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Summary: There is abundant evidence, at least in the eyes of some observers, that Western civilization is undergoing a collapse. In fact, it already may have collapsed. That war, brutality, coercion, and immorality are on the rise is not in dispute. But what are we to make of this? Some view these as signs of civilizational collapse; others take them as evidence of progress. Who is right? The answer must be found in the more foundational philosophical discipline of ethics.

What is it that makes for a great writer or thinker? One could spend a great deal of time arguing this question. Many would hold the test of time to be an important criterion. Does an author’s work remain relevant ten, twenty or a hundred years after publication, or does time, like an ever rolling stream, bear all its import away? By this standard alone, the work of Gordon Clark achieves greatness. Reading through this section of chapter 2, the relevance of Clark’s work to our current day situation in the West is obvious. In his 2005 forward to the Trinity Foundation edition of A Christian View of Men and Things (CVMT), John Robbins observed, “Although it is now more than fifty years old, A Christian View of Men and Things is as timely as it was in 1952 [the year CVMT was first published], perhaps even more timely, for the crisis of our age has deepened, and the solution to that crisis has not changed.”

In Chapter 2 of CVMT under the heading “An Appraisal”, Clark walks the reader through contemporary evidence for the collapse of civilization. Working in ascending order from the most specific to the most general, Clark discusses the increase in war, brutality, coercion and immorality evident in the US and throughout the West. The timing of his remarks is worth noting, for Clark wrote CVMT in the early 1950s. a period many Americans fondly recall as a sort of Father-Knows-Best golden age of American civilization. A time when you could leave your house unlocked and not worry. A time when abortion was illegal. A time before anyone had ever heard of school shootings, LSD or the sexual revolution. In other words, the good old days.

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Clark examines the ideas of two famous and influential 20th Century historians, Arnold Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. Spengler likened civilizations to biological organisms. Just as living creatures are born, grow mature, decline and die, so too do civilizations. He believed that events in the history of one civilization could be seen as contemporaneous to events in another civilization due to their occurring at the same point the their respective societies’ lifecycles. Further, Spengler was a determinist. He held that the West – as with all civilizations – would decline and die. Nothing can be done to prevent this.

Arnold Toynbee attempted to sound a more optimistic tone. He rejected Spengler’s biological analogy and claimed that, while, yes, 25 of 26 civilizations have collapsed, this does not imply that the West is fated to follow their fate.

Did either one of these noted scholars prove his point, or is the jury still out? Given their methods, could either one of them have managed to prove his point? These are questions to ask while reading Clark’s analysis of their writings.

Finally, Clark offers his opinion on the state of the West today. Although he expresses disagreement with Spengler and Toynbee on several points, he is in agreement with them in this: the West is in the midst of a decline.

“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine,” or so went the refrain of a popular 80’s song by R.E.M. Armageddon, at least in my experience, is, and has been for some time, big business. In fact, I don’t ever recall a time when I’ve not been regaled with some end-of-the-world scenario or another. As a boy, I recall watching The Late Grate Planet Earth in a darkened church basement. The mushroom cloud at the end tends to leave a big impression on a 10 year old. The Planet of the Apes featured a famous scene with the Statue of Liberty half buried in the sand. Mel Gibson first gained international fame as an actor in Mad Max where he played a lawman in post-nuclear holocaust Australia. More recently, the financial crisis of 2008 has spawned a “prepper” movement, whose members, believing that society is on the verge of a major breakdown, seek to mitigate the effects of the coming collapse by making ready ahead of time. Dystopian films and TV shows enjoy great popularity with audiences.

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Although the study of history is currently a matter of great interest, such was not always the case. The ancient Greeks showed little interest in the subject. Writing in the early nineteenth century, G.W.F. Hegel stimulated modern interest in the subject. Karl Marx, one of Hegel’s students, developed a system of dialectical materialism in which the notion of class struggle took center stage. The fundamental proposition of Marxism is that the mode of economic production at a given time is the basis for the political and intellectual history of the era. Clark casts doubt on this assertion by pointing out that, while the economic organization of most nations until very recently have been largely similar (most have been agricultural economies), the intellectual history of these nations have differed significantly.

