ but most people are not going to just pick up a 666-page book and read it through.

I wanted to write a treatment of the subject that was obviously influenced by Saint Thomas but is my own take and more accessible to general readers and ordinary folk. A lot of people are unhappy out there. I sense a great deal of unhappiness from many of my students. When I was a young man, I was desperately unhappy. I have been on both sides of that, and I know what the difference means, so all of these were reasons to write it.

Rover: Today, much of the literature about happiness involves statistics and psychology. However, you employ a very different methodology. Why is your book worth reading among all the literature on happiness? What does your methodology provide for the reader that other books do not?

Budziszewski: I would not say that all of the happiness-studies crowd are doing worthless work. I think there is something to be learned there, but I think that the approach is basically wrong. I was reading an interview by a happiness studies professor at Yale recently who said that our minds lie to us. I think that is true. Our minds often do lie to us. But, then she was talking about the results of self-administered, subjective, self-report, happiness surveys: are you happy? What makes you happy? Well, if our minds lie to us, then why should you have such implicit trust in these surveys?

It seems that we need a better instrument, a better method. Now, I would be very far from saying that everything that our minds say to us is a lie. That is not true. We know some things, truly, but we are often confused about what we know. Sometimes we do not even want to know what we know. Sometimes we know something, but we need to be reminded. We say, ‘Oh yeah, why did I not think of that?’ Or, we need some help connecting the dots.

So, I think a much better instrument than just asking people a bunch of questions—‘Are you happy? What makes you happy?’—and collating the answers is thoughtful conversation in a dialogical way where we can cross-examine people’s common sense of the matter and cause common sense to interrogate other common sense until we come to something that is more reasonable.

Rover: Throughout the book, you appeal a lot to experience, conversation, and thoughtful reflection to answer the question of happiness. Is there anything we can know about happiness a priori?

Budziszewski: No, I do not think so. A priori, we would not even know that we existed. We would not know that there was such a thing as experience. We would not know that there was such a thing as happiness.

The idea that all of our knowledge comes from experience is often misunderstood. People take that in a crass, empiricist way that we are merely bombarded with sense impressions. I think that there is more to it. It is not just because of the senses that I know that there are kinds of things. I can form universal concepts. There is something going on in the mind that transcends the senses.

But, on the other hand, if we did not have any experience, we would not know anything. You have to start with experience. It is just like that with common sense. If we do not start with common sense, where else are we going to start? There is just no other place to do it. It is not as though insights about happiness are dropping down from the sky.

That is what all the classical philosophers did, even theologians like Thomas Aquinas. They did not just say, ‘Oh, our minds lie to us, do not pay any attention to common sense.’ What they tried to do was respect common sense, elevate it, purify it, purge it of its inconsistencies, and ennoble it to see if its vision could be lifted to something higher.

Rover: Can we ever know if we are happy in the moment, or can we only know retrospectively upon thoughtful reflection and conversation?

Budziszewski: The very idea of being happy in the moment is a little bit misleading. The philosopher Mortimer Adler remarked that there is a difference between saying ‘Am I having a good time?’ and ‘Am I having a good life?’

At the moment, I am talking to you and having a good time. But, 10 minutes ago, I was kind of groggy and I was getting ready for the interview. I would not say I was having a great time then. I felt like I needed a cup of coffee. I have some other work today on deadline. I might not be having a great time then.

But, am I having a good life? That is the real question. Happiness of a life is about the whole of the life. And it is not a feeling that we are having, which can come or go, but it is something abiding. It is the pattern of that activity of life.

And, yes, you are right. Sometimes, we do not even know at the time. It is one of the commonest experiences, and C.S. Lewis called attention to this. Perhaps a married couple looks back on when they were very young and were raising children and smile. They say to each other, ‘We were happy then, weren’t we?’ And they were! But, they were so busy with the actual activity of happily raising these kids that they did not even notice it at the time.

What this tells us is something else. On the one hand, we have to think about happiness, what it is, and how to be happy and how to not be happy. But, that is different than obsessing over it and always saying to ourselves, ‘Are we happy yet? Are we happy yet? Am I happy right now?’ That is not the path to happiness.

Rover: The million dollar question: what is happiness? What are its constitutive parts?

