Book. Schaeffer: How Should We Then Live?

C.S. Lewis once said that marking good essays and bad essays is easy, it is the those that fall in between that are the real trouble. Good papers require little comment; bad papers require too many and so the best policy is to send the student back to the drawing board. (For those that fall between it is necessary to show the student that while his work was not bad, neither was it first rate.) This is true of grading, but it is not true of book reviews. When it comes to writing a review of a bad book that has come to be regarded as a good book, a great deal of commentary and analysis is called for in order to demonstrate that it is indeed bad. This is tedious business for both the reviewer and the reader of the review. But if the labor results in debunking the bad book that postures as good book, something worthwhile will have been accomplished. At the very least it should save a bit of precious space on the book self for more deserving works.

The bad book I wish to debunk is Francis Schaeffer’s magnum opus, How Should We Then Live? In order to properly carry out this unpleasant task, I will have to confine my review to only a portion of the book. In fact, I will comment on one chapter only. This may seem unfair at first since a book, one may reasonably argue, cannot be said to stand or fall on such a small number of pages. No doubt this is generally true. Almost all books, even some of the great ones, have weak sections. Think of the last two books of Paradise Lost. The soundness of a book, unlike bridges and chains, cannot be determined by the weakest point or link. But there are exceptions to this rule. One of these exceptions is that the pages reviewed are representative of the whole.

This leads me to the second purpose of this review. It can be viewed as an exercise in what modern colleges call “critical thinking.” In most critical thinking courses the teacher will often take a piece of writing and criticize it for the instruction of his students. He then hands out further reading and tells them to go and do likewise. It is my hope that this review will motivate some to carry on the project to continue through the rest of Schaeffer’s book and so benefit from the exercise of discovering fallacies, ambiguities, infelicities, confusions, muddles, and even rank nonsense. I assure you, it will provide plenty of grist for this mill.

Let us begin the review with the subtitle, “The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture.” (The title itself seems to have been cribbed from William Morris’s essay, “How Shall We Live Then.” This may be coincidence, but Schaeffer has a history of failing to acknowledge those who have influenced him.) This subtitle is highly misleading. Ask anyone with a moderate education about the rise of western thought and culture and he will almost certainly say something about the Greeks. The Greeks were the starting point for so much of our (western) thought that it would be tedious to mention all the fields they opened for us – epic and lyric poetry, tragedy, the plastic arts, mathematics, logic, philosophy, history, psychology, astronomy, medicine, grammar, geography, harmonics. Yet Schaeffer does not begin his tale of the rise of western thought with the Greeks, but with the Romans. (This is not quite true; he does discuss and dismiss the Greeks in a single paragraph.) But in almost no sense of the word rise can Rome be said to have caused the rise of western culture. The Greeks were vastly more important than the Romans. Indeed, the greatest contribution Rome made to the west was that it had the good sense to preserve much of the Greek learning. Thus if the very people who were responsible for the rise of western thought and culture are almost wholly ignored, how can the subtitle be viewed as anything but false advertisement?

Such criticism may appear nitpicking. And so it would be if it did not illustrate one of the major failings of the book. This kind of misleading and inaccurate language is found throughout the book. Again and again Schaeffer uses words in a slovenly and vague manner. The subtitle is only the first of many examples.

Before turning to more substantial matters, a few factual errors in the chapter should be noticed at once. On page 24 he commits two blunders. He asserts that the Scots were “too tough to conquer” for the Romans. Aside from the fact that the Romans referred to the Irish as Scots not the inhabitants of what is modern day Scotland – the Romans called them Caledonians and later Picts – the Romans did indeed conquer Caledonia under Agricola. (See Tacitus, Agricola, 25-38.) Now if what Schaeffer means is that the Romans did not permanently subdue and occupy Caledonia, he is correct, but the reason for this was not that the Caledonians were “too tough,” but that they did not consider Caledonia worth the effort. It was strictly a dollar and cents decision.

On the same page there is a note that explains two photos of a statue found on the facing page. The statue is of a warrior dying of a wound to the torso and the note refers to it as “The Gladiator.” Schaeffer presents this as evidence of Rome’s cruelty. But the statue is actually a Roman copy of a Greek work and the figure is not a gladiator, but a Celt. The statue, in other words, has nothing to do with either Romans or gladiators. What is more, anyone with the slightest bit of sensibility can immediately see that the Celt is portrayed sympathetically. The type of death he faces may be cruel, but the artist was highly sensitive to his suffering. A people or culture that produced art like this could not have been fundamentally cruel.

