The Canadian Socrates: Analyzing George Grant’s Theopolitical Project

The Canadian Socrates:

Analyzing George Grant’s Theopolitical Project


Brett Fawcett


“As married people will understand, anything true in what follows comes from my wife.”

–George Grant[1]

“Six hours of you is an apocalypse.”

–Scott Symons to George Grant[2]

            Canadian patriotism, and nationalism generally, is an ambivalent topic. The 2017 “Canada 150” celebrations had a somewhat muted tone as commentators mulled over what there was to celebrate. Canada’s history of mistreatment of Indigenous people and other minorities makes patriotism a challenge for many, but Canadian identity has always been a difficult concept and our national identity crisis is at least as old as Confederation itself. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has gone so far as to describe Canada as the first postnational state. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump proudly proclaims himself to be a nationalist while political commentators call nationalism a gateway drug to, if not an outright euphemism for, racism and nativism.

            This makes an understanding of the thought of George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) essentially important; trite as this phrase has become, it is more relevant today than it was when he first wrote. Grant is known as “the father of Canadian nationalism” and his 1965 epistle Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism was taken at the time as a kind of political manifesto. Grant’s dirge for his country, which he saw as being absorbed by the United States, was a game-changer in the national conversation. Perhaps better than any other commenter, Grant understood the fragility of Canadian identity and articulated a vision of Canada to which citizens could aspire to be loyal.  But he was not an easy figure to pigeonhole: a hero of the left for his stance against the Vietnam War and capitalism in the 1970s, and a hero of the right for his anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia stance in the 1980s. But he was consistent throughout, holding to a perspective Gad Horowitz would term “Red Toryism”,[3] an old-fashioned left-wing conservatism suspicious of the free market and the permissive society alike. Grant himself said his conservatism was that of Richard Hooker,[4] Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Jonathan Swift, figures who had wrongly been accused of being “dominated for nostalgia for a dying Anglicanism, and having no significance for the practical world.”[5]

            Grant’s influence was wide-ranging. He influenced political activism, but also inspired artists: Margaret Atwood refers often to him in her book Survival (which argues that Canadian literature represents a desperate attempt to survive in the face of opposition) and Alex Colville, who designed the Centennial coins of 1967, based the 50 cent coin design—a wolf howling upwards—on Grant, a “lone wolf” within academia crying out for his lost pack. But to understand him, one must recognize that he did not see himself as primarily a political thinker. As he put it, “There’s never been one second of doubt in my mind that passing political interests like nationalism are minor compared to how one tries to live within the Christian church, which for me is the Anglican edition of that.”[6] He was loyal to Canadian democracy but that loyalty “must be limited, of course, for it is idolatry to give more than limited allegiance to anything as relative as the ordering of society.”[7] He defended Canadian nationalism because humans need the experience of self-denying loyalty as a prerequisite to the saving experience of God. Since technological globalism had made this kind of sense of loyalty and place impossible, the mystical experience of God was subsequently becoming impossible, the greatest possible anthropological catastrophe.

            Grant’s thought was a unique brand of religious conservatism that dared to defy many of the prevailing philosophies which still reign. But since he situated this as a Christian position, it needs to be critiqued from a Christian perspective. This paper will attempt to do so.

            What we find is that Grant was an apt critic of secular technological society and rightly pointed back to something eternal and religious, and Christians have much to learn from his work. However, he does not interpret this through the primary lens of the historical Christ-event, which causes him to commit serious errors in his thought which, ironically, lead him to fall into a kind of Americanism. Also, despite his vaunted Platonism, his inability to conceive of Canada itself as a transcendent ideal rather than a mere historical phenomenon hampers his thought. However, we can finally recognize him as being like a pagan prophet or poet who nevertheless points us to Christ, and observe that his errors show him failing to live up to his own insights rather than discrediting the insights themselves.

Grant’s Life and Thought

            Grant was from a family with deep roots in the formation of Canada. This likely informed his sense of Canada (or at least English Canada) as “his own”, something that he belonged to and loved. His paternal grandfather, Reverend George Munro Grant, was one of the great promoters of Confederation in the 19th century and the originator of Canada’s national motto a mari usque ad mare, “from sea to sea.” His maternal grandfather, Sir George Parkin, was administrator of the Rhodes Scholarship, a “wandering Evangelist of Empire” as a spokesman for Imperial Federation, and headmaster of Upper Canada College. His uncle was Vincent Massey, for whom the Massey Lectures are named; his sister married prominent Canadian ambassador George Ignatieff and became the mother of Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff.  Grant himself was a Rhodes scholar who, like Martin Luther, was on his way to becoming a lawyer when he had a frightening experience that led to his deeper conversion. He was a pacifist in his youth and worked as an Air Raid Precaution warden in London during the Second World War.  His post suffered a direct hit during a bombing raid in 1941, and he witnessed three hundred people, including several friends and a woman with whom he may have been romantically involved, brutally torn to pieces, an experience which left him psychologically shattered and nearly despairing of the possibility of goodness and even causing him to consider suicide. This is likely where the dark view of technology that would pervade his thought first took root in his psyche.

