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Grant, Time, and Eternity

Grant, Time, And Eternity

Introduction

Over the course of his prodigious career, George Grant, on a number of occasions, undertook to rethink both himself and his relationship to philosophy and theology. To those familiar enough with his works to compare his very early material to that of his late period, there is very little to be said that could prove more obvious. One need not delve very deeply to find Grant’s own admissions that he had parted ways with one important figure or another, though it is much more difficult to tease-out the underlying concern or motivation which spurs him into a pattern of seemingly serial philosophical and theological infidelity and abandonment. The result, at best, has been described as a ‘polyphony’[1].

The pattern itself is a matter of the public record. Already by 1957, in Philosophy in the Mass Age (hereafter PitMA), Grant, troubled by the apparent spiritual crisis of the West generally and English-speaking North America in particular, had turned to Hegel for theoretical support. At that time, he was convinced that Hegel’s phenomenology of history provided a passable road-map by which the West might work its way through the growing spiritual malaise while keeping the fruits of its technological advancement[2]. It was his hope that North America, having, by the 1950s, already reached an unparalleled age of technological freedom was also in sight of the attendant promise of a complete elimination of the necessity of work and of the achievement of unrivalled leisure, uncoupled from the bane of slavery. Thus freed from necessity, the best of the youth of North America – repelled by the arid atmosphere of pragmatism – might engage in the sort of existential re-awakening which Grant himself perceived to be occurring in western Europe at the time.[3]

By the time of PitMA’s republishing in 1966, however, Grant had changed his mind about Hegel. In the introduction to the 1966 edition, Grant made it clear that he no longer considered Hegel to be the thinker who had thought most deeply about human excellence (an honour he thereafter assigned to Plato), nor who had seen furthest into humanity’s future; a change of heart which he attributed to his exposure to the work of Leo Strauss[4]. Moreover, it is by this period that one notices a certain reversal of Grant’s own thought, and one begins to become more aware of accusations from critics of Grant’s “pessimism”. Having abandoned Hegel, Grant himself lost faith, not only in Hegel himself, but also in the excellence of the final outcome in technological progress. By the printing of Technology & Empire (hereafter T&E) in 1969, with its inclusion of his essay on the Strauss-Kojeve debate, it seems clear that Grant had come to agree with Strauss that the Universal and Homogeneous State was more likely to be the worst all possible human conditions, rather than something to be aspired to[5]. It is this loss of faith in progress which Grant would liken to “crossing a Rubicon”[6].

This, however, did not represent the final settlement in Grant’s thought. One need only think of the questions which Grant poses to Strauss in the aforementioned essay to observe that he had already broken with the latter on the issue of the – to Strauss –   incommensurable relationship between Athens and Jerusalem (of reason to revelation). Grant’s personal combination of Christian faith with his newfound respect for Platonic philosophy made intolerable for him Strauss’ silence on the matter of Christianity’s compatibility with philosophy[7].

To these changes in Grant’s philosophical thought, however, must also be added the alterations in his theological thought, which are certainly no less profound. Having acknowledged in 1957 that Providence was both the driving symbol at the heart of North America’s founding and the symbol currently at the heart of the secular pragmatism which had bequeathed the continent its dynamic energy, Grant goes to lengths to condemn it[8]. Earlier, in the 1953 lecture entitled Two Theological Languages, Grant explicitly questioned the wisdom of the Reformed Churches in their acceptance of their founders’ rejection of Greek philosophy, demanding of churchmen to ask themselves, “Have we excluded theologians from the Church?”[9].

Yet, less one become convinced that Grant had, by such statements, distanced himself from Protestant theology in favour of Catholicism, one need only be reminded of his sometimes dismissive stance regarding Thomism[10]; his dabbling, through Dostoevsky, with Eastern Orthodox Christianity[11]; and his long-held interest in the decidedly un-orthodox gnostic Christianity of Simone Weil.[12]

Given this confusion of periagogoi, what then is to be made of Grant? To that question, two possible answers present themselves which may be considered seriously. First, there is the very real possibility that the apparent vacillations in Grant’s thought come about as a consequence of his lifelong attempt to find a satisfactory grounding for both his inarticulate beliefs and his experiential convictions of faith and morality in the wake of discovering a  spirit of skepticism with regards to Hegel and Reformed theology. By such a reading, Grant’s vacillations may be taken for a symptom of the tension between his personal faith and his reasoning mind: His faith, being grounded experientially[13], demanded an adequate  justification and articulation which he struggled for and could not find. Under such a reading, Grant’s periagogoi thus become comprehensible as one man’s personal incarnation of the struggle between Athens and Jerusalem, as he comes to attempt to bridge the apparently unbridgeable gap between revelation and reason[14].

A second reading is possible, however, and it is this reading which shall be explored here. It is the reading by which Grant’s continued investigation of various philosophical and theological systems comes to be seen as not simply the attempt of one man to find a bridge between his reason and his faith – in essence, to make sense of his experience of supernatural revelation in a field when he was a young man. Rather, Grant’s investigation may be taken as an attempt, in the wake of his rejection of Hegelian science and Reformed theology, to come to grips with the symbols which underlie technological civilization, in hopes of undoing technology’s hold on modern human beings. Rather than being a project in personal bridge-building, the changes in Grant’s thought might be seen as the attempt the dissolve the fate which moderns have unwittingly given themselves. It may thus be taken for an extended evangelical project.

To the end of investigating the possibility of such a project on Grant’s part, either tacit or explicit, it is most illuminating to concentrate on five particular symbols which come, continuously, under his scrutiny through the breadth of his work, and which are therein approached from the differing the perspectives of different thinkers – certain of which are ultimately rejected for their incommensurability with Grant’s own apprehensions. Those symbols are: Eternity, History, Providence, Necessity, and Freedom.

