GRANT, GEORGE PARKIN, university teacher, philosopher, and author; b. 13 Nov. 1918 in Toronto, youngest child and only son of William Lawson Grant* and Maude Erskine Parkin; m. 1 July 1947 Sheila Veronica Mary Allen (d. 2009) in London, England, and they had three daughters and three sons; d. 27 Sept. 1988 in Halifax.
George Grant is best known as a Canadian nationalist and a “red Tory,” someone who favoured a larger role for the state in social and economic affairs than mainstream Conservatives. His writings in the 1960s offered a new way of defining Canada that appealed to many who came of age in that decade and the next. The older anti-imperialist nationalism associated with the Liberal Party, which had emphasized the country’s North American character and destiny over its connections with the British empire, was challenged in Grant’s most widely read book, Lament for a nation (1965). It gave voice to a new anti-imperialist identity by proclaiming the death of the old. Today it stands as a classic of Canadian political thought. Grant was an influential writer and teacher both before and after this period, however, and his contributions to Canadian life must also be considered from the standpoint of philosophy and theology.
He belonged by birth to an educational and political elite identified with loyalty to the British empire and belief in its civilizing mission. His parents were the children of leading advocates of imperial federation in the decades before World War I. They regarded imperial unity, to be secured by a vast new federal structure, as the surest basis for a distinct Canadian nationality. Grant’s paternal grandfather, George Monro Grant*, an influential Presbyterian minister, author, and principal of Queen’s College in Kingston, Ont., helped to transform that institution into a leading Canadian university. His mother’s father, Sir George Robert Parkin*, served as headmaster of Upper Canada College in Toronto before becoming the first organizing secretary of the Rhodes Trust’s scholarship program. After being injured in World War I, Grant’s father, a historian with a particular interest in Canada, returned in 1918 to become headmaster of UCC, like his father-in-law before him; he held that post until his death in 1935. Through the marriages of maternal aunts, Grant was also related to two important figures: diplomat Charles Vincent Massey*, a Liberal, and lawyer and businessman James McKerras Macdonnell, a Conservative member of parliament and minister without portfolio in the 1950s.
While his links with these male relatives would come to shape his development, it was his mother, Maude Parkin, with her powerful personality and her ambition for her only son, who was the single most formative influence in Grant’s young life. He would later describe the family, dominated by her and his three equally strong-willed older sisters, as a gynarchy. Until he was nearly 40 and she was too ill to make sense of his letters, Grant wrote to his mother almost weekly, telling her his hopes and fears and seeking advice, approval, and some demonstration of love from this reserved woman. His sisters – Margaret Monro, to whom he was close when he was young, Jessie Alison, later married to diplomat George Ignatieff, and Charity Lawson, whose relationship with him was frequently stormy – would all play significant roles in his life.
When Grant was growing up, he may have seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious forebears. From 1927 to 1936 he attended UCC, where he was always aware of being the son and grandson of principals. A summer spent in Quebec introduced him to the politics and culture of the province and laid the basis for his sympathetic understanding of its nationalism. He then studied history and literature at Queen’s University in preparation for a legal career, with a view, it seems, to public service. In 1939 Grant was awarded a Rhodes scholarship for study at the University of Oxford. Six years later, in his first noteworthy publications – a pamphlet titled The empire: yes or no? and an article in Public Affairs (Halifax) headed “Have we a Canadian nation?” – he called for the preservation of Canada’s traditional link to Great Britain and support for that country’s attempts to maintain its global influence, despite the growing challenge of the United States and the Soviet Union. But the trajectory suggested by these activities is misleading. While Grant was still young, the influence of his family, important though it undoubtedly was, collided with his own tendency to non-conformity. By far the most important example was his objection to participating in the cadet corps that all students at UCC were required to join. He eventually secured an exemption as a pacifist, and from that time the secular and religious arguments for this position were key elements of his thought.
Grant maintained his pacifist stance through the first two years of World War II, despite his family’s expectation that he would enlist. He travelled to Britain in October 1939, a month after the outbreak of hostilities, to take up his scholarship at Balliol College, but was able to complete only one year of legal studies before Oxford largely ceased to function. He became acquainted with a group of British pacifists whom he greatly admired, and in the summer of 1940 he and several of them received first-aid training for work in an ambulance corps, an alternative form of war service available to conscientious objectors. During the heavy bombing of London between September that year and the following spring, Grant was an Air Raid Precautions warden in Bermondsey, a tough working-class district on the south side of the Thames that was close to major targets. In February 1941, while he was away from a railway arch that served as one of his shelters, it suffered a direct hit and was “smashed to ribbons,” with enormous casualties, including the deaths of several people to whom Grant had become close.
The following months were difficult for him, and much remains obscure about this period in his life. Under increasing pressure from his family to abandon his pacifism, he decided to enlist in the merchant navy, thus avoiding a combat role but not the dangers of the war. He completed the recruitment formalities and was assigned to a ship, but after a medical test, which revealed that he had tuberculosis, he disappeared from sight for two months. On a farm in Buckinghamshire where he worked for a time, he underwent an experience that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Grant sometimes described this as a “conversion” or being “born again.” In an interview more than 50 years later, he explained it as a sudden awareness of an order beyond time and space. “I just remember going off to work one morning and I remember walking through a gate; I got off my bicycle and walked through a gate, and I believed in God. I can’t tell you more, I just knew that was it for me. And that came to me very suddenly.” Therefore “I am not my own,” as Grant frequently put it, echoing St Paul. Rather, there is a “centre of human existence,” an unchosen reality, in relation to which human choices can be measured and defined. “My thoughts have never really turned from this central thing in any way. I can now give better arguments than I could all these many years ago, but that is still the central core of what I think about.”
Grant’s understanding of Christianity, one of the basic questions raised by his life and writings, is not easily discerned. He described himself as “a lover of Plato within Christianity” who belonged to the side of Christianity that is farthest from Judaism and Islam and nearest to Hinduism in its philosophic expression. And he sometimes quoted the dictum of Clement of Alexandria: “Some were led to the Gospel by the Old Testament, many were led by Greek philosophy.” But it was only in what he wrote much later about the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil that the outlines of his own theology would become clearer.
