How Should We Then Live? Chapter One

One of my favorite books on Christianity is actually three books: The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy. The Trilogy consists of three of Schaeffer's works in one volume: The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason and He Is There and He Is Not Silent.

Recently, I have been reading another Schaeffer book, How Should We Then Live?, subtitled "The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture". In this book, Schaeffer examines the way in which cultural worldviews have led to the rise and decline of various civilizations. The first chapter tackles the fall of the Roman Empire and the lessons about world views to be learned from the history of ancient Rome. In addition to the book, Schaeffer has also produced a video series by the same name.

Yesterday, I learned that that the first tape of the video series is available on the Internet here. The series, as is common for Schaeffer's works, assumes that the reader/viewer has a working knowledge of history and philosophy since they both mention things in passing that really deserve more insight and thought.

Among the thoughts brought out in the video (and echoed in the book) is the idea that part of the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire was the lack of an infinite upon which to base the morals for the society. If the base for morality is anything less than "the infinite" then the morals will insufficienty grounded for maintaining a culture. Schaeffer contends that the Roman Empire is an illustration of this simple truth. For example, he points out that the Romans tried to build society upon their gods, but their gods were little more than amplified humanity and finite and therefore lacked the infiniteness needed to support a moral structure.

In the book version of How Should We Then Live?, Schaeffer notes the following (emphasis added):

The Greeks and later than Romans also tried to build society upon their gods. But these gods were not big enough because they were finite, limited. Even all their gods put together were not infinite. Actually, the gods in Greek and Roman thinking were like men and women larger than life, but not basically different from human men and women. As one example among thousands, we can think of the statue of Hercules, standing inebriated and uninating. Hercules was the patron go of Herculaneum which was destroyed at the same time as Pompeii. The gods were amplified humanity, not divinity. Like the Greeks, the Romans had no infinite god. This being so, they had no sufficient reference point intellectually; that is, they did not have anything big enough or permanent enough to which to relate either their thinking or their living. Consequently, their value susytem was not strong enough to bear the strains of life, either individual or political. All their gods put together could not give them a sufficient base for life, morals, values and final decisions.

Schaeffer believes that history teaches that a society that does not recognize a god who is personal and infinite is doomed to failure because their base of morality and culture isn't big enough. In the video, he likens the situation to the Roman bridges that were built by the Roman Empire to span various lakes and streams throughout Europe. The bridges served their purpose for a time, but they are not sufficiently sound enough to support the weight of a 2-ton truck. By the same token, while the moral and societal rules that were based on smaller finite gods or the polis or Caesar or any number of other things may be big enough for a time, they cannot stand for long.

This led me to wondering: is our own society's relativistic leanings going to lead to the fall of Western civilization? After all, relativism -- which is the end result of any moral system not based on a personal and infinite god -- is the weakest of all possible basis for a moral or cultural system. The relativist would say no, we are evolving towards a better system of morality. But that seems to me to be the result of wishful thinking. Looking at the newspaper, I cannot help but notice that while we may be improving technologically, we are failing utterly in other areas such as morality. Can anyone looking at our society (especially as reflected in our cultural leaders in movies and records) claim that our society is more morally upright today than it was 50 years ago? Freer, yes; morally improved, no.

I encourage everyone to watch the first tape of the series for some interesting insight into the history of Western culture as reflected in the Roman world.


slaveofone said…
Francis Schaeffer's trilogy (which you mention) is the one book (volume) I recommend more than any other to everyone. Schaeffer changed my entire life. I will literally never be the same either in this life or the life to come because of him.
--former despairing existentialist
Jason Pratt said…
Um. At the risk of sounding overly picky, does Schaeffer have anything to say about the fact that the western and eastern halves of the Empire fell after converting to Christianity? (And became western and eastern halves at all during this final phase of its existence?)

Admittedly, Chesterton would point out that even though the ship went down after the cross was nailed to the mast, the important thing is that the ship (by which I suppose he means the culture) came back up again with the cross still nailed to the mast. (A wonderful image I intend to borrow someday for my series of novels; and which I suspect was borrowed for a scene in the first Narnia movie!)

Even so, the situation has to be different than what you described Schaeffer as describing (so far).

BK said…

I came to Schaeffer after I was called to Christianity. Glad to hear we share a passion for his writings.
BK said…

Here's what Schaeffer has to say about the empire's conversion to Christianity:

Even though Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of the Chritians and Christianity became first (in 313) a legal religion, and then (in 381) the official state religion of the Empire, the majoiry of the people went on in their old ways.

Thus, he appears to argue that the change in the official religion did not change the overall viewpoint of the people in the Empire. He then mentions that the economy was slumping and that the result was increased authoritianism, etc. Thus, he appears to almost make the argument that it was too little, too late.
Jason Pratt said…
I suppose it depends on whether one buys anything remotely close to Stark's thesis that by the time of Constantine's conversion Christians composed about 50% of the population (and certainly didn't decline in numbers before 381, much less afterward.)

Be that as it may, there was a pretty big push starting with Theodosius in 381 (if not before) to top-downing an acceptance of Christianity as a working notion among the people who hadn't yet converted. This went on for a few generations before the Western portion of the Empire collapsed. The Eastern portion, centered on Constantinople continued up until almost modern times.

An argument could perhaps be made that there was not enough serious practical belief in God as the objective basis for morality, at the bureacratic levels; but aside from this thesis needing grounds in actual evidence (which might or might not be available), it still isn't the kind of critique Schaeffer seems to be aiming for.

The test for synching up Schaeffer's claim would perhaps be this: is there evidence that the Western half of the Empire was sufficiently slack at the bureaucratic and/or popular levels at applying a practical belief in 'morality based on the infinite' (which frankly sounds kind of Late Stoic, too {g}) compared to the much longer-lasting Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire's bureaucratic and/or popular levels?


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