George Grant:
Selected Letters

402 pages,
ISBN: 0802075070

Post Your Opinion
From the Heart of the Struggle
by William Mathie

Fifty years ago George Grant wrote to thank Sheila Allen, the woman who would soon become his wife, for sending him a copy she had made for him of a letter of Henry James. Grant had only recently discovered James. "Nothing that I have read in my life has influenced me more," he had written to another friend a few weeks earlier. Now, however, the magnificence of the letter before him led his "cynical mind" to consider the intention of the letter-writer. Had James intended his letter "primarily to meet the needs of the person concerned" or for posterity? As Grant poses this question, it is not, or does not remain, a question about the sincerity of James's responses to his correspondent. Rather, Grant supposes that despite James's "despair and pessimism" he must have believed in his own genius and in the survival of a world that would recognize it. This being so, Grant cannot doubt that the letter before him was written to be one of The Letters of H.J.
Before us is a volume of some four hundred pages of letters sent by George Grant to a variety of correspondents, from the age of five until two months before his death in 1988, collected and selected by his first biographer and long-time friend William Christian. Of the 305 letters included-one quarter of his known letters-115 are addressed to members of his family, 81 to his mother, the rest to a range of friends and strangers, his own teachers, his contemporaries, and those who were either his students or otherwise fascinated by what Grant was, or said, or wrote.
At least until her senility brought his letters to an abrupt halt a few years before her death in a home for the elderly in Guelph, Ontario, Grant's chief correspondent was his mother. So far as he is guided by her wishes, he reports in these letters on what he does-what is happening to him and around him, for example, at Oxford and then in wartime Britain. In the best of these letters there is a powerful account of life in Bermondsey, the working-class district he served as an air raid warden. The account is neither condescending nor sentimental; in one letter, he corrects his mother for imagining that members of the working class are less corrupt than their rulers and reflects upon their ineptitude for leadership and the fragmentation of their lives within English industrial society. In many, Grant tries to work out his own thinking, particularly about politics, and to make himself understood and loved as he wants to be understood. In some-even after his marriage-he seeks and sometimes demands his mother's advice and approval both as his mother and as a powerful representative of the Parkin side of his family. In a very few letters to his mother and other members of his family, he writes to complain of the tyranny of mother and sisters, but mostly what we see is love and what looks like unfeigned respect for his mother's intelligence. The excerpts from Grant's letters to his wife that she has provided, on the other hand, reveal little of what was clearly a powerful relationship with an extraordinary human being. Mostly they are notable for the vehemence with which Grant attacks the Roman Catholicism of the woman he was to marry-a Catholicism that he continued to attribute to his wife long after her renunciation of it-and for his ready abandonment of the scriptural authority of John, whose gospel was otherwise his favourite. (Candour requires that the reviewer confess the trepidation with which he began the conversation with Grant fifteen years ago that announced his own conversion to Rome.)
The correspondent most nearly rivalling his mother for frequency in this collection is Derek Bedson, a friend from Oxford days, who became an important civil servant in the government of John Diefenbaker and in successive governments in Manitoba. Bedson seems to have become his chief correspondent precisely as his mother ceased to play this role. To Bedson, Grant writes of events in his own life, of the frequent folly of the leadership of the Anglicanism they shared, and above all of the issues central to Lament for a Nation before, during, and after the fall of Diefenbaker. In these letters we see the development of Grant's politics to the point where Tories or socialists are to be preferred to the Liberalism within which some of his kin were powerful forces and which he himself had so often endorsed, in comments to his mother on the electoral fortunes of the party over the years. In these and some of the earlier wartime letters we might also try to chart his movement from the young man who deplored nationalism, hoped for its disappearance after the war, and even insisted that Canadian culture must align itself with that of the U.S., into the 1960s leader of anti-American nationalism.
Doubtless these are matters of some interest and Grant's perceptions are often penetrating. His love of gossip and the special vantage-point from which he could indulge that love make his letters a source at once of information and entertainment. His letters are commonly vigorous and often eloquent. Still, his ambition was to be much more than a story-teller or political commentator. If "philosopher" is at once too presumptuous and unambiguous a label for that ambition, it at least touches upon matters we ought to think of in considering the worth of the Letters. What then do we learn from this collection from this perspective? Do his letters shed light upon what Grant thought or who he was? Reading the letters, are we learning from him or about him?
Through the Letters, to be sure, we get at least the bare bones of the story of Grant's life. We glimpse his privileges and disadvantages as a pupil of Upper Canada College, where his father was headmaster, until his death when Grant was sixteen. We see him winner of a scholarship from Queen's, where his father and grandfather had taught, and of one from the Rhodes Trust, over which his maternal grandfather had formerly presided, to attend Balliol College as had his father. We obtain an excited picture of Grant the pacifist air warden and a not very clear account of his collapse and return to the care of his family on learning of the tuberculosis that prevented his admission into the merchant navy. We read of his joy on returning to Oxford after the war, a student no longer of law but of theology. We hear of his initial experiences as a new and formally unqualified professor of philosophy on arrival at Dalhousie with his new wife after failing to be appointed Master of Hart House. We learn of his leaving Dalhousie to establish the philosophy department at the newly created York University but resigning this position before he took it up, when he recognized how entirely the new department must be subordinated to its University of Toronto counterpart. The Letters show him as a creator and sometimes chairman of a department for the academic study of religion at McMaster and, in the same years, the intellectual leader, or father, of Canadian nationalism, especially as author of Lament for a Nation. They record his departure from McMaster when he thought his department had become dominated by the research model of the university he associated with the U.S., and his return to Dalhousie to await retirement and face death.