The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Frederich Hegel (1770-1831) is best known today for his dialectic. For Hegel, the world – ideas, religion, the arts,, the sciences, the economy, institutions, society itself (most of my discussion of Hegel is taken from The Story of Thought by Bryan Magee, pp.158-163) – was in a constant state of flux or change. This change did not occur randomly, but was the result of the dialectical process or simply the dialectic. The dialectic took place in three stages: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The first stage, thesis, is the initial state of affairs in a particular field. This state of affairs always provokes a reaction, which Hegel termed the antithesis. The conflict between the two views then resolves itself in synthesis, which as the name suggests, is a new state of affairs that combines elements of the prior thesis and antithesis. The synthesis then becomes the new thesis, which provokes a further antithesis resulting in still another synthesis, and so on and so forth. This three stage process is sometimes referred to as a triad.

Karl Marx, the best known student of Hegel, took the Hegelian dialectic and applied it to economics. In Marx, the conflict between the haves and the have nots was substituted for the thesis and antithesis of ideas in Hegel. Hence the term “dialectical materialism” referenced by Clark on page 35, paragraph 2.

Clark, quoting Frederick Engles, provides for us the fundamental proposition of Marxism,

“In every historical epoch the prevailing mode of economic exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch.”

Clark proceeds to cast doubt Marxism by attacking this claim on its own terms. This is a type of argument known as ad hominem, Latin for “to the man.” Ad hominem is not so uncommon a term as to appear completely foreign to many people, but the sense in which I’m using it may seem a bit unusual to some. Usually when we hear the term ad hominem, the word is used in the sense of “personal attack,” where one man seeks to undermine the credibility of another’s argument by means of character assassination. This tactic is more accurately called an ad hominem abusive argument and is considered an informal logical fallacy.

Ad hominem in the sense Clark uses it is no fallacy, but an effective means of refuting an opponent’s position. Clark does is to assumes the Marxists’ premise on history and then demonstrates that their conclusions do not follow from it. Clark writes,

“in fact, until the recent past all countries have been mainly agricultural, and the methods have been basically the same; yet the intellectual histories of China, Persia, Russia, and France show much greater difference than the Marxist theory would lead one to expect”…

Perhaps Marx could defend his position by showing that the method of welding in Russia differs from the American method, and that Russian welding causes atheism, while American welding allows the churches considerable freedom” (CVMT, pp. 36, 37).

Clark ends this section by crediting Marx with at least recognizing the problem of history and making an attempt to solve it.

 

 


 

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Summary:
Because it presents problems that we cannot ignore, history is a good place to start the study of philosophy. For example, in the aftermath of World War II different groups advanced radically different ideas about how to handle Germany. Some advocated severe sanctions, others held that a prosperous Germany was necessary for European stability. Both sides claimed that the lessons of history supported them. Who was right? How do we know? This leads us to the general problem of history: what law of history will allow us to understand the past and make some reasonable guess about the course of future events? In light of the stakes involved, this is not a small question.

It may seem odd to some people to think that philosophy has anything to do with history. Isn’t history simply a matter of accurately recording events that took place in a “Just the facts, ma’am” sort of way? At first blush this sounds plausible, at least until we consider the problem of recording all the information about even a single event. A witness recounting the events of a bank robbery to the police may report what the robber or robbers looked like, the time of day the robbery took place, whether they used a gun, the license plate of the getaway car etc., but even the best eyewitness possessed of a photographic memory would not report everything about the scene of the robbery. While he would report those things pertinent to catching the robbers, he likely would omit mentioning the color of the bank’s wallpaper or the brand of chewing gum he was using at the time. In short, the eyewitness would select the information he reports to the police. And just as a witness must select the details he reports to the police, so too must a historian choose what events to discuss and what events to omit. John Robbins made this point in his forward to Clark’s Historiography, Secular and Religious when he wrote,

“Every historian must make a selection and construct a narrative based on many principles, some of which he may not even be aware.” (p. ix)

Even the writers of inspired Scripture were not immune from the necessity of selection. In his Gospel account the Apostle John wrote, “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the would itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
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Section Summary: In light of the fact that there may be multiple, plausible philosophical systems and that limited time and energy make it difficult for us to adequately assess them, we may wish to suspend making a judgment about which one is true and use out time for something that appears to promise greater rewards. But avoiding choice is not so easy as it may seem, for the decision not to make a choice is itself a choice. The choice to believe in Christianity may expose one to ridicule from those who hold that the Christian worldview is fraught with difficulties, but secular philosophies have significant problems of their own. Further, if Christianity offers answers to important philosophical questions where secular worldviews fail, and if it does so within a coherent, non contradictory system, there is no logical reason to deny Christians the use of their more promising first principle.

