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Canadian Guardian: The Educational Statesmanship of Egerton Ryerson

Canadian Guardian: The Educational Statesmanship Of Egerton Ryerson

 “The wisdom of Plato’s maxim holds good: “We should never choose any one as a guardian of the laws who does not exult in virtue.”

– Egerton Ryerson


“And since the whole city has one end . . . it is manifest that there should be laws concerning education, and that it should be public”

– Aristotle


“But as perfect men I regard those who are able to mingle and fuse political capacity with philosophy. Such men, I take it, are masters of the two greatest goods there are: as statesmen, a life of public usefulness, and a tranquil existence of untroubled serenity in the pursuit of philosophy . . . We must apply our best endeavours, therefore, both to perform public duties and to hold fast to philosophy as far as opportunity permits.”

– Plutarch


“I know it is difficult to point out with certainty the means of arousing a sleeping population and of giving it passions and knowledge which it does not possess; it is I am well aware, an arduous task to persuade men to busy themselves about their own affairs.”

 – Alexis de Tocqueville


“[A] great nation . . . remains young if it has the capacity to keep faith with itself and the grand instincts it has been given, and when its leading strata are able to raise themselves into the hard and clear atmosphere in which the sober activity of politics flourishes, an atmosphere which is also pervaded by the solemn splendour of national sentiment.”

 – Max Weber


Introduction: Ryerson and the Platonic Tradition

Egerton Ryerson (1803–1882) held the Office of Chief Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada from 1844–1876. To say the least this is a long enough term to have had no small impact on his community.[1] But this kind of position was not new with him or with Canada or indeed with the Europe of the Enlightenment. In fact, it dates all the way back to Plato and his Laws. In the description of his second best city (after The Republic with its philosopher-kings) Plato explains that there is a need for an Office of Chief Superintendent of Education.

In the Laws, Plato’s “stand-in” for Socrates, named the “Athenian Stranger,” poses the question, “How can our law sufficiently train the director of education himself?” The short answer in this context is that there will be a “trickle down” process from the very dialogue in which the Athenian Stranger, the Cretan legislator Kleinias, and the old Spartan Megillos are discussing the education “system:” from the training of the Chief Superintendent of Education and thence to the teachers and finally to the students. Plato’s own dialogue, which embodies “the justest, and most suitable (discourse) for young men to hear,” will be the fundamental law of the best practical polis and will be the “pattern” under which the Chief Superintendent of Education in Plato’s community will oversee the “national” education. This high official can do no better than advise the teachers of the young to teach this dialogue, which is to say the wisdom of Plato.[2]

Speaking of the phenomenon of social advancement, Ryerson at one point uses the metaphor, very understandably for a Canadian writing in the 1840s, of the opening of a railroad. He says that for social advancement to take place “We must provide a conductor, as well as raise the steam, and set the car in motion.”[3] But who is the “We” here who will employ this “conductor” who will in turn provide the necessary tutelage to the moving social “car”? To use Ryerson’s exact words, who will direct “the intellectual power of society” in “a right direction”? The implication is inescapable that it is Egerton Ryerson himself who will be laying down the ethico-political railroad tracks that will “conduct” Canadian society into the future, Egerton Ryerson who will conduct the conductor. Like Pericles, the great encomiast of Athenian freedom and popular public life before him, Ryerson, a master rhetorician in Upper Canadian public life for decades, had to think that he was in possession of certain rare abilities of speech and pen that entitled him to be such a guide.[4]

So it should not be controversial to suggest that Ryerson was well aware of the “Platonic” nature of his role as Chief Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada.[5] Whether he thought of himself as “the best and most important man in the state” as was stipulated for Plato’s Chief Superintendent of Education is open to speculation. But it seems reasonable to conclude that the thought may well have occurred to him at some point or other.[6]

Ryerson played his role of “Guardian-in-Chief” for the Upper Canadian “Colonial Leviathan” twenty-five hundred years after Plato outlined his version of the position.[7] Thus he was working within a tradition which had long since blended the classical with the biblical legacy. It was this “hybrid” tradition and its modern progeny of “civil and religious liberty,” at least as he understood the history of the West, that Ryerson sought to transmit to the Canadian community. He would make this transmission via his “unofficial” Lieutenant-Guardians and Assistant Lieutenant-Guardians toiling in the parishes, legislatures, courts, universities, schools, farmhouses, workshops, and households throughout the country.[8]

It comes as no surprise then to observe a certain “missionary” element in Ryerson’s public educational rhetoric. He pleads for “hundreds of youth” to go forth from Victoria College (of which he was the founding president) and become “ornaments of the pulpit, the senate, and the bar.” They may do so by advancing the literature, science, and arts of their country, and in this way contribute to Canada’s “elevation, prosperity and happiness!”[9] From its “intake” of the provincial youth, Victoria College may discover those individuals who will make Canadian additions to the tradition that began with the Greeks and Romans so long ago.

The Many and the Few

Evidently, then, Ryerson thought that the “educated men” in modern society should see themselves as responsible for handing down to the succeeding generations the standards of biblical revelation and classical reason or “Jerusalem and Athens” to speak symbolically. . These few are the “guardians and mentors” of the “coming generation.” By carrying the western legacy into the community they can determine whether the ongoing process of civilization will continue or begin to slacken. “It is for this few to say whether Canada shall rise or sink in the scale of countries – whether it shall advance or retrograde in the race of civilization.” The educated few have it in their power to say what “the character of our successors shall be.”[10]

Although Ryerson is a firm believer in liberal society and equality under the law, he very evidently draws a distinction between the educated few and the broad majority of the population. Natural inequality amongst human beings is a fact of existence for him and also a fact that has a relevance to the conditions of political life. In discussing the science of rhetoric, for example, he says that the “primary qualifications” for this political art par excellence must be “furnished by nature” and if one is to achieve its most successful exercise then “goodness of heart, soundness of judgment, and an acquaintance with the liberal arts are essential.” Ryerson also says that the “power which an eloquent orator exerts over an assembly” can be exerted by an able writer over a country in “an age of printing and writing.”[11] No doubt Ryerson thought of himself in these terms and that his various writings would continue to exercise an influence over the Canadian people.

What Ryerson is suggesting here is that one has to be more or less cut out by nature to be a true political leader. How then does he reconcile this clear acceptance of the idea of unequal qualifications to rule or exercise authority with popular or “responsible” government where numbers, as opposed to the claims of virtue, necessarily determine who has power? [12] Ryerson’s answer is simply that if those who have the good fortune to cultivate their superior natural endowments in such a way as to include mastery of the science of rhetoric then they will be capable of persuading the populace to their views, as Pericles once did in Athens, and in this way the best fitted to guide the country will have appropriate authority.

Ryerson, then, believed it possible to reconcile the distinction between the enlightened few and the general population with the idea of the rights-bearing individuals exercising their civil and religious freedom equally with all other citizens regardless of religious, cultural, ethnic, or social attributes. This reconciliation, made possible by the liberal and representative state, is what is intended when he uses the terms “patriotism” and “Canadianism.”

The Roots of Patriotic Canadianism

Ryerson interpreted Canada’s civic identity in the language of “the elementary principles and practice of civil government.” He concluded from these principles that the “true end” of the “machinery of government” is the “greatest good of the greatest number” defined as “the temporal and moral happiness of civilized man.”[13] He says that he has always sought as much as possible to introduce “expositions” of these principles into his various annual reports, addresses, and official documents.[14]

But where do these “elementary principles” come from we might ask? Ryerson provides us with one possible answer in what he called an “epitome” of his “fifty years reading and meditation, and more than forty years occasional discussion, respecting these first principles of government.”[15] This “epitome” resolves itself into a core of maxims derived from such figures as David Hume, Francis Wayland, Sir Robert Peel, James Fenimore Cooper, William Ellery Channing, Joseph Story, Alexis de Tocqueville, Richard Cobden, Thomas Gisborne, Sir Charles Bagot and Lords Brougham, Durham, and Sydenham. The names of Burke, Blackstone, and Paley may be added to this “epitome” from his other writings. But even this list of great names from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries does not constitute the whole of Ryerson’s civil curriculum.

