How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, Francis Schaeffer (2016)

I read this book last year (yes, I’,m on a string of reading books I read last year I suppose), and you can read what I wrote here. I listened to this book last year, but as I have done with a few other books, I think I needed to read it and write in my book. So I picked this up last week and zipped through it and I feel like I have a way better understanding of a lot of the content.

Francis Schaeffer begins with our basic presuppositions we have about the world. These presuppositions are based on our worldview. He quotes from Proverbs, “As a man thinketh, so is he.” This is most profound when we begin to construct our worldview. He argues that to understand where we are today, we have to look at how our intellectual ideas have been influenced by the past, namely in philosophy, science, and theology.

He begins in Ancient Rome with Plato and Aristotle. The painting, “The School of Athens,” depicts Plato with one finger pointed upward which represents absolutes or ideals, while Aristotle has his fingers apart “thrusting” downward which emphasized the particulars. Particulars are individual things, including humans. Thomas Aquinas in the Medieval Church understood this, and he emphasized the particulars. The problem with this emphasis is the question, how do we find any ultimate purpose for the individual things? Take people for example: you and I are particulars that are grounded in some kind of absolute (or perhaps not). Without this ultimate meaning, man is man; that is, man has no basis for meaning, morals, values, and law. Absolutes are universals, what Plato famously referenced by pointing poignantly upward. So there is a two part dichotomy: particulars which are individual things, and universals which are absolutes. This has been the point of philosophy for generations: what makes man man and what gives him purpose (the universal)?

During the Renaissance, the idea of Humanism came into existence. This is the idea that the universal for man was man himself; man was autonomous and independent of any force in existence, which ultimately leaves a loss of anything that gives meaning. This gives man a pessimistic outlook that is portrayed in art and culture. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci was a humanist and late in his life was quite despondent because he understood that there is no meaning to life if you start with the premise that the particulars are an ends in and of themselves (i.e. not grounded in any absolutes).

The reformation was a removing of the humanistic distortions that had entered the church; the synthesis between Thomas Aquinas, culture and paganism, that had seeped into the Medieval Church and was ripe for reforming. The reformers understood that the particulars were grounded in the universal, God. This did a few things: 1) it gave man purpose because his life was rooted in meaning, revealed in the scripture; 2) it was not reductionistic because it emphasized man’s uniqueness in being made in the image of God. Humanism is reductionistic because man (particular) is in himself the highest standard in which all things flow from (universal); so there came a certain dignity to humanity with the onset of the reformation. 3) the reformation gave truth to people about themselves. Although they had dignity, they were certainly not perfect. They were (and still are) fallen and in need of saving. 4) it gave special meaning to areas such as law and culture. From a Humanistic perspective, law is what the society judges is best for the whole. But obviously this is flawed. From the perspective of the reformation, law was grounded in what God had revealed in scripture. It was absolute, and it gave meaning to what is just and what is not. Culture was influenced by individuals like Bach who composed music with meaning and purpose.

The Enlightenment served to reverse what the reformation tried so hard to accomplish, namely purpose and meaning to particulars. The Enlightenment was based on a reason, nature, happiness, progress, and liberty. This led to the rise of modern science: early scientist viewed the world as a work of God’s creation and therefore, their finding out about it was rooted in meaning and purpose (the universal). With the onset of Humanism that started in the Renaissance and continued in the Enlightenment, science increasingly became a means to an ends: if Humanism emphasized the position of man to a point where meaning and purpose begins and ends with man, then the purpose of science is to merely find out more about the cosmic machine that has been set into motion by unknown forces (and sometimes, no force at all). What is strange is this tactic serves to look at things from a reasonable standpoint. That is, the Humanist wants to deny the idea of a god and then say “by reason we can see that this and this process leads to this and this.” So the rhetoric seems to be reasonable. And yet, when it is not rooted in a universal that provides us with any meaning, we enter into non-reason. As stated, Humanism produces pessimism because once one comes to the conclusion that there is no meaning to anything; that everything is just a cog in a closed system. The rise of what Schaeffer calls “modern modern Science” is a necessity because it is the only way in which autonomous man can explain everything. He says, “This had become the frame of reference by which they attempted to give unity to individual things…”

In our modern society, two influences reign supreme: personal peace, and affluence. One of my most favorite quotes is this:

“I believe the majority of the silent majority, young and old, will sustain the loss of liberties without raising their voices as long as their own life-styles are not threatened. And since personal peace and affluence are so often the only values that count with the majority, politicians know that to be elected they must promise these things. Politics has largely become not a matter of ideals – increasingly men and women are not stirred by the values of liberty and truth – but of supplying a constituency with a frosting of personal peace and affluence. They know that voices will not be raised as long as people have these things, or at least an illusion of them.”

There is a ton more. But I’m afraid that for those who I’ve lost already just need to pick up and read this book. There are some things that sound prophetic to our own situation today. Therefore, this classic lives on as one of the great statements on philosophy, culture, and the Christian worldview.

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