The title of this book seems to indicate that the work itself would be something uber-practical, almost how-to in nature, but if you know Francis Schaeffer you will know better. Not that the book isn’t practical, it is. But, like all great books, it finds its practicality the long way around. Its aim is to help the modern Christian live a better life, but it only actually talks about the modern Christian at the very end, and even then, only in generalizations. You won’t find Ten Steps Towards a Healthier Life or Six Easy Ways to Find Fulfillment, but what you will find is a thorough survey of the history of Western thought in such power and dexterity that you won’t see one single aspect of life the same. Schaeffer’s goal in this book is to illuminate the history of Western philosophy so that the modern man is better equipped to see and know himself in all his presuppositions, and in turn live an intentional life of true meaning and value.
Schaeffer begins the tour through Western philosophy at Rome. Even though Plato is recognized as the intellectual father to all of history—and thus Rome itself—we begin at Rome because it is there that the philosophies of Greek antiquity begin the millennial disintegration we know as The History of Western Philosophy. Rome is the perfect test-case (a sort of microcosm) of history itself in that the empire begins as a powerful, artistic, visionary culture and ends as a weak, debased, deluded waste. Schaeffer shows great erudition in drawing out the cause for this meltdown of the greatest empire. It was the very same cause which got the Christians martyred: absolutes. The Sovereign state of Rome couldn’t handle critique from any other claim to sovereignty or absolute values.
After the breakdown of Rome came the Middle Ages, a period of time historians note to begin around AD 400 and end around AD 1500. This time showed the increasing struggle Christians had in interfacing with the world. They either withdrew completely in monasticism or they commanded authority over the world as if they, being Christ’s advocates, held supreme authority over the state. As the philosophy and art began to trend toward mysticism and spiritualization, the church began to replace man as a real person with man as a spiritual symbol. They spiritualized most everything, even declaring Europe to be Christ’s Kingdom on earth (hence they called it the realm of “Christendom”) and baptism as the means of entering the kingdom, the state, and civil society in general. The pope, therefore, began to have ultimate authority.
In the midst of this transformation came the introduction of the Romanesque architecture, the Gregorian chant, the Gothic Cathedrals, and, at long last, the apathy brought about by Charlemagne began to be subverted by “an awakened cultural and intellectual life and an awakened piety” (48). Universities were formed, philosophy began to be separated from Biblical studies, towns freed themselves from feudal restraints and erected town halls. Thomas Aquinas began to accept the tension between religion and secular philosophy by forming a new theology: that the fall affected man’s will but not his intellect. With this established, Aquinas felt free to learn from secular philosophers, blending their logic in with Biblical revelation. Where some of the earlier church fathers had relied heavily on Plato for philosophical foundations, Aquinas leaned on Aristotle, who, unlike Plato, emphasized the particulars in the world over the absolutes. “This set the stage for the humanistic elements of the Renaissance and the basic problem they created” (52).
This problem is what gives shape to the entire angst of the Renaissance. The only reason there ever was a Renaissance was because of the problems which arose from the absolute-verses-particulars problem, a problem which humanism is unable to solve. At its core, the problem is between God and man, of unity and diversity, or absolutes and particulars. That divide is bridged in the Renaissance by man, in all his autonomy, reaching up toward absolutes in a desperate attempt at finding ultimate values. In this foray, some of history’s most talented men produced great art. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, spent his life achieving greatness. He was the ideal Renaissance man; and yet, he found that without an absolute, no amount of mathematics or painting could reach a universal. Likewise, Michelangelo produced David in 1504, arguably the most impressive sculpture ever carved, not as a tribute to the Jewish David but as an example of the power of “modern” man. It was a humanistic idol representing the greatness of man. But he too, later in life, changed. His pride was humbled in his later works where he portrayed himself as accuser of the crucified Christ.