To make a long story short there is more to Ryerson’s “elementary principles” than can be circumscribed within the limits of strictly modern thought.[16] In fact, Canadians should spend their reading hours “with Herodotus and Livy, with Demosthenes and Cicero, with Homer and Virgil, the same as with Paul and Moses, and David and Isaiah.”[17] We see here in a key public lecture on Canadian “social advancement” that Ryerson’s list of recommendations of those with whom Canadians should “hold converse” includes none of the authors he refers to in his “epitome” of the “principles and practice of civil government.” But this list does include two great ancient historians, two great ancient orators, and two great ancient poets along with the greatest figures of the Bible: one from the New and three from the Old Testament.[18]

We are forced to the conclusion that for Ryerson the modern “liberal” teachings, which are to be seen in the authors included in his “epitome,” for all their indispensability to the “principles and practice of civil government,” need to be supplemented in the Canadian public mind by that which is to be found in “Jerusalem and Athens.” Ryerson thought that it made great sense to have the materials upon which the popular consciousness would be built, and its corresponding criteria for esteem and disesteem, taken in large measure from the authorities that informed the public imagination of the pre-modern world, both Greek and Judaic.

Here we arrive at the problem of the nature of Canadian civic unity. Is it simply “institutional” in nature as in Ryerson’s “elementary principles and practice of civil government” or is it a “communion” of citizens living indeed within this institutional framework but made one in virtue of a shared legacy coming down from “Jerusalem and Athens”?

The Political-Theological Problem and Civic Unity

Professor Janet Ajzenstat argues that the “Lockean” civic institutions established by the Canadian Fathers provided an ample basis for Canadian national identity premised on a civic culture of liberalism. Professor Ajzenstat makes a cogent case that the Canadian Fathers were legatees of Locke’s Second Treatise and its arguments for the state of nature, the social contract, the right to revolution, and so on.[19] Ajzenstat is inclined to think of Locke’s Second Treatise as the Ur-text of Canadian civic culture and as such it should be accepted as “Scripture” by Canadians and their leaders.

For his part, Ryerson, together with G.W.F. Hegel, saw Prussia as symbolizing certain “ideal” features of the modern state, not least of which was the civic unity so prized by Professor Ajzenstat. His biographer notes that “In Prussia (Ryerson) had seen the advantages of strong and wise central direction and authority.”[20] Ryerson’s final view was that in modern times the cause of civilization is intrinsically linked to the activities of the modern and rational state.[21] Ryerson took the principle of citizen “socialization,” which he observed in Prussia, to be of immediate relevance to the situation in Upper Canada. Ryerson’s “Prussianism” is tied to his understanding that Canada was to be built out of heterogeneous elements and that therefore a state-sponsored “Canadianism” would have to be developed if this “amphibious mob” was to be turned into a genuine political community.

The example of Ryerson, while not directly cross-cutting Ajzenstat’s case for Canada’s resting on “Lockean” popular sovereignty and rights etc., (at least in the way Ajzenstat argues various claims for Canadian “conservatism,” “organicism,” and “Toryism” must inevitably do), nevertheless points in a direction somewhat tangential to her starting point. Ajzenstat’s civic “Lockean” template does not fit so neatly over Ryerson’s profile even though he manifestly provides evidence for the thesis of Canada’s “Lockeanism.” For Ryerson, Canada’s civic identity is as much linked to Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity and A Letter on Toleration as it is to his Second Treatise. Canada’s “Lockeanism” subsists as much in her historical “theological” identity as it does in her parliamentary institutions. Her legacy of “theological Lockeanism” is as essential to her civic identity as her inheritance of “constitutional Lockeanism.” The problem here is how to square Ryerson’s “political–theological” interpretation of the Canadian polity with Ajzenstat’s more “constitutional–institutional” angle of approach.

Ryerson certainly felt the direct influence of Locke, as his various quotations from the philosopher attest. But he would also have been under Locke’s indirect influence via later “Locke dependent” thinkers who were in turn influential in nineteenth-century Canada, which influence Ryerson in turn did his best to spread.[22] If the case of Ryerson constitutes any litmus test, it is arguable that Locke’s Christian apologetics were the conduit by which his thought entered Canadian political culture as much if not more so than the principles of the Second Treatise so pivotal for Professor Ajzenstat’s discussion. Ryerson was then wrestling with the “political–theological” horn of the dilemma posed by Locke’s moving us to the modern, liberal society even as Professor Ajzenstat has wrestled with the political–constitutional one.

At the least we can say that if Ryerson’s Common Christianity is essentially the form of Christianity expounded by Locke then the circle between Ajzenstat’s “Lockean” popular sovereignty version of Canadian civic identity and Ryerson’s “Lockean” Christian version of the same phenomenon can reasonably be closed. We might say that Ryerson’s Upper Canada is indeed constituted as a political community by its liberal elective institutions but as a human community it is its historical legacy of Common (“Lockean”) Christianity that gives it substance.[23]

But lest we be accused of underplaying Ryerson’s “orthodoxy” here we should note that there was nothing in Ryerson’s adherence to the teachings of Methodism’s founder John Wesley that would in any way have ill-disposed him to the thought of Locke. Indeed, quite the opposite. In his famous review of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding Wesley says the book “contains many excellent truths, proposed in a clear and strong manner, by a great master of both reasoning and language” and will “be of admirable use to young students.” [24] In other words, fully allowing Ryerson’s attraction to the Methodist faith does not for a minute put him outside the scope of Lockean liberalism.

To be sure, there is a great distance between Ryerson and a more recent high profile communicant of Methodism like Professor Northrop Frye for whom at the tender age of fifteen “the whole shitty, smelly garment of fundamentalism dropped to the sewer and stayed there.”[25] Ryerson might therefore stand under the cloud of H.L. Mencken’s scornful characterization of Methodists as suffering from a “pathetic inability to keep up with human progress.”[26]

But would it be fair to include Ryerson with those whom Mencken targeted for his criticism and contempt? In brief, was Ryerson on the side of Matthew Arnold’s “Anarchy” or on that of his “Culture”? Perhaps “Anarchy,” because we know he was a defender of “middle class values” and the Wesleyan religious tradition, including the practical, active, and economistic attitude that so concerned Matthew Arnold.[27]

But at the same time, as we have already seen, Ryerson was clearly “Hellenistic,” to use Arnold’s term, and sought the dissemination of “the best that is known and thought in the world” throughout the community. Although the profile of Methodism in Ryerson’s thought is high he still deserves a place on the side of Arnold’s “Culture.” He did not think for a moment that Christianity represented the totality of ethical thought any more than Locke, Paley, et al. did. He fully allows that there are non-Christian sources for morals to be found in pagan antiquity and he also believes that the development and cultivation of the human faculties are not the province of Christianity alone. Thus he qualifies as a “Hellenist” as well as a “Hebraist,” if we adopt Arnold’s categories.

Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” question encourages us to do what Arnold himself sought to in his study of the Protestantism that prevailed in the England of his day, which means in our case to seek out the heart of Ryerson’s “Scriptural” or “Common Christianity.”[28]

Common Christianity

At one point in writing to a fellow clergyman Ryerson said, “I abhor German theology as much as you do, but as Superintendent of Schools I am neither a Theologian nor a politician.”[29] What Ryerson is suggesting here is that it is neither as a “theologian” nor as a “politician” that he is administering the school system. Thus he would have us believe that promoting Common Christianity via the educational system is neither a “theological” nor a “political” procedure. What he must mean is that advancing Common Christianity is both a theological and a political procedure and therefore strictly speaking it is neither.[30] His Common Christianity cannot be either simply “theological” because it is related to the character of the political order, nor can it be simply “political” because it is very clearly related to the “theological” or “divine” order, or more generally to the ordering of the souls of the citizens.[31]

Ryerson, then, saw the individual person over whom the system under his superintendence presided not primarily as the location of a series of drives that are in need of conditioning for effective personal conduct under the prevailing economic and cultural conditions. Rather, that individual possesses a unique soul that is of such a nature that it points to a “higher destiny than that of states.”[32] The purpose of education for such a being then is to assist in the development and cultivation of that soul such that its best energies are not narrowly channelled or allowed to wither on the vine.[33] On such a view Ryerson’s first question for any educational principle would be whether it allowed that the soul’s transcendence is the ultimate goal of all education.[34]

If Ryerson is correct in thinking that there is indeed an element of human nature that has a “higher destiny than that of states,” then the educational process can never be seen as solely a secular and temporal matter. To opt for a completely secular policy where religion had no role in the “public square” was for Ryerson as much as to demonstrate a naive faith that the train of “social progress” would naturally preserve ethical and moral standards without any special effort on the part of the governing authorities. The idea of the unaided preservation of moral culture via the beneficial operation of the forces of modernization and social progress was inconceivable to him. The solution then was a “common” or “non-denominational” Christianity.[35]

The Unity of Ryerson’s Political Philosophy

Ryerson’s “Common Christianity” is misconceived if it is defined in purely religious or narrowly “theological” terms.[36] His particular version of “Common Christianity” was conjoined to his view that the first principle of political life is that political parties or “factions” should not be the basis of political or legislative power.[37] This bipartite standpoint forms the warp and woof of Ryerson’s political philosophy.[38] In this regard Ryerson always thought in terms of a binary opposition between “Lockean” Christianity/civil government on the one hand, and the newly competing principle of the respectability of partisanship and party government on the other. The operating principle of “partyism” as it was called is at odds not only with a “theological” conception of the common good but also with any serious conception of that good from a secular vantage point. The assumption in both the religious and secular conceptions is that the general welfare must of necessity impose restraints upon partisanship and the desire to privilege particular interests over the shared interest of the whole.[39]

Ryerson never really felt any need to confess that behind all his trans-partisan rhetoric he was at bottom a “politician.” He sees his politics of Common Christianity as in fact a political–theological straddling of the gulf between the sphere of politics as ordinarily understood and the non-political “theological” or “metaphysical” realm above or beyond political life. Ryerson does not see his activities as purely “political” because he is an actor in the secular realm with the theological perspective in view. [40] In some sense, then, he is a living violation of the principle of the absolute separation of church and state. He is a non-elected figure serving the modern “secular Leviathan” and at the same time he is serving the “theological” purposes of Common Christianity with decision-making power connected to taxpayer funds.

But it is in this two-sided role that Ryerson sees himself as standing outside both the realm of politics and of religion as ordinarily practised. His sphere of activity is in fact the realm of “statesmanship” which he takes to necessarily involve both dimensions – body and soul we might say – and which transcends the principle of church/state separation itself. In other words, without the vital principle of statesmanship there would be no state to separate from the church in the first place.[41]

The statesmanly view of the politics of Common Christianity is that there is nothing in it available for debate and analysis on the plane of regular party politics.[42] Ryerson’s own non-elected administrative–bureaucratic power goes together with Upper Canada’s “unchosen” Christian inheritance from western civilization in general and from the Anglo-American world in particular. That historical legacy is not meant to be part of the quotidian partisan struggles in the public square, but serves rather as the platform upon which the strictly partisan, self-interested political struggles can take place. Ryerson defines the defence of that platform as a duty of patriotism and not a sign of partisanship.[43]

 “Clinging to the Wreckage” [44]

One cannot today look at Ryerson’s “political–theological” social philosophy and avoid acknowledging that it has very much succumbed to the locomotive-like march of science, technology, economics, administration, and other forces of modernization. Ryerson’s “two worlds” perspective of the transcendent, eternal, infinite, and “sacred” world on the one hand and the material, temporal, finite, and “profane” world on the other has, with the passage of time, become the “one world” of modern, North American bourgeois, liberal, secular society.[45]

If one may speak of an inevitably “tragic” element to statesmanship then we can say that Ryerson’s “Canadian Dream” has faded into oblivion. His political–theological conception of a Canada between two worlds – the transcendent and the secular – did not endure.[46] The political–theological unity of his social philosophy virtually guaranteed its failure given the secularizing forces of the age, some of which Ryerson himself sought to promote.[47]

Canada is no longer a Christian society and very firmly so. As early as the 1960s Goldwin S. French pointed out that the Methodism that had shaped so much of Upper Canada’s history had already become a “fading memory.”[48] Ontario Protestantism, in order to remain pertinent to the social culture, had to abstract its concept of the “sacred” from the public world, or, in other terms, make religion a purely private matter. It was no affair of state institutions what “values” people held. In our time, to suggest that the community should be guided in any way by scriptural values in its law-making, is to be condemned to the very fringes of the political debate.[49]

 Out of Thin Air”

Peter C. Emberley and Waller R. Newell have said that while contemporary Canadian nationalism has been preening itself on “inventing a country out of thin air” it has “in fact turned its back on virtually every substantive Canadian account of justice and the good life.”[50] One might say that Ryerson’s vision of a patriotic “Canadianism” may be included in that “substantive account of justice and the good life” on which “preening” Canadian nationalism has “turned its back.” Allowing Emberley and Newell’s point, we understand that in partial consequence of the failure of her original vision of justice and the good life Canada has resorted to the idea of multiculturalism to explain herself to herself. In no other advanced liberal democracy has a stress upon multiculturalism as the key to future harmony and national success been so influential.[51] From a Nietzschean perspective Canada might be seen as a “world leader” in that it is living the principle of “A Thousand Goals and One” more fully than any other country.[52]

In a society the principles of which strictly limit the public sphere’s scope for reflecting the richer particularity of the private realm, it may be expected that some citizens will cling to their ethnic roots or traditions, or try to rediscover them if they had been weakened or dissolved a generation or two previously. Multiculturalism plays to this temptation insofar as it implies that these formative influences rooted in one’s unique ethnic connections are so fundamental that they might inform all decisions relevant to residency, marital preferences, electoral behaviour, party loyalty, and so on. Such a tendencyis, to say the least, a long way from Ryerson’s formula of the newcomer’s “thinking and feeling in reference to local residence and relations” as soon as footfall is made on Canadian soil.[53]

This is because Ryerson’s cherished “patriotic feeling of Canadianism” is not the kind of sentiment that could arise simply by residing on Canadian soil, prospering in the Canadian economy, and adjusting to the Canadian climate. At the end of the day patriotism, Canadian or otherwise, is constituted by the thoughts and images passing through citizens’ heads. These thoughts and images animate and inspire the individual in all relations of life, including those to their country. Hence citizens’ reading habits are a key factor in the Ryersonian program.

Ryerson’s task in the nineteenth century was to enlighten the incoming immigrants about the values and meaning of the very western civilization of which they were ultimately a product. Today, however, many newcomers are in need of basic “westernization” in the first place. Ryerson’s concern in regard to them would be, are they learning the story of Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Enlightenment, the revolutions and reforms that serve to explain the existence of a country like Canada? “Canadian values,” which for Ryerson ultimately had to mean the values of “Jerusalem and Athens” always need sustenance and reiteration as Canadian society undergoes various transformations in the political, legal, social, cultural and technological spheres. Whatever modern “improvements” are achieved over time must be adduced to the foundations of Canadian society in “Jerusalem and Athens” rather than allowed to derange the social culture as it evolves.

