Book. Schaeffer: How Should We Then Live? Part 2.

We have considered Schaeffer the philosopher in part 1, now we will consider Schaeffer the historian.

The next paragraph begins by asserting that while Rome was great, it could not answer the “basic problems that all humanity faces.” We are still not told what these problems are, but rather than ruining the suspense, he changes the subject and moves to the Greeks. The Greeks, he tells us “tried first to build their society upon the city-state, that is, the polis. . . . But the polis failed since it proved to be an insufficient base upon which to build a society.” As it stands, this is a hopelessly vague claim. What, for example, does he mean by fail? Does he mean that the Greek city-states failed to maintain their independence? If so, then it follows that every tribe, city, nation, or empire that has ever been conquered or absorbed by a foreign power have also failed. Does he mean that the Greek city-states no longer exist? If so, then since Saxon England and the old Confederacy no longer exist, they too failed. Does this entail that these Christian nations did not have an “adequate base?

Another problem is his foundation metaphor. The metaphor is concerned with the relation of buildings to foundations; buildings which sit upon unsound foundations tend to collapse. Fair enough. Now since Schaeffer identifies the polis as the foundation and Greek society as the building he should rather have said, “The polis (the foundation) was inadequate, therefore Greek society (the building) failed.” But this is a very different claim and one that is, on almost any criteria, false. The Greek city-states may have lost their independence, but Greek society continued fundamentally unchanged until about the fourth century A.D. when Christianity became the dominant religion. Schaeffer confuses a change in government with a change in society. About the only significant change that Greek cities experience under Roman domination was that the tax man spoke a different language.

Since Schaeffer nowhere states that Greek society failed – a claim that would necessitate him defining in what sense it failed (morally, economically, politically, socially, militarily) and then providing evidence of its failing – it is probably best to ignore the metaphor altogether. But then what are we left with? One thing that seems clear is that Schaeffer criticizes the Greek polis itself; that there is something inherently unstable about it. But now we must ask what he means by polis. Is he thinking in terms of territory? Is a city-state unstable in ways that larger nation-states and empires are not? Or is he referring to the polis’ government as opposed to other forms of government? Since Greek city-state were typically either democracies or oligarchies, is he saying that these kinds of governments are unstable while others, say monarchies or republics, are not?

He perhaps gives us a clue where he writes, “All values had meaning in reference to the polis.” This may mean that he is thinking of the polis in terms of ethics and aesthetics. If this is what he is driving at, his criticism turns out to be that the polis cannot provide answers to central questions of morality, beauty, and meaningful human life. This is, from a Christian point of view, no doubt true. But what does this have to do with the failure of the polis? Macedonian and, later, Roman armies conquered the Greeks. It was the inability of the independent cities to come together to fight their common foe that led to their ruin. Their lack of a transcendental foundation for values was not the cause – at least in no obvious way. This lack, moreover, did not render them incapable of great victories earlier in their history. Think of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea. And let us remember, Macedonia and Rome had no better foundation for values than they had and yet they defeated the Greeks cities. As a piece of historical analysis, Schaeffer’s account of the failure of the polis is superficial.

Schaeffer next turns to the main subject of the chapter, Rome. The Romans of the Republic period, he tells us, “tried to build society upon their gods.” (He also says the Greeks did as well, seemingly taking back the previous discussion of the polis.) After a tedious discussion about the finite nature of Roman gods – “But these gods were not big enough because they were finite, limited” – and, apropos nothing, the mention of a vulgar statue of Hercules and the eruption of Vesuvius, he finally gets down to business.

“[Because the Roman gods were limited], 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 system 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. These gods depended on the society which had made them, and when this society collapsed the gods tumbled with it. Thus, the Greek and Roman experiments in social harmony (which rested on an elitist republic) ultimately failed.”

No criticism is possible until we understand just what his argument is. But Schaeffer’s tortured writing style keeps getting in our way. Let us ignore the stuff about Roman gods not being “big enough” (as if they were in want of growth hormones) and meaningless expressions such as “experiments in social harmony” and tangential material such as “elitist republic” and try to get at the core argument. It seems to be structured as follows.