Eternity and History

In so far as Grant’s work is concerned, five particular interpretations of the symbols “eternity” and “history” are broached with consistency, and which thus require some level of investigation. Those five interpretations are the Hegelian[15], that of Mircea Eliade[16], that of Aristotle, that of Plato, and that of Nietzsche.

Hegel’s particular formulation of eternity, if we recall, is one which quintessentially incarnates the modern, progressive conception of time and history. That is to say, that, within the context of Hegelian science, the symbol “history” is fused with “process” or “progress” and may be understood to have both a beginning and an ending, both a cause and a telos[17]. The cause of history, by the Kojeveian interpretation, was the arising of an animal, Man, who, unlike other animals, came to desire something which was outside the immediate environment of nature. Rather than simply desiring the material objects of nature which were necessary for his survival, man, by some happenstance, came to desire to be desired; he came to crave recognition[18].

The means by which primitive man would fulfill his desires, however, would necessarily be through the process of the negation of the object of desire. Upon the first encounter between two men, thus, this mutual craving for recognition could only conclude in one of the following manners: mutual negation (mutual death), the negation of one party, or the capitulation of one to the other. Neither of the first two possibilities could, by this definition, result in the achievement of recognition for anyone. Even in the third case, where-upon one man becomes the master of the other, the victory is hollow, for by allowing himself to give-up the desire for recognition in favour of saving his own life, the slave is reduced to a status which leaves him largely beneath the notice of the master. The master, in turn, is gains only the recognition of a slave – one beneath him – thus not true recognition. Neither, therefor, gains the recognition which he desires, and history is inaugurated. History – thus understood — is the process by which the slave, through negating action – through work and the generation of ideologies – comes to create a world in which he might gain recognition – thus a world where universal recognition becomes possible, and the essence of all men is fulfilled.[19]

For Hegel-Kojeve, it is thus the universal and homogeneous state – in which all Men are free and recognized – which is both the telos of history and which represents its ending; much as the desire for recognition marked its beginning and was its cause. The symbol “history”, in the Hegelian science, is thus distinct from the symbol “eternity”, in so far as the latter has no telos and no ending, though the eternity at the end of history has, in a sense, a cause and beginning which are history itself. “Eternity”, thus understood, is the ending and the end (telos) of all human action and thought[20]. As stated earlier, Grant’s attachment to the Hegelian conception of eternity was ended quite publicly in his 1966 introduction to PitMA.

Eliade’s eternity, by contrast, is somewhat less worldly in its incarnation, in so far as it is something to be participated in only spiritually via certain cyclical, ritual re-enactments of archetypal events which lie in the distant past. The telos of these re-enactments (for instance, of the death and resurrection of the Babylonian vegetation god Tammuz) is, on the one hand, to infuse meaning into human life and, on the other, to align human society with the cosmos. Through such rituals of re-enactment serve to allow human beings to participate, according to Eliade, in illo tempore. Human beings are thus understood to achieve participation in eternity through their cyclical re-alignment with the cycles of the cosmos. “Eternity”, as a symbol, is thus – at least in pagan societies – meant to represent the divine archetypes or events of which all things inside time are but cyclical re-enactments; re-enactments by which becoming within time is brought back into conformity with divine being. “Eternity” is therefor a symbol closely related to “being”, and “becoming” is a symbol with meaning in so far as it is always brought back into harmony with “being” itself and thus with “eternity”[21]. Though Grant praised Eliade’s insights into the ancient, pagan conception of eternity (as opposed to the modern, historical understanding) in the original publication of PitMA, there does not appear to be evidence of his attachment to it in any of his later work.[22]

The symbol of eternity derivable from Aristotle, by contrast, is quite different, in so far as the temporal and the eternal are held at a distance from one another. That which may be understood to be divine or eternal by Aristotelian metaphysics is symbolized by the word “cosmos” which exists in opposition with the symbol “chaos”. “Chaos”, moreover, is a symbol which contains within itself all of the contents of matter and the material, which are posited to always have been and always to be existent, whilst “cosmos”, though equally unending in breadth or duration, is only made manifest via its imposition upon the chaos of matter. Thus, cosmos, as a symbol — which has as contents form, unchangingness, meaning, and that which is divine and good — stands opposite to chaos — which has its contents, matter, change, meaninglessness, and all that is mortal and therefor bad. “Cosmos” is thus, as a symbol, fused with “being” and qualified as good, while “chaos” is fused with “becoming” and qualified as bad. “Eternity”, by an Aristotelian metaphysics, may therefor take as its content either cosmos itself, or the dualistic opposition of cosmos and chaos; and “history” may be understood as the story of the attempts by which human cultures and civilizations cause the unending becoming of chaos to conform – for a time – to the being of cosmos. “History” is the confrontation of the eternal and the temporal[23]. Like most of Aristotelian philosophy however, this metaphysical conception never seems to find much sympathy in Grant’s work.[24]

The fourth understanding of eternity which seems to be a going concern in Grant’s writing and public lectures is that which he perceives to be held in common by Plato and Christianity. In so far as these two understandings may be reconciled, it may be said that they are in agreement in their understanding of “eternity” to include in its content that which is beyond Being (and therefor also beyond becoming). Furthermore, it is held by Grant that the metaphysics of the two are reconcilable to the argument that all things partake of eternity. This follows from the Platonic argument that the things of the realm of becoming, by their necessary participation in the eternal forms, are themselves emanations of that which is beyond Being (e.g. God or the Good)[25]. This may furthermore be held to be congruent with the theological arguments of the Church Fathers who argue for the total immanence and total transcendence of God[26]. In either case, the conclusion is that the immanent world is, at the very least, an image of eternity – itself beyond Being in origin, yet embracing Being and becoming among its contents.

