Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Canadian Philosopher and the “Great Republic”

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, […]

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.

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.~ Excerpts from Daniel Westberg review of George Grant: A Biography (please excuse the First Things reference)

Having just finished reading both the outstanding Lament for a Nation and English-Speaking Justice, I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of George Grant until just a few weeks ago. Now that I have discovered his writings, I am astonished that American conservative writers have not tried to adopt his ideas more readily and more often. It would be a pity if Grant’s critiques of American imperialism (an imperialism that he derided not because it was American so much as because it was modern and universalistic to the detriment of his own country) prevented ‘conservative’ Americans from deeply appreciating and developing his ideas, especially now that more and more ‘conservatives’ (Grant denied that there were any American conservatives of any kind) have begun to appreciate just how corrosive to their own institutions and traditions “the empire” has always been.

Few, if any, modern conservative writers from any country manage to combine serious engagement with modern philosophy, an anti-modern and genuinely conservative impulse and a distrust of all consolidated power both public and private in such an eminently sober and inspiring way. He also has presented us with an unavoidable set of difficult truths: a technological society cannot really be conservative, decentralisation in an age of corporations will only lead to an unaccountable corporate oligarchy, and most people in other countries are not motivated by anti-Americanism but by the reality that they are not, and never can be, Americans (not anti-Americanism, as Grant said of Diefenbaker, but a lack of Americanism).

One indication that George Grant possessed great respect for America, even though he was quick to reject many initiatives originating in America, was his frequent use of the phrase “great Republic” to refer to the United States. I believe he meant this in two ways: one, that the republic was great in the sense that it was powerful and dominated the globe, but also that it retained in significant measure the unphilosophical English sensibilities and values that he found so praiseworthy in his English-Speaking Justice. Grant was more concerned with the common good and the need for order than he was with contorting his views to fit the modern fad of idolising freedom (in the grand scheme of history, liberal and democratic ideas remain little more than a particularly stubborn fad), but like the Loyalists who helped fashion his native Canada his contempt for liberals and liberalism did not lead him to disdain genuine political liberty when he found it.

What he found wrong with liberalism was the inevitably impious assumptions it must make for its political theory to make sense. Very likely, he would have found the current mania for prattling about “freedom” (to say nothing of democracy) a kind of zeal, “but not according to knowledge.” (Rom. 10:2) Advancing his critique a bit further, I would add that the liberal, who is invariably preoccupied with material concerns and judges things according to material successes, has a terribly distorted view of the place that death should have in life. If liberalism is the halfway house to nihilism, it is because liberalism affirms nothing metaphysical but hesitates to deny it outright–spiritual life is a matter of indifference. Because the liberal qua liberal cannot affirm anything about the metaphysical, death can be for him only a defeat and just one more obstacle to be overcome by human ingenuity. It is because the liberal, as a liberal, can affirm nothing beyond this life that this life appears as generally meaningless. Because of this despair, the liberal is gradually drawn towards utopian solutions and maintains a crude, barbarous faith in the perfectibility of man by his own devices.

Grant’s observations nonetheless leave the American of conservative temperament uneasy, because he unflinchingly identifies America and Britain before her as the dynamos of modernity, technology and “progress,” and he hardly regards this as a positive thing. If liberalism preaches a life bereft of meaning, Britain and America have been the choir. It is because America is such a dynamo and has risen to become an empire (by which Grant only meant the common-sense meaning of the term, which is one state’s domination of other states) that the heartland of that empire cannot really be conservative, in spite of the natural instincts of the people: the dynamism that has defined American expansion and near-constant mobility inevitably undermines any deep appreciation of traditions and history, and the empire needs that dynamism to thrive and strengthen itself.

The empire needs people without strong identities or moral traditions independent of the ruling ideology, and the rootlessness of modern life allows the empire to better mobilise the public and appear as a source of meaning and fulfillment for people whose real sources of meaning have been closed off to them by a culture hostile to serious or religious meaning. Rooted peoples with a strong sense of themselves and a meaningful identity will not embark on ideological crusades to demonstrate who they are, and they will recognise that these wars are not theirs. They will recognise that the strengthening of the empire is the beginning of the dissolution of their way of life.

Without that recognition, otherwise decent and sensible people will become cheerleaders for the engine of their own ruin, just as the old guards in Britain and Germany believed, at their peril, that they could exploit modern enthusiasms and masses by diverting them into imperial projects and overseas wars. Once the Tories and German Conservatives swallowed the poison pill of mass politics and sought to mobilise the masses through nationalism, they had already surrendered to the spirit of the age, which was a spirit intent on destroying distinctions, stations and places in society. As much as it is egalitarian, it is also technological and utilitarian, and technique and utility became the standards by which all other cultural values would be measured. The German embrace of Technik has had especially debilitating effects on the cultural and religious life of that country. In the end, those projects and wars destroyed the old, largely decent order and inaugurated the mass age, in which none of the old virtues could be taken seriously, much less inculcated and practiced.