Thus Ryerson insists that civilization should be seen as both “an affair of each individual mind, and (as) the work of each generation.”[54] Society’s maintaining of the level of civilization it has thus far achieved, to say nothing of climbing higher, is very much dependent on an unbroken philosophical and ethical chain linking past and future. To have this chain severed would be to lose touch with the “corrections” that earlier generations have made and ultimately to the wellspring of civilization in “Jerusalem and Athens” both. Ryerson’s first question for the recently arrived is, have they been invited into the legacy of the “forefather philosophers, moralists, and statesmen” who rest in the intellectual and moral soil upon which the Canadian community was built?[55]

As a mind compounded of the Judeo-Christian tradition suspended in a fluid of western philosophic rationalism (or vice versa) or of “Hebraism” and “Hellenism,” to use the language of Matthew Arnold, Ryerson would certainly argue that without the “Plato to Nato” story at its core, education would have little or no orienting effect on the newcomers who must now live their lives in the culture of the West. If recently settled citizens are to thrive in a western liberal culture then they should be steeped in the western experience and thereby integrated into the stream of western consciousness flowing down from “Jerusalem and Athens.” But today we know that, whether it is for Canadians or the recently arrived, the “Ages of Civilization” approach to education is out of favour in certain key educational circles. The practical effect of eschewing such an approach is to leave the newcomers in a limbo-land that lies between their own non-western values and the “value-free” or “value-relative” world of the postmodernist, multiculturalist West. For Ryerson such a situation would be unthinkable.


Today, Ryerson might find himself arguing against a State “Educracy” that would resist any suggestion that his “Jerusalem and Athens” education should be revived as part of the curriculum.[56] The powers that now sit where Ryerson once did would insist that such a curriculum was throughout infected with strains of patriarchalism, racism, homophobism, and colonialism and so has no place in the education of students who must take their place in the modern (or postmodern) globalized world.[57] Today, Ryerson might appear to some observers as some kind of eccentric advocate of “Western Civ” or “Great Books” education. He might today behold not only Richard John Neuhaus’s “Nake Public Square” but also the spectacle of the “Naked Public School” and find himself transformed into a kind of rebel against the very order that he did so much to establish.[58]

Ryerson might respond to the challenge represented by the “Naked Public School” in the combative spirit that distinguished his career in the 1820s, 30s, and 40s.[59] His putative “outsider” status in today’s situation would be no novelty to him. As a young man starting out in the young colony, he had converted from Anglicanism to Methodism and so had made himself a “second-class citizen” under the regime of Anglican privileges then prevailing. But he wrote in vigourous opposition to the Family Compact and Anglican establishmentarianism and in spirited support of liberal justice, civil equality, and “true” or Common Christianity.[60]

In this day and age Ryerson might find himself “blogging” voluminously for the “media” as he had once done on and off between 1829 and 1840 as the editor of the Christian Guardian, the mouthpiece of Upper Canadian Wesleyan Methodism at the time. He might fundraise for the right kind of educational institutions, as was done for Victoria College when he became its first president.[61] He might even gird up his loins and start preaching his version of Canadian liberalism on every street corner.

But beyond such possible rebelliousness, Ryerson might well retreat to his study to fulfill his ambition of being a great historian, as he did in his later years. He would now have to bring his historical narrative down to the present and describe Canada’s involvement in the wars of the twentieth century (and more recently in Afghanistan) even as he had earlier described her heroes’ exploits in the wake of American Independence and the War of 1812. And no doubt today, as at that time, he would conceive of his efforts as providing Canada with a historical narrative tailored to its political needs and hopes, or in his words, giving the nation “a guide to a true policy well-grounded on the foundations of the past.”[62]

But whether today Ryerson would use his pen as a rapier in the public policy polemics of the hour or dip it into the annals of history with a view to historiographical greatness, we may rightly assume that, as was the case in his halcyon days, his “most earnest efforts” would be to stress the duty of all citizens to “unite in one noble patriotic feeling of Canadianism.” Such a feeling would see each citizen embracing Canada’s well-being or, in Ryerson’s precise terms, the nation’s “advancement” as “their highest earthly interest and glory” (emphasis added).[63] Their “heavenly” interest and glory of course would have to do not so much with their “feeling” for Canada as their “feeling” for God. As far as this goes Ryerson’s Canada would be only too pleased if the popular “feeling” for the country was seriously rivalled by a popular “feeling” for God or that “higher destiny than that of states.” As we have seen, the two “feelings” are mutually interdependent in Ryerson’s understanding. But at the same time Ryerson would be the very first to say that when all is said and done on this particular point, each individual Canadian “must minister to himself.”



[1] Generally on Ryerson see: Peter C. Emberley and Waller R. Newell, Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994),155–8; Alison Prentice, The School Promoters: Education and Social Class in Mid-Nineteenth century Upper Canada (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977); R.D. Gidney, “Egerton Ryerson” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online vol. 11 (University of Toronto/Universite Laval,1982); Neil McDonald and Alf Chaiton ed., Egerton Ryerson and His Times (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1978); Laura Damania, Egerton Ryerson (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975); Robin S. Harris, “Egerton Ryerson” in Robert L. MacDougall ed.,Our Living Tradition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959); C.B. Sissons ed., Egerton Ryerson: His Life and Letters 2 vols.(Toronto: Clark, Irwin, 1937); C.B. Sissons, Egerton Ryerson (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1930); Nathaniel Burwash, Egerton Ryerson (Toronto: Morang, 1910); J. George Hodgins, “Sketch of the Reverend Dr. Ryerson,” The Methodist Magazine (Sept.,1894); The Ryerson Memorial Volume (Toronto: Warwick and Sons, 1889).

[2] The Laws of Plato, trans. Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 765d-–776c.

[3]  “A Lecture on Social Advancement of Canada” Journal of Education of Upper Canada 2, no.12 (1849):184.

[4] In his 1841 Inaugural Address at Victoria College Ryerson quotes from Pericles’ second speech to the Athenians in Book II of The Peloponnesian War. “One who forms a judgment on any point, but cannot explain himself clearly to the people, might as well have never thought of the subject.” Inaugural Address on the Nature and Advantages of an English and Liberal Education Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Egerton Ryerson 21st October, 1841 (Toronto: The Guardian Office, 1842), 18. See Emberley and Newell, Bankrupt Education, 157. The classicist David Grene says that the clear implication of this speech is that Pericles is managing the people “as of right of character and talent.” Pericles’ frankness is designed to show those under his authority “that his judgment is better than theirs.” Man and His Pride: Greek Political Theory (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1950), 9.

[5] Consider: “The men of the (Indian civil) service were chosen and trained on Plato’s principles as Guardians who would rule in the light of their own vision of the Good and the Beautiful – or, at least of an English compromise with Plato.” Philip Mason (pseud. Philip Woodruff) The Men Who Ruled India: The Guardians (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1954), 15. Ryerson has been described on all sides as a man whose ambition went beyond that of the daily public debate in the direction of the role of founder or philosopher-legislator. Clara Thomas describes Ryerson as “Absolutely determined that he personally would direct public opinion to its own future good … and, incidentally, to an acceptance of his will and authority in education matters.” Clara Thomas, Ryerson of Upper Canada (Toronto: McClelland &Stewart 1977), 105.

[6] Ryerson’s notion of his own special relationship to the history of Upper Canada was the inspiration behind two major volumes which revolve around his long involvement in the public life of the young colony more or less from the beginning. See J. George Hodgins ed. The Story of My Life (Toronto: William Briggs, 1883) and Canadian Methodism: Its Epochs and Its Characteristics (Toronto: William Briggs, 1882). According to Frederick Vaughan, from the strictly “scholarly” point of view prevalent in our time, the idea of someone like Ryerson playing an “historic” role of guiding the moral formation of the Canadian community is inconceivable. Under this “scholarly” dispensation, Vaughan argues, Ryerson, like various other Canadian “greats” must come to light as a man “pushed from behind by the winds of the lowest personal motives; [and as]never motivated by high virtue or noble ambitions.” Very rarely, Vaughan says, are we permitted to see figures like Ryerson as “genuinely committed to the highest personal and political virtues” and very seldom, if ever, are we permitted to look upon them as genuine “greats.” The consequence of this situation is that “Canada has become nation without historic heroes … [and] for the student of Canada to seek for historic heroes we are told is ‘un-Canadian.’” The Canadian Federalist Experiment: From Defiant Monarchy to Reluctant Republic (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), xi. The following items on Ryerson represent the historiography the shift from which is lamented by Professor Vaughan: John Henderson Great Men of Canada (Toronto: Southam Press, 1929); William Smith, Political Leaders of Upper Canada (Toronto: Thomas Nelson, 1931); J. Harold Putman, Egerton Ryerson and Education in Upper Canada (Toronto: William Briggs, 1912); J.L. MacNeill, “Egerton Ryerson, Founder of Canadian (English-Speaking) Education,” in Robert S. Patterson et al. ed., Profiles of Canadian Educators (Toronto: D.C. Heath, 1974). Ronald A. Manzer describes Ryerson as a type of “tutelary superintendent” who “depended primarily on (his) powers of persuasion and leadership” to bring the community into line with his “central vision of educational progress.”  Manzer’s Ryerson believes in a dynamic interplay between centralized authority and locally independent initiative. On this view Ryerson’s philosophy of educational administration might be called “Dirigiste Voluntarism.” See Ronald A. Manzer, Educational Regimes and Anglo-American Democracy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003),48.

