The George Grant Reader

George Grant as a Philosopher of Fittedness for the Contemporary Canadian Situation or Overcoming Our Self-Incurred Immaturity

In the autumn of 2016, the Communio Circle of the Diocese of Hamilton spent a study day on George Grant’s book English-Speaking Justice. In this follow-up piece, I’m going to outline one or two of Grant’s themes as they emerge in The George Grant Reader.[1] There was certainly a note of contemporary relevance in the discussion the group had on that September Saturday. As events unfolded in American and global politics later last fall, and continue to do so, Grant presents a challenge specifically to Canadians: not only to embrace a path different from that of their neighbours to the south, but also to think carefully about the content of that difference.

George Grant (1918–1988) was a Canadian political philosopher, outspoken critic of modern technological society, and defender of the potential political distinctness of Canada, especially relative to the United States. Grant considered the modern attitude toward technology to be rooted in changes in the understanding of reality (ontology) that began to take shape in the late Middle Ages. That change in understanding has precipitated an overweening confidence in our own ability to manipulate reality, as well as a forgetfulness of an alternative, ancient way of thinking about reality. The attitude of overconfidence, he thought, marks American culture in a particular way. He would have Canada pursue a different path, though he had no illusions about the general modern susceptibility to such arrogance and collective self-deception.

One of the most stimulating aspects of an encounter with Grant is his thoughtful appraisal of what Canada’s place in the world might look like. A reader with a passing acquaintance with Grant might automatically associate this theme with his best-known book, Lament for a Nation (1965). On a popular level, this book was received as a plea for independence from American influence, which plays out regularly in trivial ways. Such an account does not do justice either to the thoughtfulness of Lament or to Grant’s thinking about Canada in the world.

In Lament, Grant’s philosophical concerns are on show: the mastery of non-human and human nature; how the fact-value split necessarily entails homogenization and the loss of “local cultures” (79). He identifies Canada as trying to preserve conservation “in the age of progress” (79), where by conservatism he means platonic respect for limits and for teleological fittingness, a theme I’ll develop below. His identification of a Canadian urge to preserve conservatism looks increasingly remote and difficult to resurrect.

For Grant, Canada’s identity revolves around the balance it seeks between the rights of individuals and the good of society. Order (a good of society) was maintained, even in the opening of the West (when the opportunities for free-wheeling individualism were high). In terms of their social visions, the U.S. puts considerable weight on the individual, while Canada seeks a different balance. Grant does not say one is better than the other; he says North America is better for the diversity in its social visions. Nonetheless, he does see the Canadian pursuit of conservatism as necessarily establishing a contrast between Canada and the U.S.: “As Plato saw with unflinching clarity, an imperialistic power cannot have a conservative society as its home base” (80).

In Lament, Grant articulates a distinction between necessity and goodness. He describes, then distances himself from, the notion that “evolution” or “history” necessarily brings what is better. He accuses Christians of embracing this error when they identify necessity and good under the rubric of providence. Grant is clear and direct: “if history is the final court of appeal, force is the final argument…. To take a progressive view of providence is to come close to worshiping force” (80–81).

As important as Lament is and as much as it might be perceived to be a hallmark of Grant’s thought, his early essay “The Empire: Yes or No?” (1945) lays out a vision for a uniquely Canadian position in a world seemingly dominated by much larger powers. Grant’s thinking is arresting in that it takes seriously Canada’s unique place in world affairs at that time. While the details are no longer applicable, Grant teaches us how to think seriously about Canada’s uniqueness and genuine possible roles. As a nation with a small population and chronic identity problems, he modeled, even then, how Canadians could think with political maturity.

The nation is now twice as old, but the mere passage of time doesn’t guarantee maturity. Its opportunities at any juncture need to be seized. But Canada still seems to think politically out of an identity crisis rather than a sense of its own vision. It can boast of increasing cultural visibility and the ability, especially under Liberal governments, to find itself on the sensible side of important collective issues – from the environment to immigration to the (at least apparent) refusal to endorse greed. Nonetheless, it is still an open question as to whether Canada has any definite political, moral, and intellectual vision of its own.

