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George Grant - Philosophy in the Mass Age

George Grant – Philosophy in the Mass Age

When George Grant first put together the notes which would become the basis for his 1957 CBC Radio lecture series, it seems that he was, even then, quite certain of the presence of a malaise in the heart of North American societies. At both the time of the airing of the lectures, and in their publication as a series of essays in 1959, there is both a remarkable consistency in Grant's diagnosis of the source of the illness, and in his hopes for its eventual self-destruction and remission. One would likely not be too poetic to say that Grant expected the tumour in the brain of modernity to eventually starve itself to death, thus leaving way for a new resurgence in a life of spiritual and moral excellence. But, by the time of the re-publication of the lectures in 1966, Grant's impressions had soured considerably, and the contents of the new introduction, written for that publication, impress upon the reader his sense that the patient cannot wait for the disease to work itself out.

What then was the nature of the change? What perception of the problem did Grant have in 1957 which he found so mistaken by 1966? What is interesting about these questions is that they lead one to realize that it is neither Grant's grasp of the symptomatology of the phenomenon which changed radically, nor did he apparently radically revise his diagnosis of those causes which were particular to North America. Rather, it is his historical-anaysis of the disease, of its spread, which underwent revision, as did the prescription which he had assumed to be appropriate for its elimination.

Briefly put, Grant's initial, 1957 diagnosis can be recollected thusly: the modern life of North Americans is suffused in a spiritual vacancy tied-in to a material dynamism which is yoked to the task of breaking and dominating nature. The spiritual vacancy is expressed as a function of the dominant philosophy of North American society – pragmatism – which denies that human action should be subjected to any limitations save the pragmatic limitation of expediency or efficiency. Truth and goodness, furthermore, are characteristic of those ideas which advance human aims; in the quoted words of William James, “An idea is true as long as it is expedient to our lives”.

Pragmatism, however, is but a recent mutation of an older development, for it is not James Dewey nor William James who first rejected the limitations imposed by doctrines of natural law. Rather, that rejection is first and most virulently expressed in the substance of the Protestant Reformation. It is in that tradition which the West is first presented with an attempt to break with the tradition of natural law, which Christendom and the Catholic Church had inherited from the ancient Greeks, in favour of a creed (later creeds) which sought to rely purely upon the revelatory contents of the Bible for an understanding of the good and of humanity's place within the cosmos. The fullest expression of this purification is eventually reached in the form of the Puritans, who explicitly deny the scrutability of Providence or the capability of human beings to discover rhyme or reason to the world, or, through contemplation of the world, discover the reason and purposes of God.

It is from this older, Puritan tradition which Grant ties the dominant, Pragmatic tradition of modern North American, and he points out the irony with which Dewey and James seek to free the minds of their students from the repressions of the Protestant tradition, while actually maintaining most of its substance. For, by accepting the Protestant rejection of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle – that is to say, the western tradition of natural law – and adding to that a rejection of the transcendental elements of Protestant Christianity itself, the two Pragmatists end-up with what Santayana termed “a Protestant humanism” -- a humanism which is Protestant except for its rejection of its inscrutable God. Pragmatism is thus diagnosed as Protestantism minus Providence, and the endless busy-work of the Puritans – who once sought through toil the self-assurance of their worthiness for grace – is replaced with the endless busy-work of pragmatists – who through toil, seek to increase their share of goods on Earth. Each mirrors the other's dismissal of the limits imposed by natural law; the later only adds to that the dismissal of any revelation of an eternal law.

It is within this environment of dynamic toil for Mammon which Grant presumably finds himself at the time of the CBC lectures. Having diagnosed the state of affairs in North America, however, he comes to the conclusion that the fever is soon to reach its end; the conquest of scarcity allows the youth a potential for leisure which has never before been the case. Their dissatisfaction with the worldly, technical aims of modern education, it was held, would necessarily alienate many, and the best of them will enter into the philosophic life, thus re-igniting the spiritual quest in North American which was already being entertained in Europe by the existentialists. The diagnosis in 1957, thus, was that the fever would soon burn itself out.

By 1966, however, Grant's message had changed. No longer did he have any faith in a working-out of history in humanity's favour. The cause, as related in his 1966 introduction, was that he had fully lost faith in Hegel's philosophy. More specifically, he found that he could no longer agree with the proposition that Hegel's philosophy contained the fullest expression of human excellence, and could no longer entertain the idea that the working-out of that philosophy in the world through the application of technology could result in excellence in human beings. Quite to the contrary, Grant wrote that he had come to perceive – thanks, in some degree, to the work of Leo Strauss, and to another, Jacques Ellul – that it was Plato, not Hegel, who presented the best of achievable accounts of human excellence. Not only was this tantamount to rejection of Hegel's philosophy of history, but the expression of a newfound skepticism as to the actual depths of modern freedom. For in his assertion, it is implicitly implied that the reification of Hegel's absolute spirit would be an impoverishment of humanity, rather the fulfillment of its essence. Technology, furthermore, was appearing to Grant to be less and less the tool of humanity, and more and more as its new master.

The diagnosis then, had changed, and as goes the diagnosis, so must the prescription. Having rejected the Hegelian thesis that the diseases of humanity would burn themselves out, it becomes the necessary to ask what treatment, if any, would prove to be the substitute. When considered in this light, the content and vacillations of Grant's long career seem to take on new connotations, for it is apparent by his continued involvement in the public realm throughout his years that he was unwilling to pronounce the patient dead and to leave it at that. If one may push the analogy, the typical doctor does not continue to engage in heroic interventions, decades after a terminal diagnosis has been handed-down to the patient; there must be some perceived hope for one to willingly engage in the process. It seems apparent then that Grant's rejection of Hegel is not simply a lamentation in the face of the inevitable, for his very engagement in his many polemics against, and analyses of, the spirit of the age speak not of a fate which is written, but rather of a fate which is made, and perhaps subject to being unmade.

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