            This was interrupted by a curious experience he would later relate to interviewers: Having gone to work on a farm in the English countryside in 1942 to deal with his P.T.S.D., he found one afternoon that, as he dismounted his bicycle to open a gate, he was gripped by the sudden revelation that “I am not my own.” By the time he returned to the bicycle, he had “accepted God.” At this moment, he would later say, he was truly “born again.”[8] This cured him of his despair. For the rest of his life, despite his grim view of the future, he rejected the label of being a pessimist. “Pessimism” and “optimism” are Leibnizian categories, he observed, and no one who believes in God can truly be a pessimist.[9] It also shaped his vision of the good life that would inform all his subsequent writing–especially in his opposition to liberalism, which he sees as beginning with the premise that I am my own and belong to none other, especially not to a nation.

            As a result of this, Grant would move away from his nominal Presbyterian upbringing, which he said was more accurately “a species of what I would call secular liberalism [taught] by fine and well-educated people who found themselves in the destiny of not being able to see the Christianity of their pioneering ancestors as true,”[10] and become a high church Anglican. (He would often express a desire but an inability to become Catholic, apparently viewing Catholic practice as being too superstitious.) When he returned to Oxford after the war, he switched his focus from law to religion and philosophy. His experience doing so included joining the Socratic Club founded by C.S. Lewis, who had a similar experience of converting to Christianity while getting off and on a motorbike and whose thought would have a strong influence on Grant.[11] In that club, he met Sheila Allen, a Roman Catholic who had been a student of J.R.R. Tolkien’s. She was to become his wife, converting to Anglicanism for him.

            Grant went on to become an academic philosopher at different institutions, but always found himself as something of an outsider because of his deep religious commitments, to the point where he was nicknamed “the Bishop” and was sometimes mistaken as a preacher.[12] He taught at Dalhousie University, but was alienated from the rest of the faculty after writing an article in 1949 defining philosophy as “the analysis of the traditions of our society and the judgment of those traditions against our varying intuitions of the Perfections of God,” which damaged his credibility with more respectable and modern-minded philosophers. Throughout his career, Grant would criticize modern education and what he called the “Multiversity” for its loss of any eternal vision or transcendent good in favour of equipping students to fit into the technological society.[13] His vision of education, and of human life, was a Christian Platonist one: It was to find and encounter God.[14] The goal of philosophy was mysticism. Its purpose is to help us clear the way towards becoming saints by living lives like Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, or Simone Weil, from whom Grant got his definition of “faith” as “knowledge enlightened by love.” It was about the pursuit of eternal truth, not about fitting into our historical moment.

            When Grant was offered the position of chair of the Philosophy department at York University, he enthusiastically quit his job to take it, only to discover with disappointment that York was using the same secular and modernistic textbooks and syllabi as the University of Toronto, which were completely at odds with Grant’s religious philosophy. Despite having a family to support, Grant quit his new job in protest.[15] He was subsequently employed at McMaster, where he tried to turn the Department of Religion into something closer to his vision of a Christian university. Throughout his life, he was always open to new educational methods, lecturing at the experimental and quasi-nudist Rochdale College of Toronto and at various “teach-ins.”

            Despite his marginalization by academia, Grant would gain widespread public attention in 1965 when he published the short but penetrating book Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. Written in response to the electoral defeat of John Diefenbaker, who had refused to allow the United States to station nuclear missiles within Canada, and the election of Lester Pearson, who acquiesced to America’s demands. Grant saw this as the failure of the Canadian project, and his book mourning it and predicting that Canada would be culturally and politically assimilated to the U.S. sparked a nationwide conversation about national identity and patriotism that eventually led to federal initiatives like CanCon requirements and the Foreign Investment Review Agency. But most of this reaction missed the subtler point Grant was making.

            Grant argued that Canada was a project of Protestant English Orangemen and reactionary French Catholics specifically to preserve their respective civilizations from being swallowed up by the liberal republicanism of the United States of America. In other words, Canada founded as a conservative country, though he admits that conservatism is difficult to define, since it is “not philosophically explicit.” He describes it as “an appeal to an ill-defined past…an inchoate desire to build, in these cold and forbidding regions, a society with a greater sense of order and restraint than freedom-loving republicanism would allow.”  In contrast to the “lack of public and personal restraint” they observed in America, the conservatism of Canada’s founders “was essentially the social doctrine that public order and tradition, in contrast to freedom and experiment, were central to the good life.”[16]

            Grant fundamentally agreed with this. He held that the good life required a form of political loyalty, because the “love of one’s own”, as he liked to put it, was the first act of being pulled out of oneself towards a good, and thus the first step towards loving the Good. In other words, conservatism means that I am not my own.

            In contrast to this is what Grant calls liberalism, enshrined in the principles of the American Republic, which he defines as “a set of beliefs which proceed from the central assumption that man’s essence is his freedom and therefore that what chiefly concerns man in this life is to shape the world as we want it.”[17] This was the polar opposite of the sentiment that I am not my own. Grant was deeply critical of liberalism, dedicating much of his 1974 book English-Speaking Justice to refuting its formulations in the work of thinkers like John Rawls. Yet liberalism was fated to ultimately triumph over all forms of conservatism because of technology.

            Grant’s definition of technology is taken from Jacques Ellul’s treatise, The Technological Society: Technology, or, as he initially preferred to call it, technique is “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”[18] Technology is entirely in the service of changing the material world in accordance with the will of the individual.