(1) The Romans had finite gods.
(2) Finite gods provide no “sufficient reference point intellectually.”
(3) Thus, the value system of the Roman Republic could not bear the strains of life, ‘individual or political’.
(3.5) Thus the Roman Republic failed

Premise (1) is both intelligible and uncontroversial. The trouble begins with premise (2). What does Schaeffer mean by an intellectual reference point? His gloss of this premise may be helpful. “[Romans] did not have anything big enough or permanent enough to which to relate either their thinking or their living.” But try as I may, I cannot tease any meaning out of this sentence. There seem to be three things or four things under consideration – Roman men, Roman gods, Roman thought, and the Roman way of life. The Roman men presumably tried to relate their thoughts and their way of life to their gods, but their gods were simply too finite (“not big enough”) and no relation could be established. This seems to be the gist, but I have no idea what it means. This is not to say I have no idea of what Schaeffer is trying get at. He no doubt wants to give a transcendental argument showing that Roman paganism does not provide the necessary preconditions for human experience. But wanting to give such an argument and actually giving one are two different things. And it is hardly reasonable to expect the reader to do the heavy lifting for him.

As it stands, (3) does not follow from (1) and (2) since (2) is unintelligible and, of course, (3) does not follow from (1) alone. The first argument is thus abortive. If we ignore argument and turn to the second – that is, the move from (3) to (3.5) – perhaps something can be salvaged. The first thing we want to know is what the Roman value system was. Since the Rome, like modern America, had more than one system of values (there were Epicureans, Stoics, Eclectics, and so on) it is necessary to know which one Schaeffer is criticizing. Schaeffer, unfortunately, does not tell us. What he probably has in mind, though, is Roman paganism. Pagan values (we really cannot speak of a pagan “‘value system” since paganism is notoriously messy and unsystematic) are what broke under the “strain of life.” So we can rewrite (3) as follows:

(3’) The values derived from Roman paganism could not bear the strains of life, “individual or political.”

But this is awkward. Men not values are burdened with life. What he really means is:

(3”) Men who held values derived from Roman paganism could not bear the strains of life, taken either as individuals or as a political body.

Is this true? Let us focus on individual men. Ancients and moderns alike have had to put up with life’s burdens, but as far as I know, the number of nervous breakdowns and suicides were no higher in the Roman period than at any other period, including the modern one – and this without the help of psychoanalysis and Prozac. The Romans appear to have tolerated life’s strains reasonably well. Schaeffer’s claim is not supported by the evidence. Furthermore, many of the virtues that Roman paganism prized were those that inured men to troubles of life – fortitude, temperance, perseverance. Even if Romans were particularly susceptible to being crushed under life’s burdens, it seems hardly fair to blame this on their values. Not at least without argument. But argument is precisely what Schaeffer fails to give us.

Let us take another tack. Perhaps Schaeffer thinks that all the evidence that is necessary to establish the weakness of Rome’s values is the fact that the Roman Republic fell. In other words, there is a direct cause and effect relation between Roman values and the Republic’s fall. But there are numerous problems with this argument. First off, Roman values did not change with the transition from a republican form of government to an imperial-bureaucratic form. Augustus advocated old-time virtues as much as Cicero or Cato and the Roman people looked upon this with favor. Second, the form of this argument is invalid. Just because a system of government changes does not imply that the cause was a weakness in the nation’s values. There are any number of factors that might play a determinative role. In the case of the fall of the Roman Republic, the causes more likely had to do with the inability of the Senate to adapt to the new realities of a far-flung empire and its weakness in dealing with demagogues such as the Gracchi, Sulla, and eventually Caesar. Details aside, if this argument were valid, it could be applied to any nation or state. Thus the defeat of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal could be laid at the feet of the Boer “system of values”; in other words, the values of reformed Christianity. Third, this argument is circular. The main argument, recall, was that since Roman values were weak, Rome fell. The reformulated sub-argument is that Rome fell, therefore Roman values must have been weak. This, of course, is clearly unacceptable.