But this story that the Letters outline has already been told by William Christian in far greater detail. Can they furnish more than very incomplete evidence for accepting or questioning his version of Grant's life story? (In some instances, the fact that we have only Grant's side of the correspondence weighs heavily against the value of the letters.)
In any case, if George Grant was a philosopher, why should we want to learn about his efforts to assure himself of his mother's love, about the collapse he seems to have suffered in the midst of the Second World War, or about his bitterness when ignored by his uncle Vincent Massey on a viceregal visit to Halifax? In a course of lectures on Aristotle's philosophy, Martin Heidegger began: "As regards Aristotle himself, as regards the circumstances and the course of his life, suffice it to say: Aristotle was born, spent his life in philosophizing, and died." Why should it be otherwise in Grant's case?
To suppose that we must understand Grant's relationship to his mother in order to understand what he wrote about Nietzsche or technology implies that he did not truly understand Nietzsche or technology, that his pretence of doing so was the sublimation of an Oedipus complex. If, on the other hand, we who knew Grant think that knowing him, in contrast to reading or hearing what he had to say, was somehow advancing towards knowing what is true, we need to assure ourselves and others that the experience we claim is not an instance of what Rousseau called charm-a quality that leads us to accept someone's conclusions before we have heard his argument. If we think that Grant's actions as an air warden or his kinship with the wealthy and powerful add significantly to what we want to know about him as a philosopher, we show thereby that we doubt the importance of philosophy.
These are, it seems to me, proper concerns for any reader of the present collection and they suggest that priority must always be given to what Grant wrote and especially what he wrote and prepared for publication. Indeed, it is on the worth of those few slim volumes that any continuing interest in these letters must depend. Nevertheless, it is possible to defend the Letters against some of the objections I have stated and in that defence to locate some at least of their considerable value. Philosophy is not wisdom but its pursuit. Grant did not claim to possess wisdom or even to be its undivided pursuer. (At least some of the rivals to philosophy that pulled him in contrary directions are likely to pull us too.) If, further, philosophy is neither a doctrine nor a professional qualification but a way of life alternative to all others, the factors that impel a life in this direction and sometimes obstruct its progress may be of almost philosophic interest.
In the sixth book of Plato's Republic-the philosophic work Grant seems always to have regarded as greatest-Socrates identifies some of the special circumstances, like poor health or being the citizen of a hopelessly corrupt regime, that have sometimes saved human beings capable of philosophy from the powerful temptations of political life. What promotes or prevents fulfilment of the potentially philosophic soul seems to have become the central question for the Republic, far more important than the question of whether such souls shall ever rule. Learning about Grant may in this way also be learning from him.
What one can learn is not, of course, how philosophers are "manufactured" but only how one human being moved haltingly in this direction against long odds. Nor can one make out the "how" with certainty or precision. On the basis of his Letters one might only guess, for example, that the fact that Grant was drawn, or pushed, towards the life of philosophy to the extent that he was and in the way that he was must somehow be linked to the peculiar dynamics of the Parkins and Grants who raised him. In particular, it could seem that the powerful but never entirely articulate pacifism that Grant insisted in basing on Christianity has a kind of legitimacy in the eyes of his mother that it lacks for the rest of the Parkins, because it reflects the gentleness and faith of her deceased husband. Be this as it may, Grant's uncertain pacifism clearly precluded him from the wartime activity that would have led to the political role he and his family anticipated for him, just as his avoidance of such activity prevented his appointment to Hart House. Nor does his peculiar pacifism seem to have served only to forbid political life. Rather, as he insists that pacifism can only be based on what Christ taught and who Christ was, so his movement towards philosophy became the effort to think together what is given in revelation with the teaching of Plato along a path leading to Leo Strauss but also to Simone Weil.
To this someone might object, "Suppose this or something like it is true as to how Grant became what he was. What matters is only what he was and what he thought, not how he got to be or think this way. This we find in his books and nowhere else. If we need the Letters to understand the books, this means there is something wrong with the books. Someone might have a real though limited interest in Leo Strauss's correspondence with Alexander Kojčve or Eric Voegelin but not in Strauss's letters to his mother." My reply to this cannot here be demonstrated but only stated. As already conceded, final authority does belong to the texts Grant published. That the Letters contribute to our understanding of the texts implies the imperfection or incompleteness of the texts. Indeed, the help they offer is not only in letters where Grant clarifies those texts by responding to their interpreter. There seems rather to be a radical incompleteness in Grant's enterprise-suggested by the varying indications he gives in his letters as to the writing he means to pursue-that argues something more than the sloth he often confesses. We suspect that what we discover here has some relationship to the unresolved struggle between reason and revelation central to his life and work. So far as this conflict is not external to the philosophic way of life, Grant's Letters constitute a testimony of lasting value from the very heart of that struggle.

William Mathie is a professor of political science at Brock University, and was a student of Grant's at McMaster University.


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