The fifth and final understanding of eternity and history which Grant investigated with seriousness is that of Frederich Nietzsche[27]. And, it is through Grant’s Nietzsche that one is presented with an understanding of “Eternity” which is both radically immanent and simultaneously characterized by radical becoming. It is an understanding of the symbol which thus converges with the Hegelian understanding – in that the theatre of eternity is also held to be the immanent, material world – but which diverges from it in its denial of the predicate eternal to anything but becoming itself. The Universal and Homogeneous State, is thus understood to be but a state of waiting – a holding-pattern in anticipation of either the arrival of the superman who will create new horizons for man (or the species which succeeds man), or the theatre for an apocalypse initiated by the nihilists who would sooner will everything into nothing than cease willing.

“History”, by this fifth understanding, is radically defrocked – stripped of any meaning as understood in any of the other four. For, unlike in the Hegelian system, history is not a process by which “Eternity” is immanentized. Nor is there participation in an eternal cycle through ritual, and thus moments of transcendence of the temporal, as in Eliade’s painting of ancient pagan religion. Nor is history the cycle of various impositions of the eternal and unchanging upon the temporal as in the Aristotelian understanding, nor the participation of all things in the permanent, eternal forms as in Platonic philosophy. Rather only time and change are seen to be permanent; only becoming is eternal, and time is an eternity of change[28]. Finally, while having said that Grant took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously, it is necessary to also recall that Grant took said philosophy to be “unfit for human beings”[29].

Providence

A third of the five essential symbols which reoccur in Grant’s work is the peculiarly Christian symbol of Providence[30]. In so far as it impact’s his work, it appears to do so in the two guises derived from Lutheran and Calvinist theology, respectively.

In the first instance, Providence may be understood to be symbolic of God’s limited intervention into the world and into human lives through both the active expression of His wrath and the passive affliction of His absence. By Providence, it is thus to be understood that human life is conducted under a veil of moderate pre-destination. This, in turn, may be apprehended as the eternal opposition of humanity’s willful and thoroughly sinful nature against the infinite love and grace of God. The consequence of this opposition is the fully justified wrath of God against His children. The effective incarnation of this opposition is that they – human beings – by their natures, are destined to suffer either (or both) the direct expression of His anger, or the indirect experience of His withdrawal from their lives, as part of the process by which God attempts to redeem them from the emptiness of their libido dominandi into the fullness of His grace. Providence, thus understood, implies the eternal reoccurrence of a personal confrontation between human beings and God which shall be played-out in every life and every soul, until that end of time which is foretold in the Apocalypse of St. John.[31]

In contrast to this mildly predestinarian understanding of Providence which is present in Luther’s work, Calvin’s conception may, and has, been qualified as being strongly and deeply predestinarian. As declared by Max Weber in his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, in contrast to the ambiguity of breadth and content of the Lutheran variation of that symbol, the Calvinist version has tended towards a state of far-reaching explicitness which reached a particular zenith of clarity in the Westminster Confession of Faith[32]. By the understanding expressed therein, it is not only the opposition of humanity and God, but also the outcome of that confrontation, which has been pre-destined since before the boundaries of the world were set. That is to say, the outcome of the confrontation was known before time itself began[33]. Thus understood, both the confrontation with God and the results of that confrontation exist by His Will alone, and for the sole purposes of His glorification. In Weber’s depiction, borrowed heavily from by Grant in essays IV and VI of his PitMA, it is the confrontation of the members of the Calvinist creeds with this ineffable and inescapable Will which gave their lives and habits their particular character. Having been denied the potential of reassurance of their Election to grace by either an ineffable God or any form of earthly intercessor, there remained only the potential for self-reassurance via the faithful exercise of the commandments revealed by Scripture[34]. Through such, essentially orthopraxic, exercises – conducted for the sake of His Glory – there sprung the thin-hope that His pleasure might be known “through the fruits of their labour”[35]. Even these fruits, however, could neither be expected, nor taken as a sign of Election – at best, they served a cathartic function for the labourer. Though this understanding of Providence featured prominently in certain of Grant’s works, it is worth noting that it was not done for the sake of praising it, but usually for the sake of implicating it as the precursor of the dynamic, secular pragmatism of English-speaking society[36].

Necessity

The fourth symbol entangled in Grant’s thought is his understanding of “necessity”; a rich symbol with roots which, in Western thought, extend into the pre-Socratic philosophy of Parmenides. With regards to Grant’s work, however, “necessity” seems to be either tacitly understood through his use of it with regards to a particular thinker or subject, or else explicitly derived from a less compact symbol such as “Providence”. That being said, it seems that there are two separate categories of the symbol which seem to reoccur with frequency. The first might be termed ontological necessity, the other, epistemological.

Such ontological necessity – the understanding that certain things are necessary by the very nature of Being – is of issue for Grant, chiefly with regards to the three subjects of Hegelian thought (in which necessity is a derivative of the dialectical process of history[37]), Reformed theology (in which necessity is a derivative of Providence, which itself is the expression of the Divine Will[38]), and the gnosticism of Simone Weil (in which, roughly speaking, necessity is a consequence of God’s absence from the world[39]). Thus “necessity”, in none of these three instances, appears in Grant’s work as a symbol distinct onto itself, but rather exists as either the derivative of a fuller symbol, or, if you will, the shadow of God’s absence. In Hegelian thought, “necessity” only has meaning when speaking of both the process of the historical evolution of the “Concept” and of the intermediate and final results of that process; outside of that relationship, “necessity” is a meaningless symbol. In Reformed theology, by contrast, “necessity” — or the adjective form “necessary” — has meaning only in so far as it is an expression of Providence and therefor the expression of God’s Will. To say that something either is, will be, or was “necessary” is to speak tacitly of the pre-destination of history.