Since this is the centerpiece argument of Schaeffer’s first chapter, let us not yet abandon hope of finding something of substance. Another argument that could possibly be pieced together from the text is the following:

(4) If a state derives its values from finite gods, it will eventually fail.
(5) The Roman Republic derived its values from finite gods.
(6) Therefore, the Roman Republic failed.

This is a valid argument and if we assume that the second premise is true – it clearly is in some sense, however vague the claim may be – all we have to do is determine the truth of the first premise. Now, if we assume that fail means something like cease to exist, the consequent turns out to be true. Every state in history has failed except the two hundred or so that exist today – and all of these will certainly fail given enough time. Since the consequent is true (states eventually fall), the conditional is also true and so it is immaterial what statement is plugged into the antecedent. (If you do not understand why this is the case, review your elementary logic textbook.) Thus,

(4′) If a state is located in the northern hemisphere, it will eventually fall


(4”) If a state fails to promote the personal hygiene of its citizens, it will eventually fall


(4”’) If a state does not crown Tarzan its king, it will eventual fall

and, more germane,

(4””) If a state derives its values from an infinite God, it will eventually fall

are equally true. It turns out that while this argument is sound, so are the arguments where (4) is replaced by (4′), (4”), (4”’), or (4””). The argument is, in other words, trivial.

Let us make one last attempt to piece together an argument.

(7) If a state fails, it is due to an “insufficient” value system.
(8) The Roman Republic failed.
(9) Therefore, the Roman Republic had an “insufficient” value system.
(10) The value-system of the Roman Republic was paganism.
(11) Therefore paganism is an “insufficient” value system.

Both the first, (7)-(9), and second, (9)-(11), arguments are valid. Since (8) is true, everything turns on (7) and (10). As it stands, (10) is sloppy for the reason mentioned above and because the Roman value system was pagan, not paganism. But let us not quibble and give (10) to Schaeffer. This leaves us with (7). Ignoring the vagueness of “insufficient value system,” the first problem is one that has previously been noted: the problem of ascribing the failure of a state to its lack of a transcendental moral foundation. It is fatuous to claim that Babylonia fell to Persia, for example, because Babylonia had an insufficient value system. Both had equally insufficient value systems and so no real historical work is accomplished by making such a claim. But this criticism can be broadened. Take other states that have failed such as the Holy Roman Empire or Saxon England or the Southern Confederacy. This gives us, respectively:

(8′) The Holy Roman Empire failed


(8”) Saxon England failed


(8”’) The Southern Confederacy failed.

Together with (7), we can conclude that each of these states had an insufficient value system. And by (9)-(11) we can further conclude that Christianity itself is an insufficient value system. This is a conclusion that Schaeffer, no doubt, would not wish to endorse.

The only way out of this fix, aside from abandoning (7), is by special pleading. The Holy Roman Empire (and Saxon England and the Confederacy), one could argue, did not really have a Christian value system. Such an argument would be a tall order. But even were it shown that these states were Christian in name only, there are many more examples of failed Christian states that would have to be dealt with. In the end, one would have to argue that there never has been a Christian state. Such a conclusion, though, would render the entire of notion of Christendom meaningless. For my part, I will stick with Christendom and toss out (7).

The Roman Empire, as opposed to the Republic, is the next target in Schaeffer’s sights. Aside from some tedious narrative (“After Caesar’s death, Octavian, later called Caesar Augustus, grandnephew of Caesar, come to power. He had become Caesar’s son by adoption.”) and disputable opinions which he, as is typical, asserts as facts (Virgil’s Aeneid is said to be a glorification of Augustus and his rule), his argument is quite simple: “But a human god [the emperor] is a poor foundation and Rome fell.” Before analyzing this argument, we should pause to at least admire Schaeffer audacity. It took Gibbon a lifetime of study and hundreds of pages to come to his conclusion about why Rome fell. Schaeffer takes just one sentence.