[7] See Allan Greer and Ian Radforth ed. Colonial Leviathan: State Formation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). At one point Ryerson said he held “a somewhat similar situation” in Canada to that of Victor Cousin, the Minister of Public Instruction (1832–40) under the Adolphe Thiers regime in France. Cousin was a well-known philosopher whose authority Ryerson cited in defence of the case that training in Greek and Latin has always been a sine qua non for “the ablest statesmen of both Europe and America” (“A Lecture etc.,” 183–4).

[8] For Bruce Curtis as well as for R.D. Gidney, W.J.P. Millar, and D.A. Lawr, Ryerson would be one of the “Choice Men” or “Professional Gentlemen” of the time. See Bruce Curtis, True Government By Choice Men: Inspection, Education and State Formation in Canada West (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), R.D. Gidney and W.P.J. Millar, Professional Gentlemen: The Professions in Nineteenth-Century Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994); R.D. Gidney and D.A. Lawr, “Bureaucracy vs. Community? The Origins of Bureaucratic Procedure in the Upper Canadian School System” in J.K. Johnson and Bruce G. Wilson ed., Historical Essays on Upper Canada: New Perspectives (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1989). See also Jeffrey L. McNairn, The Capacity to Judge: Public Opinion and Deliberative Democracy in Upper Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000); David E. Smith, The Republican Option in Canada, Past and Present (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999) and David Cresap Moore, The Politics of Deference. A Study of the Mid-Nineteenth Century English Political System (Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1976).

[9] Ryerson, Inaugural Address etc., 28. Ryerson believed that Canada’s connection to the “national life, character, enjoyments, aspirations and destinies” of Britain tied her to a legacy of greatness descending from any number of “statesmen, jurists, orators, soldiers, scholars (and) divines.” Remarks on the Historical Mis-statements and Fallacies of Mr. Goldwin Smith (Toronto: Leader Steam Press, 1866), 15. See Rod Preece,”The Political Wisdom of Sir John A. Macdonald,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 17 (1984):477.

[10] “Obligations of Educated Men (Part II),” Journal of Education for Upper Canada 1 (1848):194.

[11] Inaugural Address etc., 18–19. Elsewhere Ryerson says a “rich variety of language … gives one man (a) great advantage over another, in conversation, in writing, and in public speaking.” (“A Lecture etc.,” 184). It is in connection with the subject of rhetoric that Ryerson mentions the case of Socrates and the longstanding allegations that he would dress up “falsehood in the guise of truth, or fiction in the form of reality.” But Ryerson insists that the popular accusation against Socrates was a false one because rhetoric rightly understood does not make “the worse the better reason” (The Apology of Socrates, 19a 4–c1) but rather is “designed to exhibit both in their native power and splendour” (Inaugural Address etc., 18). See Emberley and Newell, Bankrupt Education, 157.

[12] Ryerson draws a fundamental distinction between the understanding few and the far greater number who, whether for reasons of nature or nurture or both, remain unable to grasp the inner meaning of scientific discoveries. He explains that phenomena such as “the power of steam, the ascent of a balloon (or) the motions of the heavenly bodies” remain mysterious to “untaught and ignorant people” but are perfectly comprehensible to those “properly trained in the relevant science.” First Lessons in Christian Morals, (Toronto: Copp Clark& Co., 1871), 77. Consider: “Where Ryerson’s plan (for native education) differed from that for the Euro-Canadian population was in recommending an increase in emphasis on religion and a slight decrease in the time spent on other aspects of education.” Ron Stagg, “Egerton Ryerson and Residential Schools” in Citizenshift: Media for Social Change

[13] “The Importance of Education to a Manufacturing and a Free People” Journal for Education of Upper Canada 1(1848): 296. Ryerson is careful to substitute the term “greatest good” for Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest happiness” to indicate that the general welfare in Canada is not to be understood in a “eudaimonistic” or “felicific calculus” way. Ryerson’s distinction between “temporal” and “moral” happiness when the usual contradistinction is between the “temporal” and the “eternal” suggests his quasi-Kantian sense that morality is somehow the eternal law.

[14] New Canadian Dominion: Dangers and Duties of the People in Regard to Their Government (Toronto: Lovell and Gibson, 1867), 3.

[15] The New Canadian Dominion etc., 5.

[16] Looking back to the ancient world Ryerson sees that there was once “a great intellectual republic” the literature of which became the universal “standard of taste.” “Even in the time of Cicero” the ancient cities “are said to have abounded in all the stores of art and resources of Instruction” (“A Lecture etc.,”184). In this context Ryerson lists the great authors of antiquity who deserve to be “imitated and emulated.” He does so in “pairs” –  first the Greeks “Aristotle and Plato,” then the Greco-Roman tandems of “Herodotus and Caesar, Demosthenes and Cicero, Homer and Virgil.” Not surprisingly, then, Ryerson is critical of the “classicists” or those whom Nietzsche named the “philologists” who study antiquity without bringing their researches into genuine contact with their actual lives and who would tarnish the reputation of this literature if its legacy was not so weighty. “Classical learning is not responsible for such folly, any more than loyalty and patriotism, and Christianity itself, are responsible for the selfishness and dishonesty of courtiers, demagogues and hypocrites.”(Inaugural Address etc., 15, 12). “(Ryerson’s) appeal to the ancients was not antiquarianism. It was intended to add breadth and stimulus to the ‘business of life’” (Emberley and Newell, Bankrupt Education, 158). According to Nietzsche “A Greek cook is more of a cook than any other.” Friedrich Nietzsche, “We Classicists” in William Arrowsmith ed., Unmodern Observations (Yale University Press, 1991), 328.

[17] Ryerson, “A Lecture etc.,”182. “I hope whatever modifications may take place in our Colleges … that classical scholarship in Canada will ever advantageously compare with that in any other part of America, and never be inferior to that of Great Britain and France” (Ryerson, “A Lecture etc.,”183–4). Compare Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Government of India” in G.M. Young ed., Macaulay: Poetry and Prose (London: Rupert Hart-Davies, 1967), 708–9.

[18]  It seems significant here that Ryerson thrusts forward three figures from the Old Testament and only one from the New Testament (Paul). The reason for this is perhaps given by Nietzsche: “(A)ll honour to the Old Testament. I find in it great human beings, a heroic landscape, and something of the very rarest quality in the world, the incomparable naievete of a strong heart.” The Genealogy of Morals trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), III,2,144. “In the Jewish ‘Old Testament’ … there are human beings, things and speeches in so grand a style that Greek and Indian literature have nothing to compare with it.” Beyond Good and Evil trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1966) Aphorism #52,65. See John Stuart Mill, Dissertations and Discussions 2 vols. (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1859), 1:206.

[19] Janet Ajzenstat, The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), 3–5, 6–9. Jerry Bannister observes that Professor Ajzenstat has managed to exert “significant influence” on the field of Canadian studies as “one of the few scholars to bridge the divide between political science and history.” “The Loyalist Order Framework in Canadian History, 1750–1840” in Jean-François Constant and Michel Ducharme ed., Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 125. See also in the same volume Ian McKay, “Canada as a Long Liberal Revolution,” 392–3.

