||Grant on Grant
by H. D. Forbes
George Grant's thoughtful and unconventional writings about Canadian politics and education won him a wide following a generation ago. His most famous book, Lament for a Nation, is still assigned reading in some university courses, and it is even read by some young people who are not compelled to do so. A few go on to read Grant's other books, and his ideas continue to influence Canadian life.
Readers of Grant become aware that his thinking grew from a lifetime of philosophical study, but his most important sources and his ultimate principles remain somewhat hidden, since his writings are not conventionally "philosophical". They do not analyse any abstruse logical or conceptual problems; they do not propound any new moral or epistemological doctrines; they do not defend any philosophical "system" or "school"; they do not even provide any detailed expositions of any great thinkers or great books. He once explained that his books and essays do not presume to be philosophy, but were "written out of the study of the history of political philosophy." There is an ambiguity here, and a covert allusion, which must be understood in order to understand Grant.
Two years ago the surprising success of William Christian's biography of Grant revealed the continuing interest in his thought among Canadians, while the biography itself showed the full range of his concerns. To simplify, it became clear that Grant wrote mostly about politics but thought mostly about religion.
What did he think about religion? More specifically, how did his thinking about Christianity (with which he was clearly identified) relate to his thinking and writing about modernity and technology (which he was notorious for questioning, if not attacking)?
In 1985, three years before Grant's death, David Cayley spent five days in Halifax interviewing him for CBC Radio's Ideas. The resulting broadcasts, a three-hour series called "The Moving Image of Eternity", mixed comments from friends and colleagues in about equal measure with selections from the interviews with Grant. The present book is essentially a full transcript of the interviews. As Cayley explains, "These are Grant's words as he spoke them, but without the false starts, awkward sentence structure, and other infelicities that might interfere with a reader's enjoyment or understanding. I have added clarifying words sparingly and only when I was completely confident of the intended meaning."
Cayley's book, with its helpful introduction, is the best possible supplement there is to Grant's published writings. No academic commentary or biographical study can improve upon Grant's own explanations-clear, simple, and straightforward-of the connections he saw between his own life, the larger "household questions" of political and educational practice, and the fundamental questions of philosophy or theology that preoccupied him. His explanations make clear how important for him were the writings of two near-contemporaries, Leo Strauss and Simone Weil, who do not get much attention, generally speaking, from professional philosophers.
Grant described himself as a Christian Platonist-"a lover of Plato within Christianity"-but he saw the force of the deep objections to Platonism provided by Nietzsche and Heidegger. In Strauss and Weil he found a subtle, complicated, and very seductive response to those objections and a startling clarification of the religious or theological dimension of Platonic philosophy. The result of a lifetime spent thinking about such antagonists cannot be encapsulated in a few words, but I cannot resist quoting what Grant says about a distinction he regarded as very important, between Western Christianity and Christianity itself: "I have no doubt at all that Western Christianity made some great errors in its origins, and here-and I say this with great hesitation because he is a genius-I blame St. Augustine. I think it was Augustinian Christianity that shaped both Catholicism and later Protestantism and in turn led to this extreme secularized form of itself as progress. I have no doubt that Christianity is true, and therefore, I think it has to be reformulated."
Let me quote only two other provocative remarks, the first about Apollo (not the spacecraft): "I think Apollo was a great god, and not just, as we now say, a `myth'." The second is about one of the things he liked about Diefenbaker: "He hadn't had a thought in his head."
The freedom from convention suggested by these remarks-it underlies all of Grant's writings, even the most academic-is one reason for their continuing appeal. They provide an entrée for Canadians into a world of thought that would otherwise be completely alien, even frightening. They provide a bridge from our simple-minded loyalism with its pressing practical problems (like "national unity" and "dumbing down") to the formative thinking about age-old problems that constituted our Western tradition.
Anyone seeking a better understanding of Grant's thought should read this book. It shows a learned and lovable man talking to an informed and perceptive interviewer about what was most important to him. Every respectable Canadian library should have a copy.