This is the seventh regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? If you’re reading this series for the first time, it’s best to start with the project introduction. Today’s episodes are “The Age of Non-Reason” and “The Age of Fragmentation.” (This post was delayed from Saturday.)
So far, the entire How Should We Then Live series has suffered from Francis Schaeffer’s essentially monocausal view of history. Schaeffer has shown consistent interest in only one dimension of human thought. In his telling, the question that explains the behavior of every western society since the time of Christ is how much that community acknowledges the authority of the Bible, as interpreted by fundamentalist Protestants. When Schaeffer can squeeze some aspect of western history into that frame, he does so; when an element of history too obviously doesn’t fit, he usually ignores it.
This intellectual poverty is on display in this week’s episodes, which attempt to explore the mental life of modernity while barely mentioning the external forces that have shaped it. That is, Schaeffer never explains what made existentialism (or its intellectual cousins) attractive to so many different artists and writers across more than a century.
In these episodes, Schaeffer seems to be claiming that in the 20th century, western intellectuals, having tried many different intellectual systems unsuccessfully, simply gave up, as if they were single people tired of a disappointing dating scene.
That might be how philosophy works in the life of an individual, but in the life of a society? I’m skeptical.
On the other hand, several moments in these episodes suggest to me that Schaeffer understood the interior life of late modernity better than he understood the interior life of Roman, medieval, or early modern Europe. Other viewers may get a different impression, of course. But I believe Schaeffer intensely felt some of the key dilemmas of modern thought; they fit his own doubts and his own fear of a meaningless world. And I believe these episodes reflect much more direct and appreciative engagement with modern writing, and especially 20th-century art, than we have seen with the primary sources of earlier periods.
“The Age of Non-Reason” opens with Francis Schaeffer standing on a beach. With a stick, he draws a series of circles in the sand, crossing each out in turn.
Each circle, Schaeffer says, represents a holistic account of reality, produced on a humanistic basis. One by one, over many centuries, western philosophers attempted to replace each other’s ideas about the universe, working “on the basis of man’s reasoning alone.” They never found a circle that seemed to hold up against challenges, but they were optimistic that someone someday would. But in the modern age, something new happened: people stopped making circles. (Schaeffer erases the last circle with his foot.) “The humanistic ideal,” Schaeffer explains, “had failed.” In the modern age, pessimism about reason replaced optimism.
The first philosopher Schaeffer identifies with this shift to “non-reason” is the 18th century’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to Schaeffer, Rousseau insisted on absolute individual autonomy in matters of judgment and will—the “bohemian ideal.” Unsurprisingly, however, when this view was applied to a whole society, it proved to be unlivable. (That’s a favorite word for Schaeffer’s followers, though I don’t think it is actually used in How Should We Then Live). Rousseau’s individualism, paradoxically, became part of a philosophy of tyranny, concluding that individuals must be “forced to be free” if they defied the community’s general will.
This philosophy, Schaeffer says, led to the mass murder of the Terror during the French Revolution. And a century later, in the art career of Paul Gauguin in Tahiti, Rousseau’s romanticization of “savage” life ended in disillusionment.
For Schaeffer, Rousseau is the first and probably most important figure in an age of intellectual disruption. During the late 18th century, humanistic European thinkers encountered a fundamental tension between their conception of freedom and their conception of reason. By the late 19th century, the tension became unbearable. The unaided intellect told modern intellectuals the world was a machine and humans were merely cogs in it. Reconciling this notion with individual freedom proved impossible.
The revolutionary politician Donatien Alphonse François de Sade simply embraced total libertine freedom, seeing no moral difference between cruelty and non-cruelty. In contrast, Immanuel Kant and then G.W.F. Hegel tried to reunite reason and freedom, but philosophers following them were unable to prevent a division between personal values (moral “oughts”) and the mechanistic rational order of the world. In the 19th century, the despair induced by that division led to Søren Kierkegaard’s identification of Christianity itself with subjective personal commitments rather than with rationality.