Grant reappeared at his sister Alison’s flat in London in late 1941. With the help of Vincent Massey, then Canadian high commissioner to Britain, he was able to secure a passage home the following February. He spent the rest of the war in Toronto, at first being nursed back to health by his mother and then working for the Canadian Association for Adult Education, which prepared radio programs for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He threw himself into broadcasting as a way of educating the general public for the responsibilities of democratic citizenship, writing scripts and a regular column and co-authoring 20 study guides.
Nothing about Grant’s enthusiastic involvement in the CAAE suggested any basic change in direction. Nonetheless, when he returned to Oxford in 1945 to resume his studies, it was – to the surprise and consternation of his family – with a completely new purpose. His focus was now on theology and philosophy, and his goal was to write a thesis for an Oxford doctorate, the dphil, and become a university teacher. He sought the advice of A. D. Lindsay, the master of Balliol and a highly respected scholar and political figure, whom he had met in 1939. The topic of the thesis, suggested by Lindsay, was the thought of John Oman, a Scottish theologian who had directed Westminster College in Cambridge for many years. Its purpose was to examine Oman’s treatment of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural.
Soon after his arrival in Oxford, Grant discovered the Socratic Club, which met weekly during term to argue the reasons for and against Christianity. It was led by the literary scholar and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, who deeply impressed Grant with his humanity and his clarity in debate. Grant would later describe the club as “a wonderful part of my education” that “helped me enormously.” It was there he met Sheila Allen, a British student who had worked as a nursing assistant during the war and shared his pacifist stance; they were married in the summer of 1947. Soon after, they moved to Halifax, where Grant had secured an appointment in the department of philosophy at Dalhousie University. With help from James Alexander Doull, a Canadian friend he had met at Oxford, who also joined Dalhousie in 1947 and was better prepared in philosophy, he began to teach. Halifax would be the Grants’ home for 13 years. Their first child was born there in 1948, and five more would follow before they left in 1960. The family spent two academic years in England, the first, in 1949–50, so that Grant could finish his thesis and the second, in 1956–57, on a sabbatical leave.
He would later describe his marriage with Sheila as “the greatest event in my life,” and he once told her that every year he had “sloughed off so much unhappiness by pouring it over you.” Herself gifted with a “powerful mind,” she encouraged him in his work, reading and editing his writings and sometimes preparing first drafts. He took great pleasure in his children, though concern about his ability to support a large family in a time of low academic salaries weighed heavily on him. Grant enjoyed reading aloud to them and playing games that sometimes involved wild chases through the house. Yet the marriage was often tempestuous, and the children found unnerving their father’s emotional intensity and the noisy quarrels that sometimes broke out between their parents.
Grant’s first important publication was a background paper on philosophy that he wrote for the royal commission on national development in the arts, letters, and sciences in Canada, established in 1949 and chaired by his uncle Vincent Massey. His discussion begins with the provocative declaration that the “study of philosophy is the analysis of the traditions of our society and the judgment of those traditions against our varying intuitions of the Perfection of God.” It goes on to deplore the popular tendency to assume that philosophy is a technical subject confined to specialists in universities, rather than an activity that should engage all manner of men and women, since they must consider how their particular functions in society relate to the common good. Contemporary academic philosophers, particularly in the Anglo-American countries, Grant claimed, were guilty of accepting and even promoting a false understanding of their subject as essentially a technique serving to clarify and promote the “scientific method” responsible for the achievements of the modern natural sciences, with no dependence upon “the theological dogmas of faith.” Little wonder, then, that students gravitated to the sciences – “if philosophy is merely the servant of science, then they are better occupied studying with the master rather than with the servant” – and that governments saw little reason to spend much money on their philosophers. “In some universities in English-speaking Canada, there are four times as many people teaching physics as teaching philosophy, and three times as many people teaching animal husbandry.” As if to rub salt into the wound, Grant exempted the Roman Catholic colleges and universities from his sweeping condemnation and praised the philosophical significance of work being done in other disciplines by scholars such as classical historian Charles Norris Cochrane*, literary critic Herman Northrop Frye*, and even economist Harold Adams Innis*.
Not surprisingly, some leading academics in Canada were offended by his unflattering depiction of their complacent secularism and narrow professionalism, and they hit back hard. His subsequent writings were in part defensive reactions to the stinging criticism directed at this essay. In a penetrating lecture written about this time and titled “Canadian universities and Protestant churches,” Grant spelled out his reasons for taking a critical view of his grandfather’s achievement in modernizing and expanding Queen’s College. “The minds of men in the atomic age,” an address to the conference held at Lake Couchiching, Ont., by the Canadian Institute on Public Affairs in 1955, sketched in eloquent terms the price being paid for the benefits of economic expansion in a mass scientific society.
Grant delivered nine talks on the CBC’s University of the air program in 1958, and the next year they became his first book, Philosophy in the mass age. The lectures were meant to introduce a radio audience to moral philosophy, and he clearly explains how the ancient idea of natural law differs from the modern concept of human freedom or autonomy. But much of the book’s appeal derives from his way of relating his basic theme of ancients and moderns to his observations about the life lived in contemporary scientific, capitalist societies. He defends Karl Marx and his followers against the patronizing criticism then common and acknowledges the power of Marx’s thought, but in the end he rejects it because “it does not allow sufficient place to the freedom of the spirit.” His analysis of modern moral language culminates in a chapter, “American morality,” that briefly explains the severe limitations of American pragmatism. There are few explicit references to Hegel in the text, but the influence of his thought (as Grant had learned it from Doull) is everywhere apparent and especially in Grant’s surprisingly “optimistic” concession that, despite the blight of democratic capitalist pragmatism, the young people drawn to study philosophy and theology heralded what might yet be “the dawn of the age of reason in North America.”