In the gnostic thought of Weil, however, “necessity” may be said to be two things. Firstly, it may be seen as an expression of the experience of meaningless historicism of Being, contrasted with the meaningful eternity of an ineffable, fully transcendent God. Secondly, however, it is the inescapable consequence of creation, itself only possible via God’s withdrawal of His overwhelming essence from the immediate environs of Being[40]. “Necessity” is thus, in a sense, necessary, for, in the complete absence of meaningless necessity there is only the option of the fully meaningful presence of God, in which no mere being can stand[41]. It is Weil’s conception of ontological necessity which would linger in Grant’s writing long after the Reformed and Hegelian variations were set-aside[42].

When speaking of an epistemological necessity, though, it is often the case that Grant is speaking of, or in the voice of, either the historicist thought of Hegelianism, or that of Nietzsche. In the former, in so far as it is posited to be a system by which thought is demonstrated to be reaching its conjunction with action, such epistemological necessity in inextricably inter-twined with Hegelian ontology. Due to the radical relationship between the Concept and the World, and the conditioning of the one by the other, one must say that particular thought both necessitates and is derived from particular action, and that action in turn necessitates thought. “Necessity” therefor, is symbolic of the radical bonds of history. So too for Grant’s Nietzsche, who also proclaims necessity to be an historical imposition upon the minds of humanity. Thought, in this instance, is painted as being the horizon within which men of the past had struggled, culminating in the “last horizon” created by Christianity[43]. Having surpassed or destroyed that last horizon, however, man is beset with the new necessity of either accepting a mundane life amongst the vulgar last men, else the mantle of the equally vulgar but destructive nihilists (who would sooner will nothing than have nothing to will), or finally to transcend the historical condition and the mentality of revenge, learn amor fati, and ascend to the creative ranks of the supermen[44]. Ultimately, though Grant seemed repulsed by aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy, he did not dismiss the expression of radical historicism which he found therein[45]

Freedom

The last of the symbols which reoccurs in Grant’s thought is that of freedom, and three particular conceptions were foremost in his written thoughts. The first is that which he ascribes to the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, the second, that which he identified with Christianity, and the third being that which he associated with progressive liberalism – a broad category in which he placed not only the traditional figures of the North American liberal pantheon (Locke, Rousseau, Mill, and Rawls), but also such figures of German thought as Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche (the last of which Grant posited “has thought liberty most deeply”[46]).

At the time of the writing of his 1953 essay, Two Theological Languages, Grant held the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle to be of one understanding in so far as he perceived “freedom”, in both cases, to be symbolic of a state in which human beings had transcended both the external world of apparent change and their own internal world of spiritual disorder. Moreover, such was the nature of this state that it was achieved through the harmonization of the soul with a divine principle through the concerted application of their own most divine quality; reason. Freedom was, it was then believed by Grant (and indeed re-iterated in his 1988 addendum to the same essay), to be understood as a state of spiritual order and harmonization with the divine, which was to be achieved through ones own abilities, and which was characteristically good in that, by achieving it, one was by definition freed from a life spent in disorder or chaos.

In that same essay, one also encounters Grant’s early understanding of “freedom” as he saw it interpreted within the Christian religion; though, as he would later write in the 1988 addendum, that early conception was in fact only peculiar to that branch of Reformed theology which had uncritically adopted existentialist thought. Be that as it may, the symbol which was under investigation at the time was seen to contain within itself the expression of the human experience of the ability to choose, unhindered, between good and evil. “Freedom”, in this language, was thus an expression of the state in which humans found themselves prior to the act of deciding between good and ill; put otherwise, it was the condition which allowed one to sin. This conception of freedom was therefor placed in sharp contrast with that of the Greek philosophers. For, in the latter sense, freedom was a state to be achieved as a consequence of selecting and pursuing a life fitting for human beings – a life ordered by reason – while, in the former sense, freedom both preceded choice and was equally in the possession of the bad and the good. As Grant then put it, “[Such freedom is]  an abyss into which our reasons are swallowed up”[47]

The third and final variation of freedom which Grant chose to take-up at length was that of liberal thought, which he often wrote had been thought “most deeply by the German thinkers”, and which had been elucidated to its fullest possible extent in the work of Frederich Nietzsche. “Freedom” of this sort became a reoccurring theme in Grant’s essays[48], in so far as he clearly suspected that the triumphalism of the modern West was deeply tied to a creative will-to-power which had been unleashed and incarnated in the form of technology[49]. “Freedom”, by such a reading, was not simply a symbol expressing an intrinsic state of humanity – as in the language of Reformed existentialism – but also symbolic of an aspiration[50]. It was understood to symbolize both the human ability to stand, as it were, in the state of innocence, prior to good and evil, and to choose; but also it represented the will and ability to surmount and surpass all horizons which enfolded and limited humanity’s creative energies, thereby ultimately providing them with the divine perspective of gods who, looking down upon the given, might then bind and re-create it. Such symbolism is thus a chimeric amalgamation of the freedom symbolized by Greek philosophy and that of Reformed existentialism, for it is the freedom to choose apotheosis — to be not only like the divine, but the essence and substance of the divine itself. It is the freedom to choose to redeem the libido dominandi from the original sin by freeing it from the philosophies of resentment and revenge through the expression of amor fati, and to then wield that creative will through the tools of technique. It is, in a sense, a symbol of the aspiration of the libido dominandi to expiate itself of sin through its unlimited assertion of itself through its works. It is the freedom to choose to be God.

