Right Thinkers #4: George Grant (1918-1988)

The name of George Grant is unknown to many younger Canadians, but there was a time when he had a prominent voice in the Canadian intellectual world. Grant is best known for the classic Lament for A Nation (1965), in which he portrayed Canada as being lost forever to the technology-driven liberalism of the United States. Much of his writing is focused on technology and its moral, spiritual and philosophical implications.

Grant was as close to an arch-conservative as Canada ever produced. Deeply influenced by Leo Strauss (although his reading of Strauss is a naive one that doesn’t address the devious complexity of Strauss’s teaching), he worried, like Strauss, that modern historicism, allied with technology, would bring about the creation of a ‘universal and homogenous state’ (a concept borrowed from Alexandre Kojeve) in which moral and philosophical thought would be eradicated. The erosion and destruction of moral standards in the modern world, he argued, has opened the door to genocide, eugenics, abortion and euthanasia, or more generally to attacks on the weakest members of society in the name of technological progress. To fight the coming of the universal and homogenous state, he advocated, at least in part, a reconsideration of the natural law tradition that comes from Plato and Aristotle.

He referred to modern Canadian universities as “multiversities,” a term that captures both the rigid specialization within the academy and the loss of a more holistic approach to education (see “Faith and the Multiversity”). He criticized the deeply rooted historicism in academia, where the past is held up as an object of analysis, rather than a potential source of wisdom. Although the “museum culture” (Grant 98) that he spoke of in academia is no longer so rarified, our current academic fascinations with pop culture and new technologies are still part of museum culture, but one dominated by a sort of hipster curation. Certainly, “theory” is a type of academic technology, designed to re-present history as a long ascent towards the universal and homogenous state.

Those interested in Grant’s views on education will want to dig up a 1993 article by James R. Field, in which the author describes his first encounter with Grant while a McMaster graduate student in the mid-1970s. After Field asked Grant to supervise his Grant-inspired thesis on Nietzsche, Grant advised him to forget about the project and focus on a more multiversity-approved topic, for the sake of his career. Grant’s argument was that “Those who came to the multiversity with the intent of acquiring wisdom would not only, in the end, be disappointed, they would be ‘eaten alive’ by the Leviathan” (224). How true.

It’s amazing that Canadians ever paid attention to George Grant, and that he once had some influence. I think that if he were alive today, he’d be rendered speechless. The Canada that exists now, with its overstuffed multiversities, humming abortion mills, ever-bustling Best Buys and Future Shops, Internet pornotopias, queer marriages and queerer reproductive technologies, is a cold and awful place. I wonder what he would think of the despair factories that our PhD programs have become. Grant was right in saying that Canada was finished, but the time for lamenting is over.

Field, James R. “History, Technology and the Graduate Student: My Encounter with George Grant.” Queen’s Quarterly 100.1 (Spring 1993): 215-225.

Grant, George. “Faith and the Multiversity.” Technology and Justice. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1986. 35-77.

—. “Research in the Humanities.” Technology and Justice. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1986. 97-102.