This first objection that comes to mind is that the assertion is vague. There is, after all, a large gulf between the propaganda about divine emperors and the claim that these divine emperors were the foundation of imperial Rome. Most took this claim with tongue in cheek, including most of the emperors themselves. (Vespasian said on his deathbed, “I think I am about to become a god.”). Some, of course, took the imperial cult more seriously than others, but the vast majority of educated men saw it for what it was: a crass public relations stunt.

The most obvious objection, though, is that Rome fell during the period when “non-divinized” Christian emperors were ruling. Indeed, the pagan argument of the day was that Rome had stood unconquered for almost a millennium under her old gods and it was not until Christianity became dominant that the barbarians were able to rout the legions and sack the city. This argument was taken seriously enough by Augustine who answered it in one of the great monuments of Christendom, The City of God.

Schaeffer does mention that Christianity became the official state religion in the fourth century, but dismisses this with a wave of the hand – “the majority went on in their old ways.” Once again, though, we have typical Schaefferian ambiguity. Does he mean that the majority were still pagan or that the majority still believed the emperors to be divine? If the former, this statement is irrelevant since his argument is that Rome fell because it had a human god as its foundation. If the latter, the statement is false. The imperial cult was all but dead by the time of the last (western) Roman emperors. Thus no matter how the statement is interpreted, it does not save his argument.

Schaeffer is tedious and, I am afraid, so is this review. I will comment on one more paragraph and end this sorry business.

“It is important to realize what a difference a people’s world view makes in their strength as they are exposed to the pressure of life. That it was the Christians who were able to resist religious mixtures, syncretism, and the effects of the weaknesses of Roman culture speaks of the strength of the Christian world view. This strength rested on God’s being an infinite-personal God and his speaking in the Old Testament, in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and in the gradually growing New Testament. He had spoken in ways people could understand. Thus the Christians not only had knowledge about the universe and mankind that people cannot find out by themselves, but they had absolute, universal values by which to live and by which to judge the society and the political state in which they lived. And they had grounds for the basic dignity and value of the individual as unique in being made in the image of God.”

Though vague and loosely constructed, this sounds something like a presuppositional argument. What is missing is the epistemology necessity of Scripture. More objectionable than the poorly executed apologetic is the misstatement about the Christian martyrs. The early Christians did not maintain their holy profession because their world view could answer questions that paganism could not. They made the good confession because our Lord’s grace upheld them. This is Paul’s testimony. ‘At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me . . . Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me’. There is nothing here about world views or absolute values or grounds of human dignity. Such things are wholly inadequate for the Christian in times of trial. The Lord stood by the Paul and so he stood. The Lord stood by the holy martyrs and so they stood. While one’s world views is important, no Christian ever died for his world view.

Schaeffer spends the rest of the chapter talking about Fellini flicks, the load capacity of Roman bridges, his favorite Roman ruins (“I love Avenches”), the cruelty of Rome (but was there no nobility and beauty?), the reason for the persecution of Christians, the poor quality of late Roman art, and Roman economics. It is dull reading and littered with ugly prose (“Culture and the freedoms of people are fragile”). More to the point, nothing is added to support his central thesis.

Enough. We have seen that the first chapter of How Should We Then Live? is vague, ambiguous, trivial, and meandering. Some of Schaeffer’s sentences even lack meaning. When not simply pontificating, his arguments are muddled and the reader is forced to reconstruct them. But even when reconstructed in the best possible light, they are generally unsound and easily refuted. Schaeffer displays little grasp of epistemology, his understanding of Roman history is amateurish, and he is either theologically confused or disingenuous. In fine, this is a bad book in almost every conceivable way.

One thought on “Book. Schaeffer: How Should We Then Live? Part 2.

  1. Greetings, MRB.

    I enjoyed this review. I followed some of your stuff about seven years ago when I was really studying the late Dr Bahnsen’s apologetic. While my own theological and philosophical path may have diverted from Bahnsen’s, I still enjoy these types of reviews.

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