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How Should We Then Live? The Rise and…

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and… (original 1976; edition 1983)

by Francis A. Schaeffer (Author)

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2,207144,227 (4.2)10
Title:How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture
Authors:Francis A. Schaeffer (Author)
Info:Crossway Books (1983), 288 pages
Collections:370 education, history, Your library

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How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture by Francis A. Schaeffer (1976)



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During college this was one of the most influential books I read. It got me thinking about how Western Thought was on the decline and as Islamism, political correctness, attacks on the traditional canon, post-modernism and other attacks intensified the trend was even clearer as identified by this book. The thesis is even stronger than it was when first conceived.


  gmicksmith | May 8, 2017 |
Theme: the development of Western thinking to what it is today; how Christianity is the only base (explanation) which can support reality (everything)
  keithhamblen | Jul 4, 2016 |
Must read for all students in high school. Fantastic DVD set as well. ( )
  the4otts | Oct 30, 2015 |

This was the free audiobook of the month on ChristianAudio.com last month. I read Colson and Pearcey's How Now Shall We Live in college, which is a much longer updated version of this book with more applications. I recommend that as a follow-up text. Books on church history, histories of Europe in the Middle Ages would be helpful as prerequisites, as well as overviews of philosophy, before reading Schaeffer's work.

This book is a fairly brief summary of the development of Western culture through its art and architecture, as well as a defense of the Christian world view's role in preserving culture and promoting principles of liberty. Schaeffer beings by examining the way art and architecture changed from the Roman empire to the Middle Ages. Christians, Schaeffer remarks, were remarkably resistant to syncretism, refusing to worship idols or caesars or adopt these practices into their worship. Schaeffer holds up many examples but this contrasts with his later observations of how the Catholic Church incorporated Greek philosophy into its theology, persecuting Galileo and Copernicus when their findings contradicted Aristotle (and not the Bible, which modern "new atheists" often purport). He defends the Reformation against accusations that it was antithical to art and culture. The Refomers did not go about criticizing art for art's sake, but were highly supportive of art that was based in truths. They simply rejected art that was contrary to those truths that society and law were based upon-- namely that of a biblical world view. Likewise, Schaeffer writes, the Renaissance wasn't made possible simply because of the re-discovery of "lost" Greek works, but by having a Christian worldview as the basis for exploring those works. This contradicts some historians like Norman Cantor (Schaeffer doesn't mention these, I reviewed Cantor's work earlier this year) who argue that the Church had to re-address Aristotelian philosophy as their works were translated into Latin in the 11th century as Muslims and Jews had already been doing in their own languages for centuries. Schaeffer traces the development of humanism and determinism out of the Renaissance as parallel with the development of biblical theology out of the Reformation.

There is quite a bit of a disconnect as Schaeffer leaves out various details. Disconnect between the Luther that Schaeffer espouses and Luther's many statements inciting violence, hatred of the Jews, etc. He doesn't discuss the theocratic nature of European governments; you don't see Calvin burning anyone at the stake for heresy under state law. Schaeffer does write, however, that the Reformers and Christianity obviously got race wrong. But he points out that it was Christians like William Wilberforce who were instrumental in ending chattel slavery.

The power of this book comes in Schaeffer's examination of the logical conclusions of humanism and determinism and how earlier scholars like Newton and Da Vinci rejected determinism because they read to anti-biblical conclusion. Explanations of time chance are problematic because neither time nor chance are forces that can do anything. Ultimately, cosmologists and biologists alike are convinced that we are ultimately machines. This is what Leonardo Da Vinci also determined was the natural conclusion of mathematics. Mathematics leads us to particulars (via Aristotle) but only lead us to humanity being a machine-- which Da Vinci rejected as incompatible with a worldview that included belief in a deity defining absolute truths. If we are simply machines, then we have no moral basis for any of our laws or society-- who defines what? Hence, the American Revolution differed from the French Revolution because it was based on a Christian belief that all men are endowed by a Creator with inalienable rights. The French revolution had no such basis, it was simply an overthrow of the order and rooted in humanism-- hence it led to violence, chaos, and the rise of another dictator. Schaeffer recounts how those conclusions played out in the USSR and China, still very Communist when he wrote this in 1976. He looks at policy prescriptions from the 1960s and 1970s by psychologists and philosophers-- including putting LSD in the water, Galbraith's desire (along with various "futurists") to have society ruled by an elite cadre of technocrats. "Who rules the rulers?" asks Schaeffer, pointing out that the psychologists and psychiatrists that determine the fitness of these rulers ultimately are the king-makers holding power. These prescriptions reminded me a lot of Plato's Republic, though Schaeffer does not draw that parallel.