By the standards Grant would invoke, I would argue that its current successes have left it in such a state. However, by the same token, the present predicament, especially as it is manifesting itself in American arrogance and Europe confusion, does present an opportunity for Canada to declare itself for a radical “conservatism.” Such a conservatism would differ alike from the liberalism that marks the Liberal party and the reigning assumptions of current political conservatives in Canada.

In an environment (now) when all talk of “empire” seems bad, Grant’s take in 1945 on the post-WW2 situation is startling, yet practical for its time. He argues for the Commonwealth as a third power to offset Russia and America. He sees the Commonwealth as an “organization of free nations, cutting across regional and hemispheric boundaries” (47). He sees Canada both contributing to a strong Commonwealth and gaining independent identity as a North American state through its ties with the UK and with Europe.

This view might seem quaint, or at least dated. Yet the situation in America after the election of Trump suggests otherwise. Need Canada respond according to the binary played out by a post-truth Trump and a Democratic party that spent 1.3 billion to secure a democratic victory? Peering over the post-truth horizon, Russia and America look poised to engage in a rather different kind of axis of power than confronted the world and Canadian society in Grant’s day. Yet ought Canada simply to ally itself with European liberalism (assuming that Europe can pull itself out of its own sharp right/left confrontations in its various national elections)? Has not mainstream European thought itself drunk at the “post-truth” wells of postmodernism and posthumanism? Are not its intellectual elites, which control most of the media as well as most sectors of university life, as invested in power? Is it not the case that the unfolding American political nightmare shows to liberal intellectuals everywhere aspects of themselves?

My questions, especially the last one, are virtually rhetorical, because part of what seems to have been lost in our intellectual climate is the candour to admit error on large issues. We seem to have lost the capacity for meaningful debate, dialogue that might result in reflection and change of heart, perhaps even repentance. Furthermore, there just seems to be a great deal of confusion over what has been at stake intellectually and its deep connectedness to social and political realities.

Whatever the various political axes that may take shape over the next few years, Canada is being forced to think about its place in the world with fresh urgency. The situation presents itself as an opportunity for our mature reflection. It may be that the Commonwealth is no longer the third power capable of offsetting American and Russian force in the world. On the other hand, with so much of continental Europe in disarray, something like a conservatism based on an ancient ontology arising out of Canada’s ties with England and through England with the rest of old-world Europe as well as non-European old-world societies may be the necessary starting point for thinking an alternative politics that European or other states can embrace.

To think that ancient ontology requires that one first confront the present one, something Grant does effectively. It’s the same ontology that Pope Francis challenges in Laudato sí when he challenges the domination of nature and human nature to nurture respect for our common home.

In his essay “In Defense of North America” (1969), Grant takes a different tack than in his early essay on Canada and the Commonwealth. Here Grant acknowledges that technological modernity dominates all of North America. His approach is more immediately philosophical. He acknowledges that Canadians share with Americans a break from the past. The battle with the land, among other factors, forged the “will to mastery” (401) in both countries. On the whole, North America sets the pace for well-meaning bureaucrats “willing to shape the world to their values as do the corporate despots, the motivations experts, and the manipulative politicians” (405). The will-to-power is what concerns him and organizes his thoughts here, and he notes the complicity of Christian institutions. He calls Billy Graham a shock-troop for the doctrine of mastery over human and non-human nature (401–2); he blames Calvinism for supplying the human resources (402–3). (I highlight the Christian contribution to help make clear that the conservatism to which Grant would call us is not a matter simply of reviving religious allegiances.)

