Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book Review: How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture by Francis Schaeffer

In some ways this isn't a fair review. It isn't fair because I simply skimmed through the book (how I came to do that is a story for another time). Still, I feel that skimming gave me a pretty good idea of the book, and it's not a very positive one.

There's no denying that Schaeffer is intelligent, in that he attempts to tackle all of Western civilization, and has obviously tried to gain a vast knowledge of it. The problem is that most of his understanding of what he has approached is wrong.

His analysis is also reductive. He seems to see all of human history as some sort of battle between placing God at the center of our worldview, or putting Man there.

The problem with this is that's it's horribly reductive. Things are far more complicated than this, and in forcing them into this mold they often become terribly distorted. For example, the question of the relationship between particulars and universals that was of great importance in Medieval Philosophy is somehow made into a quest to find meaning (i.e. purpose) for particulars, when it was a linguistic and metaphysical inquiry.

Also, God became man. This destroys his paradigm.


  1. Interesting comments. Your thinking is of course deeper than most. One thing about Schaffer is he was primarily an evangelical Christian and his worldview reflects that. I read all of his books and heard him speak in a seminar years ago. At this time his ideas help make sense of what is happening in the world and in churches.

  2. Schaffer has some good insights--but his prose doesn't live up to his thought-life. There is a video series that accompanies this book which I found more helpful. That you found Schaffer's book incredibly "reductive" tells me that the book didn't tell you much about the man who began L'Abri. You'd probably have found him deeply philosophical and not reductive. He was very controversial within his circle--and his successor still is.

  3. He himself may have been a deep thinker, but his diagnosis of the history of the world is reductive. For example, he lays the blame for the rise of modernity almost entirely at the feet of St. Thomas Aquinas. It's doubtful that any one man could be responsible for an entire paradigm shift, these things are complicated involving multitudes of people.

    More to the point, his information here is just plain wrong. Aristotle was part of Medieval philosophy from the very start, though mostly in the logic (other texts weren't available. Around the time of Thomas Aquinas, a huge number of new Aristotelian texts started flooding in from the Muslim world. This caused a huge burst of Aristotelianism in the universities. Medieval philosophy was largely based around textual commentary, rather than the drive for original thinking that characterizes modern philosophy, and suddenly they had a wealth of new material.

    There were many reactions to the new Aristotle. Some reacted strongly against it, saying it should be shut out, or used sparingly at best. Others embraced it whole heartedly. Thomas Aquinas, among others, towed a middle-line. He took from Aristotle what he thought was beneficial and true, and criticized the rest.

    Laying the acceptance of the pagan philosophy entirely at Aquinas's feet is simply untrue. Further, Aquinas did not, as Schaeffer claims, say that the Fall only affected human wills (though, in the understanding of a Medieval, the fall of a will would be much more thorough a fall then in our conception of the will).

    Thus, Schaeffer takes one figure in history, lays at his feet (wrongly) the idea that human wills aren't fallen, blames this on his acceptance of a pagan philosopher, and then credits it with the rise of modernity. This is simply not true, and it is reductive, however intelligent Schaeffer may have been.