But enough of these preliminaries. Let us now turn to text itself for close inspection. Our troubles begin with the opening paragraph. We are told in the first sentence, “There is a flow to history and culture.” This type of awkward language is, as we shall see, typical of Schaeffer. Its awkwardness is made explicit when we take the same basic sentence and replace ‘history’ with something more concrete. “There is a flow to a river” or “There is a flow to a sewer system.” While these sentences are understandable, no native English speaker would likely, outside poetry, utter them. More natural is “Rivers and sewers flow.” So rather than “there is a flow to history,” Schaeffer should have better said “history flows.” Once it is put into good English, though, we see right away that the statement is a platitude. For whatever history is, it must have some kind of ‘flow’, some movement or change to it. Why then bother to state this in the opening sentence? Why state it at all? Schaeffer must think he is saying something more. And by reading on, one can piece together what this might be. He seems to mean that history is like a river in the double sense that history not only flows or moves but that its flow is channeled in a certain direction. History, like a river, follows a certain course. Though perhaps controversial, this is at least clear and reasonable. Why then does he not say what he means?

Schaeffer next tells us what makes the channel of history. ‘This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people’. Apart from the mixed metaphor – trees, mountains, teeth and numbers have roots, not streams – the sentence is vague. By using the word people he is in danger of setting the reader down the wrong path. We immediately think of people as common people, as opposed to the nobility or the intelligentsia, and are tempted to counter that it is not common people who make history, but certain kinds of people – kings, conquerors, philosophers, prophets, and so on. But Schaeffer is not pushing an egalitarian view of history. What he means by people is simply human beings and the emphasis of the sentence is not human beings but human thought. The context of the first couple pages makes this clear. Thus history is ultimately the product of human thought and not merely the product of human action. Or, perhaps better, though history is the study of human actions, these actions are always grounded in human thought. Human thought, in other words, is the ‘wellspring’ or main source of history.

This, of course, is a controversial statement and calls for elaboration if not defense. All kinds of things have been put forward as the prime mover of history – economic forces, social forces, even natural forces. But if we leave these things aside and consider man in general, it is not at all obvious that it is his rational faculty (or, as Schaeffer calls it in the next sentence, his ‘thought world’) that determines most of his actions. Plato thought the appetite and not reason dominated most men. Hume believed the motive force of most human behavior was habit. Our experience shows that there is truth to both these rival views. For many men, if not most, reason is simply a useful means to satisfy appetite or a means to justify habit.

At a deeper level, the view of history Schaeffer presents is on all fours with humanism. Whether man’s reason or will or appetite dominates is not the point. The Scriptures teach that God’s decree and his works of providence are the “well springs” of history. Man’s faculties, though important, are secondary. Schaeffer, a presbyterian minister, presumably believed this. Why he fails to mention the first principle of Christian historiography is difficult to fathom. It is no good to defend him by saying he is playing his cards close to his chest, waiting to reveal them at the right moment. First off, it is one thing for an author to hide some of his cards until the opportune time, it is quite another thing to pretend he is playing a hand he has not been dealt. And second, Schaeffer never gets around to laying down his cards. Nowhere in the book does he present the Christian view of history.

He seems to make another theological blunder in the very next sentence: ‘People are unique in the inner life of the mind’. I say seems since this sentence is ambiguous. It may mean that individual people are unique in that they each have a different mental life. This does not fit the context though. More likely he means that human beings alone of all creatures have faculties for understanding and imagination. But this, of course, is not true. Angels are at least as rational as man and are probably even more creative. And lest anyone should throw up the fairness flag and defend Schaeffer’s statement on the ground that he is dealing with human history, it should be remembered that angels have played a significant role in our history.

Schaeffer next explains what he means by the “inner life of the mind”: “what they [humans] are in their thought world determines how they act.” Unfortunately, this explanation is also ambiguous. Let’s pretend we know what a “thought world” is and concentrate on the first part of the clause. The most natural reading of “what they are in their thought world” is “how men conceive of themselves” and so the whole clause comes out to, “the way in which a man conceives of himself determines his actions.” Apart from the fact that this is not always true (most men have any number of false conceits about themselves), this natural reading does not fit the context. What Schaeffer seems to be trying to say is something like, “what a man values most determines how he acts.” While there is some truth to this, it is far too strong as it stands. A man may value a healthful diet, for instance, and yet end up eating most of his meals at MacDonalds. What is true for men is also true for societies. Romans valued discipline, order, temperance and courage. A quick glance at Tacitus reveals that many if not most Romans of his day exhibited none of these virtues. What a man or what a society is ‘in their thought world’ does not necessarily determine how he or they act. If we learn anything from history, it is that other factors contribute to man’s behavior just as much, if not far more so, than his “thought world.” Fear of the whip (or the Human Resources Department) is for some men, a more important source of motivation than their “thought world.” Men may prize reason, but many of their actions are determined by factors that cause them to ignore and even work against it.