In the prior section of A Christian View of Men and Things Chapter 1, Clark discussed the place of axioms within the context of a philosophical system. Axioms, he told us, are unproven first principles that stand at the beginning of all philosophies. By definition it is impossible to prove an axiom. If an axiom could be proven, it would no longer be an axiom. For whatever argument was used to prove it, that argument would then be the axiom. But while axioms cannot be proven, they can be tested. If it can be shown that an axiom logically implies contradictory ideas, that axiom has failed the test of the coherence theory of truth and may be rejected.

Clark now raises the question, what would happen if, after applying the coherence theory of truth test, we are left with multiple, incompatible philosophical systems? How, then, do we decide which one is right? Do we even have to make a choice? Wouldn’t it be easier to simple let well enough alone and get about the business of life?
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Section Summary: 1) The traditional first step for establishing a theistic worldview, proving the existence of God, has been a failure. The various proofs offered by philosophers and theologians are invalid. 2) All systems of thought are built on first principles called axioms. These principles are unproven and by definition unprovable. 3) But while axioms themselves cannot be refuted or established, they can be tested. For example, skepticism is a view based on the axiom that truth is unknowable. But when skeptics assert that nothing can be demonstrated, they themselves are claiming to know that knowledge is impossible. Therefore, skepticism is absurd. It refutes itself. Man must know truth. 4) From this it follows that if a proposition – a proposition is the meaning of a declarative sentence – or philosophical system claims to show that knowledge is impossible, or if it can proven that a system is self-contradictory, we safely can reject that proposition or philosophical system as false. 5) The view that a philosophical system can be rejected if it is inconsistent with itself is an application of the coherence theory of truth, which states that a true philosophical system must be non-contradictory.

In this section, Clark mentions two important choices facing those who wish to establish a theistic worldview: 1) where to start and 2) what method to use. For many, the seeming best to start a defense of theism is to prove that God exists. “If we can just prove to the world that God exists,” they reason, “then people will be ready to hear the Gospel.” This isn’t a new idea. Anselm and Aquinas both labored under this idea and both developed intricate arguments to prove to unbelievers that God exists. What may come as a surprise many is that the first attempt to prove the existence of God was not made by a Christian theologian. Aquinas based his proof for the existence of God on a proof first articulated by the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle. Clark refers to Anselm’s argument as the ontological argument for the existence of God and Aquinas’ as the cosmological argument. Although a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of Clark’s comments and this post, a few comments on these two methods are in order.
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Section Summary: Truth, contrary to what contemporary philosophers and theologians tell us, is a unified system. Although the unity of truth does not prove the existence of an omniscient God, it does accord well with Christian belief in such a being. Christianity is the system of truth in the mind of this omniscient God, and there is no room in this system for “truth” derived from any other source. Naturalism and Christianity do not mix. Divine omniscience and the systematic unity of truth do not imply that one must know everything in order to know anything. Partial knowledge is still knowledge.

In the previous section of this chapter titled The Questions of Philosophy, Gordon Clark raised a number of basic philosophical questions: What is the best kind of government? What is the purpose of life? Is there any distinction between right and wrong? As discouraging as it can seem to pose such questions – Clark points to the myriad sources of deception and distortion that make it appear hopeless to ever get a satisfactory answer to any of them – there is a benefit in asking them. Clark notes,

“Discouraged though one may be by this time and paralyzed at the immensity of the task, yet even the asking of these questions results in a gain. Throughout the pages ahead this point will be illustrated constantly so as to develop a detailed understanding of the matter; but the reflective reader must already see what had previously escaped his attention, that these questions are all interrelated. An answer to any one of them affects the answer to every other. And this is an extremely important conclusion.” (CVMT, 22)

For those new to Clark, note well what he says here: Truth is systematic. The questions of philosophy are not intellectual islands wholly unrelated to each other, but rather are linked together with the answer to one bearing on all others. For example, the political question “What type of government is best?” cannot be separated from the epistemological question “How do you know what type of government is best?” But while Clark is absolutely correct in what he says here, nevertheless many philosophers deny his point. One such thinker was William James, who, as Clark notes, stressed the disconnectedness of things. But if James is right, what hope do we have for regaining any stability in our civilization? The answer, it seems to me, is none. Or as Clark points out in rather understated fashion,

“It would be surprising, would it not, if social stability could be based on incoherence, or even large-scale disconnectedness?” (CVMT, 23)

One could make a good argument that the increasing instability of our civilization is due to the fact that the prevailing modern worldview sides with James rather than Clark. This disconnectedness shows up throughout our society. For example, I have long been of the opinion that the contemporary philosophical denial of systematic truth explains much of the decline in Western art over the past century. Modern architecture is unsightly, modern painting unattractive, modern music unlistenable.