While the Renaissance in the south hummed along in eager—if somewhat futile—works of humanistic brilliance, the Reformation escalated to a fever-pitch of meaning in the north. Both movements “dealt with the same basic problems, but they gave completely opposite answers and brought forth completely opposite results” (79). Men like John Wycliffe and John Huss gave their lives to protect and distribute the knowledge of God in divine revelation. The absolutes after which the south so eagerly sought were triumphed by the blood of martyrs in the north. There men like Martin Luther brought Reformation to the church, beginning with the purification of the doctrine of man and the fall, which Aquinas had derailed centuries before. “At its core, therefore, the Reformation was the removing of the humanistic distortions which had entered the church” (82). The authority of the church, the works-based salvation, the infiltration of pagan thought into the canon of Scripture, all were products of humanism which the Reformation sought to aright. In the final analysis, the Reformation gave an answer to the problem of particulars by saying there isn’t a problem at all. Because of divine revelation, we know that there is perfect unity between the universals and the particulars. In light of the Bible people could finally understand who they were, “both their greatness and their cruelty” (87). In light of this correct valuation of the particulars, art began to flourish as God intended. Bach, Rembrandt, and others relied on Scripture to provide the backbone for their art, having been set free to revel in the particulars of mundane life, particulars having intrinsic meaning because of the truth of Scripture.
The next stage in history is known as “The Enlightenment.” This period is assigned in large part to the French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), often called the “father of the Enlightenment,” who, envious of the government in England, tried to “reproduce the English conditions without the Reformation base” (121). The result was the bloodbath of the French Revolution. “[The French] looked across the Channel to a Reformation England, tried to build without the Christian base, and ended with a massacre and Napoleon as authoritarian ruler” (122). The humanism of the Renaissance came to a climax in the Enlightenment as the ideals of life (reason, nature, happiness, progress, and liberty) were set as the goal of life, and the means to that goal was the human mind. This all led, politically, to socialism and communism under Karl Marx, Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, etc., and, artistically, to the loss of art altogether, forcing those like Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff to abandon their country for the freedom to produce art, freedom which, ironically, their country claimed to fight for. The world was driven into a bloody corner without absolutes, while—ironically—at the same time claiming to be thinking their way towards a successful, utopian future.
Coinciding with these movements (the Renaissance and the Reformation) was yet another revolution: The Scientific Revolution. Here the greatest scientists of the medieval world discovered deep and wonderful things about the universe, all because they had a foundation provided them by the Reformation. “Living within the concept that the world was created by a reasonable God, scientists could move with confidence, expecting to be able to find out about the world by observation and experimentation. . . . Without this foundation, Western modern science would not have been born” (134). But this revolution was not to last.
Ultimately, the humanism of the Renaissance caught up to the pursuit of real science, forming a breakdown of meaning, morals, values, and life itself. Philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre found that without an infinite reference point a finite point is absurd. This brought about a new trend in philosophy: pessimism. Pre-enlightenment thinkers were mainly optimistic: they thought they could make sense of the world, that the world was rational, and that man could reach a point of understanding with the world through logical means. The breakdown in science came and reduced man to a robot in a deterministic machine, leaving no room in the world for anything other than purely cause-and-effect relationships. The world became a closed system. “When people began to think this way, there was no place for God or for man as man,” therefore, God died, man died, and consequently, love died.
Within this paradigm came Charles Darwin who provided an explanation for how the world exists if the world is purely deterministic (a result of a closed system of cause-and-effect). His conclusion can be summed up in the “survival of the fittest,” a mantra picked up by none other than Adolph Hitler. “Hitler stated numerous times that Christianity and its notion of charity should be ‘replaced by the ethic of strength over weakness’” (151). Along with this ethic came a certain strain of philosophers who were left muddling around with the disparate pieces of life, reinventing their worldviews and epistemologies, still focusing on the problem of the particulars and the universal. One such philosopher was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who believed that the “noble savage” was superior to the civilized man. He came to this conclusion by making sense of the problem of a universal. Freedom and innocence became the unifying theme which gave meaning to life, and, in this worldview, human feeling and emotion became more important than thought. David Hume fell in this vain when he “criticized reason as a method of knowing truth and defended the centrality of human experience and feeling” (156).