Exegesis

At this juncture, the seeming conclusion which extends from this complex web of rejected and adopted symbols would be a metaphysics in which the fate of humanity, as a species, is a by-product of the vicissitudes of historical and ontological necessity. For, if we recall, Grant accepted the conceptions of “eternity” and “history” which seemed to be shared by Christianity and Platonic philosophy, but never dismissed the historicism of Nietzsche as a concern in human life. And yet, it is also consequent from the previous statements that necessity does not extend into the lives of all souls; Grant’s rejection of Hegelianism and his acceptance of Weil’s gnosticism is an effective indication of his belief that the fate of Man cannot be conceived as the fate of all men. The opportunity for the soul’s transcendence of the necessity of historically-conditioned Being is held-out as an eternal possibility, and, in so far as a transcendence of Being is posited as possible, the implicit metaphysical understanding presented in Grant’s writing is compatible with his more explicit self-identifications as a Christian Platonist.[51]

Indeed, to a degree, Simone Weil’s gnostic understanding of transcendence is even compatible with Luther’s theology. This, however is true only in so far as one is capable of linking and identifying Luther’s naked confrontation with God’s wrath and His periodic absence from his life, with Weil’s radical de-creation of the “I” for the purposes of submitting to that void which may be filled by His grace. To the extent that Luther’s battle with his libido dominandi, his amor sui, is comparable to Weil’s negation of the “I”, there is similitude and compatibility in their metaphysics. However, lest the compatibility be over-emphasized, it must be recalled that Luther’s Providence also entails the eternal presence of God in the world in the forms of both His wrath and His grace. Luther’s God is thus the God of St. Augustine and of Plato – a God who is both totally immanent and totally transcendent. He is a different figure indeed from the radically transcendent God of Simone Weil, who is experienced in the world primarily as the presence of an absence.

There is a greater degree of harmony to be found in the definitions of eternity and history which Grant seems to accept. This is at least true in so far that his refusal to identify the two symbols with each other – an identification which he perceived in Hegel, Nietzsche, and Aristotle – is an act compatible with his acceptance of both their radical opposition in Weil’s thought, and with the presence of the eternal in time (and therefor the influence of eternity upon the temporal) which is posited in in Christian Platonism, Augustinian theology, Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophy. To put the matter negatively, “eternity” and “history”, as symbols, can only be reconciled with the rest of Grant’s implicit symbology only if the modern, progressivist interpretations of those symbols are rejected; something which Grant himself does rather explicitly in his 1966 introduction to Philosophy in the Mass Age. The Kojevian identification of eternity with time, time with history, and history with man, was there tossed aside, something which allowed Grant the hope of reconciling his experience of faith with his reason. What this hope demanded, however, was a turning-away from the Hegelian promise of a Science containing , within itself, the sum totality of all historical thought.

However, while it is apparent that Grant rejected the core of Hegelian thinking (namely, its self-identification as the pure synthesis of all philosophies and theologies), it appears equally clear that he took seriously its implications. Grant’s inability to simply dismiss Nietzsche, in spite of his apparently profound repulsion[52], is evidenced by his acceptance of the sort of necessity enforced by the historical conditioning of human thought. As Planinc observed, Grant’s intuitive acceptance of Nietzschean historicism – at least in its general form – played itself out in his work in a very particular way; namely his attempt to bracket and contain Nietzsche’s necessity of thought within Weil’s necessity of Being[53]. Indeed, the two cannot be easily reconciled in a simple synthesis of symbols which might then be compatible with the rest of Grant’s though regarding the meaning of “eternity”, “history”, “Providence”, and “freedom”. That is to say that Nietzsche would need to be subordinated to Weil, for Grant could not agree with the former’s identification of eternity with time any more than he could accept the similar identification made by Hegel-Kojeve. Neither, however, does he seem to feel comfortable with dismissing “necessity” as a meaningful symbol. What is curious, however, is that Grant seems to have felt obligated to choose between the two most broad and overwhelming understandings of necessity which were available to him. By all appearances, it would seem that the only four apprehensions of necessity which he considered seriously were those of i) Hegelian thought, ii) that derived from the Reformed symbol of Providence, iii) Nietzsche’s conception, and iv) Weil’s. Having dismissed the first two as candidates by 1966 and 1957 respectively, it would appear that Grant had left himself with few options. The question then becomes why Grant so limited his options in the first instance, when less encompassing understanding of the necessary were available to him from within the Christian Platonist, Lutheran, and Platonic traditions – traditions whose authority which he had in fact accepted in other matters.

A possible answer is that Grant’s acceptance of Weil’s thought is, in fact, no more comprehensive or total than his acceptance of Nietzsche’s. That is to say that, much as he subordinated Nietzsche’s thoughts on necessity to Weil’s, that Grant, in turn, interpreted Weil through a particular lens which tacitly subordinated her thoughts to yet another party. As Andrew’s work on Grant’s interpretation of Celine convincingly demonstrates[54], Grant, no less than most human beings, was prone to seeing the best – and thus, what he wished to see – in others, even to the extent to which he could miss the sometimes profound extent of his  disagreement with their actual thoughts and actions. If such a thesis is fair in principle though, the question becomes one of determining which, if any, glasses Grant may have been wearing when he apprehended Weil’s writings on necessity.

Given the limited range of obvious choices after Grant’s dismissal of Hegelian thought and Reformed theology, and his subordination of Nietzsche to Weil herself, the list of potential suspects becomes rather brief. Among those schools of thought which are left among Grant’s perennial sources are the Platonic, Aristotelian, Christian Platonic, Scholastic, Lutheran, and liberal. The liberal school, however, had been subordinated to Nietzsche by Grant himself in his early work, for the reason that he perceived the latter’s thoughts to be the fullest expression of the spirit of liberalism. The Aristotelian and Scholastic schools were, moreover, never really taken seriously as sources of authority regarding his own burning questions; at best, they were preferable alternatives to the arid contractualism of liberal thought. The elimination of those three leaves only three others as obvious possibilities.