The response of secular philosophers by the time of the 20th century was to turn to existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Jaspers, and Martin Heidegger identified meaning not with reason but with self-assertion and “authentic” experiences. And beyond formal philosophy, existentialism came to define many aspects of later 20th-century western life—particularly through drug culture, psychedelic rock music, eastern spirituality, and interest in the occult.
Twentieth-century Christian theology, too, embraced existentialism as religious liberals rejected the supernatural. Karl Barth attempted to separate the religious truth of the Bible from its scientific and historical claims. The Death of God movement, following the lead of Paul Tillich, attempted to separate theology even from metaphysical claims about God himself.
Schaeffer’s proposed solution to the modern philosophical dilemma, unsurprisingly, is seek the unity of reason and personal meaning in the Bible. Scripture, Schaeffer argues, is the revelation of a personal God who created the entire natural order as a rationally intelligible place. Through that revelation, humans have access to universal meaning that god-less philosophy has found elusive.
Episode VIII, “The Age of Fragmentation,” is the same story told from a different angle—through art, music, and literature that Francis Schaeffer identifies with the modern loss of meaning. Here, as we did in the Renaissance episode, we see Schaeffer showing considerable aesthetic appreciation for cultural expressions that he appears to condemn intellectually as un-Christian.
This time, however, I don’t think viewers are being encouraged to share Schaeffer’s appreciation. I think we’re supposed to feel repulsed.
The core argument of this episode, as I understand it, is that modern and contemporary artists’ movement away from naturalistic representational art, and modern and contemporary musicians’ movement away from traditional western melody and harmony, reflect the belief that there is no unifying, recognizable, coherent meaning behind the appearances of the world. All a modern human has are bits and pieces—an impression here, a feeling there, contradictory indications over there. The big picture of the cosmos has been lost. In other words, art has taken the same turn into “non-reason” that philosophy has.
The result, viewers are expected to believe, is ugliness.
Schaeffer begins this argument with the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists of the late 19th century, arguing that their work, in which “reality became a dream” and then emerged into garish abstractions, provided a vehicle for modern despair to enter the world of art.
With the abstract works of Wassily Kandinsky and mid-career Pablo Picasso, modern art as an explicit rejection of coherent meaning was born; and with the absurdism of Marcel Duchamp and later the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock (whose work asserts that “all is chance”), the rejecting of meaning became strident.
This collapse of meaning had particularly severe—and unlivable—implications for the artist’s view of humanity. “Here,” Schaeffer says of Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon (pictured right), “man is made to be less than man. Humanity is lost.” (Considering the subject, I’m not sure Schaeffer’s gendered language has ever been more jarring.) Schaeffer continues:
But Picasso himself could not live with this loss of the human. When he was in love with Olga [Khokhlova, his first wife], and later Jacqueline [Roque, his second wife], he did not consistently paint them in a fragmented way. At crucial points of their relationship, he painted them as they really were, with all his genius—with all their humanity. When he was painting his own young children, he did not use fragmented techniques and presentation.
(I’m quoting this as an example of the way Schaeffer consistently implies that realism in representational art is a moral imperative.)
Music, Schaeffer says, followed a similar course.
First, Claude Debussy’s compositions created a path to “fragmented” music much as the Impressionists had done for visual art. The path’s direction became clear with Arnold Schoenberg’s work; “here is perpetual variation, but never resolution.” And the end point of this process was revealed by Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, whose music centered on chance and ultimately “sheer noise.”
John Cage was another one who could not live with his concept of a chance universe—because it does not fit the universe which exists. Cage was an expert in the knowledge of mushrooms. He himself said, ‘I became aware that if I approached mushrooms in the spirit of my chance operation, I would die shortly.’ His theory of the universe did not fit the universe that exists. … The universe is not what Pollock in his paintings and Cage in his music said it was.
