A review by Alison Sailer Bennett of How Should We Then Live? (The Enlightenment)

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How Should We Then Live – Episode 3 – The Renaissance | Francis Schaeffe…

    January 8, 2011 · 2:51 am

How Should We Then Live? (The Enlightenment)

This chapter on the Enlightenment is short but a good introduction to what will soon follow. Francis Schaeffer begins by comparing the English and French Revolutions. He argues that the English Revolution (1668), known by historians as the “Bloodless Revolution,” was relatively painless because of its Reformation base. When the French attempted to reproduce what the English accomplished, however, the result was the Reign of Terror and Napoleon.

Voltaire, the “father of Enlightenment,” was greatly influenced by the English Revolution but his utopian dream was in total antithesis to the Reformation principles. Enlightenment philosophy could be summed up in five words: reason, nature, happiness, progress, and liberty. To the Enlightenment thinkers, humans and society were perfectible and this was the ultimate fruition of Renaissance humanism. The French romantically held to these ideals even as they waited for their turn at the guillotine.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment were deists. They believed that God created the world but had no subsequent contact with it and therefore demanded nothing from his creation. To make their outlook clear, the French changed their calendar to mark the year 1792 as “year one,” suggested the destruction of the cathedral at Chartres, and proclaimed the goddess of Reason in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and in other churches. France produced its own Declaration of the Rights of Man thirteen years after the American Declaration of Independence. It took two years to draft this constitution, and within a year it was a dead letter (albeit the American document was drafted on the same Enlightenment principles).

Because the French pushed aside the Christian heritage and had nothing to rest upon, their system collapsed. The destruction came not from outside the system – it was produced by the system. Like the Russian Revolution, France had only two options – anarchy or repression. Schaeffer also points out the difference between what countries founded on Christianity accomplished and what communism can produce only through power, materialism, and repressive laws. “No place with a communistic base has produced freedom of the kind brought forth under the Reformation in northern Europe.”

Ultimately, what caused the collapse of Enlightenment principles was the fact that humanism has no foundation for morality. Because God and the universe are impersonal existences, morals are private and arbitrary. It is only on the grounds of biblical absolutes that we can truly judge right and wrong. As Schaeffer puts it, “these matters are not just theoretical but eminently practical, as can be seen from the results produced in England and the United States in contract to those produced in France at the time of the Enlightenment, and later in Russia.”

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