In 1961 he contributed the first chapter, “An ethic of community,” to Social purpose for Canada, a collection of essays edited by political scientist Michael Kelway Oliver and published by a group of “democratic socialists” that included future prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau*, to mark the refounding of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation as the New Democratic Party. Contrary to what its title may suggest, Grant’s essay is less concerned to explain a new ethical ideal than to clarify the character of Canadian society: its capitalist power structure and, more fundamentally, its mass technological culture. Like other modern societies, whether capitalist or socialist, it offers individuals a new kind of freedom and independence at the price of a new kind of control and dependence. Canadians have more choices as consumers but fewer opportunities for any meaningful participation in politics. They gain a greater sense of their own personal freedom but lose the relations to others which in the past gave significance to that freedom, and as a result they more easily surrender to passivity and a simple hedonism. Canada’s capitalist power structure gives this problem “its own peculiar tint,” Grant says, but it appears in all societies that have reached “a mature stage of technological development.” Turning from description to prescription, he censures his socialist allies as well as their capitalist adversaries, claiming that socialists in the past have too often spoken as if the interests of humanity were simply identified with more commodities and socialism was just a better technique for producing these goods and distributing them more fairly.
Grant’s Lament for a nation, which appeared four years later, attacked those who had driven John George Diefenbaker*’s Progressive Conservative government out of office in 1963 and brought the Liberals under Lester Bowles Pearson* to power. The crucial question, in both the vote in parliament and the following general election, was whether Canada should acquire nuclear warheads for the anti-aircraft missiles it had purchased from the United States as part of its contribution to continental air defence. Diefenbaker’s defeat, after his refusal to accept the warheads, was for Grant “the defeat of Canadian nationalism,” as the book’s subtitle proclaimed, and “the end of Canada as a sovereign state.” No longer did it make sense, he argued, to pretend that Canadians were building a real alternative to the American republic. Diefenbaker had come into office in 1957 on a nationalist platform, believing it was his destiny to revive a country that had been falling apart during the previous 20 years of Liberal rule. But his prairie-populist antipathy to socialism kept him from seriously considering the only formula – nationalism together with socialism – that could reverse the quickening process of continental cultural and economic integration. “Only nationalism could provide the political incentive for planning; only planning could restrain the victory of continentalism,” Grant declared. Those who celebrated Diefenbaker’s defeat, he concluded, “showed, whether they were aware of it or not, that they really paid allegiance to the homogenized culture of the American Empire.” Many, he thought, could not see what all the fuss was about, since for them the purpose of life was consumption, and borders (and cultural differences) got in the way of economic efficiency.
The more sophisticated readers, such as historian Frank Hawkins Underhill*, tended to brush aside Grant’s arguments as mere “family piety” and “nostalgic passion for lost causes” in order to reaffirm modern, pragmatic philosophy’s “faith in man’s ability to make his own history, which has been spreading from America to the rest of the world.” Even those who were sympathetic to Grant’s views, such as political scientists Gad Horowitz and James Laxer, often continued to assert what he denied – the possibility of a progressive nationalist and socialist future for Canada – and to attribute his denial, his “pessimistic philosophy of history,” to his allegiance to his remarkable family and its political faith.
Grant’s unorthodox conservatism, his way of combining fidelity to religious traditions with antipathy to the domination of Canadian life by scientists and businessmen, is the element of truth in any description of him as a red Tory, a label he himself did not much like. Without some understanding of this strand in his thought, much of Lament for a nation must remain opaque. In particular, his puzzling but fundamental claim that Canada’s “disappearance” is necessary but not necessarily good, whatever it may owe to his alleged pessimism or nostalgia, depends for its basic meaning on arguments not laid out in the book itself but clearly explained elsewhere. Only in footnotes that are easily overlooked does Grant point back to Philosophy in the mass age and the importance for him of “a classical account of ethics,” rather than “a modern notion of free will” and the implication that this issue has for an understanding of “historical necessity” and “the unfolding of fate.” Necessity in human affairs, he assumed, is largely a matter of the accepted opinions about what is good (those that are usually presupposed when “the individual” attempts to follow liberal advice and choose “his own conception of the good”). Since, as Grant claims, Canadians now shared essentially the same opinions about goodness as Americans, the conclusion follows that any new nationalism which might arise in the foreseeable future would have to be within the pragmatic “religion of technology” that Canadians imbibed from American sources as well as from the politics and culture of modern Britain.
An earlier generation of British Canadians had tended to believe the country’s connection with their homeland would keep alive “a conservative tradition that was more than covert liberalism.” This conservatism, better represented by Britain’s pageantry than by its thought, they imagined, would give Canada a distinctive national identity. But according to Grant, events had shown that this hope – the dream of his ancestors – depended on a romantic exaggeration of British distinctiveness. “British conservatism was already largely a spent force at the beginning of the nineteenth century when English-speaking Canadians were making a nation.” So, contrary to what most have thought to be Grant’s position, it was unwise, in his view, to rely on British traditions as counter-attractions to the American dream.
The book, he later confessed, “was written too much from anger and too little from irony.” Irony was necessary because the more theoretical questions on his mind in the mid 1960s were not well reflected in the prolonged struggle between Diefenbaker and Pearson. Sharp as the contrasts between these two figures were, the ambiguities in the men themselves made it difficult to relate them to the authors Grant was studying. Thus there is almost no evidence in Lament for a nation of his long-standing fascination with Simone Weil. (He was planning to write at length about her and had visited Paris in the summer of 1963 to collect materials for this purpose.) Nor is there any trace of his growing interest in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, which had displaced his earlier interest in the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the existentialism of the 1940s and 1950s. Technology, one of Grant’s major preoccupations both before and after he wrote Lament, has an important place in the book’s argument, but the question of how it should be understood is not addressed. Only the impact of his discovery around 1960 of the writings of the German-American political theorist Leo Strauss, then almost unknown outside a narrow circle of political scientists and classical scholars, is clearly visible, not just in two laudatory footnotes about Strauss and in Grant’s analysis of American conservatism but especially in his almost unqualified rejection of cosmopolitanism, in the form of “the universal and homogeneous state,” that is at the heart of Lament for a nation.
