Monday, October 17, 2016

Review of Ron Dart's "North American High Tory Tradition" by Cameron Lesage

The North American High Tory Tradition (2016), by Professor Ron Dart, is an appeal to North Americans to remember an aspect of their collective history that has too often been forgotten, or misunderstood and caricatured. This book is an expansion (seemingly limited to the preface, forward, and introduction) into the American context that was only hinted at earlier in The Red Tory Tradition: Ancient Roots, New Routes (1999), The Canadian High Tory Tradition: Raids on the Unspeakable (2004), and Keepers of the Flame (2012). For it is thanks, in part, to those Loyalists who journeyed to Canada from the burgeoning republic that the Tory touch has survived.

The book itself is divided into five sections. Section I is a plea to Canadians to turn to Canadian thinkers in order to avoid colonialism. Section II is an introduction to the history of Canadian Conservatism. Section III is an introduction to George Grant and his thought. Section IV is a discussion of the Red/High Tory response to liberalism. The final section, Section V discusses the Anglican tradition in the Canadian context, its interactions with Red/High Tories and Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as Grant's engagement with Orthodoxy.

At first glance, this book seems like yet another carbon-copy re-iteration of Dart's Red/High Tory thesis. However, upon engaging the text, one finds that this is not the case. Firstly, the more literary element of High/Red Toryism (Livesay, Fiamengo, Acorn, etc.) has been left out to allow, one would assume, a more focused political and theological discussion.

Secondly, Dart has dug deeper in each and every essay, introducing new details not found in the previous three books, which serve to broaden the reader's understanding.

One of the most important additions is the discussion of George Grant and Robert Crouse. In this instance, which is rare for Dart, Crouse is held higher as an example than Grant. Previously, there was a tendency in Dart's work to champion Grant while allowing little room for critique. Or, perhaps, there is nuance in Dart's portrayal due to the distinct vocational differences of the two men - Grant addressed the modern public in a way that Crouse did not; Crouse appealed to the Church in a way Grant did not. This is one example of Dart's work that has become more nuanced and subtle.

Another welcome addition is the chapter relating Grant to John Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy. Dart sees much goodness in Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy, and it is encouraging to note that Grant is being read more often. However, Dart emphasizes that Grant must be read carefully and considerately so that he cannot be mistaken for a classical liberal.     

The most important addition, which adds theological depth and breadth, is the dialogue between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy. For example, Dart relates Grant's interaction with Eastern Orthodoxy and the possibilities for mutual enrichment and ecumenical dialogue. Of utmost importance in this section is Dart's appeal to those turning to the Great Tradition of the Western world, whether they be Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Evangelical; Dart urges those who return to the sources to avoid the un-reflective acceptance of republicanism, or classical liberalism, as the only alternative to post-modern liberalism.

As alluded to above, it seems that more and more people in the contemporary world are turning to the Great Western Tradition and/or Red/High Toryism. There is much good in this turn, but as Dart states continually, the way in which this is done makes for much difference. This appeal to careful consideration is an example of both the strength and weakness of Dart's approach.

The great strength of Dart's presentation of High Toryism is his Socratic method. There is a refusal throughout his work to address specific issues: Dart insists upon returning to principles, rather than appealing to various hot-button issues. Instead of providing answers that might feed a hungry soul for a time, Dart urges his readers to come to their own conclusions. Therein also lies the weakness of Dart's approach.

There are those who may ask why Dart does not do much of the intellectual, academic work that he urges others to complete. The academy wants focused, specific, exhaustive, deep as a mine shaft, but narrow as a toothpick work, and Dart resists. The goal of Dart's work seems to centre on sparking a flame in those whose hearts are receptive. However, if the work only remains at the level of principle, and is not expanded, "the much larger swim and deep dive to find the pearls is yet to be done" (154). Perhaps this is not Dart's vocation, nor his role to play, but The North American High Tory Tradition is a step in the right direction.

Further steps in the right direction are needed. The turn southward that this book represents lends credence to the potential contemporary relevance of pre-Revolution thought for the United States. Can such a turn be a way for the United States to right its ship of state?But, Dart would be the first to admit the fact that the Red/High Tory discussion needs also to be expanded into the French-Canadian and aboriginal contexts in Canada. It could also be said that there is a need in Europe to return to a Classical, paleo-conservative understanding. Dart's role, more often than not, of solitary keeper of the flame of Canadian, Anglican, Red/High Tory, Classical, Platonic conservatism means that anything more is asking much. There are many fires to tend.

This is more than an appeal to North Americans to remember what was forgotten. The road ahead is no easy task for those heeding Dart's call to re-think the vita activa and re-affirm the vita contemplativa. The intentional adoption of a worldview so diametrically opposed to the present ascendancy of liberalism in all its forms will not survive half-measures. At its darkest, it is the death of ego, the dark night of the soul, the total re-examination of the meaning of self/Self. At its brightest, it is true liberation, true freedom, true divinization, true humanity.

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