Schaeffer’s next move is to introduce the concept of a presupposition. Presumably, these are in some way related to a “thought world.” But what kind of things are they? “By presuppositions we mean the basic way an individual looks at life, his basic world view, the grid through which he sees the world.” Such compounding of definitions should put the reader on his guard. Why give three when only one is called for? But we must take what we are given and so let’s take them one by one. The first is obviously wanting. Ask most men how they look at life and they will answer with words such as, “optimistically,” “humorously,” “morosely,” “ambivalently.” They will, that is, think the question is about what attitude they take toward life. Since whatever presuppositions turn out to be, they are certainly not attitudes, this definition misleading at best. The second definition is a bit more promising. Leaving aside the adjective – which seems to be a throw away since the notion of a non-basic world view is probably incoherent – presuppositions are indeed related to a world view. So far so good. But what then is a world view? Is it a basic attitude towards life? We already dismissed this. Is it what presuppositions make up? This may be true, but, due to its circularity, is unhelpful as a definition. Is it something else? If so, what? Obviously something more needs to be said. Schaeffer takes one last stab: presuppositions are ‘grids’ through which we see the world. At first blush this appears to be better. Students of Van Til will, no doubt, be familiar with such language and so naturally fill in the details. Unfortunately for the reader innocent of Van Til’s work, all he has to go on is a metaphor – and a vague one at that. Presuppositions are in some way like a sieve; some things pass through while other things are kept out. But what kind of things are filtered and how this filtering works is not explained. Thus as a definition, this proves abortive just as the other two.

So much for the definitions. Schaeffer seems to have realized that he was skating on thin ice and so he tries another tack by giving certain characteristics of presuppositions. “Presuppositions rest upon that which a person considers to be the truth of what exists.” This is a difficult (and ugly) sentence and so let us try to unpack it. First off, what is meant by “that which a person considers to be the truth of what exists”? There are at least two possibilities. The first is that men form beliefs about what exists. The other possibility is that men form beliefs about things he already assumes to exist. A man believes, say, in trees, and forms certain beliefs about them – they bear leaves, have roots, and so on. This interpretation of the clause has to do with predication. Which of the two is correct is anyone’s guess.

The phrase “rest upon” also is vague. This metaphor is usually given an epistemological sense and is roughly equivalent to “is supported by” or “is justified by” or “is warranted by.” Thus my belief that Celts sacked Rome in 390 BC rests upon Livy. That is to say, I justify my belief that Celtic tribes sacked Rome in 390 BC by making reference to certain passages in Livy. But however we understand the second part of the sentence (whether it is concerns existential claims or predication), an epistemological interpretation of “rest upon” turns the whole thing into nonsense. To say, “Presuppositions are justified by beliefs about what kinds of things exist” is to state the matter all backwards. The arrow of justification is pointed in the wrong direction. Beliefs are justified by presuppositions not vice versa. If presuppositions were justified by non-presuppositional beliefs, they would not be presuppositions in the first place.

How then are we to understand “rest upon” if not in an epistemological sense? It appears Schaeffer wants to say something like “are concerned with” or “are about.” The problem is that “rest upon” means neither of these things. Thus we are forced to conclude that Schaeffer has either used the wrong words or that the sentence is so confused that it is unintelligible. Out of charity we will assume the former and rewrite the sentence as “Presuppositions are concerned with certain kinds of beliefs . . . ” To now bring in the rest of the sentence, the beliefs that presuppositions are concerned with are either existence claims or predication. This is passably intelligible and at least allows for us to evaluate Schaeffer’s claim. And what we see at once is that it will not do. I believe that there is cereal in my pantry (an existential belief) and I believe daffodils are yellow (a “predicational” belief). But these beliefs cannot be presuppositions. For whatever presuppositions turn out to be, they cannot be about such mundane things as cereal boxes in pantries and the color of flowers. Presuppositions run much deeper than this.