            Initially, Grant had toyed with the idea that technology could allow human beings to better engage in philosophy since it allowed us more leisure time; he observed, for example, how his wife’s burden had been relieved by the washing machine. Yet his study of Heidegger led him to abandon this view. Technology is not just a tool; it is an ontology, a way of being, and since it is entirely about imposing our will on the world, it creates a way of being in which our wills are supreme. This necessarily leads to liberalism, which holds that “the highest purpose of life is to will autonomously.”[19] “Conservatism must languish as technology increases.”[20]

            The liberalism that Grant fears is both economic and social. He denounces capitalism, anticipating the widespread recognition of it as “neoliberalism”, and was involved with the CCF and early NDP until Tommy Douglas sided with the Liberals against Diefenbaker.[21] Grant saw some form of socialism as the only way to politically resist technology: “After 1940, nationalism had to go hand in hand with some measure of socialism.”[22]  The Conservative Party had been willing to do this in the past, and Grant often pointed to an “older Canadian conservatism, which had used the public power to achieve national purposes. The Conservative party had, after all, created Ontario Hydro, the C.N.R., the Bank of Canada, and the C.B.C.”[23]  He also rejected social libertinism with its view that you are at liberty to do whatever you want “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone”. Indeed, these two forms of liberalism are joined at the hip: “To put it at its crudest: if I want to do it with a girl or a boy or an animal, there is an identical Holiday Inn everywhere in North America for me to do it in.”[24]

            The adjective “identical” draws out Grant’s related point, taken from the famous Strauss-Kojeve, that liberalism and technology are homogenizing. Local or national traditions get in the way of sleek technological efficiency and must be bulldozed over by progress.[25] While in Lament for a Nation Grant suggests that Canada will be assimilated to America (a prospect that seems dubious at this point), his later writings reflect a more plausible view that Canada will be culturally assimilated into a “universal homogeneous state.” Today, this is popularly called globalization. But this is an anthropological catastrophe: If all local loyalties melt into a universal technological state where I am free to do as I please, I can never learn self-denial, I can never learn how to love what is my own, and I am ultimately impeded from finding God.

            There is no way to “contain” technology to prevent this from happening; Grant rejects as nonsense the view that “the computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used” because a certain liberal-technological society is a necessary precondition for computers to exist at all.[26] Further, the genuine benefits of technology, particularly in the medical realm, make it morally impossible to adopt a Luddite approach and abandon the use of technology altogether.[27]

            But this unfortunately means that technology’s liberalizing effects are inevitable, and a conservative country like Canada cannot survive it. But just because something happens of necessity does not make it a good thing. The necessary is not the same as the good, and the Cross shows us that we cannot discern what God’s will is from looking at history, since in the Cross the Good falsely seems to be defeated.[28] This is why Grant urges us to look at time and history, not as the ultimate reality, but, with Plato, as “a moving image of an unmoving eternity.”

            In 1970, Grant was severely injured in a car accident in which he lost several teeth, yet another unfortunate brush with technology, and suffered from the effects of it for the rest of his life. When Grant became active with the New Left in protesting the Vietnam War (a prime example of ruthless technological rationality), he explained in speeches that the purpose of these protests was not to stop the inevitable march of history but to ensure people still recognized that there was such a thing as truth. In other words, while history may be bleakly deterministic, individuals can still break free of its deleterious effects.

            After the Vietnam protests, his attention turned towards abortion and euthanasia, the ultimate examples of “the triumph of the will” (the Nazi allusion by Grant was deliberate) where technology and desire for “freedom” trumps the Good.[29] The N.D.P.’s support of abortion was why Grant never supported them again despite liking their economic policies; this issue was so important to him that he reportedly voted for Brian Mulroney, even though Mulroney (with his free trade deals and duets with President Reagan) seemed to represent the ultimate Canadian capitulation to capitalism and America, because the P.C.s were stronger against abortion.[30]

            Grant realized that liberalism could only be refuted by “remembering”. He refers in Lament to those local authorities powerless to resist technology as “small-town politicians who remembered.”[31] This seems to have a dual meaning, referring both to “remembering” the Canada of yesteryear and to a deeper, Platonic anamnesis. In a moving recollection, Grant recounts how a friend of his who knew he was dying remarked that “I do not accept Nietzsche.” Grant recognized that this comment was not a refutation of Nietzsche, but instead was a deeply expression of gratitude for “his good fortune in having partaken in a tradition of reverence.” This, Grant said, was what he meant by “remembering.”[32]

            At the time of his death in 1988, Grant was planning to write a defence of Plato against Heidegger.[33] He was buried in the Anglican churchyard of Terence Bay, Nova Scotia, by a rocky seashore with an “austere and unchanging beauty [that] became for him an image of the timeless: a holy place.” His grave marker bears as an epitaph a quote from Augustine: “Out of the shadows and the imaginings into the truth.”[34]

Where Grant is Correct

            Though Grant did not see himself as primarily a political philosopher, his political and historical insights have proved generally reliable. While he may have wrongly anticipated a formal political absorption of Canada into the U.S. in 1965 (a position he qualified in later works such as Technology and Empire), his prescient concerns about global liberal homogenization anticipated Fukuyama, Jihad vs. McWorld, The World is Flat, and similar analyses. In a moment when certain governments and corporate actors deliberate over banning or restricting TikTok, WeChat, Parler, and Huawei, Grant’s recognition that technology is not neutral but political also seems sharper than ever.