The goal of a “universal and homogeneous state” (405) as played out in America and Canada alike stands in stark contrast to the freedom of accomplishing what one is fitted for. The “massive assumptions of modern thought” have come to dominate all of North America. They dominate Europe too. Grant sees the theme of overcoming limits as best articulated by Nietzsche (though late in life he came to think that it finds first expression in Rousseau). In his 1969 book Time as History, he writes that Nietzsche “lays bare the fate of technical man, not as an object held in front of us, but as that in which our very selves are involved in the proofs of the science that lays it bare. In thinking the modern project, he did not turn away from it” (280). The fate of technical man is to be absorbed into a dehumanizing way of thinking that treats the whole of reality, including humans themselves, as objects for manipulation.

A careful thinker, Grant notes the enfoldedness of the commentator in the scene he would describe. One ought not to miss the indictment of Nietzsche here. Despite his laying bare “the fate of technical man,” Nietzsche is complicit in the project of modernity: “he did not turn away from it.” In his analysis of the influential German philologist and philosopher, Grant identifies his outlook as historicism, which he clearly links to the overcoming of limits. Nietzsche wants the people of Western civilization to “overcome its difficulties and fulfil its potential heights” (280). Grant enumerates the features of “thinking time as history” this way: “the mastery of human and non-human nature in experimental science and technique, the primacy of the will, man as the creator of his own values, the finality of becoming, the assertion that potentiality is higher than actuality, that motion is nobler than rest…” (280). These concerns, which substantially describe “modernity,” mark all of Grant’s writings.

The primacy of the will features prominently in this list. Grant elsewhere offers an incisive clarification of the meaning of the Nietzschean phrase “will to power”:

But in the phrase “will to power,” he is not describing what we aim at – something outside the will. Rather, he is saying that will is power itself, not something external to power. What makes Nietzsche such a pivotal thinker in the West is that he redefined “will” to make it consonant with modern science. “Will” comes to mean in modernity that power over ourselves and everything else which is itself the very enhancement of life, or, call it if you will, “quality of life.” Truth, beauty, and goodness have become simply subservient to it. (143)

Here he doesn’t elaborate on the Platonic alternative, though he brings it into view with the reference to truth, beauty, and goodness. He accentuates how the scientific outlook enables one to think in terms of “quality of life.” Elsewhere he will deploy the term “values.” However anodyne, or even positive, we might think references to “quality of life” and “values” to be, Grant would remind us of their link to “will to power”:

Everybody uses the word “values” to describe our making of the world: capitalists and socialists, atheists and avowed believers, scientists and politicians. The word comes to us so platitudinously that we take it to belong to the way things are. It is forgotten that before Nietzsche and his immediate predecessors, men did not think about their actions in that language. They did not think they made the world valuable, but that they participated in its goodness. (280–81, emphasis mine)

In this context, Grant is more explicit about the alternative, appealing to Platonism for the notion of participation in something given, and therefore to the notion of limits. With givenness, a recognition of limits comes over the horizon.

In contrast to the view of overcoming limits, for Grant the appropriate way to think about human potentiality is in terms of what we are fitted for. Grant’s chief complaint about Nietzsche, and about the assumptions modernity has accepted, is that “the conception of time as history is not one in which I think life can be lived properly. It is not a conception we are fitted for” (281). Grant will repeatedly set up fittedness and limits in contrast to “overcoming human and non-human nature.” Recognition of fittedness implies receptivity. Like “knowledge of the whole,” receptivity involves attunement to the way things are. This outlook characterized the thought of the Ancients, as opposed to the Moderns:

The height for man was a passion. In modern language we may weakly describe this by saying that thought was finally a receptivity…. If I were to use the noblest Greek word for this receptivity, pathos, and say, as has been said, that philosophy arises from the pathos of astonishment, the suffering of astonishment, the word would bear no relation to our present use of it. (283)

The opposite of time as history, then, is the view that “the absurdities of time – its joys as well as its diremptions – are to be taken not simply as history, but as enfolded in an unchanging meaning” (282–83).

