George Grant:
A Biography

by William Christian,
495 pages,
ISBN: 0802059228

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An Engaged Intellectual
by I. M. Owen

GEORGE GRANT (1918-88) is remembered as the most original Christianphilosopher in this country, and as the self- described conservative whowas a hero to the dissident students and cultural nationalists of the 1960s and 1970s. His life story and his personality were in manyways as surprising and individual as his thought, and it`s good that WilliamChristian has been able to produce this well-documented biography so soonafter Grants death. When George Parkin Grant was born hisfuture must have seemed one of predetermined eminence. His birthplace was theprincipal`s residence at Upper Canada College in Toronto. (The boys got a half-holiday.)Both his grandfathers were farmers` sons from the Maritimes who had risen togreat eminence: G. M. Grant, the principal of Queen`s who had turned a smallPresbyterian theological college into a major university and had writtenimportant books on the emerging nation, and Sir George Parkin, who had himselfbeen principal of Upper Canada and became secretary of the Rhodes ScholarshipTrust and "a wandering evangelist of Empire." Two monthsbefore Sir George died, in 1922, he sent his grandson and namesake a Picture ofGeorge V and wrote: "when You grow LIP You will be expected towork for Your king and country." And the infant George had uncles too:Uncle Raleigh Parkin, who never achieved fame himself but was a charming andcultivated man who was friendly with everyone of distinction in English-speakingMontreal; and two uncles by marriage, Uncle Vincent Massey and Uncle JimMacdonnell, a pillar of the Conservative Party. And on top of all this he grewup in a school headed by his father. At 64 he wrote to his sisterCharity: "my life has been greatly a convalescence from that fact." Eminence seemed predetermined, and it wasachieved, but in ways far from what might have been predicted. After UCC hewent on to Queen`s, naturally, and like his father took history there,completing the course with distinction in 19 39. But he had to repair oneomission: he had never taken the compulsory first-year philosophy Course.He took it over the summer -- and that was the only philosophyCourse he ever took. He got a B. He had already been awarded a RhodesScholarship, and after some hesitation because of the Outbreak of war he tookit LIP, entered Balliol, and read law, of all things, for a year. By that timehe was a convinced pacifist, but didn`t find it possible in that Summer of 1940 to live as if the war weren`t happening; he joined an ambulance unit in Essex, and then became an air-raidwarden in Bermondsey in Southeast London, just in time for the climax of the Battle of Britain, and continuingthrough the heaviest bombing of the war. This was Grant`s heroic period, andChristian does it full justice in what is the best chapter in the book. His courageand devotion, and the warmth of his relations with his cockney charges,dispelled forever any idea that he was a remote intellectual. With the cessation of the bombing in 1941he found himself bored, and tried to join the merchant marine, but was rejectedbecause Of a tubercular lesion. For some months family and friends lost sightof him. When he resurfaced, it turned out that he had worked as a farm tabourerin Buckinghamshire, had perhaps had a nervous breakdown, and had certainly hada religious experience that converted him from a merely conforming to apassionate and wholehearted Christian. (Not in any narrow sense, though: laterhe chose a Jewish godfather for his firstborn son; and once he claimed tobelong to the Hindu wing of Christianity.) Now he returned to Toronto, brokenin health. His mother kept him in bed and fed him copiously. This Must havebeen the right treatment: he emerged a year later well and energetic, and witha new shape. He who had always been remarkably thin was now remarkably far, andremained so for the rest of his life. He took a job with the CanadianAssociation for Adult Education organizing its Citizens` Forum radiobroadcasts, and at the end of the war returned to Oxford to do the course workfor his D. Phil., not in law but in theology. Here, in the greatest goodfortune of his life, he met Sheila Allen. They married in 1947. She was hisintellectual equal, and in level-headedness she was greatly his superior.As Christian remarks, "She kept her husband more or less sane for over 40years." I have used up most of my space onGrant`s early life both because Christian handles it particularly well,portraying the young George just as he was, and because his academic career andthe progress of his thought will be largely known to the readers of Grant whowill be the readers of this book, whereas they may not know much of what wentbefore. The account of Grant`s thought isprobably as good as can be expected in a book that had to be kept to amanageable length. Much of it, though, would have been clearer if there couldhave been more exposition of the thought of the philosophers in whom Grantimmersed himself and to whom his own thought was a response --Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Leo Strauss among others. One point that cries out for moreexplanation is Grant`s admiration, derived from Simone Weil, for the Cathars,identified here merely as "the great medieval religious sect." TheCathars were Manicheans, believing that the material world, including the humanbody, was the creation of Satan, and altogether evil. What did George, thelover of food, gin, and tobacco, and father of six children, find to admire inthis? Another small point: Christian writes, "The Calvinists thought mancould will his salvation." He doesn`t Put this in quotation marks, but heis expounding Grant`s thought here. Did Grant say it? It`s the precise oppositeof what Calvinists are supposed to believe. Finally, Christian thanks six people whoread the whole manuscript, plus two editors. That makes nine people, includingthe author, who don`t know how to spell Gandhi, Hemingway, or Maryon Pearson.

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