            Moreover, while Canada may not be culturally identical to the States, a brief conversation with almost any Canadian will reveal that they likely know far more about (and are far more invested in) American politics and culture than their local equivalents, and, significantly, that most Canadians think in exactly the kinds of liberal terms that Grant identified. One would be hard-pressed find a better example of looking to history rather than eternity for guidance than Justin Trudeau justifying his gender-balanced cabinet with a flippant “because it’s 2015”. Further, just as in Grant’s day, the N.D.P. have largely failed to be any kind of effective check on the Liberals (witness how Jagmeet Singh refused to work with Andrew Scheer to overthrow Trudeau’s government). Further, Grant’s unsympathetic description of the cocktail party Canadian elites who disparaged Diefenbaker and cheerfully handed over sovereignty seems uncannily like what John Ibbitson later called “the Laurentian consensus”.

            Grant’s criticisms of the Conservative Party of his day also remain valuable. The entire second chapter of Lament for a Nation is taken up with lambasting Diefenbaker for his various failures, and it would behoove Conservatives today to study the failures Grant identifies. One is that the anti-intellectual Diefenbaker did not draw on Conservative historians like Donald Creighton in forming his vision of Canada; another is that he only recognized an American-style concept of individual rights (which lends itself better to individuals being absorbed by wider homogeneities), rather than acknowledging the group rights that French Canadians demanded and for which Canada was founded. Finally, Diefenbaker was enthusiastic about capitalism, a system which is inherently destructive to religious conservatism. All of this has a familiar ring today.

            In some ways, Grant’s thesis can be extended to extend to relationships within Canada. Western nationalists and Indigenous peoples alike feel colonized by Ottawa (these interests sometimes converge, as in the Red River Rebellion), and Maritime literature also contains themes of wistfully hanging on to an older traditional culture despite the pull towards urban modernity coming from places like Toronto. One argument could be that this undermines Grant’s main argument—why exactly would someone in the prairies want to suffer under a national tariff for the sake of preserving a national culture with Ottawa at the helm?[35]—but it is again worth remembering that Grant’s example of Canadian nationalism is Diefenbaker, a Saskatchewan populist who nevertheless wholeheartedly believed in the Canadian project.

            In a time when the national conversation is in the grip of the progressivist secularism that Grant described, his incisive critique of liberalism is indispensable for making sense of how our nation got here. The news nearly every day is filled with confirmations of his thesis. He also gives us insight into a way of doing politics which recognizes that ultimate human good is transcendent and is found in God. Alluding to 1 Peter 1:8, Grant stated that “whether we live at the end of the world or at the dawn of a golden age or neither, it still counts absolutely to each one of us that in and through the beauty and anguish, the good and evil of the world, we come in freedom upon the joy unspeakable.”[36] Grant is sometimes contrasted against right-wing religious fundamentalists like Ted Byfield, but while Grant espoused a different economic perspective, the gap between them is probably exaggerated. One of the people to whom Grant dedicated Lament for a Nation was Derek Bedson, a friend of Byfield’s and a board member of the St. John’s Cathedral Boys’ School that Byfield had co-founded.[37]

            In the realm of Religious Studies, Grant was captivated by the person of Jesus Christ, and while Grant did not remain a dogmatic pacifist later in life, Jesus’ refusal to call on legions of angels in Gethsemane was the source of his lifelong attraction to nonviolence.[38] He was willing to take the Bible seriously to the extent that he critiqued Northrop Frye’s book on the Bible’s literary influence, The Great Code, for adopting a modernistic hermeneutic which Grant believed would have been completely alien to the authors of Scripture.[39]  Similarly, he criticized his McMaster colleague E.P. Sanders (best known as one of the founders of “the New Perspective on Paul”) for trafficking in what Grant called “museum culture”, not seeing the Scriptures as a living and vital reality today but as a collection of artifacts to be studied with detachment.[40] He was not willing to compromise his religious beliefs to fit into modern assumptions, even admitting he took it “as a fact” that St. Francis received the stigmata.[41] To this extent, both his theology and political thought anticipates (and has been acknowledged as a forerunner of) theological movements like Radical Orthodoxy.[42]

            Finally, he recognized the importance of the church as the locus of our salvation. A book on the history of an Anglican community in Dundas prompts him to reflect, “Raising money for a parish hall may not be sensational but it is the very stuff of the kingdom of heaven. It is ultimately what gives the world its richness, far more than battles or political rivalries.”[43] He loved the liturgy and often asked those who would criticize it from a low church perspective, “Have you worn the robes?”[44] There was something about the experience of liturgy which justified itself, perhaps because it allows us, to use Grant’s word again, to “remember.”

Where Grant Fails

            Since Grant’s project is intended to be thoroughly Christian, it must be assessed theologically. When we do this, we find that Grant was, by the standards of orthodox Christianity, a heretic. However, what we find is that his failures do not undermine his thought overall; in the ultimate compliment to them, he is wrong because he ultimately fails to be consistent with his own philosophy.

            Grant was a self-professed Gnostic (largely due to the influence of Simone Weil). He denied creation ex nihilo and thus, with the Manicheans, saw the world as inherently evil: “[I]n my view of life, the world is eternal, not created, and tyranny is a danger coeval with the world, with man, as cancer is a danger coeval with man.”[45] This is why he is able to abandon history altogether in favour of ahistorical mysticism.