[20] Burwash, Egerton Ryerson, 16. See Egerton Ryerson, Report on a System of Elementary Education for Upper Canada (Montreal: Lovell & Gibson, 1847), 181 and The New Canadian Dominion, 17; See also James Love, “The Professionalization of Teachers in Mid-Nineteenth Century Upper Canada,” in McDonald and Chaiton ed., Egerton Ryerson and His Times, 113. Prentice, The School Promoters,171; Emberley and Newell Bankrupt Education,159,161; Sherman F. Balogh, Ontario Educators’ Observations of the German System of Education: 1834–1918 Master Thesis (University of Toronto, 1997); G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, Translated with notes by T. M. Knox(London: Oxford University Press,1967), sec. 291, 190; Shlomo Avineri, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge University Press,1972), 160; Matthew Arnold “Friendship’s Garland” in A. Dwight Culler ed., Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold  (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1961), 398–9; H. L. Mencken, “The Mailed Fist and its Prophet” The Atlantic Monthly (November, 1914).

[21] Nietzsche criticized the Prussian state as a threat to “culture.” See “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” in Oscar Levy ed., The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, 18 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1909–1911), 2:86, 88, 89. But Ryerson saw the newly emerging Canadian state as culture’s ally. He understood that it is not possible for “culture” to imitate Athena and simply spring out of Zeus’s head in a country so young and so crude as Canada. It needed a “midwife” and almost by definition that would have to be the modern state with all its attendant power of educational reform.

[22] Ryerson was a devotee of the thought of William Paley who is omnipresent in his writings. The names “Locke and Paley” were conjoined for generations in moral philosophy classes in all the major universities of the English-speaking world. See William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002); Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity.12th edition (London: J. Faulder, 1809) and Evidences of Christianity (Philadelphia: J.J. Woodard, 1836). Richard Watson is also relevant in this connection. See his Theological Institutes: Or a View of the Evidences, Doctrines, Morals, and Institutions of Christianity (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1857), 1:5 where Watson cites John Locke as a theological authority. It is the light of the great influence on Ryerson of Paley’s Natural Theology that it is reasonable to suggest he was at some level a “Deist.” And the imprint of Locke is clear in this connection: “Every Christian both as a deist and a Christian [is] obliged to study both the law of nature and the revealed law.” John Locke, “A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity” in Works 9 vols. (London: Rivington, 1824), 6:229. See Albert F. Fiorino, “The Moral Foundation of Egerton Ryerson’s Idea of Education” in McDonald and Chaiton ed., Egerton Ryerson and His Times, 59–80; William Sweet, “Paley, Whately and ‘Enlightenment Evidentialism’” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 45 (1999)143–66; Niall O’Flaherty, “The Rhetorical Strategy of William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802)” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41 (2010):19–25.

[23] Like Hegel before him Ryerson seems to think that a necessary if not sufficient condition for liberal freedom in the modern world, if not the ancient, is the Protestant Reformation or its effects. Ryerson’s list of civilized societies in his Lecture on Social Advancement includes both Christian and Pagan but not Catholic examples, with the exception of Gallican France, which some might argue was only “quasi” Catholic. None of the examples in the uncivilized category are Protestant (“A Lecture etc.,”184).

[24] The Works of John Wesley (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1856), 7:451,455.

[25] See Jean O’ Grady Northrop Frye at Home and Abroad: His Ideas

[26]  H.L. Mencken, Treatise on the Gods (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930), 321. Mencken had no rivals in his contempt for and ridicule of Methodists for, amongst other things, their “Asiatic” and “medieval” opposition to “every sort of free inquiry.” (Ibid., 321–2). Mencken’s influential anti-Methodism might explain to some extent why today few amongst the educated public would join J. Wesley Bready in his unstinting praise of such “puritanical” phenomena as the Y.M.C.A., the temperance movement, and the British and Foreign Bible Society. See Wesley and Democracy (Toronto: The Thorn Press, 1939, 70). Consider: “The great Methodist movement more than deserves the eulogies bestowed upon it. … Its instinct may be sound. … More recently scientists and critical philosophers have followed the Methodist example … (of) wavering in their appeal to constructive reason.” Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures In Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1967), 22–3.

[27] It is a very curious thing that so far as I am aware Ryerson’s name has never been linked to that of Matthew Arnold given that in general his and Arnold’s political purposes were very much in line – the spread of education and the carrière ouvert aux talents. Like Ryerson, Arnold was a high official in public education, in fact Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools from 1851 to 1886. And his educational works have a Ryersonian “ring” about them with titles like Popular Education on the Continent (1861) and A French Eton, or middle-class education and the state (1864). See J. Dover Wilson, “Editor’s Introduction” in Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (Cambridge at the University Press, 1960), xv.

[28] Arnold was very much concerned about how the Methodists of his era were living their Christianity. His book St. Paul and Protestantism (New York: Macmillan, 1897) was designed to explain to them what nineteenth century Victorian Protestantism was and why it was suffering the fate it did. “Whatever its bearing may be for today and the future, the western conception of liberal education was profoundly altered by the exposure of classical virtue to Christian grace” (Emberley and Newell, Bankrupt Education, 89).

[29] Quoted in Bruce Curtis, True Government etc., 73.

[30] Alex McGregor suggests that “It never occurred to Ryerson to ask what right the state had in the mass-rooms or classrooms of the nation.” “Egerton Ryerson, Albert Carman, and the Founding of Albert College Belleville” Ontario History vol. 63, no. 4 (December, 1971): 205. But everywhere in his writings we see Ryerson wrestling with this question. The relation of Christianity to the State, he said “involves nice and comprehensive considerations of the common and peculiar ends and functions of both State and the Church—as the end of both is the well-being of man.” To consider practical measures in relation to this “vast subject” involves “considerable knowledge of both civil ecclesiastical polity (and) of civil and ecclesiastical history” (“The Importance of Education to a Manufacturing and a Free People,” 292).

[31] Bruce Curtis argues that Ryerson’s form of Christianity represented “a new form of social and political universality” based on certain contradictory ideals of “toleration, meekness, charity, and a respect for the rights of others” (“Preconditions of the Canadian State: Educational Reforms and the Construction of a Public in Upper Canada, 1837–1846” Studies in Political Economy 10(1983):356–7. We are bound to observe here that “meekness” is not a term that comes to mind readily when thinking of Ryerson.

[32] “Chief Superintendent’s Report 1857” in J. George Hodgins ed., Documentary History of Education in Upper Canada 28 vols. (Toronto: Warwick Bros. & Rutter,1897)13:210. Ryerson believes that the “secular” or socio-political plane of human life is inadequate to comprehend the totality of man’s existence. In the words of St. Augustine in the tradition of whose Christianity Ryerson may at some level be said to belong “The wise man, although he consists of body and soul, is called ‘wise’ in virtue of his soul” Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), VII, 5, 261–3. See Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), 444–6. For Ryerson the soul stands outside the material chain of causation and so can be free enough from its grasp to observe that chain’s operation while being unfettered by it. He concurs with Socrates that science can posit various factors that are connected to the appearance of things but this can never amount to a final explanation of how it is that I can shut my eyes or open my mouth. Thus the soul has to remain an “impenetrable mystery to us.” Nonetheless we “act upon it every day of our lives” (Christian Morals etc.,77–-8). See Plato, Phaedo (96a–99d); The Apology of Socrates (17a–24b); Phaedrus (229a–230b); Xenophon, Memorabilia (para.11–16); Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (1099b15–25).

[33] “Ryerson was particularly fearful of an ‘asymmetry’ in character” that might result without “the development to a certain extent of all our faculties” (Emberley and Newell, Bankrupt Education, 156).

[34] “The crucial point, is not where the naturalists and supernaturalists disagreed [but their agreement that there is transcendence … [which] is there objectively [and] not subjectively.” Walter Lippmann, The Public Philosophy (New York: Mentor, 1955), 133.

[35] Alex McGregor suggests that for Ryerson it was a “self-evident truth” that “piety was necessary to the public good.” “Egerton Ryerson, Albert Carman, etc.,” 205.

