How Should We Then and Now: Eps. 7-8 (The Ages of Non-Reason and Fragmentation)

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.

Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Eps. 7-8 (The Ages of Non-Reason and Fragmentation)”