            But because he rejects history, on some level, this means he must diminish Christ, Whose saving action, as the Creed proclaims (“under Pontius Pilate”), was within while also transcending history. Because history is entirely sidelined, rather than pointing to the historical Christ event as the axis of salvation, Grant sees human fulfilment instead in a universal mystical experience of love. This is why he was drawn to Indian philosophy, to the point where he half-jokingly said he belonged to “the Hindu wing of Christianity.”[46]

            It begins to emerge that Grant is a classical pagan thinker more than a Christian one. He recognized that “[w]hat has come into the tradition between classical philosophy and modern philosophy is Biblical religion in its Christian form,” as Hegel apprehended,[47] and as Biblical religion was to some degree responsible for technological liberalism, Grant finally elected to adopt a classical perspective, albeit wearing Christian liturgical robes.  Naturally, this affects the way he reads the Bible, with its record of salvation history beginning with creation. When confronted with this tension, one must either adjust the Bible to fit into classical philosophy or vice versa. The Church Fathers, as Jean Daniélou showed, moved away from Platonic suspicion of time into a recognition of the historicity of God’s saving action.[48]

            Grant treats this historicization of Christianity as a kind of intrusion into the Church, but he is not consistent here. On the one hand, he admits the Old Testament is historical, but elsewhere he blames this on the inclusion of Aristotle’s thought into Christian theology. Yet elsewhere still he blames Augustine, who he sees as misguidedly trying to make sense of the fall of Rome by developing a historical theology. He even bizarrely suggests that Christianity only started defining “itself as essentially a Semitic religion” with Augustine, a claim that can be dispelled immediately upon glancing at the New Testament or Ante-Nicene Fathers.[49] Yet Augustine was, if anything, a Christian Platonist, and Aristotle’s thought did not claim widespread influence on Christianity until the 13th century when the Arabic preservation of his work became known to the West and Thomas Aquinas began incorporating elements from it. All of these seem like vain attempts to squeeze Christianity out of its historical mould, which cannot be done without collapsing it into another religion.

            Rejecting the patristic acceptance of salvation history, Grant instead evinces sympathy for an Alexandrian-style allegorization of the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, which he said presented what “seems to me in many ways a very dangerous and unspiritual and false religion” (Weil’s influence yet again). Echoes of this can be heard in later Radical Orthodox thinkers like Milbank and Hart, who also suggest that the Old Testament contains compromised and even demonic content.[50] As high as Grant’s view of the liturgy is, this de-historicization also complicates his understanding of Christian liturgy. He seems to suggest (following the perennialist thought of Mircae Eliade) that the replication of Calvary in the Eucharist is an example of a universal human religious effort to escape temporal history into an eternal “sacred time”. Daniélou, however, would likely identify this idea as a classical form of allegorization, in contrast to the Christian patristic and “typological” view of the liturgy in which it made the historical events of salvation history contemporary and present to contemporary worshippers.[51]

            In rejecting a religion where God acts in history, Grant denies that God’s will can be discerned in any way within history. This extends even to seeming to deny that God’s will can be seen in the Resurrection and can only be recognized in the failures and defeats of history.  His poem “Good Friday” contains these lines:

Look it is here at death, not three days later,
The love that binds the granite into being,
Here the sea’s blueness finds its true creator,
His glance on Golgotha our sun for seeing.[52] (emphasis added)

            This in turn seems to mean that grace cannot be operative within history, which affects his eschatology and his sense of where history is heading. (This is not to suggest that Grant thought no good could happen in history, which he affirmed,[53] but that he did not recognize history itself as revealing God’s grace.) In some ways, his bleak predictions are close to the Biblical apocalyptic predictions of the end of history. However, Augustinian amillennialism would hold that the Church continues to exist and have victories until the end of time alongside the decline of history into the regime of the Antichrist and the Tribulation. Grant, however, has made no provision for this. His eschatology, in turn, affects his ecclesiology.

The Church and George Grant

            While Grant was a devout churchman, seeing the church as the place where human salvation occurred, he does not seem to view it as an effective agent of grace within history. Part of this may have been due to his disappointment with Anglicanism. While he said Anglicanism contained “some [remnants] of the ancient truth and therefore I will live within it,” the influence of Pierre Berton’s critique of the Anglican Church of Canada, The Comfortable Pew (a book Grant viewed as too shallow to even bother responding to) on its clerics and primates left him thoroughly discouraged about his own communion.[54] Notably, Lament for a Nation opens by recounting that his own parish offered a prayer implicitly asking for Pearson’s victory the Sunday before the 1963 election.[55] Grant did not see the Anglican Church effectively resisting technological liberalism.

            While he admired much about Catholicism, he was not much more hopeful about the Catholic Church. He pointed out that Kennedy, the president leading the technological colonization of Canada, was a Roman Catholic.[56] This meant that Quebec’s prospects of hanging onto its Franco-Catholic civilization were dubious—reservations that seemed borne out by the Quiet Revolution during Grant’s lifetime. He also regarded the work of prominent Catholic theologians like John Courtenay Murray, Karl Rahner, and Teilhard de Chardin as a capitulation to modern liberalism. “Flattery of the spirit of the age has become the chief end of contemporary North American theology,” he observed mournfully. “What an age to flatter!”[57]

            But what this left was an entirely individualistic salvation. Grant once remarked that his trouble was “that I am a true Lutheran in that I seek out my own personal salvation and don’t try to affect others.”[58] But perhaps this is less Lutheran and more Gnostic. Harold Bloom famously diagnosed America’s unofficial religion as being Gnosticism, an individualistic pursuit of inner light and personal divinity.[59] Grant, the self-identified Gnostic, also seems to fit into this category. Ironically, the chief anti-American Canadian nationalist’s fatal flaw may have been that he was too American.