No matter if this is no good, Schaeffer gives us another characterization. “People’s presuppositions lay a grid for all they bring forth into the external world.” Aside from the horrible alliteration (does Schaeffer have no ear for the English language?), here we have grids and world again, but now with the twist that grids play an active role. Originally presuppositional were looked through, now they are laid down (like railroad tracks), and brought forth (like witnesses at a trial) into the external world. This new description makes it sound as if presuppositions have some sort of telekinetic powers. But this aside, Schaeffer gives us a metaphor that is inconsistent with his previous metaphor. And so, far from explaining what presuppositions are, he only adds to the confusion.

Things are obviously not going well and so he makes one final attempt to set things straight. “Their presuppositions also provide the basis for their values and therefore the basis for their decisions.” This is probably the best characterization yet, but it is still too vague to be of much help. In what way do they give us values? More importantly, what kind of thing is able to do this? We were previously told that they are like filters, now we are told they are like foundations. But filters and foundations are two very different kinds of things. How can they be like both? It is, of course, possible that they operate like filters in one sense and foundations in another. Both may be true, but in what sense are they both true? And as for being the basis of our decisions, do presuppositions really provide the basis for, say, my wife’s decision to cook bacon and eggs rather than oatmeal for breakfast? Obviously Schaeffer means certain kinds of decisions. But what kind of decisions does he have in mind? Important decisions? This is too vague. Ethical decisions? This is true in some sense, but as it stands, is not precise enough. Often times presuppositions play no role in our ethical decisions. One may, after all, “presuppose” some kind of ethical system that obliges him to stand up to bullies. But other factors (fear or indifference) may intervene and cause a failure of nerve or will.

Schaeffer spends the next paragraph asserting that man’s thoughts are the most important factor in determining his behavior. Indeed, he gives the impression that they are the only factor that determines his behavior, but we have dealt with this already. After his bit about catching presuppositions like catching measles, he tells us that men of “more understanding realize that their presuppositions should be chosen after a careful consideration of what world view is true.” This seems to imply that there is a distinction between presuppositions and world views, contradicting his earlier statement that presuppositions are identical to world views. Perhaps this is just sloppy and so we will pass over this without further comment. What we want to know now is how ‘people with more understanding’ go about determining which world view is true. If presuppositions are like “grids” that men look through (assuming we know what this means), how is it possible to test them against the world? Would this not necessitate taking off the grid and comparing it with the world? This seems hardly possible since presuppositions, we were previously told, are the foundations upon which man judges what is true? Van Til, of course, has given us the answer to this difficult question. But Schaeffer does not seem to realize the weight of this problem, let alone provide us with an solution. What he does say, in one of his more awkward sentences (“When all is done, when all the alternatives have been explored, ‘not many men are in the room’.”), is that there are only few basic world views. By this he seems to imply that the problem of determining which is true is attenuated by the fact that there are only so many options. What then are these options? In order to answer this question, we must study, says Schaeffer, the “flow of the past.”

This leads to his general thesis:

“To understand where we are in today’s world – in our intellectual ideas and in our cultural and political lives – we must trace three lines in history, namely, the philosophic, the scientific, and the religious. The philosophic seeks intellectual answers to the basic questions of life. The scientific has two parts: first, the makeup of the physical universe and then the practical application of what it discovers in technology. The direction in which science will move is set by the philosophic world view of the scientists. People’s religious views also determine the direction of their individual lives and of their society.”

Though the first sentence is barely intelligible, what Schaeffer seems to be trying to say is that in order to understand modern culture we must understand what led up to it. And this historical understanding must concentrate on the history of philosophy, science, and religion. Schaeffer next offers something like a definition of philosophy. Philosophy is the attempt to answer the basic question of life. But this is un unhelpful. Biology could just as well be so defined. And just what are these basic questions of life? Schaeffer gives no examples and so the reader is left on his own. One innocent of philosophy would likely think of questions such as, “what career path should I follow?” “where should I live?” “whom should I marry?” (If this seems fatuous, ask somebody this question and see what kind of answers you are given.)

His characterization of the “scientific” is little better. Here he gives not a definition, but an analysis. He begins, “The scientific has two parts.” This sounds meaningful, but what is the adjective standing in for? The scientific line in history? The scientific method? The scientific approach to knowledge? Perhaps he simply means science. Let’s try some of these and by tweaking his sentence a bit. “The first part of the scientific line in history is the makeup of the physical universe.” This crosses over the borderline of intelligibility and so clearly won’t do. How about, “The first part of the scientific method is the makeup of the physical universe”? This is no better. The same goes for the remaining two. It seems something more radical than tweaking is necessary to make this sentence meaningful and so it is probably best to scrap the sentence altogether and start over. He probably means something like, “One of the main goals of science is to discover the physical makeup of the universe.” The second half of the sentence is even worse. “The second part of the scientific is the practical application of what it discovers in technology.” This, of course, has all the problems of the first half with the addition of an ambiguity. Does technology result from the discoveries of science or, rather absurdly, does science make discoveries by looking at the products of technology?

