George Grant: A Guide to His Thought
Hugh Donald Forbes
University of Toronto Press
ISBN 9780802043184, hardcover
ISBN 9780802081421, softcover
George Grant is our William Blake, a visionary in prose rather than poetry, a thinker who sees more than he can say, who speaks in notes, asides and intimations. Despite their philosophic differences, Grant, like Blake, sees and opposes technology’s invasion of the mind, and its consequent reshaping of society and language. Like Blake, he sees and opposes “Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep,” and in its stead advocates multidimensionality and attention to the whole, which is always, even in our wired and webbed time, more given than made. In his addendum to his essay “Two Theological Languages,” written a few months before his death, Grant proclaims, “the great things of our existing are given us, not made by us and finally not to be understood as arbitrary accidents. Our making takes place within an ultimate givenness.”
Canopied by oxymorons—Red Tory, Christian Platonist, Grant’s multifaceted thought does not lend itself to easy simplification. He saw the sun and shadow of every question. For all his opposition to technology as a way of life, he could still acknowledge: “No writing about technological progress and the rightness of imposing limits upon it should avoid expressing the fact that the poor, the diseased, the hungry and the tired can hardly be expected to contemplate any such limitation with the equanimity of the philosopher.” Grant was sufficiently Marxist to know the class basis and bias of most thought. I made my first acquaintance with Grant’s thought through the Winnipeg socialist magazine Canadian Dimension, a “red” journal receptive to deep-thinking Tories.
As a public intellectual, Grant adhered to the code Edward Said articulated in Representations of the Intellectual: he was not beholden to a power centre (government, corporation or university); he avoided slavish specialization; he was an amateur in the root sense of being a lover of truth. The public intellectual, according to Said, needed to be “a thinking and concerned member of a society … entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity.” Grant did that, and more.
He had a broad vision for education, and it is perhaps as educator, as much as philosopher, that he merits a permanent seat at Canada’s table of ideas. Hugh Donald Forbes, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, covers Grant’s McMaster years (1960-1980) all too briefly in George Grant: A Guide to His Thought. While teaching at McMaster University, Grant also completed the bulk of his writing and publishing.
According to Eugene Combs, professor emeritus of religious studies at McMaster and a colleague of Grant’s during his tenure there, when Grant came to the university in 1960 he had a strong hand in the shaping of the religious studies undergraduate program, and later the graduate program in 1966. McMaster by the early 1970s had the largest graduate program in religious studies in the world, half in eastern studies and half in western studies, including the biblical field.
Grant insisted that world religions ought to be taught as living traditions, not as objects in a museum. He favoured practitioners of a particular religious tradition teaching that tradition. He also insisted on the great rebels and critics of religion having their say. As a McMaster student in the early 1970s, I took two courses from the religious studies department: “Atheism and Scepticism” with John Robertson and “Religion and Literature” with Anne McPherson. Marx and Freud were an integral part of the first course, and Beckett and Camus were central to the second. Both courses were conducted in open inquiry with spirited debate.
What Grant feared in education was a narrowing of thought, increased specialization and the technologizing of learning. Forbes quotes the beginning of Grant’s English-Speaking Justice, his response to the American philosopher John Rawls: “The first task of thought in our era is to think what that technology is: to think it in its determining power over our politics and sexuality, our music and education.”
Even in Grant’s day, universities were increasingly turning out technicians of one sort or another. Forbes paraphrases Grant to say that “the best of our universities … confer doctorates of philosophy on their most assiduous students after they have completed a piece of specialized research, but without requiring that they show in any systematic way the connection between their narrow investigations and the ultimate questions” of human existence.
Since Grant’s death in 1988, the University of Toronto Press has published his biography (William Christian, 1993), his Selected Letters (Christian, 1996), The George Grant Reader (Christian and Sheila Grant, editors, 1998), essays edited by Arthur Davis called George Grant and the Subversion of Modernity in 1996, in which Forbes first writes about Strauss and Grant, and the ongoing Collected Works of George Grant also edited by Arthur Davis beginning in 2000. With this plethora of riches, regrettably many Canadians know Grant as the author of a single visionary work on Canadian history and politics, Lament for A Nation, recently chosen by the LRC readership as among the most influential books in Canada.
Grant wrote six slim volumes in his lifetime, all masterworks of brevity, each about a hundred pages, all with small non-academic presses. Forbes writes eloquently on five of these volumes; he has very little to say about Technology and Empire, although it is his personal favourite. Forbes’s jargon-free prose has the virtues of Grant’s: clarity and precision.
One is tempted to add a seventh book to Grant’s small canon: George Grant in Conversation, by David Cayley, so ably does Cayley enucleate—one of Grant’s favourite words—his thought. The books about Grant far outnumber and outweigh the books by him. The discussion around him, nevertheless, continues to grow.
Grant’s doctoral thesis on the Scottish theologian John Oman, available now in the Collected Grant, is a further addition to Grant’s legacy. As Professor Forbes astutely notes, it is “in some ways the most ambitious and systematic work that Grant ever wrote.” Grant’s one and only book on a philosopher is Time as History, a little book on Nietzsche. His only other book with philosophy as its subject is his Philosophy in the Mass Age. Both books were intended for a general audience and broadcast on the CBC. The rest of Grant’s work consists of meditations on politics, technology and modernity. On philosophers Martin Heidegger, Leo Strauss and Simone Weil—the focal points of Forbes’s book—Grant wrote a handful of essays, letters and notes.