            Grant’s dubiousness about the Church because so many of its members have succumbed to technological liberalism also smacks of the heresy of Donatism, which held that the Church only consisted of those who were truly “pure.” Augustine, however, recognized with Scripture that the Church is a “mixed multitude”, but that Christ’s promise that it would nevertheless withstand the gates of Hell would never be broken (Matthew 16:18). Further, the Bible foresees the Church “growing” throughout history (Ephesians 4:11-13) yet without fundamentally changing. This is how John Henry Newman could recognize a development, but not an evolution, of doctrine within the Church: Doctrine simultaneously expresses eternal truths in contingent historical language (which is why multiple ecumenical councils had to be held to refine the Church’s understanding of the Incarnation).

            Grant’s unwillingness to recognize historicity severely impairs him in various areas. For example, he sadly pronounces that natural law is no longer intellectually convincing in the modern world,[60] but the definition he offers of classical law is entirely classical, not Christian, and does not take into account contemporary accounts of natural law such as the New Natural Law Theory of John Finnis.[61] The recognition that something can be both eternally rooted and also historically develop—a paradox on display in the Incarnation of the eternal Son as a growing but perfect human being from Nazareth—eludes Grant entirely.

            Without the Church, all that is left to Grant as an agent to withstand technology is the state. This is why he is drawn to socialism. Yet the Church also shows ways to collectively use and even resist technology rather than be used by it in her ascetic practices and by ways of communal living that resist technological individualization, whether that is in the co-operative movement of Moses Coady in Canada, the Mondragon Corporation, groups like Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, the secular institutes, the “appropriate technology” of E.F. Schumacher, or Pope Francis calling the world to an “ecological conversion.” This is a model of communitarianism that resists technologization much more effectively than the bureaucratic technocracy of government.

Platonic Canada

            For as much as Grant identifies as a Platonist, his view of nationhood is curiously removed from that. He views Canada entirely as a historical project, one that was doomed to failure, in a sense, since its inception. Yet this is not the way that other Tory Platonists have conceived of nationhood. Traditionally, they have recognized that a nation has two components: Its historical, political, and often disappointing existence, and its ideal, aspirational, Platonic existence, the soul that survives the injuries to the body.

            Coleridge distinguished between the “spiritual, Platonic old England” of Shakespeare, Milton, Smith, Wordsworth, and other luminaries, and “commercial Great Britain” with figures like Darwin and Hume as its representatives.[62] Similarly, C.S. Lewis’ fiction distinguishes between Logres, the ideal, spiritualized England of Arthurian legend (now subsisting only in a small community) and historical Britain, which is “haunted” by Logres:

            “Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind ever Milton, a Cromwell: a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers: the home of Sidney––and of Cecil Rhodes. Is it any wonder they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really the struggle between Logres and Britain.”[63]

            The Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R.S. Thomas, who, in an analogy to Grant, felt that Wales with its traditional rural and mystical society was being absorbed by urban English colonialism, referred to (and depicted in his poetry) “the true Wales of my imagination”, a Welsh-speaking country in touch with nature which was not yet destroyed by the English “Machine” that had attracted so many Welshmen.[64] Similarly, Claus von Stauffenberg, the failed assassin of Adolf Hitler, was a member of Stefan George’s circle of spiritual aristocrats committed to a mystical, traditional ideal of Germany and resisted the technological tyranny of the Nazis. As he was executed, he cried out “long live sacred Germany!”, or possibly “long live secret Germany!”, in reference to this ideal.[65]

            But Grant does not seem to recognize any sort of “Platonic Canada”. Instead, Canada is entirely a historical project, which means it is a project that can fail and is failing. This seems at odds with his supposed classicism. He explains in Philosophy in the Mass Age that, while moderns might see the most important issues in our world being political topics like who controls nuclear weapons, since they see history as the highest reality, the ancients would recognize that the important things are eternal. Yet, in castigating those who failed to preserve Canada—those who held the reins of power and misused them—Grant seems to be thinking entirely like a modern, seeing historical actors as being in control of penultimate human goods.

            Even more striking is the fact that Grant seems to recognize that Canada, the historical project, was always destined to fail, and, in a sense, never even really existed. He admits that Canada began life as a capitalistic venture and that most of Canada’s founders were not true conservatives; their worldview was “straight Locke with a dash of Anglicanism.”[66] This means that the Canada he laments was never a full historical reality, but only ever an ideal. But, as a Platonist, this should not be a problem: Canada is, literally, an Ideal, which will survive the vagaries and nonsense of the Heraclitean flow of history. This is also important for defending Canadian patriotism in an age when the historical crimes of the nation are better known that ever due to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports. When we affirm our loyalty to Canada, a sense of “Platonic Canada” over and above (though not completely separate from) the soiled legacy of historical Canada should be at the forefront of our minds.


            Grant may have been a heretic, but his heresy simply meant he did not fully live up to the greatness of his own thought, and his penetrating insights in spite of these failings make him something like a modern equivalent to Tertullian or Origen: Not quite orthodox enough to be a Church Father, but certainly an essential ecclesiastical writer for others to study and build upon. Despite his discomfort with the Old Testament, Grant was something like a Hebrew prophet calling the people away from technological idolatry.

            Sadly for Canada, Grant’s core ideas seem to have taken deeper root elsewhere than in Canada. In the U.K., “Red Toryism” is a viable political option alongside the similar “Blue Labour”, and the counsel of a Grantian thinker like Milbank influenced Prime Minister David Cameron’s rhetoric of the “Big Society.” Meanwhile, in Canada, “Red Tory” has devolved into a slur against Conservatives who “aren’t Conservative enough”, often referring to socially liberal but economically right-leaning Tories—nearly the exact opposite of its original meaning.