By the mid 1960s his circumstances and associations had changed. He had grown restive in Halifax, and his relationship with Doull, vitally important in his early years at Dalhousie, had become less satisfactory as their thinking began to diverge. Grant also wanted to be closer to his mother in her old age, though in 1959 he had considered an appointment at Claremont Men’s College in California. The following year he and his family moved to Toronto so that he could take up the position of associate professor of philosophy at York University, a new institution that would eventually be located in a northern suburb of the city. Before classes began, however, Grant resigned because of a dispute over the introductory course he had been assigned to teach. Because York in its early years was affiliated with the University of Toronto, students were to follow the same curriculum and take examinations set by the older institution. Grant particularly objected to the use of The spirit of philosophy, written by Toronto’s Marcus Long, which he thought “perverted both Christianity and ancient philosophy,” and he felt it would be unfair to weaker students to teach against the prescribed textbook.
It was now impossible for him to return to Dalhousie and too late to find a teaching position elsewhere. So he worked for a year in Toronto as a consultant to the editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica and wrote a lengthy review of religious and philosophical publications for its first annual volume of The great ideas today. He was able to go back to teaching in 1961, when he was appointed to the department of religion at McMaster University in Hamilton. It had recently been established to offer students the opportunity to study religion as an academic subject, like philosophy or sociology, rather than as training for a career in the church. Grant would serve as chair of the department between 1964 and 1967.
The first decade at McMaster corresponded with his greatest involvement in Canadian politics. In the 1950s he had been one of a small group of CCF supporters at Dalhousie, and in 1961 he had contributed to a publication (Social purpose for Canada) that advocated progressive policies. After the NDP members of parliament joined the Liberals to help vote Diefenbaker’s government out of office in 1963, however, he cut his ties to the social democratic party. His defence of Diefenbaker in Lament for a nation led many to associate him with the Conservatives, but his most important political connections were now with the student opposition to nuclear weapons and the war in Vietnam. Grant spoke at a major anti-war “teach-in” held at the University of Toronto in 1965, and the following year he addressed a large demonstration for peace in Vietnam staged in Toronto. These speeches and some articles he contributed to radical periodicals sustained the image of him as being on the left.
Perhaps Grant’s most significant political activity during his early years at McMaster, though, was on a different plane. His return to Ontario and the booming industrial heartland of the continent, after an absence of 15 years, was unsettling. Equally so was his discovery of the thought of Strauss. Evidence of its impact is his article “Tyranny and wisdom,” which later appeared in the collection Technology and empire: perspectives on North America (Toronto, 1969). It is a careful examination of the issues raised by one of Strauss’s most obscure works, a detailed commentary on a dialogue by Plato’s contemporary Xenophon; the response to it by a then little-known but influential French Hegelian, Alexandre Kojève; and Strauss’s polemical rejoinder. Grant aligns himself with Strauss in his root-and-branch rejection of the Hegelian politics of recognition which culminates, in theory, in the creation of a “universal and homogeneous state.” Like Strauss, he denies the claim that Hegel had truly synthesized classical and biblical morality, a synthesis that, according to Strauss, effected the miracle of producing an amazingly lax morality out of two that had made very strict demands. Grant raises awkward questions, however, about what it would mean to restore classical social science, as Strauss was proposing. Would it mean putting aside the compassion demanded by biblical morality?
This essay is the best evidence of what the discovery of Strauss meant for Grant, but there is a simpler, more concise explanation in the new preface he wrote for Philosophy in the mass age when it was republished in 1966. He now disavowed the progressive faith he had been questioning but had not definitively abandoned when he wrote the book: that human history can be understood as the progressive incarnation of reason and that all the benefits of technology can be enjoyed while still keeping all that was good in the ancient world. It was this view that Hegel’s philosophy seemed to demonstrate was possible, as his friend James Doull had persistently maintained, but Grant now rejected it, declaring that “Plato’s account of what constitutes human excellence and the possibility of its realization in the world is more valid than that of Hegel.”
In Philosophy in the mass age Grant had tried “to catch the popular moral language in explicit form” by sketching its historical and philosophical background and explaining as clearly as possible in non-technical terms the thought that sustains Canadian and American life: “that the age of reason was beginning to dawn and first in North America.” In Technology and empire he describes in similarly accessible language (apart from the article on Strauss and Kojève) the bleaker vision that follows from the position he had taken regarding Plato and Hegel. The book examines the sources and spells out the implications of the prevailing faith in technology.
What is this faith as Grant understands it? It is not the belief that all the applications of modern science have been good. Rather, it is the more reasonable belief that the kind of science which increases human power is, on the whole, helping us to lead better lives and “bring in the Kingdom.” Although this idea may now be shared by the mass of humanity, Grant concedes, and it may continue to fascinate some acute intellects when it is expressed with philosophical subtlety and depth, “the accidents of existence” and “the battering of a lifetime of madness,” he says, dragged him out of this common faith. Technology and empire is the consummate expression of Grant’s alienation – his sense of being “a stranger to the public realm” – and his regret, dread, and anger. In its mixture of the patriotic and the rebellious, the familiar and the abstruse, the passionate and the coolly detached, the book is perhaps his most characteristic work, and with the black cover of the original edition, it fixed the popular image of George Grant as Canada’s gloomy prophet brooding over a dying civilization.
He was evidently rejecting much of what most Canadians believed, yet rather than offending conventional opinion, he was able to make many people aware of their own unspoken reservations about a way of life that was rooted in the faith he was criticizing. By the end of the 1960s he was a celebrated public figure as well as an admired teacher and a prominent author. Grant had dismissive critics, to be sure, but also a large following in the universities and beyond. He had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1964, and between 1971 and 1980 he was awarded seven honorary degrees, including one from the University of Toronto in 1979, despite his uneasy relationship with that institution going back to the university’s decision in 1946 not to hire him as warden of Hart House because of his pacifist stance. In 1977 a symposium to discuss his ideas was held at the university’s Erindale College in Mississauga. He was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1981, and the same year he received the RSC’s Pierre Chauveau Medal.