Of these three, the textual evidence provided by Grant’s commentaries on Weil most strongly indicates that he perceived a certain harmony to exist between Weil’s thought and that of Plato. In his 1970 Introduction to Simone Weil, Grant makes reference to such a harmonious relationship on five separate occasions, and in four additional instances in his 1988 In Defense of Simone Weil. On these occasions, Weil is referred to as either a student or follower of Plato[55], in either explicit or implicit agreement with his thought[56], or an illuminating commentator on his work[57]. What is difficult about this position is that there are significant, indeed obvious, reasons to believe that Weil’s thought on necessity was not in accord with that which was expressed in Plato’s dialogues. In particular, it would seem that a glaring indication of this divergence is presented by Weil’s reading of the passage at [493c] of the Republic.

In that instance, Weil’s rendering of the passage[58] has the figure of Socrates speak to the brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus of “… an infinite distance separating the good from necessary…” (emphasis added). However, a more accurate rendering speaks not of infinite distance, but of “… the difference between the good and the necessary”(emphasis added)[59]. While Weil’s rendering is more compatible with the understanding of necessity which she presents in her own words, it conflicts sharply with the understanding of the Platonic and Christian Platonist traditions. In contrast with Weil, both of those traditions present the world of seeming and necessity as subsisting in a complex, often dynamic relationship with the Good or God which is mediated through the eternal forms. As Planinc has pointed-out, it is thus more accurate to describe Weil as a Gnostic Platonist than either a Christian Platonist or Platonic philosopher[60].

What is more curious, however, is that Grant himself was quite aware of the traditional Platonic understanding of the relationship between the Good and necessity, and, apparently, was a great expounder of it at times, as evinced by his letter to Rod Cook on July 19th, 1965[61]. Indeed, even his late writings evince a fairly orthodox reading of Plato from within the Christian tradition. If Grant considered the gnostic interpretation of Plato to be accurate, it is not made clear by the greater body of his work; but, lest it be suggested otherwise, given his open and public character, it would be disingenuous to suggest that Grant was covering-up such beliefs under so much esoteric writing. The options for explaining the contradiction therefor seem to be two: either Grant was simply unaware of how heterodox Weil’s Plato was, or his reading of Weil’s Plato was, in a sense, made orthodox by his reading of her through the lens of the tradition. The first position, however, seems untenable given that a comparison of the letter to Cook (dated 1965) against the Introduction to Simone Weil (dated 1970) reveals that he was well aware of the orthodox reading well before his exposition of Weil’s heterodox interpretation.

The second position, therefor, would seem to be the likely option. Given Grant’s stressing, in the 1986 essay entitled Faith and the Multiversity, of the love of others as a principle of justice which had gone missing in the technological age, it would appear that he did not adopt a literal description of the world as the “blind play of mechanical necessities”[62] which was often exposited by Weil herself. However, in that same essay, Grant freely mixed the thoughts of Plato-Socrates with that of Weil in such a manner as to leave ambiguous to the reader his final stance regarding the meaning of the symbol “necessity”. At the very most, one could deduce from his writing that it is “necessary” to think within one’s historical horizons, as Grant’s Nietzsche proclaimed, and “necessary” also to bear the afflictions of the world, as with Grant’s Weil. However, it is uncertain from his later texts if, in his later years, Grant fully believed in the mediated presence of the Good in all things – necessity included – as posited in the Platonic tradition. His refusal to fully retreat from the public world, however, certainly argues against any suggestion that he may have perceived that world of necessities and imperfections as being meaningless and without purpose.

Given that a comprehension of “necessity” will tend to exist in tension with one of “freedom”, it could be suggested that it would be illuminating to dwell upon the latter as it appears in Grant’s work. What is clear from such a viewing is that, on the one hand, the formulation of the Reformed existentialists was outside his range of acceptance[63], as was the liberal-technological variation, which he judged to be both unfit for human beings[64] and responsible for the stripping of any veneer of justice or restraint from modern society. His 1988 addendum to his Two Theological Languages, on the other hand, contains a very open nod towards the understanding of freedom which he took from the Greeks, alongside his affirmation that it was this understanding that met with the spirit of Christianity and the New Testament[65].  Moreover, his statement therein that “For myself, I would now define ‘freedom’ as the liberty to be indifferent to the good [in keeping with Christianity, Plato, and Augustine]”[66], leaves little obvious room for ambiguity as to how he came to define the symbol towards the end of his life. However, in the final analysis, that particular statement does little to clear-up the matter of whether, towards the end of his career, Grant agreed with the assertion of Socrates-Plato that the Good was present in all things of the world of Being in mediated forms, or whether he stood alongside Weil’s placement of the Good completely and totally beyond Being in any conventional sense.

Weil’s assertion that, “The only choice given to men, as intelligent and free creatures, is to desire obedience or not to desire it”[67], is not clearly compatible, for instance, with the myths of final judgment and transmigration of the psyche which are recounted by Socrates in Book X of the Republic or in the Phaedo. For, in both of those cases, choice is presented as a an essential factor in deciding one’s lot and fate in life. Wisdom, within this understanding of things, thus entails knowledge of the differences which distinguish a just from an unjust life, but also entails knowledge of one’s ultimate responsibility for one’s own fate and destiny. If Grant truly held Weil to be a student of Plato, it would be necessary to explain away her apparent divergence from this crucial point. Unfortunately, it is not clear from his writing how, of if, Grant resolved this final tension in his beliefs and loyalties. Given the seeming lack of textual evidence regarding his final thoughts regarding “necessity”, one may only judge anecdotally, by making reference to the bare fact of Grant’s continued involvement in the public world, his expansive writing and publication, and his apparent hope thereby of freeing the minds of some of his students from the more pernicious aspects of modern thinking. Such acts would seem to fly in the face of a view of the world as mere mechanism.