Experience and feeling became the backbone for meaning and life itself, and this turn in philosophy and art is known as “Romanticism.” “Reason was the hero of the Enlightenment; emotion became the hero of romanticism” (158). Therefore, non-reason began to dictate reason itself, so that, inevitably, truth became redefined to synthesis, not antithesis. In other words, truth was the constant agreement of things, the constant evolving of philosophy, not the critical analysis of right or wrong, black and white. “When this happens, truth, as people had always thought of truth, has died” (163). With this separation of truth between reason and non-reason came the idea of man as a dichotomy.
There became a separation “between the area of meaning and values, and the area of reason” (164). This has led to our modern condition where people throw anything they want into the bucket of “non-reason,” making sense of that aspect of life by faith and non-reasonable endeavors. In pursuit of the meaning of life, Aldous Huxley turned to drugs, Andre Malraux turned to art, and mystics turned to out-of-body experiences. Schaeffer refers to this dichotomy that divides life into these two areas as the “existential methodology” (174). It has affected every single aspect of our lives. “Once people adopt this dichotomy—where reason is separated totally from non-reason—they must then face the fact that many types of things can be put in the area of non-reason” (174).
Karl Barth spun a new hermeneutic from his misunderstanding of this dichotomy. Albert Schweitzer and Leo Tolstoy began the study for the rational “historical Jesus” as distinct from the Biblical, supernatural one who worked supernatural miracles. From this came neo-orthodoxy, “which says that the Bible in the area of reason has mistakes but nonetheless can provide a religious experience in the area of non-reason....For these theologians, it is not faith in something; it is faith in faith” (176). The new liberal theology cropped up, because, if everything religious is in the non-reason sphere, then there is no reason for discussion of right and wrong, morals, and law. This all digresses further until Paul Tillich of Harvard Divinity School admitted to not believing in prayer, only in meditation. He had no God-as-person, therefore, all he had of God was a word. That is why Nietzsche can come along and cross the word “God” out altogether in his “God-is-dead” philosophy.
This digression into the realm of non-meaning and non-reason left modern philosophers reeling, but it also left modern art fragmented and out of touch with reality. Painters only painted what they saw with no question “as to whether there was a reality behind the light waves reaching the eyes” (183). Impressionism degraded into abstract art where humans are less than real; “the humanity had been lost” (187). Painters left their artwork up to chance, allowing paint buckets to drip paint onto a canvas at random. And yet, there was order to the randomness because the universe is dictated by order. Therefore, ironically, in a world supposedly devoid of order and meaning, order and meaning reigned supreme.
In our modern age, the themes that dominate are relativism, pessimism, and humanism. Drugs lost their ideological value, becoming merely an escape from life. The meaning of life had been reinvented thousands of times over so that now, the only absolute that governs mankind is that which makes sense to man. The rule of law is diminishing as man tweaks it to fit his own agenda. The value of human life is subordinated to man’s ease and pleasure of life. Modern life as we know it is merely a recapitulation of the theme of Rome. We, as a common humanity, are back to where we started: Rome.
I have little to say about this book. It blew my mind in such fresh, new ways, that all I have left are recapitulations of what I’ve already written. Schaeffer’s grasp of our intellectual history is astounding. His communication of it is thorough and clear, without being reductionistic or overly-simplistic. The work is just big enough to expose the reader with enough territory so as to equip him or her to go into the world and discern more stuff better than they could before. This is a book I will re-read several times, no doubt. I had struggled with so many questions that he answers, it seems too good to be true that I now have those answers. Truth is absolute and it is pervasive. Every Christians worth their salt would believe that. But Schaeffer so astutely handles truth, in such revealing ways, that our faith is made sight in ways that can’t be anything but exhilarating and confidence-inspiring in all that is good, true, and beautiful in the world.