It is not difficult to justify Forbes’s selection of these three European thinkers as seminal influences on Grant’s thought. For Grant, Heidegger spoke more comprehensively, particularly about technology, than any modern philosopher. Grant credited Leo Strauss, another 20th-century German philosopher, for deepening his understanding of Plato. As for the French Simone Weil, Grant regarded her as a great thinker, a brilliant interpreter of Plato and a modern saint. To connect the three Europeans, according to Forbes, “into a more articulate relationship of mutual support and antagonism was the deepest tendency of George Grant’s scholarship and reflections.”
To put the emphasis slightly differently, Grant defended and promoted Platonic discourse as an alternative to modern modes of thought and expression. He braided aspects of Strauss’s and Weil’s sympathetic readings of Plato to use against Heidegger’s critique of both Plato and Christianity, although he did not seem to understand fully that Heidegger’s attack on Plato was essentially one of ignoring him. Heidegger returned to the pre-Socratics in his attempt to reimagine, and re-word, man’s relation to Being. In any case, for Grant, without Heidegger, philosophic clarity about the human condition at present was not possible.
On the other hand, Grant was deeply troubled by Heidegger. In Arthur Davis’s words, “this greatest of modern thinkers had decided that he would be betraying his thought-path by pretending that we have grounds to condemn any actions, including his own.” More concerned with Being than beings, Heidegger chose silence as a moral response to the Holocaust and the Nazi devastation of Europe.
For Forbes, “the most remarkable feature of Grant’s writings is their power to point beyond themselves to the most difficult and most important questions that human beings can confront.” That is one reason Grant does not go away. He asks questions that do not go away. “How is it possible to think that the modern paradigm is sufficient to the needs of human beings?” “What does technical civilization portend for good and evil?” “Is the non-human simply stuff at our disposal … Are there already signs of revolts in nature?” Sometimes Grant engages in a kind of negative theology where the way forward has to do with clearing away philosophic self-deception.
To provide a general intellectual framework for Grant’s thought is a noble task, especially when such a framework is as lucidly written and so convincingly argued by Forbes. Forbes, however, neglects one member of the triumvirate he purports to bring into relationship, someone who forms an essential part of Grant’s internal debate: Martin Heidegger. While Forbes provides useful overviews of Strauss’s and Weil’s thinking, he short-shrifts Heidegger on the basis that what Heidegger “says about technology, Being, and human existence cannot be reduced to a few easily digestible formulas.” In a later chapter, he apologizes again: “it is not easy to grasp his real significance and virtually impossible to explain it in a few words.” On Strauss and Weil, Forbes writes chapters; on Heidegger, lines.
No one would deny that Heidegger is a difficult read; he is not, however, impossible to read. Grant introduced his graduate students to Heidegger through “The Question Concerning Technology” or “Memorial Address” in Discourse on Thinking. Arthur Davis has an excellent overview of Heidegger’s impact on Grant in his edited volume on Grant and modernity. George Steiner has written a brilliant introduction to his thought, turning Heidegger’s convoluted German into plain English. When Forbes refers to specifics in Heidegger he does an admirable job, but it seems odd to omit an overview of his philosophy when he provides one for Strauss and Weil.
The other puzzling aspect to Forbes’s book is the occasional disappearance of Grant himself. There is no Grant to be found on pages 117 to 124 and 129 to 146 when Strauss takes the stage, and 148 to 154 when Strauss and Heidegger jointly take the stage. In Grant’s absence, the book becomes a treatise on Strauss rather than on Strauss’s specific influence on Grant. Some background information and contextualizing are necessary, but not at the expense of making the subject of the book disappear.
Nevertheless, Forbes writes well on Strauss’s ability, and Weil’s, “to give ancient philosophical writings an interpretation that brought them back to life … and made them the source of a real alternative to modern doctrines.” If you substitute the word “Plato” for the phrase “ancient philosophical writings,” you have a very clear statement on Grant’s purpose in philosophy.
Forbes respectfully treats Grant’s reluctance to write in detail about Simone Weil. Quite simply, given Grant’s belief in trying to live one’s ideas, he didn’t think he was worthy of a saint. In a letter to Joan O’Donovan written on January 19, 1981, Grant says that he cannot write a book about Weil “because she was divinely inspired and one can only approach that with fearful hesitation.” Forbes quotes Grant as saying “How is one then to give or refuse intellectual assent to doctrines stated by a being who lives on a different level of moral existence from oneself?” Grant did not write his Heidegger book for a different reason: he did not think that he knew enough.
Serious readers of George Grant will want to add Hugh Donald Forbes’s guide to their bookshelves. I find his explication of Simone Weil’s thought and its relation to Grant’s particularly inspiring. His detailed study follows three other single-author, book-length studies: Joan O’Donovan’s George Grant and the Twilight of Justice, T.F. Rigelhof ‘s George Grant: Redefining Canada and Harris Athanasiadis’s George Grant and the Theology of the Cross. In style and indispensability, Forbes surpasses his predecessors. He has added an essential book to the expanding library on the thought of a Canadian visionary.
J.S. Porter is the author of Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality (Novalis, 2001). His Thomas Merton: Hermit at the Heart of Things will be published by Novalis in May 2008.
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