It might, however, be argued that Grant’s activism was is keeping with Weil’s call to obedience in the sense that it was merely the rote, orthopraxic exercise commanded by his faith. However, such an argument would do no justice to, nor adequately explain, the breadth and character of his works. For surely one cannot explain away Grant’s public analyses of Nietzsche in the Massey Lectures, nor his attempt to salvage the natural-law tradition in English-Speaking Justice, among other activities, as being part and parcel of the orthopraxic demands of Christianity. Whatever veil of obscurity may lay over his words on necessity and freedom, his works in the world clearly speak volumes, and one is justified in sustaining, as did Grant on occasion, that “By their fruits you shall know them.” (Matthew, 7:15-21). To judge George Grant by the fruits of his labour is to thus judge him as a human-being who did not, in fact, see fit to submit to the inescapable, mechanical necessity of the age, nor as one who truly believed in it. For, as in the veins of his faith, “By their works, you shall know them” (Luke, 6:44-46), and Grant’s deeds were surely not those of a man obedient to the world.

 

References

Andrew, Ed; Grant’s Celine, reprinted in Davis, Art; Subversions of Modernity

Grant, George; English-Speaking Justice (with an introduction by Robin Lathangue); House of Anansi Press Inc; Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1998

Grant, George; Two Theological Languages, reprinted in Davis, Art; Subversions of Modernity

Grant, George; Philosophy in the Mass Age (ed. William Christian); University of Toronto Press; Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1998

Grant, George; Technology & Empire; House of Anansi Press Inc; Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1969

Grant, George; Technology & Justice; House of Anansi Press Inc; Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1986

Grant, George; Time as History (ed. William Christian); University of Toronto Press; Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1995

Grant, George; The George Grant Reader (eds. William Christian and Sheila Grant); University of Toronto Press; Toronto, ON, Canada, 1998

Kojeve, Alexander; Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (ed. Allan Bloom, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr.); Basic Books, 1969

Luther, Martin; Selected Writings of Martin Luther 1517-1520 (ed. Theodore G. Tappert); Fortress Press; Philadelphia, 1967

Planinc, Zdravko; Paradox and Polyphony in Grant’s Critique of Modernity, reprinted in Davis, Art; Subversions of Modernity

Plato; Complete Works (ed. John M. Cooper); Hackett Publishing Company; Indianapolis, USA; 1997

Plato; La Republique (trans. Georges Leroux); GF Flammarion; Paris, France, second edition, 2004

Plato; Republic (trans. Allan Bloom); Basic Books; USA, second edition, 1968

Sherrard, Philip; Greek East and Latin West, A Study in the Christian Tradition; Oxford University Press; London, UK; 1959

Weber, Max; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (trans. Talcott Parsons); Charles Scribners Sons; New York, NY; 1958

Excerpts from Weil, Simone; Gravity and Grace

Excerpts from Weil, Simone; Waiting on God

 

Notes

[1]    See Planinc, Zdravko; Paradox and Polyphony in Grant’s Critique of Modernity, reprinted in Davis, Art; Subversions of Modernity

[2]    Grant, George; PitMA, p.91; one may also observe Grant’s repeated use of such phrases as “negation” and “the idea of God”  in PitMA as greater evidence as to how deeply Grant had adopted both Hegel’s language and his thought at the time.

[3]    Grant, George; PitMA, p 12-13

[4]    Grant, George; PitMA, p.120-122

[5]    Grant, George; T&E, p. 79-111

[6]    Grant, George; PitMA, p. 121

[7]    Grant, George; T&E, p.108-109, but also note Grant’s 1988 addendum to the 1953 lecture entitle Two Theological Languages in which he stresses his belief in the intrinsic compatibility of Greek philosophy and Christianity.

[8]    Grant, George; PitMA, p.83 in which Grant quotes Santayana and describes the pragmatism of William James and James Dewey as a “Protestant humanism”, and p.85, in which he describes pragmatism as “iniquitous”.

[9]    Grant, George; Two Theological Languages (hereafter TTL), p.15. reprinted in Davis, Art; Subversions of Modernity

[10] Grant, George; TTL, p.15

[11] Grant, George; Notebook A, Lecture 12: Five Lectures on Christianity, p.233-237

[12] For evidence of this long-lasting interest, see, for instance: Grant, George; In Defense of Simone Weil, 1988; in The George Grant Reader (hereafter TGGR), eds. William Christian and Sheila Grant, 1998; p. 256-265

[13] Christian, William and Sheila Grant; Introduction in TGGR, 1998; p.3-4

[14] Grant, George; T&E, Essay IV. Grant’s questioning of Strauss could certainly be proof of his dissatisfaction with the possibility that the gap between reason and revelation might be unbridgeable, and of his unwillingness to accept such a possibility.

[15] Grant’s interest in Hegelianism is most evident in PitMA, but is also a continued source of interest, if not concern, for him at later dates, as evidenced by his essay on the Strauss-Kojeve debate in T&E.

[16] Eliade’s anthropology of ancient, pagan cultures is explicitly cited and employed by Grant in Essay II of PitMA.

[17] Kojeve, Alexander; Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (hereafter IttRoH), chapter 5, seventh lecture

[18] Kojeve, Alexander; IttRoH, chapter 1, first lecture, Alexander Kojeve

[19] ibid

[20] Kojeve, Alexander; IttRoH, chapter 5, eighth lecture

[21] Grant, George; PitMA, p.15-20

[22]  The late Professor Peter Emberley, who was quite familiar with Grant, also remarked in private that Grant appeared to deny that such re-enactment of illud tempore could be done in our times.