In the 1970s, however, Grant had been moving away from the direct involvement in public life that brought him these honours. In the lead essay he wrote for Technology and empire, “In defence of North America,” he compared himself to a “scavenging mongrel” in a famine “who claims no merit in scenting food.” The name he used for that food was “Greekness”: not “progress” or “synthesis” or “revolution” but a particular kind of “return” which demanded scholarship like that of Doull or Strauss because modern assumptions are built into our language and thus into all the readily available and publicly respectable accounts of our tradition. Some of the most valuable insights of the ancient authors are therefore likely to come to us as apparently unintelligible or arbitrary assertions. There is no easy way to fill the gaps in conventional accounts and correct the distortions, which are imposed on us with all the weight of contemporary politics and science. In Hegel’s ambitious theory, history is the progressive process by which freedom and reason realize themselves in the modern world, and some of the most troublesome modern assumptions – for example, that history carries us upward regardless of our own efforts – are made explicit and defended. But one can abandon this theory, as Grant had, and yet retain a vague, unarticulated progressive faith or just the corrosive suspicion that human existence is always within time and can never transcend its given historical horizons in the direction of eternal truth.
In his Massey Lectures, Time as history, delivered on CBC radio in 1969 and later published, Grant addresses radical historicism in its most challenging and enticing forms. Like his earlier radio talks, these were meant to provide a general audience with an introduction to a vast topic: in this case, the thought of 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Grant claims that Nietzsche shows what it means to exist within the horizon of “time as history”: that is, the more or less unconscious assumption that everything exists as a coming to be and a passing away, that nothing escapes the historical process or can be understood except in its genesis and development. “History (call it, if you will ‘process’) is that to which all is subject, including our knowing, including God, if we still find reasons for using that word.” The relevant contrast to “time as history” is not the measured time so important in modern scientific theorizing but, rather, the Platonic conception of events in time as the moving or wavering images of eternal realities. The problem is what follows from the rejection of the ancient contrast between time and eternity. Objections to the Platonic forms or ideas as naive fictions, logical blunders, or disguised expressions of the will to power may flatter some with an exhilarating sense of their own liberation from “higher standards,” since the rejection offers them the exciting prospect of new experiments on themselves or others on the way to creating a “higher man.” But given such an unqualified freedom to be oneself, what becomes of that self? What can the “higher” now mean?
Focusing on Nietzsche’s distinction between “last men” and “nihilists,” Grant recommends the German philosopher’s diagnosis of our situation but not his remedy. The last men, who are the vast majority, perhaps, within advanced technological societies, having been steeped in the scepticism of modern science, may be content to pursue modest goals. They take their bearings from the modern doctrines of progress, which deliberately lowered the standards of human achievement so that a greater number could meet their demands. The nihilists, on the other hand, hold on to the negative pole of human greatness; they can at least despise themselves (and others) for their comfortable acceptance of mediocrity. But having been persuaded that they cannot really know what it is good to will (since all moral horizons have an all-too-human origin in time and lack any higher authority), they risk being paralysed by an overwhelming burden of meaningless choices. As the age of planetary politics dawns, the more energetic assuage their restless wilfulness by seeking mastery for its own sake.
Do either the last men or the nihilists deserve to be masters of the earth? This is the question that Grant wants his audience to confront. He briefly explains what Nietzsche says about the spirit of revenge against our limited, dependent, time-bound, thwarted, and imperfect existence and Nietzsche’s fear that it may spoil the liberation promised by modern natural science. And he outlines Nietzsche’s claim that this spirit of revenge can be overcome, at least among the well constituted, by a love of fate within an eternal recurrence of the same situations and events, without postulating any timeless eternity or ultimate perfection. Grant concludes with a statement of his own incomprehension: “I do not understand how anybody could love fate, unless within the details of our fates there could appear, however rarely, intimations that they are illumined; intimations, that is, of perfection (call it if you will God) in which our desires for good find their rest and their fulfilment.”
The difficulty is that the pre-modern understanding of morality as “a desiring attention to perfection” makes no sense if perfection, like all other values, is a human creation in time, with no independent, eternal reality. This problem is both religious and political but also philosophical. The beliefs and rituals that bind a society together, enabling it to confront questions of meaning and purpose, may be called its religion. The disintegration of the traditional religion of most Canadians, a conservative form of western Christianity, was the background to what Grant called the disappearance of Canada. The result, he suggests, has been confusion among the vast majority with modest goals, leaving them easily driven here and there by those with strong wills, while the latter are freed from the restraints of any traditional discipline of self-overcoming and left prey to the spirit of revenge that Nietzsche feared. How can one bring this situation of darkness to light as darkness when our spectacular technical achievements seem to prove that we are living in a more brightly illumined world than ever before in human history? What relation is there between the dazzling light of modern science and “the eternal fire which flames forth in the Gospels and blazes even in the presence of that determining power”?
These difficult themes are brought together in Grant’s most academic book, English-speaking justice, which began as the Josiah Wood Lectures at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., in 1974. After careful revision, the lectures were published in a small format by the university four years later. “They are now the thing I have given more thought to than anything I have ever written,” Grant told his Mount Allison editor in 1976. “They are certainly, in my opinion, the deepest writing I have ever done … and they say something I very much want to say.” The work became more widely available only in 1985, when it was published by other presses in both Canada and the United States.