[36] Bruce Curtis says that “In practice common Christianity meant a kind of political behavior” (emphasis added) (“Preconditions etc.,” 356). See Patrick Devlin The Enforcement of Morals (Oxford University Press, 1965), 9, 25, 84.

[37] “By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are actuated by some common impulse or passion or interest adverse  to … the permanent and aggregate interests of the whole.” James Madison, “Federalist 10” in Clinton Rossiter ed., The Federalist Papers (New York: Mentor Books, 1961), 78. In his eulogy on the death of Lord Sydenham, Ryerson says that the deceased Governor-General belongs amongst “the first rank of statesmen” precisely because his aim was to “espouse no party” and “to destroy party faction.” “Eulogy of Sydenham in a Letter to the Editor of the Christian Guardian, 27 September 1841,” in G. Poulett Scope, Memoir of the Life of the Right Honourable Charles Lord Sydenham (London: John Murray, 1843), 342. Ryerson’s own trans-partisan program is laid out in his “Characteristics of an Able Governor,” Christian Guardian, 3 November 1841. See also “Policy of the Government II” and “Our Position II” The Monthly Review Devoted to the Civil Government of Canada (Toronto, 1841), 87, 175–6.

[38] This unity has been noted before by historians such as C. B. Sissons who observes that “in all of Ryerson’s political writings there is no note more constant than his mistrust of partisanship.” Egerton Ryerson: His Life and Letters, 2 vols. (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1947), 2:66. Frank Underhill discounts Sissons’ view that Ryerson “disapproved on principle of the divisions produced by party politics” and was “always seeking some other basis for popular government than political party.” The truth for Underhill is simply that Ryerson gave his Victoria College Methodism the same partisan devotion that other men give to a political party. “He was as much a partisan as George Brown, and his partisanship led him to similar excesses of word and action and to the same un-Christian attitude towards his opponents.” Frank Underhill, “Review of C.B. Sissons’ Egerton Ryerson: His Life and Letters,” Canadian Forum (January, 1948), 236. The issue here is whether it is a different thing to be a partisan of a non-partisan principle, say church/state separation, or a partisan of a particular church or “anti-church” seeking to have state policy reflect its desires.

[39]  A full philosophical picture of Ryerson’s anti-party position would involve considering some of the following sources: Henry Lord Brougham, Political Philosophy 3 vols. (London: Chapman and Hall, 1844; H.G. Bohn, 1853) 2:34–47; James Fennimore Cooper, “Of Party” in The American Democrat(Indianapolis: Liberty Classics,1956), 226–31; Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, The Idea of a Patriot King (New York: Bobbs-Merrill,1965) and Letter on the Spirit of Patriotism (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1917); David Hume “Of the Coalition of Parties” in Charles W. Hendel ed., David Hume’s Political Essays (New York: Bobbs-Merrill,1953), 89–93; James Bryce, Modern Democracies 2 vols.(New York: The Macmillan Company,1921)1:135–58; Harvey C. Mansfield Jr., Statesmanship and Party Government(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press,1965); Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System (Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press,1969); Moisei Ostrogorski, Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties 2 vols. (Chicago: Quadrangle Books,1964). From outside the Anglo-American world consider: “Of necessity the party man becomes a liar.” Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Antichrist” in Walter Kaufmann ed., The Viking Portable Nietzsche (New York: The Viking Press,1954), 640. “Now it is parties who vote: and at every vote there must be hundreds of abashed consciences.” Friedrich Nietzsche, “Assorted Opinions and Maxims, Aphorism 318” in R.J. Hollingdale trans., Human, All Too Human (Cambridge, UK” Cambridge University Press, 1986), 284–5.

[40]  In 1871 Ryerson published his First Lessons in Christian Morals (see note 13 above) wherein he would give a “non-denominational” account of Christian morality that would go into all the schools. But in the very same year he also thought it his duty to spread the sciences of agriculture and political economy through the same agency. See First Lessons on Agriculture (Toronto: Buntin, Brother, 1871) and Elements of Political Economy or, How Individuals and a Nation Become Rich (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1877). We note in passing that Ryerson begins his discussion of agriculture with Genesis xviii, 8 and with references to the Greek poets and the ancient Romans in “the purest times” (First Lessons on Agriculture, 10).

[41] According to Rousseau, the original problem of politics is constituted by the fact that the social spirit that the “machine” of state is designed to generate must somehow find a way to preside over that state’s very creation.  His conclusion from this conundrum is that the Legislator must have recourse to an authority “capable of constraining without violence and persuading without convincing.” This authority is the gods or religion, the purpose of which is to bring the people to “bear with docility the yoke of the public happiness.” The Social Contract, Book II, ch.vii It seems hardly controversial here to suggest that there is some Rousseau in Ryerson in this regard. Any uncertainty on this point has to be due to the fact that a statesman in Ryerson’s position, which is to say a statesman in a society that is supposed to be self-governing and self-regulating, of necessity has to insist that he was at most an “agent” of the moral and political will of the people rather than in fact the sine qua non of the social reforms being achieved. He would have to describe his role not as the pointing of the community in the right direction, but as assisting it in following the direction it had chosen to follow in the past, albeit imperfectly. For the debate on this point at the time of Ryerson’s passing see John King, The Other Side of the Story (Toronto: James Morang, 1886) and J. Antisell Allen, Dr. Ryerson: A Review and a Study (Kingston, 1884).

[42] Consider Alexis de Tocqueville: “In order that society should exist, and, a fortiori, that a society should prosper . . . (the citizen) sometimes should . . . consent to accept certain matters of belief at the hands of the community.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America trans. Henry Reeve 2 vols. (New York: Vintage Books, 1945), 2:9.

[43] Nathaniel Burwash says that Ryerson’s writings in the church/state controversies of his time “rank among the best work of his life as an exposition of the principles ethical, political and religious, which should govern in a mixed community of varying religious convictions” (Egerton Ryerson, 227). “Ryerson stipulates that education must include religious instruction, though he is insistent that such instruction must avoid all ‘sectarianism’” (Emberley and Newell, Bankrupt Education, 156). Bruce Curtis notes that Ryerson’s Report of 1847 did not devote much energy in demonstrating that Common Christianity had a “real empirical content” and so is short on “doctrinal details” (Curtis, “Preconditions etc., 357).

[44] Frederick Vaughan uses the title “Clinging to the Wreckage” for the “Epilogue” to his book The Canadian Federalist Experiment (180). See John Muggeridge, “Catatonic Canada” in Orthodoxy: The America Spectator’s 20th Anniversary Anthology (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 332.

[45] The transition away from Ryerson’s “two worlds” involves, evidently enough, the demise of theology and metaphysics and the rise of the modern social sciences pursued more or less exclusively in the modernizing universities. Eldon J. Eisenach argues that in the wake of “German trained social scientists” becoming “enlighteners” of the public in the late nineteenth century, the clergy tended to become “private” actors in the sense that their audience became increasingly confined “to their own denominations.” Men like Ryerson could no longer presume “to write for and instruct the nation.” “Just as Progressive social theorists were coming to the fore as articulators of public doctrine,” Eisenach says, “churchmen suddenly began to disappear from the first ranks of intellectual life.” The Lost Promise of Religion (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994), 103. German historical scholarship and social science philosophy brought the older “Ryersonian” narratives of a national theodicy closer and closer to theories of social evolution. See Charles D. Cashdollar, The Transformation of Theology, 1830–90: Positivism and Protestant Thought in Britain and America (Princeton University Press, 1989); Neal C. Gillespie, The Collapse of Orthodoxy (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1972) and Robert Eden, Political Leadership and Nihilism: A Study of Weber and Nietzsche (Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1984), 161.

[46]  See Neil Semple, The Lord’s Dominion (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996), 264; Carl Berger, Science, God and Nature in Victorian Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1983), 60; William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: The Modern Library, 1902),480–5; C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Glasgow: Collins, 1946), 38; Noel Annan, The Godless Victorian (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 200–7 Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton, 1962), 450–2; Nietzsche, “The Antichrist #14,” in Kaufmann trans., Viking Portable Nietzsche, 580.

