Francis Schaeffer: “How Should We Then Live?” (Episode 1) THE ROMAN AGE
Today I am starting a series that really had a big impact on my life back in the 1970′s when I first saw it. There are ten parts and today is the first.
Francis Schaeffer takes a look at Rome and why it fell. It fell because of inward problems. We have many of these same problems today in the USA.
There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people. People are unique in the inner life of the mind—what they are in their thought world determines how they act. This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity …
People have presuppositions, and they will live more consistently on the basis of these presuppositions than even they themselves may realize. By presuppositions we mean the basic way an individual looks at life, his basic world view, the grid through which he sees the world. Presuppositions rest upon that which a person considers to be the truth of what exists. People’s presuppositions lay a grid for all they bring forth into the external world. Their presuppositions also provide the basis for their values and their basis for their decisions.
“As a man thinketh, so is he,” is really most profound. An individual is not just the product of the forces around him. He has a mind, an inner world …
Most people catch their presuppositions from their family and surrounding society the way a child catches measles. But people with more understanding realize that their presuppositions should be chosen after a careful consideration of what world view is true …
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 weakness 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 …1
Apathy was the chief mark of the late Empire. One of the ways the apathy showed itself was in a lack of creativity in the arts. One easily observed example of the decadence of officially sponsored art is that the fourth-century work on the Arch of Constantine in Rome stands’ in poor contrast to its second-century sculptures which were borrowed from monuments from the period of Emperor Trajan. The elite abandoned their intellectual pursuits for social life. Officially sponsored art was decadent, and music was increasingly bombastic. Even the portraits on the coins became of poor quality. All of life was marked by the predominant apathy.
As the Roman economy slumped lower and lower, burdened with an aggravated inflation and a costly government, authoritarianism increased to counter the apathy. Since work was no longer done voluntarily, it was brought increasingly under the authority of the state, and freedoms were lost. For example, laws were passed binding small farmers to their land. So, because of the general apathy and its results, and because of oppressive control, few thought the old civilization worth saving.
Rome did not fall because of external forces such as the invasion by the barbarians. Rome had no sufficient inward base; the’ barbarians only completed the breakdown — and Rome gradually became a ruin.
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.
Perhaps no one has presented more vividly to our generation the inner weakness of imperial Rome than has Fellini (1920-) in his film Satyricon. He reminds us that the classical world is not to be romanticized, but that it was both cruel and decadent as it came to the logical conclusion of its world view.
A culture or an individual with a weak base can stand only when the pressure on it is not too great. As an illustration, let us think of a Roman bridge. The Romans built little humpbacked bridges over many of the streams of Europe. People and wagons went over these structures safely for centuries, for two millennia. But if people today drove heavily loaded trucks over these bridges, they would break. It is this way with the lives and value systems of individuals and cultures when they have nothing stronger to build on than their own limitedness, their own finiteness. They can stand when pressures are not too great, but when pressures mount, if then they do not have a sufficient base, they crash-just as a Roman bridge would cave in under the weight of a modern six-wheeled truck. Culture and the freedoms of people are fragile. Without a sufficient base, when such pressures come only time is needed and often not a great deal of time-before there is a collapse.
E P I S O D E 1
B. We are, however, not helpless. Why?
C. Answer approached through consideration of the past.
D. Any starting point in history would be good; we start with Rome because it is direct ancestor of modern West.
II. Rome: The Empire Triumphant
A. Size and military strength of Empire.
B. Imperial sway evoked by Aventicum (Avenches), Switzerland.
III. Rome: Cultural Analysis
A. Greece and Rome: cultural influences and parallels.
1. Society as the absolute, to give meaning to life.
2. Finite gods as ground of accepted values.
B. Problems arising from Roman culture.
1. No infinite reference point as base for values and society.
2. Collapse of civic ideals therefore inevitable.
C. Results of collapse of ideals.
1. Dictatorship of Julius Caesar a response to civil disorder.
2. Firmly established authoritarian rule of Augustus.
D. Characteristics of regime introduced by Augustus.
1. Claim to give peace and the fruits of civilization.
2. Care to maintain facade of republican constitution.
3. People ready to accept absolute power in return for peace and prosperity.
4. Religious sanction for emperor-dictators: the emperor as God.
E. Christian persecution
1. Religious toleration in the Empire.
2. Christians persecuted because they would worship only the infinite-personal God and not Caesar also. They had an absolute whereby to judge the Roman state and its actions.