            Political conversations in Canada, unlike in other countries, are thus drearily superficial, governed entirely by the spirit of the age and without the necessary theological voices calling, not simply for a return to the Christian culture of yesteryear, but a deeper return to the classical and patristic sources of our civilization. Grant gives us a suggestion of what those voices could sound like and what our national debates could become. Christians should therefore (critically) study his thought with an eye towards discerning how to continue his work in today’s not-too-dissimilar world.

[1] Collected Works of George Grant, Volume 2: 1951-1959 (henceforth Works 2), edited by Arthur Davis, University of Toronto Press, 2002, 313.

[2] William Christian, George Grant: A Biography, University of Toronto Press, 1993, 335.

[3] Horowitz coined the term “Red Tory” to “a philosopher who combines elements of socialism and toryism so thoroughly in a single integrated Weltanschauung that it is impossible to say that he is a proponent of either one as against the other” in his 1966 article “Conservatism, Liberalism, and Socialism in Canada: An Interpretation”, in which he noted that Canadian politics had a “Tory touch” absent from its American counterpart. John Farthing, author of the defence of British-Canadian constitutional monarchism Freedom Wears a Crown, and Stephen Leacock, the popular Canadian humour writer. Grant himself was never fond of the label “Red Tory.” Ron Dart, Keepers of the Flame: Canadian Red Toryism, Fermentation Press, 2013.

[4] Collected Works of George Grant, Volume 3: 1960-1969 (henceforth Works 3), edited by Arthur Davis, University of Toronto Press, 2005, 329.

[5] Collected Works of George Grant, Volume 4: 1970-1988 (henceforth Works 4), University of Toronto Press, 2009, 232. Note that Grant excluded Edmund Burke from this list, noting that he was a Rockingham Whig who “did not depart from Locke in fundamental matters, except to surround his liberalism with a touch of romanticism” (Works 4, 231-232).

[6] Works 4, 566.

[7] Works 2, 167.

[8] Works 4, 358.

[9] Works 4, 569.

[10] Works 4, 358.

[11] Certain sections of Grant’s writings show the clear influence of Lewis.  For example, Technology and Justice contains an anecdote about Vilhjalmur Stefansson rebuking Grant for using allegedly “subjective” language such as “beautiful” to describe the natural terrain of Canada (39-40).  The way Grant recounts this is undoubtedly inspired by Lewis’ refutation of a textbook asserting that a waterfall could not “objectively” be called “sublime” (The Abolition of Man, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943, 2-4). Ron Dart has called Grant “the C.S. Lewis of Canada” and recounts that Sheila Grant told him that the publication of The Abolition of Man significantly deepened Grant’s faith.

[12] Christian, 215, 416.

[13] Examples of this include his essays “The Paradox of Democratic Education,” “The Teaching Profession in an Expanding Economy,” and “Faith and the Multiversity,” an essay which has some similarities to the work of fellow Platonist Allan Bloom. Grant was also supporter of Catholic separate schools and was enthusiastic when Ontario Premier William Davis extended full funding to Catholic high schools; see “Religion and the State” and “Memorandum of the Anglican Bishops Concerning the Roman Catholic Hierarchy’s Brief on Education.”

[14] “At the end of [one seminar] I think I said [Grant] had turned Plato into an Anglican and he expressed surprise that I should find this an odd idea” (Kenneth Minogue, “Grant’s Technology and Justice: Between Philosophy and Prophecy”, in By Loving our Own: George Grant and the Legacy of Lament For a Nation, edited by Peter C. Emberley, McGill-Queen’s Press, 1990, 161). See also Bradley Jersak, The Platonic Christianity of George Grant: From the Cave to the Cross and Back With Simone Weil, doctoral thesis, Bangor University, 2012.

[15] Christian, 189-204

[16] Works 3, 326-327. Grant’s contention is well supported by the research of Robert W. Passfield, The Upper Canadian Anglican Tory Mind: A Cultural Fragment, Rock’s Mills Press, 2018. For Grant, the British character of Canada’s institutions was key, but he rejected the idea that this heritage only belongs to Anglo-Saxons; Diefenbaker was of German descent who was nevertheless committed to the British institutions of Canada; see his article “Diefenbaker: A Democrat in Theory and in Soul.”

[17] Works 3, 559.

[18] Works 3, 558.

[19] Works 4, 218.

[20] Works 3, 330. Grant’s understanding of technology as an ontology that changes the way people think—perhaps even changes human nature—places him firmly in a tradition of Canadian thinkers on technology that includes Harold Innis and his famous student, Marshall McLuhan, who, like Grant, was a low-church convert to a high-church tradition (in McLuhan’s case, Catholicism). Grant was aware of both these thinkers. He appreciated Innis but described him as “too much the secularized sceptic” to ask the important philosophical questions raised by his research, which hampered the usefulness of his writing (Works 4, 903-905). He has less regard for McLuhan, whom he also saw as failing to address the important issues: “One would be happier about the McLuhanite cult, if its members dealt with such questions” (Works 4, 47). In his personal correspondence, McLuhan also interpreted technology as being Luciferian in nature and described himself as being neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but “apocalyptic.” However, he did not see technology as inherently individualizing: Mechanical technology has this effect, but McLuhan believed digital technology was re-tribalizing.

[21] Christian, 241.

[22] Works 3, 287.

[23] Works 3, 286, 327.

