George Grant: Intimations of Deprival, Intimations of Beauty

By Robertson, Neil G. | Modern Age, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

George Grant: Intimations of Deprival, Intimations of Beauty


Robertson, Neil G., Modern Age


GEORGE GRANT (1918-1988) was incontestably the most important Canadian conservative thinker of the twentieth century, and it is perhaps his distinctively Canadian approach to conservatism that has made his writings less well-known in the United States. For Grant, it was a serious confusion to associate conservatism with the ideology of the free market. As he was fond of pointing out, the right to make as much money as you can is the apotheosis of liberalism, not a mark of conservatism. For Grant, conservatism was related not to one side of the modern debate between socialism and capitalism, but rather was rooted in a desire to conserve still abiding instances of an older, pre-modern relation of humanity to God and the world. This desire to conserve was connected in Grant's mind to the very being of Canada.

However, the Canada George Grant had in mind was not the Canada of the last half century; rather it was the Canada that understood its distinctiveness as residing in a loyalty to the pre-modern in the face of America's revolutionary break. For English Canada, this relation to pre-modernity took the form of loyalty to British cultural and institutional forms; for French Canada it took the form of loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. Grant saw that such loyalties were dissolving in the face of the rapid modernization that Canadians experienced after the Second World War. In his lament for a vanishing culture of higher ends, Grant shared something with America's Southern conservatives, such as Richard Weaver or M. E. Bradford.

Grant came to his conservatism naturally enough. He was born into a prominent Canadian family deeply involved in institutions of higher learning. His father was the Principal of Upper Canada College, the country's premier private school; one grandfather was the Principal of Queen's University, one of the two or three most important universities in Canada at the time; the other grandfather oversaw the Rhodes Scholarship Trust. His uncle, Vincent Massey, was the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada and was at one time Chairman of the federal Liberal Party; another uncle was a Member of Parliament and a great force in the federal Conservative Party. (1) Grant was, then, born not only into prominence and privilege, but also into expectation and mission. He was heir to a now almost forgotten English Canadian nationalism.

For Grant's grandparents, Canada's purpose was to support and uphold the British Empire as a force for civilization, humanity, and a progressive Christian liberalism. In this identification with the Empire, Canada's difference from the Great Republic to the South was also established. The character of this British North American nationalism was not a mere nostalgia for "olde England." Rather, what united Grant's family's involvement in higher education with their attachment to the British Empire was a sense that Canadians could, through imperially-oriented institutions of learning, gain access to a higher culture than was available to them simply on their own or in their relation to the United States. In the "British Connection," Canadians were able to relate to the older European culture of contemplation, reflection, and higher purpose united with social solidarity that was absent from the revolutionary individualism of the United States.

For Grant's grandparents' generation there was, as Grant would later describe, a too-easy identification of God with historical progress--which, in turn, was too readily identified with the development of the British Empire. The great events of the twentieth century were to disturb this confidence in Grant's father and destroy it in Grant himself. Grant's father fought in the First World War and became a pacifist as a result. This influenced Grant, and when the Second World War began, he resisted the pressure of family members to fight. To show that it was not cowardice that induced him to pacifism. Grant acted as an air raid warden in the very heart of the London Blitz--an event that would traumatize him deeply. …

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