To keep creatureliness and receptivity in view, not to mention an unfolding purpose, yields a different understanding of the role of willing. Perhaps the most positive place where Grant talks about a stark alternative to the will to power is in his reflections on the writings on Simone Weil, which impressed him greatly. There he talks about “the attention of the will,” and of the inner relationship between love and knowledge: “For it is perfectly clear from her own testimony, that her reading of the Bhagavadgita, the Iliad, and above all Plato and the Gospels were the very means of her receptivity…. In her the ways of love and knowledge are inextricably bound together” (243). Weil “stands unequivocally on the side of saying that the affirmation of the being of God is a matter of knowing and not of willing – that is, that belief or unbelief is never a matter of choice or commitment, but of intellect and attention” (251). Attending is not a matter of willing understood as the creating of values, but of knowing and of obedience. The will is involved, but is not coterminous with the overcoming of limits.

If there is one take-away instruction for a renewed conservatism, that is, a conservatism that actually avails itself of an ancient outlook, it is perhaps the possibility of virtuous action. When Grant is writing about the concept of justice, critiquing contractual liberalism in English-Speaking Justice (1974), he pauses half-way through to describe how Plato’s account of justice “might be sensibly described as known by a calculation concerning self-interest.”[2] As a philosophy one might want to defend differing from contractualism, this doesn’t sound promising. Self-interest? The Canadian philosopher isn’t defending naked self-interest as we typically think of it. He notes that for Plato the tyrant is worst “because his self-serving has gone to the farthest point” (464). Nonetheless, Grant does defend self-interest as understood within a certain framework.

In the passage from English-Speaking Justice quoted above, he goes on to say that “justice is what we’re fitted for,” and then this:

In philosophy we are given sufficient knowledge of the whole of the nature of things to know what our interests are, and to know them in a scheme of subordination and superordination. In this account, justice is not a certain set of external political arrangements which are a useful means of the realisation of our self-interests; it is the very inward harmony of human beings in terms of which they are alone able to calculate their self-interest properly.[3]

This description situates self-interest in the context of “the whole of the nature of things” and “the very inward harmony of human beings.”

If the depiction is apt, then a proper understanding of the nature of things and the inward harmony of human beings can once again liberate the human agent. In modernity, the sense that one only and always acts out of self-interest can make one quiescent; alternatively, it can make the agent (resignedly) act in brusque cynicism. On a more ancient understanding, virtue is not beyond us. On a more ancient understanding, we are liberated in the affirmation of our virtuous selves, and the desire for justice typical of those acting around us and with us. We may, individually and collectively, find we are capable of more goodness than we ever thought possible.

For the sake of emphasis and clarity, I repeat the point that the call here is not a return to “Christian values” understood in terms of contemporary political conservatism. Here again is Grant on the hapless participation of Christians in the project of modernity. Grant can be biting regarding Christianity’s lack of self-awareness in operating within a changed paradigm:

What is comic about the present use of “values,” and the distinction of them from “facts,” is not that it is employed by modern men who know what is entailed in so doing; but that it is used also by “religious” believers who are unaware that in its employment they are contradicting the very possibility of the reverence they believe they are espousing in its use. (281)

The language of values, one will recall, issues from the belief in making our own meaning and surpassing all limits. This attitude opposes reverence of a Creator or our thinking of ourselves as participating in goodness.

Were Canadians to embrace a view of justice as that for which we are fitted, the risks would be high. Just when it looked like we were coming to an age of maturity, when we could be assured of being seen as we act on the world stage, here we would be: acting with a charming but hopeless naiveté. From the point of view of the ubiquitous modern cynic, how could it appear otherwise? Yet the moment is propitious for a genuine alternative to the options produced by modernity. Contemporary life itself, together with real live buffoons and surprised ideologues, has created the conditions of possibility. Real maturity always carries with it a dimension of the unexpected; in retrospect, the unanticipated has the character of the self-evident, the one needful thing. It becomes the new obvious mark of maturity, if not of wisdom.

Norm Klassen 

[1] George Grant, The George Grant Reader, ed. William Christian and Sheila Grant (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998). Unless otherwise noted, all references are to this volume.

[2] George Grant, English-Speaking Justice (Toronto: Anansi, 1998), 44.

[3] Grant, Justice, 44.

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