[47] Ryerson’s “Judeo-Christian” project is described by Clara Thomas as the “most basic joining of the people” via his school system. But she concludes that “There had not been, nor was there ever to be one warm encircling dream to successfully join all of Ontario’s people” (Thomas, Ryerson of Upper Canada, 136). Bruce Curtis says that “On its face, the notion of a common Christianity in Upper Canada is chimerical” (“Preconditions etc,” 356–7). See also Vaughan, The Canadian Federalist Experiment etc.,150–1,180 and John Webster Grant, A Profusion of Spires: Religion in Nineteenth–Century Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), 146–9.

[48]  Goldwin S. French, “The People Called Methodists in Canada” in John W. Grant ed., The Churches and the Canadian Experience (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1963) ,81. To some extent Wesleyan Methodism achieved the status of a quasi-civil religion in English Canada for about a century. The Methodism of Ryerson’s “Rights of Dissenters” era transitioned to that of the “United Church of Canada” founded two generations after his passing (1925) and remained vital until the 1950’s. See William Westfall Two Worlds: The Protestant Churches in Nineteenth Century Ontario (Montreal & Kingston : McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989), 204–7; David B. Marshall, Secularizing the Faith: Canadian Protestant Clergy and the Crisis of Belief 18501940 (University of Toronto Press, 1992); Pierre Berton, The Comfortable Pew (Toronto and Montreal: McClelland & Stewart,1965); Charles Templeton, Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996); Ernest Harrison, A Church Without God (Toronto and Montreal: McClelland & Stewart,1966). Leanne Larmondin, “Harrison Made People Think” Anglican Journal (May, 1996).

[49] Karl Lowith says “we live in a Christian world which still reflects the religious faith in the Kingdom of God, but only in its secular transformations.” Nature, History and Existentialism (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1966), 212–3. See John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), 134 8; M.C. D’Arcy, The Meaning and Matter of History: A Christian View (New York: Noonday Press, 1959), 153–4; James Collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1959); A.N. Wilson, God’s Funeral (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999).

[50] Newell and Emberley, Bankrupt Education, 138.

[51] James Jupp says that “The word ‘multicultural’ originated in Canada in the 1960’s.” James Jupp, “The New Multicultural Agenda,” Crossings: The Bulletin of the International  Australian Studies Association 1 (1996), 1.

[52] See Thus Spake Zarathustra trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1966), II, sec. 14, 119–20. This is in fact the view of Ronald S. Beiner and Wayne Norman who rejoice that Canadian political philosophy has become more interested in the political features of countries lacking in liberal institutions and traditions than it is in the “classically” liberal features Canada shares with Great Britain, the United States, France and Germany. They are very pleased to be able to report that “peculiarly Canadian issues,” by which they mean questions such as multiculturalism, separatism and aboriginal rights are now “all the rage on the international scene” whereas once they used to attract only a “domestic audience.” “Introduction” in Ronald Beiner and Wayne Norman ed., Canadian Political Philosophy (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2001), 3–4, 13. The twenty-six theorists represented in the Beiner/Norman volume were unable to find one thinker or text worthy of in-depth consideration in pre-twentieth century Canadian political thought.

[53] “I hold that the moment a man, placing his foot on Canadian ground, says ‘this is my home and the home of my offspring,’ he ceases to be a Scotchman, an Irishman, an Englishman, or an American, or even a Frenchman, or German, and becomes a Canadian.” Egerton Ryerson, “The Education of Mechanics: Its Nature, Its Importance, and the Provision Necessary for Its Attainment” in Hodgins ed., Documentary History etc., 9:50. “We, in Canada, have certain more or less clearly defined ideals of national well-being. These ideals must never be lost sight of. Non-ideal elements there must be, but they should be capable of assimilation. Essentially non-assimilable elements are clearly detrimental to our highest national development, and hence should be vigorously excluded.” James S. Woodsworth, Strangers Within Our Gates (Toronto: The Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, 1909), 278.

[54] “Obligations of Educated Men (Part II),” 193. “Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.” Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (Edinburgh: 1767), 2.

[56] Ryerson’s school system underwent an immense transformation in the 1960s at the hands of then education minister William G. Davis. See Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario (1965). But the Davis reforms, a century after Ryerson’s guardianship, simply pointed up the extent to which the first Chief Superintendent had played a kind of “Platonic” role. “From Aristotle to D’Arcy McGee and Egerton Ryerson down until the late 1960’s, liberal education has had a more or less continuous pedigree … Ontario (had) a traditionally strong core curriculum in the sciences and humanities stretching back to Egerton  Ryerson” (Emberley and Newell, Bankrupt Education,10,15).

[57] See John von Heyking and Lee Trepanier ed., Teaching in an Age of Ideology (Lanham Md.: Lexington Books, 2013). A youtube video written and produced by Esther Buckareff and Garrett Walker and devoted to Ryerson is entitled “The Architect of Canada’s Genocide.”

[58] See Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1988). Ryerson today might decline to send his children to the very educational house he had done so much to build. See Greg Foster and C. Bradley Thompson ed., Freedom and School Choice in American Education (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin Books, 2010).

[59] Ryerson played the role of the “national clergyman” who presumed to “address the nation” or “lecture the public” at these crucial historical moments (See Eisenach, The Lost Promise of Religion, 100). Throughout his career he felt it to be his duty to recommend to the people of Upper Canada that they follow this or that political path at pivotal moments in their history whether the issue was Clergy Reserves (1828), Republican Rebellion (1837), Colonial Policy (1841), Responsible Government (1844) or Confederation (1867). For the sequence of his contributions see the following of Ryerson’s works: Claims of the Churchmen and Dissenters of Upper Canada Brought to the Test (Kingston: The Herald Office,1828); The Affairs of the Canadas in a Series of Letters By a Canadian (London: J. King,1837); Of Civil Government: The Late Conspiracy (Toronto: The Conference Office,1838); Some Remarks Upon Sir Charles Bagot’s Canadian Government (Kingston: Desbarats & Derbishire,1843); Sir Charles Metcalfe Defended Against the Attacks of His Late Counsellors (Toronto: Printed at the British Colonist Office,1844); The New Canadian Dominion etc. See note 15.

[60]  Egerton Ryerson, Letters from the Reverend Egerton Ryerson to the Hon. and Reverend Doctor Strachan (Kingston: Upper Canada Herald, 1828).

[61] “It is humbling to remember that two or three generations ago when the country was small and poor, Canada in proportion to its size was far more ready to support … universities in which chairs of classics, philosophy and theology were considered essentials … than it is today.” George Grant “Philosophy,” The Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, 1949-51 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1951), 121.

[62] Quoted in Burwash, Egerton Ryerson, 269. Ryerson aspired to produce as his “chief work in the way of authorship” a kind of “History of the English-Speaking Peoples” from a Canadian point of view. See C.B. Sissons ed., My Dearest Sophie (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1955), 12. After many years the work emerged as The Loyalists of America and Their Times 2 vols. (Toronto: William Briggs, 1880). Clara Thomas says of Ryerson’s historical volumes that we see in every line Ryerson’s “unflagging energy and strength of will” and his “affirming of life as he saw it to be lived” (Ryerson of Upper Canada, 134–5).

[63] See James M. McPherson Is Blood Thicker than Water?: Crises Of Nationalism In The Modern World (Toronto: Vintage Canada,1998).


This was originally published with the same title in Liberal Education, Civic Education, and the Canadian Regime: Past Principles and Present Challenges (McGill-Queen’s, 2015).

Colin D. PearceColin D. Pearce

Colin D. Pearce

Colin D. Pearce is a Professor of Political Science at Clemson University. He has published in a number of journals including the Canadian Journal of Political Science, The Journal of the History of Ideas, Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, Studies in Literary Imagination, The Kipling Journal, The Simms Review, South Carolina Review, Perspectives on Politics, Interpretation, Humanitas, Clio, Appraisal, and The Explicator, Quadrant.

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