What determines truth? The 51% of majority rule? America's founding fathers found that anathema, drawing on the work of earlier political philosophers. The tyranny of the majority can be cruel indeed. Young people today believe that the only basis for our laws should be majority will, which does not bode well for minority rights when they have also been indocrinated in the humanistic doctrine that we are all simply machines with no afterlife to consider.

Schaeffer has prescience about global terrorism: People will be willing to give up liberty in exchange for strong agents pledged to fight against the lack of economic power and security as a result of terrorist activity. Schaeffer quotes Gibbons' in pointing out that Rome had five characteristics in its decline: 1. A mounting love of show and luxury. 2. A widening gap between rich and poor. 3. Obsession with sex. 4. Freakishness in the arts and enthusiasms pretending to be creativity (reality TV and Jackass, anyone?). 5. An increased desire to live off the State. "It all sounds so familiar. We have come a long road since our first chapter, and we are back in Rome."

The book is brief and skips over perhaps too many details. Items such as the difficulties of Thomas Aquinas' thought are "much richer than we can discuss here..." among others. But I would recommend every Christian (and non-Christian) read this book. It is worth reading while reading Hitchens, Dawkins, or other "new atheists," as Schaeffer makes a strongly logical argument in contrast with theirs. Decide for yourself which society you prefer. 4.5 stars out of 5. ( )
  justindtapp | Jun 3, 2015 |
How Should We Then Live? is one of Francis Schaeffer's best known works. It was followed by a film series (available here on YouTube), narrated by the author and directed by his son Frank Schaeffer.

Schaeffer's work is essentially pessimistic. He surveys the cultural landscape from the ancient Romans onward and traces what he sees as a downward trend from a Biblical foundation of absolutes through the damaging effects of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Particularly interesting was his correlations between music, art, and ideology. As the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century increased in influence, art turned abstract and music turned to increased dissonance (such as Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique).

When he considered the future, some of his ideas have proven to be accurate:

"The possibility of information storage, beyond what men and governments ever had before, can make available at the touch of a button a man's total history. ... The combined use of the technical capability of listening in on all these forms of communications with the high-speed computer literally leavees no place to hide and little room for any privacy" (244).

Or, consider this comment with respect to the recent economic crisis:

"There would be a lowering of prosperity and affluence among those individuals and countries which have come to take an ever-increasing level of prosperity for granted" (248).

The scope of this book is immense, and the connections and projections drawn between apparently discrete cultural phenomena are compelling. Still, I don't buy the overall package for a couple reasons:

1. The idea that worldwide culture has only gone in one direction (downhill) in its pursuit of humanism is too simplistic. That meta-narrative plays well in the minds of Christians with an escapism eschatological view, but not for those with a more incarnational bent.

2. Schaeffer views realism in art as paramount, and views impressionism and abstract work as corruptions which reveal our ideological heart. Where does that leave those of us who see beauty in the abstract and deeper meaning in impressionism than realism?

This landmark book deserves to be read, both as a window into the evangelical psyche in the 1970s and as an interesting survey of cultural history. The arguments he made from this survey, however, need to be read with healthy skepticism. ( )
1 vote StephenBarkley | Jul 25, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0891072926, Paperback)

Drawing upon forty years of study in theology, philosophy, history, sociology and the arts, Dr. Schaeffer contemplates the reasons for modern society's sorry state of affairs and argues for total affirmation of the Bible's morals, values, and meaning.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:46 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

As one of the foremost evangelical thinkers of the twentieth century, Francis Schaeffer long pondered the fate of declining Western culture. In this brilliant book he analyzed the reasons for modern society's state of affairs and presented the only viable alternative: living by the Christian ethic, acceptance of God's revelation, and total affirmation of the Bible's morals,values and meaning.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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