Saturday, July 23, 2011

Review of Ron Dart and Brad Jersak's 'George P. Grant: Canada's Lone Wolf' by Robert Martens

Ron Dart and Brad Jersak, George P. Grant, Canada's Lone Wolf: Essays in Political Philosophy. Abbotsford: Fresh Wind Press, 2011. 120 pp.

What is liberalism, and what conservatism? Over time, these terms have degenerated into clichés useful mainly for mudslinging and fingerpointing. George Grant, in his brief and enigmatic Lament for a Nation, articulated a vision of what "liberal" and "conservative" essentially mean. His open, suggestive style of writing, however, leaves room for a wide and healthy variety of interpretation. In their new book of essays, George P. Grant, Canada's Lone Wolf, Ron Dart and Brad Jersak help clear the air by introducing and then analyzing the ideas, or perhaps more accurately, the proposals of Canada's great philosopher.

In the book's first half, Ron Dart summarizes the concepts underlying Lament. He goes on to suggest that genuine conservatism has ancient historical roots, and is based on the notions of justice, ultimate order, and the sacrifice of the self for the Good. Liberalism, on the other hand, originates in ideas of personal freedom and ends with a formless and unrestricted personal will. Dart suggests that most of us today, on all sides of the political spectrum, are in essence "liberal." His seven stage historical analysis of liberalism pushes its origins all the way back to the medieval school of nominalism; moving on to the Reformation; the religious wars of the 17th century; the Enlightenment; the Victorian era of progress and evolution; the individualism of the 20th century; and finally postmodern deconstruction and fragmentation. From this carnage, Dart contends, George Grant attempted to resurrect an honest conservatism for his nation. Ernest Manning and his "neoliberal" followers, however, defended a conception of conservatism which, according to Dart, would turn Canada into a marketplace. Dart ends his part of the discussion by pointing out that the contemplative "I" espoused by mystics such as Simone Weil, differs radically from the self indulgent liberal "ego."

In the book's latter half, Brad Jersak explores the ideas of George Grant in relation to those of important thinkers such as Heidegger and Nietzsche, and especially Simone Weil. He writes: "While the ancients saw freedom as a byproduct of living by virtues prescribed by the Good (whether divine or natural law), the moderns prioritized freedom as following values created by the Self (the autonomous individual) or by society (a contract chosen by the collective of selves)" (75). Moderns – or, depending on one's preference, "liberals" – believe that freedom is the unrestricted use of the will. Simone Weil, one of Grant's fundamental influences, was obsessed with the idea of will. She proposed, and lived out, an extreme renunciation of the will, kenosis, the emptying of the self to the Great Good. In her passionate and paradoxical writings, Weil sometimes baldly equates will with power, which for her is fundamentally abusive, the Great Beast of Revelation. Eventually, however, she concedes that there is such a thing as a will to good. Here George Grant stands in agreement. Even Grant's most ardent followers, remarks Jersak, could be embarrassed by his will not to will – but he parted company with Weil on her extreme self renunciation, and on her avowed priority of the cross over the resurrection. Grant and Weil are united, however, in their critique of modernity as the practice of formless, irresponsible, self indulgent will. The results, cultural ennui and societal violence, can be catastrophic.

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