Tuesday, January 1, 2008

How Should We Then Live: The Decline of Western Thought and Culture

#27 on Jessica's list of 30 things to do by age 30 is to read one book a year of my choosing. I have enjoyed reading a number of books over the last several years, but she may not necessarily enjoy the same things. I want this book to be one that she will learn a lot from and be excited to read. Should it be a historical book? An exposition of Scripture? Perhaps a philosophical/theological work? For 2008, the choice of book is easy.

I've recently finished reading "How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture" by Francis A. Schaeffer. Available as a video series (which I gave to my Dad for Christmas) or a more extensive and thorough book, Schaeffer chronicles the changes in philosophy, art, and science from the Roman times until the recent past (1970's), and how each of those fields influences the others. Well written and enjoyable, I have learned a great deal from it and look forward to one day rereading it as well as reading other Schaeffer books.

Christian thought, grounded in the belief that there is one God who is both rational and knowable, who created and governs the universe, provides the basis for true scientific investigation. Both the Chinese and the Persians made short term advances in science, but did not continue their investigations. The Chinese animists were not convinced that the universe was rational, as they believed in various competing deities who changed the rules governing the universe. The same can be said of the Arab/Persian world, with their commitment to belief in Allah, who they believe is completely unknowable, and is even said to deceive people. Christian men like Sir Isaac Newton were convinced that the God of the Bible, who is rational, made a rational world. Such a commitment provides the incentive to invest energy and thought into understanding the world. Not all men who have made scientific advances are Christians, but Christian thought provides the foundation for those advances. The Reformation saw great advances in architecture(and other art), philosophy, and science.

With the Enlightenment and Rationalism, man saw himself as the measure of truth, and thought that by unaided human reason, man was capable of figuring out ultimate reality. For an example in art, Michelangelo's "David" eschewes this philosophical commitment. "David" is not the David of the Bible, as the statue shows an uncircumcises male. No, this David represents how enlightened thinkers saw themselves: "David"'s overly large hands capable of doing anything, capable of achieving physical and mental perfection.

But over time unaided human reason resulted in pessimism that anything was knowable, and the loss for many of the concept of absolute truth. Life, and everything else in existence, becomes meaningless without reference to absolute, universal truth. In the place of absolute truth is relative truth by consensus, and arbitrary absolutes. Think of Supreme Court arbitrary absolutes on the subject of abortion, and countless other relative "truths" which daily affect us.

The philosophical meaninglessness and absurdity to existence was also carried into art, as can be seen in most modern art, and then to books, plays, TV, and cinema. Art, then, is the vehicle to carry ivory tower philosophies to the average joe on the street. Think of the TV show Seinfeld, and the meaninglessness of relationships, sex, or even having a cogent plot. The movies and television shows we watch all carry some sort of philosophical baggage, but we unknowingly ingest these messages. This aspect of the book really opened my eyes to the fact that I really know very little about the meaning of art and how effective it is in molding society.
There are vast area's of the book I have not touched on, that have greatly aided my understanding of the world in which we live. Ideas have power, and we owe it to ourselves and others to know what those ideas are and how they are continuing to affect every area of our lives and society, and "how we should then live". I hope you all will take my recommendation to read this book.

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