Schaeffer then turns to literature and cinema. He compares the early writing of T.S. Eliot, before his Christian conversion—which “matches a fragmented message with a fragmented form of poetry”—with the art of Picasso. And he spends a fair amount of time on European avant-garde and fantasy filmmaking of the 1960s, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Ingmar Bergman’s Silence and Hour of the Wolf, Luis Buñuel’s Belle du Jour, and Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits and Satyricon.
Drawing partly on excerpts from director interviews, Schaeffer argues that such films—reaching wider audiences than modern painting or literature did—vividly depicted the absurdity and surrealism of human life if humans are only machines.
Once again, Schaeffer’s final word in this episode is an argument that conservative Christianity presents a more consistently livable view of the world than modern non-reason does. On the one hand, “the Bible is not romantic about man; man is seen as fallen …, as rebellious against God.” So the world’s chaos and ugliness are not surprising if you believe in the Christian account of reality. On the other hand, Christianity sees an essential order and purpose in the world, in spite of everything. To the Christian, “history is going someplace,” and Christ’s eventual return to earth will be “the final solution” to the world’s problems.
I want to stick as much as possible to my own disciplinary training, so in evaluating these episodes, I won’t have much to say here about Francis Schaeffer’s views on 20th-century philosophy and art as such. I’ll leave that to others.
I am struck, however, by the seriousness with which Schaeffer approached his task, relative to what one might expect from a fundamentalist preacher of his generation. For all my disappointment at the questionable historical approach Schaeffer took to many different topics throughout this series, I am convinced he was trying to take (some) of the key philosophical and cultural issues of his own day seriously.
It’s very difficult to imagine most of Schaeffer’s evangelical contemporaries even attempting to engage in a conversation with modern high culture in the way he did in these two episodes. Accordingly, it’s easy to see why Schaeffer attained the odd celebrity status he did in the late 1960s, as I documented in the first post of this blog series.
Just as the Renaissance episode did, Episodes VII and VIII show why young evangelicals (and even some outsiders to the evangelical movement) found Schaeffer’s work galvanizing.
From a historical standpoint, however, I’m left wishing that Schaeffer had attempted to take equally seriously the contexts of the philosophies and cultural forms he critiqued in these episodes.
I don’t think we can understand Impressionism as a project without grasping the significance of the Industrial Revolution or the availability of cheap printed photographs. I don’t think Picasso’s Desmoiselles is fully intelligible without some sense of the roles that colonialism and its anxieties played in European culture. I definitely don’t think we can appreciate the Dada movement at all without grasping its relation to World War I. And 1960s filmmaking in Europe is going to make a lot more sense to Americans if they have some concept of what World War II meant for the European continent and especially for filmmakers who were mostly in their 20s and 30s when the war ended.
Throughout How Should We Then Live, Schaeffer has treated western intellectual life as comprising a mystical “flow” of ideas in history. In his account, ideas just happen for no specific reason, or else they emerge in direct response to other ideas. They cause things to happen in history, certainly, but ideas are themselves historically uncaused.
One reason this matters: If viewers are going to come away from How Should We Then Live with a true appreciation for writing, art, and music other than their own, they need to be able to empathize with its creators. They need to be able to understand why modernity happened—to see that it is not simply an assault on their own values.
Schaeffer evidently relished his direct encounters with modern art. I’m not sure his viewers will relish theirs.
Because I’m criticizing a lack of context, I’d like to take an opportunity to recommend a new podcast that happens to be all about the immediate context of How Should We Then Live’s release. Week by week, Josh Levin’s “One Year” podcast for Slate is covering other events from 1977, “a year when gay rights hung in the balance, Roots dominated the airwaves, and Jesus appeared on a tortilla.” As I’m writing this, four episodes have been released, and three are still freely available to nonsubscribers. (The now-paywalled first episode, profiling Anita Bryant, is especially relevant to our series.) That deep dive into the America of 1977 seems like a very happy coincidence for this series.
The next time I post, I will examine the last two episodes in How Should We Then Live: Episode IX, “The Age of Personal Peace & Affluence,” and Episode X, “Final Choices.”