George Grant: the “good” vs “values”

The First Principles website has a fascinating profile of George Grant, “incontestably the most important Canadian conservative thinker of the twentieth century”.

What I find most interesting about Grant is his clear-eyed rejection of both what we would now call neoliberalism and US imperialism. On the former, the writer of the profile, Neil G. Robertson, writes:

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.

Grant contrasted “the older European culture of contemplation, reflection, and higher purpose united with social solidarity” with “the revolutionary individualism of the United States”. Grant’s lament for his own nation was that it was giving up the former for the latter; it seems equally the case that in Europe, and especially in Britain, “revolutionary individualism” has become dominant over any older culture of “contemplation, reflection, and higher purpose united with social solidarity”.

Influenced by Jacques Ellul, Grant argued in his later work that this triumph of individualist modernity was an unavoidable consequence of modern technological society, at the heart of which lies “a conception of the essence of humanity as freedom or as will”, with technology as an instrument “mastery of both human and non-human nature”. For Grant, while technology has undoubtedly “greatly liberated human beings from suffering and the slavery of work”, it has also turned the world “into potential raw material, at the disposal of our ‘creative’ wills.”

This then leads Grant to a fascinating insight into contemporary talk of “values” or “quality of life”, which has almost completely supplanted “the older language of the ‘good'”. For Grant, this is a consequence of our “technological fate”:

The older language implies a given order or set of purposes, and with this, a sense of “nature” as an ordered whole—ultimately, for Grant, a sense of God as the fundamental source and end of this order. But this older language has been replaced with a language that derives worth from a realm of “values” that are posited by human agency.

To Grant, the language of values is a confused language: “Everybody uses the word ‘values’ to describe our making of the world: capitalists and socialists, atheists and avowed believers, scientists and politicians. The word comes to us so platitudinously that we take it to belong to the way things are. It is forgotten that before Nietzsche and his immediate predecessors, men did not think about their actions in that language.”

In other words, “the good” implies a prior order to which we seek to conform, whereas “values” imply that we are ultimately free to choose our own notions of meaning and truth.

Grant’s vision of technological modernity’s destruction of all prior concepts of “Justice” and the “Good” led him a position that could appear (and in many ways was) “deeply pessimistic”. However, against this he insisted that “to be a Christian one cannot be a pessimist”. Even if all that can be achieved in some circumstances is “lamentation and waiting”, and utopian hopes are “folly”, Grant rejected “inaction or cynicism”. As he told student protestors in 1965:

Nothing I have said denies for one moment the nobility of protest. Nothing I have said denies that justice is good and that injustice is evil and that it is required of human beings to know the difference between the two. To live with courage in the world is always better than retreat or disillusion.

The politics we should adopt in the face of technological modernity was one of realism without despair, and of seeking opportunities to express our humanity through our love and intelligence. As Grant told his student audience:

We must face the laws of [technology’s] necessity—its potential to free men from natural necessity, its potential for inhumanity and tyranny. We must not delude ourselves and we must not throw up our hands. We must define possible areas of influence with the most careful clarity. When in this mammoth system can we use our intelligence and our love to open spaces in which human excellence can exist?

Atheism and the nature of existence

One result of my recent reading of St Thomas Aquinas has been changing my perspective on the atheism vs theism debate.

This debate is usually expressed, by those on both sides, as a debate as to whether God exists. So to move (as I have done in my life) from believing in God to being an atheist to believing in God again is to start by thinking that some entity called “God” exists, then to think that no such entity exists, and then to go back to thinking that an entity called “God” does exist.

However, Thomas argues that we cannot talk about God “existing” in the same way that created things exist. God is existence. Similarly, God is goodness (not just “good”), and he is love, and so on.

In other words, the debate between atheism and theism is not a debate about whether God exists – a debate that can, and does, swirl around fruitlessly for as long as the participants can summon up the will. Rather, it is a debate about the nature of existence.

As the Canadian philosopher George Grant put it:

What is given us in the word ‘God’ is that goodness and purpose are the source and completion of all that is.

In other words, faith in God, as Christians understand him, is a claim that existence is fundamentally personal; that goodness (a word which here encompasses truth, beauty, love and all the rest) and purpose are hardwired into reality at its most fundamental level, in the sense of being both its “source” and “completion”.

Atheism, by contrast, is a claim that, at root, existence is fundamentally impersonal. It’s not that atheists deny the reality of “goodness and purpose” (though some do), but to be an atheist is to deny that goodness and purpose “are the source and completion of all that is”. Rather, they are something that we as human beings create for ourselves, a shaking of the fist at a cold and indifferent universe – an image not without its attractions, but a very different conception of reality from the one that “is given us in the word ‘God’.”

This also suggests that the difference between atheism and belief in God is ultimately a matter of competing aesthetics rather than logic.

George Grant on the “primacy of the political”

I dipped into the George Grant Reader yesterday and read Grant’s essay “Free Trade”, written towards the end of his life in 1988.

Like much of Grant’s work, it is highly specific to his Canadian context, but contains a great deal of wider relevance. The essay is a review of a book written by “forty-seven thoughtful Canadians” in opposition to the 1988 Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement. As Grant puts it, slightly waspishly:

Most of the contributors are people who believe that free beings ought to be able to decide rationally what will happen in the world. That is, the good-mannered and liberal left predominates.

There are two main aspects of Grant’s essay that speak with particular force to the current situation in which we find ourselves. The first is in Grant’s assertion of the need to maintain the “primacy of the political over the economic”. He draws this point from Denis Stairs, who:

…understands that community responsibility, and indeed the continuing basis of Canada, has lain in the primacy of the political in our national life.

As “technocratic” governments are formed across Europe in order precisely to assert the primacy of the economic over the political, Grant’s protest against this is one we need to listen to.

The second, and even more striking, message from Grant’s article is his scathing assessment of “capitalist imperialism”, as represented, in his view, by the United States of America. Grant bases this on Farley Mowat’s article, in which Mowat:

recognizes the arrival of cosy totalitarianism at the centre of the American empire. [...] the friendly tyranny of corporation capitalism and the consequent Bodenlösigkeit. (The English word rootlessness catches less well what is happening than does the German.)

Grant even objects to Canadians referring to the United States and Canada as “our two countries”, which he describes as:

the ‘liberal’ rhetoric by which American journalists legitimate themselves to themselves. They proclaim themselves a country and eschew the word empire, while their battleships try to impose their will in the Persian Gulf.

I don’t think what Grant is saying here should be read as an attack on Americans per se – and certainly my quoting of Grant should not be read as that. What Grant wants is for Canadians and Americans alike to acknowledge America’s status as an empire, and to understand the implications of this:

I would have wished, in this book, for a sharper understanding of what imperialism means, and particularly the workings of capitalist imperialism.

Grant continues with a prophetic description of the fading of America’s capitalist imperialism in the face of the rise of China (now a commonplace, but rather less so, I think, in 1988). As he continues, understanding the workings of capitalist imperialism:

…is necessary even if we are perhaps faced by a fading Western empire. I think there should have been more understanding in the book of how the central stage of world history now moves from Europe to Far Asia, as China is developed with Japan.

The only way in which that statement is now showing its age is in its reference to Japan, which had embarked upon its two-decade (and counting) stagnation within three years of Grant’s death.

The need to assert the primacy of the political over the economic in the face of a capitalist imperialism that is in turn facing a mounting challenge from China? Welcome to 2011…