Budziszewski: There are two ways to take that. If you say, ‘What is it?’ That is one thing. But, I think you are also asking, ‘In what does it lie? What makes us happy?’

Happiness is flourishing, it is fulfillment. It includes delight and joy and all of those kinds of things. Now, we have to make a distinction because the happiness of this life is never perfect. It is discontinuous. Even though I say happiness is something abiding, we all know that even the happiest experiences need to be interrupted.

It is incomplete. If somebody says, ‘Well, I’m not fulfilled,’ that is normal. You are not going to be fulfilled until you see the face of God. This is what is promised to the redeemed. If even a religious person says, ‘Well, I go church, and I do this, and I pray, but I am not fulfilled,’ well, of course you are not!

The paradox is that we can even delight in that because if we were just evolved mud, we would be perfectly adapted to our situation in this world. We would never have mysterious longings for something beyond this world. We would never feel a lack of fulfillment.  But, that is all we would be. We would just be evolved mud. We would be adapted to this life like a pig in the mud. The fact that we can experience a longing for something that is not to be found in this world tells us that we were made for something more. Unless, of course, nature is all for nothing. But, why should I have a longing, a desire for nothing?

So, if you want to enjoy that fragmentary, incomplete, imperfect happiness that is available in this life, which is nothing to sneeze at, then what you need to do is practice the virtues. They are not going to guarantee that you are going to be happy all the time. A virtuous person who is being tortured is not going to be particularly happy.

But, I will tell you this, without practicing the virtues, you are not going to be happy. You may have good fortune, which is a good thing, but you will not even know what to do with it.

Aristotle said that good fortune in excess or good fortune for somebody who is not prepared for it may better be called bad fortune. Also, if you have the virtues, then when misfortune really does come, you are better able to deal with it.

However, that is the imperfect happiness of this life. If you want that complete fulfillment, that which leaves nothing further to be desired and which never ends, you are going to have to strive with all your heart to seek the face of God and allow him to give you the grace to become friends with him.

Rover: In your book, you debunk a number of erroneous conceptions about happiness. You say that it does not lie in wealth, attention, glory, and, most pertinently, bodily health. What is your response to our COVID-19 experience? What can we learn about happiness that we did not know as clearly two years ago?

Budziszewski: A lot of hard experiences are double-edged. Some people learn from hard experiences, and some people just get dug more deeply into an error. One of the things that we have seen, and in the last couple of years of Covid, is that this is a real disease and we really should take care of ourselves, of course. We should try to avoid spreading infection, of course.

But, there has been an obsession with this, so that we sacrifice everything else for the sake of eliminating the merest ghost of the possibility of an infection that these days is not usually much worse than a bad cold.

Consider the fact that even though children are least at risk for this particular disease—there are many diseases for which children are most at risk—the children in public schools are the last ones that we are letting take off their masks. Children need to see each other’s faces. They are learning what it means to be social creatures and to communicate with each other. They are learning to interpret facial expressions. We are social beings.

It is really a matter of life and death, as a matter of fact, for us to have social contact. Excessive social distancing, even screening our faces from each other so that we cannot see, has plunged people into depression. Now, there is a form of death. The recent statistics show that there has been an increase in what the statisticians call ‘excess deaths’—isn’t that a funny expression?—excess deaths over and above what would have been expected just from the virus.

Now, some people have said, ‘Well, it must be that some people had the virus and we did not know they had it. And that is why there were excess deaths.’ But, another possibility that is very strong is that some people have been killed by the virus, but some people have been killed by overreactions to the virus, by excessive social distancing, increased use of alcohol, and depression. Anxiety, depression, substance abuse, these things kill too.

Can you imagine? What have we done to people? We have had people in nursing homes at the end of their lives anyway. And we are saying, ‘You are not allowed to see anybody. You are not allowed to see your loved ones and your loved ones are not allowed to see you. We are saying health, another couple of seconds of health, another couple of minutes of health, is more important than anything else. It is more important than love. It is more important than family connection. It is more important than having friendship.’ That is really crazy.

It is one thing to say that health is important. Of course, it is important. We are bodily creatures. We are not disembodied souls. We are not bodiless intellects like angels. But, it is another thing to treat ourselves as though we are only bodies and not souls.

Rover: Is death the worst possible thing?