In the case of music, I can draw on my own personal experience to provide a case in point. Back in the day when I was a music student, I used to play in the conservatory’s brass choir. One evening when I was approaching the rehearsal hall, I heard the cacophonous sound of a group of musicians warming up. If you have ever been to an orchestra concert, you know the sound. Before the concert starts, the musicians all show up on stage, each one playing by himself with the sound being something like a great roar. As I stepped into the rehearsal hall, I looked up and, much to my surprise, saw the conductor on the podium waiving a baton before an assembled group of musicians. The cacophonous roar that I heard, that was the sound of a piece of music. “Good grief,” I thought to myself, “if I can’t tell the difference between random noise and an actual composition, the art of music is in serious trouble indeed.”

In contrast to dissonant modern philosophical systems that offer us no hope – in art, politics or religion – Clark proposes a system of philosophy based on the idea that an omniscient God has furnished us with systematic truth. Clark writes,

“The discouragement, the reflection, the suspicion of the previous pages do not prove or demonstrate the existence of an omniscient God; but if there is such a God, we may infer that all problems and all solutions fit one another like pieces of a marvelous mosaic…

Instead of a series of disconnected propositions, truth will be a rational system, a logically-ordered series, somewhat like geometry with its theorems and axioms, its implications and presuppositions. Each part will derive its significance from the whole. Christianity therefore has, or, one may even say, Christianity is a comprehensive view of all things: It takes the world, both material and spiritual, to be an ordered system.” (CVMT, 23)

Good Presbyterian that I am, I’m not accustomed to outbursts of enthusiasm. But for all that, it’s hard to read Clark’s comments and not shout “Amen!” at the top of my voice. Seriously. What a blessed relief from the depressing nonsense you usually hear from philosophers. It’s like hearing a Bach sonata suddenly break forth from the midst of some awful 12- tone cacophony or a cool, watery oasis in a scorching, pitiless desert.

Clark continues,

“Consequently, if Christianity is to be defended against the objections of other philosophies, the only adequate method will be comprehensive…This comprehensive apologia is seen all the more clearly to be necessary as the contrasting theories are more carefully considered. The naturalistic philosophy that engulfs the modern mind is not a repudiation of one or two items of the Christian faith leaving the remainder untouched; it is not a philosophy that is satisfied to deny miracles while approving or at least not disapproving of Christian moral standards; on the contrary, both Christianity and naturalism demand all or nothing: Compromise is impossible…Politics, science, and epistemology must all be one or the other.” (CVMT, 23)

In my pre-Clarkian days I suffered from the false idea that while the Bible was authoritative in matters of salvation and morals, truth in politics, economics and science was found by reading real experts like Plato, Locke and Darwin. Nope, says Clark. There can be no compromise between the system of truth found in the Bible and the philosophical systems of the world. The Bible is authoritative in all areas of philosophical inquiry.

Finally, Clark ends this section by making an important point about the possibility of partial knowledge. Clark writes,

“The hypothesis of divine omniscience, the emphasis on the systematic unity of all truths, and the supposition that a particular truth derives its meaning or significance from the system as a whole does not imply that a man must know everything in order to know anything.” (CVMT, 23)

Suffice it for now to say that this statement has some bearing on the Clark-Van Til controversy that has plagued American Presbyterianism for nearly seventy years. Clark claimed that if a man and God held at least one idea in common, it could be said that their knowledge coincides. This is important for the reason that if God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge can be said to coincide at even one point, this makes it is possible for man to possess truth about God. God and man both know two plus two equals four.

Van Til, on the other hand, argued that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge do not coincide at a single point, because God’s knowledge of a truth is infinite – he knows any given truth, two plus two equals four for example, in relation to all other truths – while man can never have this exhaustive knowledge of even one truth. This means that man can never know a truth as God knows it. But if God knows all truth, and man does not know any truth as God knows it, this implies that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge do not coincide at a single point. And if God is omniscient, if he possesses all knowledge, this leaves man to wallow in complete ignorance. A depressing state of affairs, that. But then, I’m a Clarkian and not a follower of Van Til, so this is not an issue for me. To paraphrase Machen: I’m so thankful for God’s systematic, knowable truth. No hope without it.

 


 

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