When Grant is known outside Canada, it is usually for this book. The practical issue it highlights is abortion. He presents the widespread acceptance of abortion as evidence of the darkness that now surrounds justice. The final chapter considers the decision of the United States Supreme Court in the famous case of Roe v. Wade in 1973, which invalidated most of the restrictions that American state legislatures had placed upon safe, cheap abortions on demand. Grant says that this decision “raises a cup of poison to the lips of liberalism.” But he begins the book with the broad question of whether modern technological science still supports the practice of liberal politics: that is, whether our technological understanding of science is still compatible with the belief (other than as an arbitrary article of faith which wealth and power have made to seem self-evident) that equal justice, in the traditional sense, is due all human beings. There is, of course, a familiar history – the story of western intellectual and political progress from the Renaissance and the Reformation through the Enlightenment to the liberalism of recent theorists such as Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, and John Dewey – which suggests a positive answer: there is indeed a mutually supportive interdependence between modern scientific reason and liberal politics. This narrative, however, ignores the gradual undermining of the traditional belief that moral judgement has a rational basis and therefore also the belief that reason supports liberal justice. As scientific reason has become clearer to itself, it has seen more distinctly how different it is from the investigation of final purposes that underlies moral judgement, leaving our basic standards a function of will, it would seem, rather than of reason. Are we not then facing a “crisis of the West”?
Stated in such broad terms, the problem is one that many other thinkers have explained. What lifts Grant’s treatment of it above the routine is his devastating analysis of the most celebrated academic publication in moral philosophy of the recent past, John Rawls’s A theory of justice (1971), which was widely believed to provide the needed rational basis for liberal politics and morality. Broadly speaking, Rawls’s argument rests on a combination of some currently influential assumptions about human motivation and the working of social institutions and “our intuitions” about what is fair or unfair in human relations. Based as it is on these historically relative presuppositions, the theory offers at most, Grant believes, a systematization and “equilibration” of contemporary moral judgements. Far from providing any platform for the critical inspection of popular moral language, it modestly concedes that it is unable to bring this language before any higher tribunal; the crucial test of the theory, according to Rawls, is how well it fits our pre-existing moral opinions. In other words, it stands in relation to the moral language of a particular society at a specific time in the society’s history as one of its grammar books might relate to its spoken language: that is, it is able to explain a few generally recognized solecisms, but otherwise it merely abstracts rules from whatever is said and done.
This objection – essentially that Rawls provides a startling example of historicism simplified and carried to a higher plane of pure complacency – Grant drives home by a careful examination of the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Roe v. Wade. The majority opinion, written by justice Harry A. Blackmun, turned on the current liberal axiom that rights under a liberal constitution are prior to any account of the good. According to Grant, the opinion showed what was really being said about justice in contractual theories such as Rawls’s, which can avoid the revealing practical questions by hiding between the covers of bulky academic books. In fact, in his lengthy exposition of his argument, Rawls skims over the question of abortion, not letting his own reasoning cut to the heart of the matter – the humanity of the foetus and the reasonable expectation that an elaborate theory of justice will clarify real moral dilemmas.
Grant had first used the question of abortion to illustrate the difference between traditional natural law and a utilitarian morality of convenience and convention in Philosophy in the mass age. According to the traditional view, as he explained it there, morality was a matter of actualizing an unchanging law, which he called “the reason and will of God.” The increasing acceptance of abortion showed, he thought, how far most people had departed from the constraints of natural law or any fixed standards of right and wrong in favour of the view that our moral standards are ultimately no more than the conventions of a particular society. As early as 1959 Grant could write that “most people are now brought up in a world where this moral relativity has become the tradition.”
In brief articles in several widely read publications in the 1970s and 1980s, he and his wife, Sheila, expressed their dissent from the prevailing moral scepticism and its practical consequences with respect to euthanasia as well as abortion. This position made Grant in some ways a more controversial figure than he had been earlier, for his views on Canadian independence and American imperialism had put him on the left in public debate, where he was protected by the aura of progressive good sense that surrounds the moderate democratic left. By contrast, his opposition to “abortion reform” placed him distinctly to the right of the moderate consensus, which held that abortion, though never desirable in itself, is a woman’s right and is sometimes necessary for her mental, physical, or social health. But he did not shrink from using the controversy to show the significance of technology for moral philosophy.
For Grant, technology was the antithesis of the kind of thinking demanded by questions about final purposes. The word itself had become a key term in his vocabulary in the 1960s when he was reading Heidegger and the French sociologist Jacques Ellul, but his use of it is closely related to his earlier observations about contemporary education. Not surprisingly, given his family background, Grant had always had a strong interest in this subject. There is some evidence of his enthusiasm as a young man for the educational writings of John Dewey and another American philosopher, William James, but in the 1950s he wrote and spoke frequently against the pragmatic “progressive” education then in vogue. He condemned it for aiming no higher than to prepare young people to slip smoothly into some specialized routine within the “productive” part of society, thus dealing with students “like a farmer organizing his cows.”
Such training, in Grant’s view, is no real education, for by treating knowledge as simply a means, it implicitly denies the possibility that learning could be the way for “free rational beings” to escape the shadow-filled cave of their own and others’ imaginings “into the sunlight which is the radiance of God.” “Technology,” as the most revealing word for the pragmatic education that preserves the darkness of the cave, is not, as Ellul maintained, the aggregate of techniques (devices, machines, routines, and so on) that has become autonomous and now threatens to elude human control. To think of technology in this way, as something outside ourselves, is to miss its essence. At bottom, as Heidegger said, it is nothing technical. Its real significance is most easily grasped by considering the new paradigm of knowledge that resulted from the fateful union of knowing and making, which arose centuries ago from the discrediting (or perhaps, as Heidegger argued, the fulfilment) of ancient science and metaphysics. Technology is expressed today in the doctrine that “ideas are true insofar as they help men manipulate their natural environment.” When this doctrine and its achievements dominate the education and thinking of a society, they narrow vision and constrain thought, making it almost impossible to reason about anything beyond the limits of a science whose hard core is the adaption of means to given ends. Technology then becomes, in a sense, the religion of such a society and potentially the religion of the whole world, as western techniques and the education they require are exported to developing countries.