[23] This summary owes much to Sherrard, who was himself consulted by Grant in his early career; see TGGR, p. 15, 215.

[24] Emberley opined in an early draft of this essay, that Grant found Aristotelian philosophy “too compromised with worldly necessity.”

[25] See, for example, Plato; Timaeus [27c-29d]

[26] Sherrard, Philip; Greek East and Latin West, p. 22-47

[27] Grant, George; Time as History (hereafter TaH), p.58-60

[28] This interpretation of Nietzsche is most evident in TaH, particularly in passages on pages 22, 26-27, 37, and 48, among others

[29] Grant, George; TaH, p. 58-60

[30] It is worth noting that the word “Providence” is most often explicitly used by Grant when discussing Calvinism and its status as the precursor to pragmatism, (as in PitMA, essay VI) and, in such cases, the tone of discussion is often negative. Given Grant’s continued attachments to the theology of Luther however – as documented by Sheila Grant in George Grant and the Theology of the Cross — it seems proper to speak of Luther’s conception of that same symbol.

[31] See chiefly Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and Heidelberg Disputation.

[32] Reprinted in part in Weber, Max; The Protestant Ethic (hereafter TPE), chapter 4, p.99-101

[33] ibid, chapter IV, p.111

[34] ibid, chapter IV, p. 111, 114, 116-7; and chapter V, p.160-162

[35] ibid, chapter V, p.159, 164-165

[36] See in particular Grant, George; PitMA, Essay VI, p. 76-88 (Reformed providence)

[37] Kojeve, Alexander; IttRoH, chapter 5, eighth lecture

[38] Weber, Max; TPE, chapter IV, p. 99-104

[39] Excerpt from Weil, Simone; Waiting on God, p. 66-68

[40] ibid

[41] ibid, p. 82

[42] Grant’s Defense of Simone Weil in TGGR, written in 1988, certainly demonstrates his continued attachment to her. A particular demonstration of the serious with which he considered her though is caught in the phrase “How is possible that human beings are given over to the afflictions of necessity? What is it to contemplate Goodness itself in the light of the afflictions of necessity?” (p. 264)

[43] For this interpretation of Nietzsche, see Grant, George; TaH, essay III, p. 38-41

[44] ibid, p.44-54

[45] Perhaps one of Grant’s stronger arguments, in his late career, for the evidence of the historicism of human minds is presented in Chapter 1 of his Technology & Justice, p. 19-23. Therein, Grant attempts to demonstrate the degree to which the products of technological society (such as automobiles and computers) dictate its forms through their demand for the mass mobilization and social conformity of human beings which is necessary for their production.

[46] Grant, George; TaH, p. 57

[47] Grant, George; TTL, p. 9

[48] In one of his last publications, Technology & Justice (hereafter T&J), Grant summed-up his thoughts on this understanding of freedom on page 9 of the preface when he quoted the Spanish proverb, “Take what you want,” said God, “Take it, and pay for it.”

[49] See, for instance, Grant, George; T&J, p.34, though the theme is common to most of his work.

[50] See Grant, George; TaH, p. 16-18, 23, in which Grant speaks of the language of “will” as both the expression of an aspiration in the future, and also as the noun which indicates that thing in human beings which actively aspires.

[51]  The late Professor Emberley, in comments to this essay, posed the following possibility, “Is it not that he [i.e. Grant] is saying that our public language is dominated by historicism while our souls long for a perfection and beauty which we know, but cannot publicly articulate?” In essence, is Grant struggling with ontological questions, or with political questions, i.e. questions of public reason and language? Is it a language dominated by historicism which is the principle personal and political problem of the age? My premiss and contention throughout this essay, is that Grant was genuinely grappling with primary experiences of transcendence, their possibility, and adequate articulation – not only with the current limitations of public language, which arise only consequently and secondarily.

[52] Grant, George; Nietzsche and the Ancients: Philosophy and Scholarship’ in Dionysus 3 (December), p. 5-16 (reprinted in 1986)

[53] Planinc, Zdravko; Paradox and Polyphony in Grant’s Critique of Modernity, p.38, reprinted in Davis, Art; Subversions of Modernity

[54] Andrew, Ed; Grant’s Celine, reprinted in Davis, Art; Subversions of Modernity

[55] Grant, George; Introduction to Simone Weil, 1970; and In Defense of Simone Weil, 1988; in TGGR, p.243, 252, 259

[56] ibid, p. 249, 248, 258, 263

[57] ibid, p. 249, 257

[58] Quoted by Grant in his Introduction to Simone Weil on page 248 of TGGR

[59] See Plato’s Republic as translated by Bloom or by Leroux, [493c]

[60] Planinc, Zdravko; Paradox and Polyphony in Grant’s Critique of Modernity, p.34, reprinted in Davis, Art; Subversions of Modernity

[61] Letter to Rod Cook, in TGGR, p. 207

[62] Excerpt from Weil, Simone; Gravity and Grace, p. 63

[63] Grant, George; TTL, 1988 addendum, p. 16

[64] Grant, George; TaH, p. 58

[65] Grant, George; TTL, 1988 addendum, p. 16

[66] Grant, George; TTL, 1988 addendum, p. 17

[67] Excerpt from Weil, Simone; Waiting on God, p.71

Colin CordnerColin Cordner

Colin Cordner

Colin Cordner is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and completed his Ph.D. at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada in 2016, where he is an instructor and occasional poet in the Department of Political Science. He is also owner of Fall's Edge Editing. His recent research focuses upon the works Plato and Michael Polanyi on scientism qua sophism, and the origins and therapies for the attendant spiritual crises and political disorders.

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