[24] Works 4, 950. An example of Grant’s conservatism is seen in his conversation with the gay novelist Scott Symons in which he urged Symons to be celibate. Symons later explained that Grant argued that love between two men “is specifically impossible of completion, [and therefore] one must rise beyond it (because of it) to a condition of eternal love. In other words, the necessity of, and the failure of, homoerotic love creates eternal love…” (Christian, 335). Needless to say, this is not an argument that technological liberalism can make any sense out of.

[25] “[L]iberalism in its most unequivocal form (that is, untinged by memories of past traditions) includes not only the idea of universalism but also that of homogeneity.  The high rhetoric of democracy was used when the Doukhobors were ‘victimized’ under a French-Canadian Prime Minister” (Works 3, 339). We could also cite the way Indigenous children were subjected to cultural genocide in residential schools as an example of what Grant is talking about, and the title of Thomas King’s  The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) also highlights that First Nations culture—which is inseparable from its spirituality—has been seen as an impediment to technological progress.

[26] Works 4, 283-287.

[27] Works 2, 158.

[28] Harris Athanasiadis, George Grant and the Theology of the Cross: The Christian Foundations of His Thought, University of Toronto Press, 2001.

[29] Works 4, 726-735. Roberta Bayer, “George Parkin Grant on the Unthought Ontology of Abortion: Bringing the ‘Poisoned Cup to the Lips of Liberalism’,” Life and Learning XVI: The Proceedings  of  the  Sixteenth  University  Faculty  for  Life  Conference, 2006, 371-81.

[30] This anecdote was related by Mel Watkins of the NDP offshoot the Waffle in a panel discussion. “Still Lamenting a Nation?”, The Agenda With Steve Paikin, YouTube, January 18, 2011 (retrieved on August 19, 2020),

[31] Works 3, 312.

[32] Works 4, 59.

[33] Ian H. Angus, George Grant’s Platonic Rejoinder to Heidegger: Contemporary Political Philosophy and the Question of Technology, University of Michigan, 1987.

[34] Christian, 170, 372.

[35] This is effectively Kim Campbell’s rebuttal to Grant: his vision of Canada was “quintessentially central Canadian” that was dismissive of the benefits of free trade on western Canada (On Loving Our Own, 75).

[36] Works 2, 164.

[37] Archives of Manitoba,,%20Derek%20Robert%20Campbell%22?SESSIONSEARCH (retrieved on August 19, 2020).

[38] Works 4, 556.

[39] Works 4, 906-910.

[40] Christian, 302-322.

[41] Works 4, 868.

[42] John Milbank has acknowledged Grant’s direct and indirect influence on his thought. Ron Dart, “George Grant and Radical Orthodoxy,” Clarion Journal, 2015 (retrieved on August 19, 2020).

[43] Works 3, 222.

[44] Ron Dart, Athens and Jerusalem: George Grant’s Theology, Philosophy, and Politics, University of Toronto Press, 2006, 24.

[45] Works 3, 461. Notably, Grant did not believe in the devil, perhaps seeing it as redundant if evil is already inherent to creation (Works 4, 754).

[46] Sheila Grant, “Grant and the Theology of the Cross,” in George Grant and the Subversion of Modernity: Art, Philosophy, Religion, Politics and Education, edited by Arthur Davis, University of Toronto Press, 1996, 256. Consistent with this attraction to Hinduism (and to Heidegger, who proclaimed that “only a god can save us”), Grant admitted that he disliked the fact that Christianity had rejected polytheism. The connection between orthodox Christianity and a level of disenchantment with recognized by Grant, suggesting that accepting orthodox Christianity allows for slightly more tolerance of history, technology, and liberalism than Grant was open to.

[47] Works 3, 417.

[48] The Lord of History: Reflections on the Inner Meaning of History, Longmans, 1958.

[49] Works 3, 724.

[50] Works 2, 322-325.

[51] The Bible and the Liturgy, University of Notre Dame Press, 2002. Daniélou notes that the ancients used allegorization to deal with passages from poetry and mythology they found morally objectionable, somewhat like Grant’s relationship to the Old Testament. Grant’s explanation of Christian liturgy can, in itself, be read in a way consistent with the Church Fathers’ interpretation, but its immediate context as well as its broader context within Grant’s thought suggests something closer to classical allegorization.

[52] In another poem, “To Elizabeth,” he seems to further reject natural theology: “Even in spring the mark of the beast/Is written upon nature./Cruelty rides over the violet/Death is within the creature.” Works 2, 533-534.

[53] Works 4, 569.

[54] Ron Dart, George Grant and the Anglican Church of Canada: A 20th Century Prophet, Clarion Journal, 2014, (retrieved on August 19, 2020).

[55] Works 3, 277.

[56] Works 3, 337.

[57] Works 3, 414.

[58] Athens and Jerusalem, 172.

[59] The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, Simon & Schuster, 1992.

[60] Chapters 3-4 of Philosophy in the Mass Age.

[61] Natural Law and Natural Rights, Oxford University Press, 2011.

[62]  Anima Poetæ: From the Unpublished Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Heinemann, 1895, 151.

[63] That Hideous Strength, Scribner, 1996, 367.

[64] S.J. Perry, Chameleon Poet: R.S. Thomas and the Literary Tradition, Oxford University Press, 2013, 12.

[65] Ritchie Robertson, “George, Nietzsche, and Nazism,” in A Companion to the Works of Stefan George, edited by Jens Rickemann, Camden House, 2005, 201.

[66] Works 3, 523.