Restatement of Romanticism:
A Review of Ron Dart’s The North American High Tory Tradition
New York: American Anglican Press, 2016
by Terry Barker
In the December, 2016 issue of the American Christian journal, First Things, contributor Michael Hanby notes that he “learned a great deal” from the works of the late Canadian philosopher, George Grant, and avers that “American Christians would benefit tremendously from renewed attention to his thought (p. 9)”. The publication last autumn of the study by Professor Dart of, in effect, the intellectual milieu from which Grant appeared, goes a long way towards providing a point of access to Grant’s mind for contemporary Americans (and modern Canadians, for that matter).
Grant, in his 1970 introduction to his best-known book, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965), made it clear that the work was “a lament for the romanticism of the original dream” of Canada, not a call for Canadians to become nationalists, whether of the (popular at the time) liberal nationalist or “Left” nationalist (Marxist-Leninist sort). Indeed, the book was a series of meditations of a spiritual nature, (Grant was a theologian with an interest in civil theology, not a political ideologue; he famously described the ideologies as “surrogate religions masquerading as philosophy”), using the “idea of the Canadian Nation” (as Augustine had done with the “idea of Rome”, and Richard Hooker had done with “the idea of Britain” in the Elizabethan Age), to convey his belief in the need for a proper religious philosophy as the underpinning for any good society. Grant’s Lament, of course, was also a livre de circonstance; a recording of the political events in Canada that marked the passing of a polity which still exhibited a “Tory touch” (as Professor Dart via Gad Horowitz calls it); that is, a civic tradition “from before the age of progress” (as Grant might have put it).
Professor Dart’s book explores in concrete detail what this “romanticism of the original dream”, the passing of which Grant laments, actually was for Grant and his mid-twentieth century readers. Professor Dart achieves this imaginative recovery of a now-passed public consciousness by comparing and contrasting the ideas of public intellectuals (Canadian, American and British) which he considers to be liberal simpliciter, with the views of those whom he argues retain a “Tory touch”. Thus, a tradition now submerged by the overwhelming dominance of “bourgeois liberalism” (to coin a term from the Old Left, as Grant was sometimes wont to do), comes into view, that announces in the book’s title, The North American High Tory Tradition.
Professor Dart is well equipped to perform this “essay in retrieval”, as C.B. Macpherson might have styled it, as his academic background in religious and literary studies has evidently created a sensibility appropriate in his understanding of Grant’s enterprise as a civil theologian. In a famous essay on “The Oxford Political Philosophers” in 1953 (The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol III, No. 11), Austrian-American political philosopher, Eric Voegelin pointed out that, because of the ideological constraints imposed by the positivist language of Western political science, “some of the most effective work is done (in the study of Politics) by classical philologists, medievalists, philosophers and theologians” (p. 99). Voegelin indicated that he believed that scholars in these disciplines had been relatively productive in the areas of political theory and philosophy because their methodology had remained “closer to the classic and Christian sources of critical theory” than had others in the social sciences more heavily influenced Positivism, Behaviourism, Freudianism etc., such as conventional Political Science, Sociology or Social Psychology (ibid.). Certainly the chief figure in Professor Dart’s book, George Grant, fell well within Voegelin’s favoured categories of scholars, as does Professor Dart, of course.
One of the authors Professor Dart includes in his “High Tory” category, and deals with at some length, is the Northern Irish man of letters and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis. Lewis clearly belongs in this book, not only because of his influence upon Grant, but also (it would seem to me) because of Lewis’ vast North American readership. Lewis’ work had a great influence on Duke University Thomistic Anglican political scientist John H. Hallowell, for example. Hallowell and Voegelin were friends and academic colleagues, the latter contributing (anonymous) scholarly footnotes to the former’s work. In 1944, Voegelin reviewed Hallowell’s The Decline of Liberalism as an Ideology: With Particular Reference to German Political-Legal Thought (University of California Press). In his review (Journal of Politics 6: 107-109), Voegelin concludes that “the greatest merit of (Hallowell’s) book is the recognition of the fact that the inconsistencies of liberalism that led to its decline had their roots in the faultiness of its religious and metaphysical basis” (The Selected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 13, “Selected Book Reviews”, trans. and ed. Jodi Cockerill and Barry Cooper, p.125). It is likely the case that Hallowell’s later editing of the section of Voegelin’s unpublished History of Political Ideas that deals with the evolution of the era of radical revolutionary ideologies out of the original age of liberalism, (appearing in 1975 from Duke University Press as From Enlightenment to Revolution), was a result of the dialogue between Hallowell and Voegelin on the fundamental insufficiencies of liberalism.
The central message of The North American High Tory Tradition, as I take it, is that there are clues in the past of North American political/cultural evolution to the causes of the (now extremely obvious) “decline of liberalism as an ideology”, and that these lie in an examination of the principles in conflict at the time of “the first American civil war” (the American Revolution), which, Professor Dart argues, were still exhibited in the thought of (especially) Canadian and American public intellectuals of the twentieth century. The book also strongly suggests, I think, that some sort of solution to the decay of North American liberal democracy (other than the pop-Hegelian New Thought/Traditionalism of Trumpism, for example), may be synthesized from a re-examination of the “romanticism” of the rediscovered “High Tory Tradition”
C.S. Lewis’ first book of fiction, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), was a self-admitted allegory of his own intellectual/spiritual journey of discovery and re-examination, and was appropriately subtitled, “An Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism”. The orthodox Christianity alluded to is obvious in Lewis’ autobiography, but readers sometime queried the appropriateness of “Reason” and (even more) “Romanticism” as stated subjects of the “Apology”, but, of course, Lewis was defending in the book Classical Platonic reason (not Enlightenment ratiocination) and the imagination (not Rousseauistic mental magic), as he explained it in a later preface.
Professor Dart is, I believe, asking North Americans to embark upon an analogous “regress”, returning imaginatively over the socio-cultural “trail” of their collective spiritual history to rediscover the hidden “classic and Christian” (to use Voegelin’s term) roots of the best in their peoples.
Terry Barker taught Canadian Studies, Humanities, Political Science, and Ethics in Markey Economy at Humber College, Toronto. He retired in 2013.