In his writings in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly Philosophy in the mass age, Grant had raised the question of why the modern spirit – “the religion of technology and progress” – had first arisen in Europe rather than in China or India, and he had outlined an explanation: the penetration of European civilization by a form of Judaism – namely, Christianity – with a distinctive conception of Providence. The western understanding of time as history is rooted in the image of divine power found in the Bible. It reveals a divine person – “a God of will” – who continually but unpredictably intervenes in the affairs of humans in order to bring about their salvation. The secularization of this vision through the gradual development of a sense of rational human freedom and autonomy in the face of both objectified nature and divine revelation yields “the futuristic spirit of progress in which events are shaped by the will of man.”
During his early years at McMaster, Grant had hoped that students in the department of religion would be shown alternatives to this modern secular faith. Unfortunately, the tension between his vision of the department and the norms of the modern university eventually erupted in a bitter quarrel with his colleagues, resulting in his move back to Dalhousie in 1980. In newspaper accounts of this dispute, including one in the Globe and Mail (Toronto) written by Grant himself, it appeared to be an instance of “the battle between teaching and research.” Should university professors, who are presumably being paid to teach, spend so much of their time on specialized research? Would they not be better teachers – better prepared for their classes, more attentive to their students, more available outside class – if they were under less pressure to write for publication? From this angle, Grant was the defender of Canadian teachers concerned primarily with the education of their students against American researchers interested only in their careers.
At a deeper level, however, the quarrel had to do essentially with the impact of technology on both teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences. Grant had little patience with the claim that the “scientific method” of holding the relevant “objects” – religious texts, doctrines, and practices – at a distance from oneself in order to force them to give their reasons for being as they are would yield valuable results that would be valid for all enquirers, whatever their subjective commitments. In practice, such methods get in the way of “dialectical” education, the “sustained and disciplined conversation” needed when what is being investigated has to do with matters of ultimate concern. Grant had hoped his department would be “the university within the multiversity,” a refuge from the subject-object framework, with its deleterious practical as well as theoretical effects. Teachers would teach, not a method and its results, but the wisdom of the past. When he was interviewed by writer and broadcaster David Cayley in 1985, he looked back on his efforts at McMaster as a failure. “I tried … to build a department of religion in which people who were inside the great religions of the world expounded the truths of those religions.… Now, through mistakes I made, it gradually got taken over by people who just did research about the great religions.” The department thus became “a home for the stupidest kind of technology.”
Grant returned to Dalhousie under an awkward arrangement that divided his time between the classics and political science departments. It was not conducive to either effective teaching or sustained study. He retired in 1984, intending to devote himself to his writing. In the previous decade he had discovered a new interest in the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the source of the evolutionary thinking that underlay German historicism, and he had planned books on the French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Heidegger. The work on Heidegger was to be a defence of Platonic philosophy against the hostile reasoning of the philosopher whom Grant (and Strauss) regarded as the consummate historicist. His health was failing, however, and these projects were never completed or even properly begun.
If Grant had had the time (and, he said, the courage) to write at length about Heidegger, the analysis would presumably have taken up the themes of his last book, Technology and justice, which appeared in 1986. A collection of six previously published articles and chapters, two of them substantially revised, it deals with technology more clearly and comprehensively but with religion more circumspectly than his earlier writings. The volume’s longest and most important chapter, a revision of a paper written almost a decade earlier, examines “faith and the multiversity.” Faith is defined, following Weil, as “the experience that the intelligence is enlightened by love.” The technological paradigm of knowledge institutionalized in the modern multiversity ignores – and, when challenged, denies – the possibility of such experience. How then can people of faith be educated in the multiversity?
Grant’s answer seems to be that they need to be shown a less restrictive conception of knowledge while being guided away from the now-dominant view of religious faith, shaped by modern philosophy, and towards an older understanding of it. In an appendix, he points to the close relationship, historically, between Platonism and Christianity and briefly explains the contrast between the modern assertion that man’s essence is his freedom and the Platonic understanding of love, freedom, and the good as intertwined. In accounts of faith shaped by modern philosophy, specifically those of German theologians influenced by Heidegger, the tension between scientific reason and revelation, rather than being mitigated, is accentuated. Such accounts may seem to do justice to the historical elements of Christian faith, but they may obscure its idea of eternity and its image of perfection.
Over the years Grant had suffered the lingering effects of an automobile accident in Barbados in 1970 in which both he and Sheila were injured. In 1986 he was diagnosed with diabetes. He had always enjoyed his wife’s splendid dinners, usually preceded by a drink or two, and though pleased that the illness could be controlled by pills rather than injections, he resented the limitations it placed on food, alcohol, and tobacco. He died two years later of pancreatic cancer. In the 1950s the Grants had discovered the isolated fishing village of Terence Bay, a short distance from Halifax. They bought a piece of land, and Grant and a carpenter from Dalhousie erected a primitive cottage where the family summered. The “thought of the mystery and holiness” of this place had frequently drawn him back, and he is buried in a small cemetery on the edge of the village. On his gravestone are carved the words “Out of the shadows and imaginings into the truth.”
George Grant had been a presence in Canadian life for more than 40 years. A “burly man with an impressive corporation,” as journalist Charles Taylor described him when he was in his sixties, he had a massive head and a shaggy beard. Even in a suit he appeared dishevelled, his broad front frequently covered in cigarette ash. He spoke with a resonant voice that reminded Taylor of an organ. “He leans into his sentences,” and the “key phrases explode amid a flurry of arms and hands.” Grant had a wide and eclectic taste in literature and loved music, particularly Mozart, once telling an interviewer that Mozart “must have had an eternal model; his music is like partaking in eternity.” Listening to the composer’s work, he added, was the only time he ever felt unfaithful to his wife. Though his outspoken views had made him enemies, particularly in academia, he had many close friends, including Manitoba’s chief civil servant Derek R. C. Bedson, whom he had known since their days at Oxford together, and Howard Brotz, who taught sociology at McMaster and had studied under Strauss at the University of Chicago.