When he gets to religion, the third leg of his historical tripos, Schaeffer prudently refrains from giving a definition and leaves the reader to his own resources. But even so, his statement about religion is problematic. Read literally – and how else are we to read it? – it says that religion itself, without reference to anything else, determines the “direction” of men. If this is the case, why then bother bringing up philosophy or science at all? Obviously he does not mean what he has written, but rather something like religious beliefs play an important role in man’s individual and corporate actions.

Schaeffer next explains why following these “lines” is useful and what period of history he will begin to trace them.

“As we try to learn lessons about the primary dilemmas which we now face, by looking at the past and considering its flow, we could begin with the Greeks, or even before the Greeks. We could go back to the three great ancient river cultures: the Euphrates, the Indus, and the Nile. However, we will begin with the Romans (and the Greek influence behind them), because Roman civilization is the direct ancestor of the modern Western world. . . Roman law and political ideas have had a strong influence on the European scene and the entire Western world. Wherever Western civilization had gone, it has been marked by the Romans.”

Once again, Schaeffer’s prose skirts dangerously close to the meaningless. Reread the first sentence. At a glance it looks somewhat intelligible, but this is due to the imagination and sympathy of the reader. We think we know what he is getting at and so fill in the details. Upon inspection, the main problem is the word, as. He uses it as a conjunction meaning something like while. Rewritten the sentence (skipping over the bit about dilemmas and flows) comes out, “While we learn lessons from history, we could begin with the Greeks.” But this is hardly intelligible. We might as well say, “while we eat our dinner we could begin with the soup” or “while we are touring New England we could begin in Vermont.” Once dinner or a tour of New England has already begun, asking where to begin is nonsense. So let us scrap the conjunction and rewrite the sentence while keeping as much of the original wording as possible. “In what follows we shall attempt to learn lessons from the past and one place we could begin is the ancient Greeks, or even older civilizations.” Still ugly, but at least intelligible. Now we are ready to bring in the rest of the sentence. The lessons that Schaeffer wants us to learn from history concern “the primary dilemmas which we now face.” Since a dilemma is a choice between two undesirable alternatives, the sentence can be rewritten as, “In what follows we shall attempt to learn lessons from the past about the primary choices we face in the modern world, where each choice comes down to two undesirable alternatives, and one place we could begin is the ancient Greeks, or even older civilizations.” Though intelligible, Schaeffer could hardly have meant this. But we are not yet done. One final touch remains. The way in which Schaeffer wants us to learn such lessons from the past is by ‘considering its flow’. We have previously glossed flow to mean “following a certain course” and so we are now in a position to piece together the entire sentence.

“In what follows we shall attempt, by considering the course history has followed, to learn lessons from the past about the primary choices we face in the modern world, where each choice comes down to two undesirable alternatives, and one place we could begin is the ancient Greeks, or even older civilizations.”

This is, I am afraid, a faithful translation of the original. Since it is still convoluted and since Schaeffer almost certainly meant problems instead of dilemmas, let us try again, this time rewriting the entire paragraph.

“A study of history may be helpful in coming to understand the problems of the modern world. We could begin with the Greeks or even begin with the ancient river cultures. It is perhaps best to begin with Rome, though, since the modern west descends directly from it. Of course to understand Rome we have to understand something about the Greeks, and so we will actually begin with Greeks. (But not really since I will summarize and dispatch 500 years of Greek history in the next paragraph.) Understanding Rome is important because its laws and politics have had a great influence on western nations. By the way, please forget what I said in the previous paragraph about philosophy, science, and religion. Law in politics are more important than those kinds of things.”

Before moving on to the history of Rome, Schaeffer’s next major section, I have saved my favorite sentence for last. “Wherever Western civilization has gone, it has been marked by the Romans.” We, of course, know what Schaeffer means, but notice how the ambiguous syntax presents us with the ludicrous image of western civilization going on a tour, much as a circus or rock and roll band, where at each venue it is witnessed by men in togas who by all accounts should have been dead centuries ago.

2 thoughts on “Book. Schaeffer: How Should We Then Live?

  1. I remember years ago Harold O.J. Brown saying that Edith was the one who knew how to write. Though, of course,he loved Francis Schaeffer.

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