How Should We Then Live? Chapter 1: Ancient Rome

"For as a man thinks within himself, so he is." - Solomon, 10th Century BC

"I think, therefore I am." - Rene Descartes, 1637 AD

"People are unique in the inner life of the mind - what they are in their thought world determines how they act." - Francis Schaeffer, 1976 AD

Within "How Should We Then Live?", Francis Schaeffer explains the course of thought in Western Civilization, evaluates it according to his Biblical worldview, and clarifies how wisdom should guide us into the future.

            "To understand where we are in today's world - in our intellectual ideas and in 
              our cultural and political lives - we must trace three lines in history, namely, the
              philosophic, the scientific, and the religious."

Schaeffer was a Christian theologian and philosopher who set up L'Abri in 1955 in the Swiss Alps, a community whose purpose was to study theology and elicit deep intellectual conversations.  He wrote multiple books about Christian apologetics and Biblical interpretation.  "How Should We Then Live?" is probably his most popular book.  Two others that were very influential were "Escape From Reason" and "The God Who Was There."

The book goes through multiple eras of history describing the important ideas of the day and what effect they had on the course of events.  The book starts in the Roman Age.  He could have gone back to ancient Greece, but rightly states that our world in 2020 has been shaped profoundly by Rome, and was itself influenced by Greek philosophy.  Starting with Rome was a sort of two-for-one.

Throughout the first chapter Schaeffer contrasts Romans and Christians.  On one hand Rome was great and powerful, known for its military conquests and engineering feats.  On the other hand Christians in the early Roman Empire were low in socio-economic status and susceptible to imprisonment and execution.  However the tables were turned when comparing the strength of the world view the two groups held.

Rome: Externally Great, Internally Weak
Rome built their society, I think, first on their ability to wield power over other nations.  It gave them security from potential threats like Carthage and it brought them wealth as they controlled more and more land.  However, that was not a sufficient base.  Like the Greeks they also turned to their gods to determine what was right and wrong, wise and foolish.

            "these gods were not big enough because they were finite, limited... the gods in Greek
            and Roman thinking were like men and women larger than life, but not basically
            different from human men and women."

In many ways they were worse.  Rome's gods amplified every human weakness in the their myths, and were therefore no real foundation for civilization. 

            "All their gods put together could not give them a sufficient base for life, morals,
            values, and final decisions."

As their society started to break down they turned to what they valued most, power.  Julius Caesar started as consul, which was an elected position, but made himself dictator.  The Roman Senate had proven ineffectual and the people wanted security, honesty, and justice, so they accepted, reluctantly at first, an authoritarian government focused on one supreme human ruler.  In their desperation for security, Romans citizens afterwards made Julius Caesar dictator for life.

One element of Roman dictatorship is something Americans of today should pay attention to.  After Julius, Caesar Augustus maintained his popularity by maintaining the outward forms of the previous Roman constitution.  On the surface, many things about the government looked the same or supposedly operated as before.  However, the Caesar's power was absolute.  His power extended over what we consider all three of the branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial.  There are similar developments regarding who wields power in the US today.  For instance, the power of the Legislature has been largely subsumed by the President and Supreme Court.

Christians: Externally Weak, Internally Sturdy
While Rome was having difficulty maintaining peace and order internally after external military success, the Christians were struggling to survive under Rome's cruelty.  Here is where the difference between the two was so vivid.  Christians knew God.  They knew Him to be personal and infinite.

            "Christians not only had knowledge about the universe and mankind that people cannot
            find 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."

One of most important ways they judged the Roman state was that it required all subjects to worship the Caesar as god.  That brought the two groups into conflict.  There were many religions that existed within the Roman Empire.  The Roman state did not have much conflict with most of them.  Rome persecuted and killed Christians, but not because they believed in their own God.  Rome killed Christians because they were rebels.

            "We may express the nature of their rebellion in two ways...  First, we can say they
            worshiped Jesus as God and they worshiped the infinite-personal God only.  The 
            Caesars would not tolerate this worshiping of the one God only.  It was counted
            as treason."

The first reason they rebelled was religious.  Caesars demanded worship that Christians simply would not give them.  This meant that Christians were seen as disloyal.  They would not uncritically follow Caesar's leadership.  The second reason they rebelled springs from the first but was more political.

            "No totalitarian authority nor authoritarian state can tolerate those who have an
            absolute by which to judge that state and its actions.  The Christians had an absolute,
            universal standard by which to judge not only personal morals but the state, they
            were counted as enemies of totalitarian Rome and were thrown to the beasts."

Christians today have the same standard by which to judge rulers.  Can we not make many of the same criticisms of the United States government that the early church did of Rome?

The Fall Of Rome
Eventually, Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 AD.  Then he made it the official Roman religion in 381.  However, the Empire mostly operated the same way as it had the previous centuries.   The decades wore on and the Empire grew in apathy.  Roman culture as a result became less distinguished.  The arts, architecture, and intellectual pursuits all faded.  Music became more brash and base.  The economy stagnated.  Monetary inflation was a big problem, meaning each coin was worth less and less over time.  More and more of the Empire's wealth was consumed by the central government.  The Caesar's didn't save Rome as they had hoped centuries earlier.

            "Rome did not fail because of external forces such as invasion by the barbarians.
            Rome had no sufficient base; barbarians only completed the breakdown - Rome gradually
            became a ruin."

Does any of this sound familiar?  It should.  Where will it end?  We can't know, but maybe we can avoid Rome's fate if enough people pay attention and redirect the nation.

Final Thoughts
Schaeffer focuses his discussion on the world view and moral standards of the two groups.  One thing he only hints at, but that I think needs to be emphasized, is that the source of the Christian's strength is super natural.  Having an objective and true moral standard is valuable.  However, there is more to it than just having a correct world view.  Christians believe in a personal God, and that personal God extends His strength and wisdom to individuals who have faith in Him.  Without God giving believers the power of the Holy Spirit, we can't live by that moral, objective standard.

            Philippians 2:12-13
            "work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you
            both to will and to work for His good pleasure."
God supernaturally works within Christians, but he also works externally to direct the events of the world in a way that benefits them.

            Romans 8:28
            "we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love
            God , to those who are called according to His purpose."

Because of the great benefit, rational and spiritual, that God gives to Christians, we see what happened after Rome fell.  The Church continued to grow, in number and influence.  If the early church could endure much harsher conditions than Rome, and still exist hundreds of years later after Rome fell, how should we then live?


  1. It is the "much harsher conditions" of past eras that I think about. Perhaps, as a body taken in whole, Christians are too weak (I could remove the "perhaps" from that line, safely I believe). Perhaps things will deteriorate until the strong center is revealed.

    1. I think that is part of what will happen as the vise is tightened. False believers will jump ship. True believers will be strengthened in faith. Much of that strength will be in the moment. "Give us this day our daily bread" is a principle that I think holds for this subject as well.

  2. "maybe we can avoid Rome's fate if enough people pay attention and redirect the nation."

    I'm not excited about saving Rome; I'm looking forward to a return of a politically decentralized Christendom. Good write up though. I enjoyed it!

    1. ATL, I agree with your ideal state, but would like to avoid a Fall like Rome's.

      Thanks for commenting!


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