His distinguished family opened some doors for Grant when he was a young man and no doubt encouraged his belief that he had a right to express his opinions, but it was the boldness and sureness of his grasp of the basic problems of modern thought that won him an audience. The clarity of his dissent from the premises of modernity also sometimes earned him sharp rebukes from those who were more trusting than he was. The combination of nationalism and conservatism revealed in Lament for a nation and in his opposition to the Vietnam War was an inspiration to some and an offence to others, not all of whom, from either camp, had much sense of his sources and reasoning. On the final page of Lament, Grant makes a cryptic reference to “the ancient faith … that process is not all” and quotes a puzzling line from Virgil’s Aeneid: “They were holding their arms outstretched in love toward the further shore.”
A great, even riveting teacher, not just in person, as many of his students have testified, but also in his writings, Grant is remembered as “unusually open to dialogue.” He is sometimes called a public intellectual in recognition of the clarity and force of his writing, but the term is misleading. Much of what he wrote is undeniably closer to academic journalism than to specialized scholarship. But the style was an integral part of his dissent from the assumptions of modern “objective” science, and his kind of dissent is not common among public intellectuals. Like one of his mentors, Leo Strauss, he was deeply at odds with the republic of letters. The neglect of his thought by some academics, though it may seem justified by the form his work took, invariably has to do with its substance. He was too existential for most of the republic’s philosophers and too unorthodox for its theologians and other religious professionals.
Grant’s most devoted followers seem to be political scientists and religious-studies scholars on the fringes of their professions. He is little known outside Canada and almost never cited by foreign authors. In English-speaking Canada his reputation has faded somewhat, but interest in his thought is likely to endure because of the gravity of the questions he addresses from a distinctively Canadian perspective. Among francophones, interest in his writing has grown. As cultural historian Christian Roy wrote in 2007, “The time of the real reception of George Grant’s thought in Quebec seems to have finally arrived.” Grant was indeed a great Canadian, part of whose charm was his awareness of the unimportance, in the end, of his own remarkable personality. Were he to have summed up his life, he might have said, “If I have seen something of the truth, that is not mine; only the errors are mine.”
The most important printed source for George Parkin Grant’s life is William Christian, George Grant: a biography (Toronto, 1993), which also includes a comprehensive “Bibliography of George Grant’s publications,” comp. K. M. Haslett, 450-60. A family perspective is provided in Michael Ignatieff, True patriot love: four generations in search of Canada (Toronto, 2009).
Grant’s most famous work, Lament for a nation: the defeat of Canadian nationalism (Toronto, 1965; 40th anniversary ed., 2005), has been translated into French as Est-ce la fin du Canada?: lamentation sur l’échec du nationalisme canadien, Gaston Laurion, trad. (LaSalle [Montréal], 1987). David Cayley, George Grant in conversation (Concord, Ont., 1995) contains Grant’s most important recorded interviews. Correspondence appears in George Grant: selected letters, ed. and intro. William Christian (Toronto, 1996). Grant’s published writings and selected unpublished lectures, talks, reviews, letters, drafts, and notes have been assembled in Collected works of George Grant, ed. Arthur Davis et al. (4v., Toronto, 2000-9). His article “The battle between teaching and research,” which originally appeared in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), is reprinted in volume 4.
Manuscript material is held by Library and Arch. Can. (Ottawa) in the George Parkin Grant fonds (R4526-0-6), the George Raleigh Parkin fonds (R5823-0-1), and the William Lawson Grant and Maude Grant fonds (R11505-0-3), and by the estate of the late Sheila Grant (Halifax), which is likely to be transferred to Library and Arch. Canada.
There are three book-length studies of Grant’s thought: J. E. O’Donovan, George Grant and the twilight of justice (Toronto, 1984); Harris Athanasiadis, George Grant and the theology of the cross: the Christian foundations of his thought (Toronto, 2001); and H. D. Forbes, George Grant: a guide to his thought (Toronto, 2007), which also contains a discussion of the secondary literature (pp.281-96). Shorter studies appear in six edited volumes: George Grant in process: essays and conversations, ed. Larry Schmidt (Toronto, 1978); By loving our own: George Grant and the legacy of “Lament for a nation,” ed. P. C. Emberley (Ottawa, 1990); “Two theological languages” by George Grant and other essays in honour of his work, ed. Wayne Whillier, 1990, which is volume 43 of Toronto studies in theology (98v. to date, Lewiston, N.Y., and Queenston, Ont., 1978- ); George Grant and the future of Canada, ed. Y. K. Umar (Calgary, 1992); George Grant and the subversion of modernity: art, philosophy, politics, religion, and education, ed. Arthur Davis (Toronto, 1996); and Une pensée libérale, critique ou conservatrice?: actualité de Hannah Arendt, d’Emmanuel Mounier et de George Grant pour le Québec d’aujourd’hui, sous la dir. de Lucille Beaudry et Marc Chevrier (Québec, 2007). R. C. Sibley examines Grant’s thought in the context of two other Canadian philosophers in Northern spirits: John Watson, George Grant, and Charles Taylor – appropriations of Hegelian political thought (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 2008). In Exiles from nowhere: the Jews and the Canadian elite ([Montreal], 2008), Alan Mendelson discusses Goldwin Smith* and a group described as his “friends,” among whom he counts Grant, his former colleague in McMaster’s department of religion.
Arch. of Man. (Winnipeg), P 6400-60 (D. R. C. Bedson fonds), ser.2, P 6415, file 14 (correspondence with Grant). Martin Heidegger, The question concerning technology, and other essays (New York, 1977). Marcus Long, The spirit of philosophy (Toronto, ). John Rawls, A theory of justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1971). Leo Strauss, On tyranny (New York, 1963). Charles Taylor, Radical Tories: the conservative tradition in Canada (Halifax, 1982). F. H. Underhill, “Conservatism=socialism=anti-Americanism,” Journal of Liberal Thought (Ottawa), 1 (summer 1965): 101-5.