Reviewed by Daniel Westberg
In considering Canada's contribution to twentieth-century intellectual life, one might think of the novels of Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies, or the literary criticism of Northrop Frye, or even the flashy insights of Marshall McLuhan. For some, there might be the philosophy of Charles Taylor. In terms of actual impact on Canadian intellectuals in the last generation, however, it is George Grant who looms as a major figure. He deserves to be better known in the United States, especially to readers of First Things. And the recent biography by William Christian is a major contribution to furthering the public's acquaintance with Grant's personality, career, and thought.
George Grant was a professor of philosophy (mostly at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario) who had a wide audience through his public lectures and contributions to mass circulation magazines. He disliked the narrow analytic approach of his discipline and ignored fashionable trends in favor of the grand picture. Grant was a Christian, a deep thinker, even something of a mystic, and a commentator with insight into developments not only in Canada but in the entire Western world.
One reason for his lack of recognition in the United States could be his reputation as an anti-American. He was vehemently opposed to the Vietnam war, and he put this in a larger context of a critique of American imperialism. In this respect he provided useful ammunition for Canadian leftists in the 1960s and 1970s.
False conclusions were drawn, however, about Grant's politics. As this book shows, Grant usually voted conservative, was an ally of the unfashionable John Diefenbaker, and throughout his adult career was strongly antiliberal (both political party and ideology). What Grant was opposed to was statist liberalism, mega-government, and the patterns imposed on modern life by bureaucratic thinking.
He was born in Toronto in 1918, educated at Queen's University (in Kingston, Ontario), and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Oxford during two periods interrupted by the Second World War. One of the strongest impressions on Grant at Oxford was the clear and forceful thought of C. S. Lewis at meetings of the Socratic Club.
In England during the blitz, and also in a time of personal turmoil, he had an experience of God (reminiscent of what Lewis himself described in Surprised by Joy). Grant was getting off his bicycle to open a gate; he walked his bike through and closed the gate behind him, and "as he did so, it just came to him at once, in a moment and forever, that all was finally well, that God existed."
Originally Presbyterian by family background, Grant joined and remained in the Anglican Church of Canada, though at times unhappily when church committees took liberal stands on abortion and euthanasia. A major theme of Grant's work is the relationship of mainline Christianity to North American culture, and this is one reason why he deserves attention: he offers a valuable perspective on American culture, from outside-but not very far outside-of the United States. He knew us well.
He also knew where to look for truth. Although influenced by Kant and, for a while, by Hegel and David Strauss, the major influences on Grant's thought were Plato, Augustine, and Simone Weil. Grant probably would be better known today if he had written the major work on technology or the freedom of the will that he once contemplated doing. As it is, his legacy takes the form of some powerful essays in a few slim collections: Technology and Empire, English-Speaking Justice, and Technology and Justice (the last two are in print in the U.S. from the University of Notre Dame Press).
William Christian has drawn on a large body of correspondence, and on personal meetings with Grant's wife, Sheila (who shared in some of Grant's projects, especially the anti-abortion essays). The portrait that emerges is interesting and well drawn. Grant had a flair for drama, loved Mozart, and was often unkempt in dress. Mainly what the book conveys, however, is a deep understanding of and sympathy for his intellectual contribution. Grant's convictions as a Christian were an integral part of his worldview, which the book convincingly demonstrates.
The author draws attention to one of Grant's important insights-that Americans have no premodern history to go back to. There is a pre- Enlightenment Puritan heritage, of course; but for Grant the Puritans were already modern, at least in the crucial area of science and human progress. The tradition of contemplation, of understanding and enjoying (here Plato and Augustine are so important for Grant), has had little influence in America by comparison with the assumption that things in nature are meant to be used. This aspect of modernity goes back to the sixteenth century.
Another theme in Christian's book is the focus Grant brought to the significance of the Roe v. Wade decision. Grant wrote of the position taken by Justice Harry Blackmun that it was not only "monstrous," but a warning to us. In that decision we were warned, Grant felt, that we no longer know in advance what justice requires us to do, but only whether something is or is not technologically possible. In this connection, Grant often quoted the words of Robert Oppenheimer: "If something is sweet, you have to go ahead with it."
Grant's antiliberalism was profound. He contrasted the traditional Greek view of justice, modified by Christianity, with the modern one:
In the pretechnological era, the central Western account of justice clarified the claim that justice is what we are fitted for. It clarified why justice is to render each human being their due, and what was due to all human beings was "beyond all bargains and without an alternative." That account of justice was written down most carefully and most beautifully in The Republic of Plato. For those of us who are Christians, the substance of our belief is that the perfect living out of that justice is unfolded in the Gospels.Modern thought, on the other hand, sees justice as contractual, as only a set of arrangements about which rational individuals would agree when they considered how best to promote their own interests.
The basis of Grant's critique is not a lament at the abandonment of Scripture or the effects of the Enlightenment attack on tradition, but a pointing to a deeper shift in Western liberalism from reason to the primacy of the will. Grant came to see this as the major problem affecting all of Western civilization. The West, he argued, has rejected both philosophy and revealed religion, and has now accepted purpose and value only as the creations of human will, as something arbitrary. Christian quotes from Grant's powerful English-Speaking Justice where Grant describes the darkness descending on justice in our modern era.
Grant shared the suspicions that many American conservatives have about the tyranny of big government, but he also extended this suspicion to technology itself (as the French sociologist, and Christian, Jacques Ellul did). And he applied his suspicion of social control by powerful corporate interests, and of the economic mentality in general, to moral problems in a bracing fashion:
If tyranny is to come in North America, it will come cozily and on cat's feet. It will come with the denial of the rights of the unborn and of the aged, the denial of the rights of the mentally retarded, the insane, and the economically less-privileged. In fact, it will come with the denial of rights to all those who cannot defend themselves. It will come in the name of the cost-benefit analysis of human life.The contribution of George Grant's thought to North Americans is to provide a much broader context of concern than immediate political issues. The atmosphere of doom and gloom in his work (Charles Taylor described Grant in a Canadian Encyclopedia entry as "a brooding philosopher of apparently implacable pessimism") is not meant to engender hopelessness but rather an understanding of the dangers inherent in the future of Western culture if it does not undergo a change of direction.
This biography shows us not only the philosopher behind Grant's characteristically pessimistic views, but also brings out the positive side, his Christian faith. On one occasion, after a public lecture, someone asked him why he was being so pessimistic. Exasperated, Grant replied: "I'm not being pessimistic at all. I think God will eventually destroy this technological civilization. I'm very optimistic about that."