Budziszewski: No, I do not think death is the worst possible thing. In my tradition – I am a Catholic Christian – there is even such a thing as a good death. Interestingly, this is not just a matter of faith. Thomas Aquinas gave a philosophical argument for the immortality of the soul. It does not apply to the animals; there is no particular reason to believe that the animal soul is immortal. But, he said we have good philosophical reasons to believe even apart from revelation that we endure. Now, we believe in the resurrection of the body, but that is another matter. That means that this life is important, it is very important, but it is not all there is.

I read another interview with one of these happiness studies scholars who was asked at the end, well, so what is happiness? And she said, “Well, it is just having all the good things: flowers, insects, and smelling the roses and eating doughnuts.” Besides missing the whole problem of suffering, this answer also misses the fact that you can have everything and still say, “Is this all there? Isn’t there something more?”.

You look up at the moon. Some people only feel awe and amazement. But, many people, myself included, feel a kind of a longing and it is not a longing for the moon. Right? Other people feel that longing, as I do sometimes when I look into the face of another person – I mean really look. You are getting a reflection of beatitude. You are seeing something there. You are getting a shard of reflected light. There is really from beyond this world. That longing cannot be satisfied by anything in this world.

One of my graduate students once got very angry. She said, “I think pleasure is happiness.” I said, “But doesn’t pleasure leave you wanting, doesn’t it let you down.” And she got angry. She said, “Well, yes, it does let you down. But that’s all there is. You just have to tough it out and live with it.”

Why would we even have a longing for something more, unless there was something more. I have a longing for food. There is such a thing as food. I have a longing for friendship. There is such a thing as friendship. Aristotle said nature makes nothing in vain. My nature includes a longing for something beyond nature. That is a reason to believe that there is something beyond nature.

Rover: God first appears in chapter 20 of your book. But, if God is everything, and without him there is nothing, why so long?

Budziszewski: Why so long? For one thing, yes, God is all-important. If it were not for God, I would not be breathing right now. But, in order to understand the process of breathing, I do not have to say, ‘God, God, God,’ all the time. If I am a doctor and you have a respiratory illness, I can say, ‘Well, we need to give you this decongestant and this thing to clear out some of the mucus from your lungs so that you can breathe more easily.’ And I do not have to say, ‘God, God, God,’ even though God is the source of the respiratory powers; he is the source of life and air and all of that. Still, I do not have to be talking about that all the time.

And there is a good deal about happiness, especially the imperfect, incomplete happiness in this life, that you can understand before you get into the God-talk. Now, that still is not necessarily a reason to leave him out.

Why do I leave him out until the end? Because a lot of my readers are ‘God-phobic.’ We have a world in which a lot of people are not going to read a happiness book if it is talking to them about God. So, I promised them in the beginning, I asked one thing and it raises some God questions and I say, ‘Oh, gosh, I see we have just wandered into that territory. I will make you a promise. If you are one of those who think that talking about God is going to lead you over the cliff into some kind of fanaticism, then here is my promise: no God stuff until the end of the book.’

You can read a couple of hundred pages, and learn some good things without being bothered by it. If you do not want to take that last step in the last couple of chapters, you do not have to, but I hope you will. Because, after all, what is the point of reading a mystery story up until the very end and just when Hercule Poirot is going to reveal the solution to the mystery, you turn off the set; you close the book and say, “I am not the sort of person who enjoys the solution to the mystery.” So, I hope people do go on to the end!

Rover: If you could recommend one tip for our readers to orient themselves to happiness better and more efficaciously, what would it be?

Budziszewski: Try to be a good person. Do not be thinking to yourself all the time, ‘Am I happy yet?’ Try to practice the virtues, learn them, and be serious about them. When you hit the wall—as you will—where you cannot make any further progress, yield to the grace of God and be willing to say, ‘Help me, help me here. I need help. I am a human being like other human beings. I am a mess.’ Try to be a good person with God’s help, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Professor Budziszewski’s book is available today from Regnery Gateway.

Sean Tehan is a senior from Dallas, Texas majoring in political science with minors in constitutional studies and theology. If you would like to discuss the profundity of natural law or have thoughtful conversation about why you are unhappy, he can be reached at

Webmaster’s note: this article is the unabridged version of the interview that appeared in Volume 19, Issue XI of the Irish Rover on April 14th, 2022.

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