F. Viability of presuppositions facing social and political tension.
1. Christians had infinite reference point in God and His revelation in the Old Testament, the revelation through Christ, and the growing New Testament.
2. Christians could confront Roman culture and be untouched by its inner weakness, including its relativism and syncretism.
3. Roman hump-backed bridge, like Roman culture, could only stand if not subjected to overwhelming pressures.
IV. Rome: Eventual Decline and Fall
A. Growth of taste for cruelty.
B. Decadence seen in rampant sexuality and lust for violence.
C. General apathy, as seen in decline in artistic creativity.
D. Economic decline, more expensive government, and tighter centralization.
E. Successful barbarian invasions because of internal rot.
There is no foundation strong enough for society or the individual life within the realm of finiteness and beginning from Man alone as autonomous.
1. Dr. Schaeffer claims that, through looking at history, we can see how presuppositions determine events. Does his discussion bear this out and, if so, how?
2. How can a survey of Roman history in one-half hour be either useful or responsible? Discuss.
3. “History does not repeat itself.” —The parallels between the history of Rome and the twentieth century West are many and obvious.” How may these statements be reconciled?
Key Events and Persons
Julius Caesar: 100-44 B.C.
Augustus Caesar (Octavian): 63 B.C.-A.D. 14
Declared Pontifex Maximus: 12 B.C.
Diocletian: (Emperor) A.D. 284-305
Here, as in succeeding suggestions for further study, it will be assumed that if you want to devote a great deal of time to a topic you can consult a library or a good bookstore. Suggestions given below are made on the basis of relevance to the text, readability, and availability.
Not all the books will necessarily agree at all—or in all details—with Dr. Schaeffer’s presentation. But as in the general conduct of life, so in matters of the mind, one must learn to discriminate. If you avoid reading things with which you disagree, you will be naive about what most of the world thinks. On the other hand, if you read everything—but without a critical mind—you will end up accepting by default all that the world (and especially your own moment of history) thinks.
J.P.V.D. Balsdon, Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome (1969).
E.M. Blaiklock, The Christian in Pagean Society (1956).
Samuel Dill, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire (1962).
E.M.B. Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (1970).
Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans: A Selection (1972).
Virgil, The Aeneid (1965).
Film: Fellini, Satyricon (1969).
In about A.D. 60, a Jew who was a Christian and who also knew the Greek and Roman thinking of his day wrote a letter to those who lived in Rome. Previously, he had said the same things to Greek thinkers while speaking on Mars Hill in Athens. He had spoken with the Acropolis above him and the ancient marketplace below him, in the place wherethe thinkers of Athens met for discussion. A plaque marks that spot today and gives his talk in the common Greek spoken in his day. He was interrupted in his talk in Athens, but his Letter to the Romans gives us without interruption what he had to say to the thinking people of that period.
He said that the integration points of the Greek and Roman world view were not enough to answer the questions posed either by the existence of the universe and its form, or by the uniqueness of man. He said that they deserved judgment because they knew that they did not have an adequate answer to the questions raised by the universe or by the existence of man, and yet they refused, they suppressed, that which is the answer. To quote his letter:
The retribution of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Because that which is known of God is evident within them [that is, the uniqueness of man in contrast to non-man], for God made it evident to them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived by the things that are made [that is, the existence of the universe and its form], even his eternal power and divinity; so that they are without excuse. [Roman 1:18ff.]
Here he is saying that the universe and its form and the mannishness of man speak the same truth that the Bible gives in greater detail. That this God exists and that he has not been silent but has spoken to people in the Bible and through Christ was the basis for the return to a more fully biblical Christianity in the days of the Reformers. It was a message of the possibility that people could return to God on the basis of the death of Christ alone. But with it came many other realities, including form and freedom in the culture and society built on that more biblical Christianity. The freedom brought forth was titanic, and yet, with the forms given in the Scripture, the freedoms did not lead to chaos. And it is this which can give us hope for the future. It is either this or an imposed order.
As I have said in the first chapter, people function on the basis of their world view more consistently than even they themselves may realize. The problem is not outward things. The problem is having, and then acting upon, the right world view — the world view which gives men and women the truth of what is.