Plato’s VIIth Letter, on Beauty
“There is no writing of mine on this subject nor ever shall be. It is not capable of expression like other branches of study; but as the result of long intercourse and a common life spent upon the thing, a light is suddenly kindled as from a leaping spark, and when it has reached the Soul, it thenceforward finds nourishment for itself.”
Plotinus, on the un-primacy of Evil
“Evil is not alone, by virtue of the nature of the good, and of the power of Good, it is not Evil only. It appears necessarily, bound around in bonds of Beauty like some captive bound in fetters of gold. And beneath these, it is hidden, so that, while it must exist, it may not be seen by the gods, and that men need not always have evil before their eyes, but that when it comes before them they may still not be destitute of images of the Good and Beautiful for their remembrance.”
George Parkin Grant is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost thinkers that Canada produced in the last century. His Lament for a Nation burst on Vietnam-era Canada like a thunderbolt, and the reading public had strong reactions, one way or the other. He relentlessly criticized the developing American world-hegemony, characterizing it as “orgasm at home, and napalm abroad”. His diagnosis, which delighted many Leftists, nevertheless came from a “conservative and Christian perspective”, along with the old dominion Britishness which he saw going the way of the dodo-bird in the face of Canada’s desire to “Americanize”:
It appeared to him then, however, that Canada was making the same deal with three witches on the heath that America had. Like Richard Weaver, the godfather of the paleo-conservatives in America, Grant fingered the medieval debates over realism, and the forms of Western Christianity itself, as the fateful crossroads of a troubled modern world. But unlike Weaver, he did not leave these assertions general.
Grant never contented himself with a surface analysis. Although he would argue that these problems are “merely theoretical” for real Christians (whose hearts are in union with God), he asserted that a kind of civic and public darkness was culminating in the West, with America as its primary practitioner and disseminator.
“Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow…”
This darkness was public because no primary Good could be agreed upon, or even allowed to exist, in a universe which was totally objectified as an Object for the exercise of Technology and Will. The primary driving force behind Relativism was absolutely not tolerance (except as a pap for the “people”), but the belief that man, as part of Nature, was any longer anything but Object. Although Grant also argued that America and Canada had long been insulated from the intellectual effects of a darkness already given, and shielded by the very anti-intellectualism which had given it birth, he increasingly believed that the logical effects would make themselves known in the context of a global world, in which a universal, homogeneous world-state would effectively be a perfect tyranny.
Grant set to work tracing and clarifying the roots of the darkness. In his later works, he never preached or delivered invective, as he had done in Lament for a Nation. Deferring such work to his acknowledged saint and intellectual mistress, Simone Weil, a thinker and “saint” (who had also argued that mankind was essentially organic and required the kind of favorable environment which a plant did in order to begin the process of apprehending the Good), Grant instead set himself to unravel the mystery behind Modernity. Like Weil, and perhaps like Strauss (his other mentor), he believed that Christianity required a form of Platonism in order to stabilize itself culturally and publicly. In fact, public Christianity itself, as it had developed in the West, was actually part of the problem.
What follows is a series of extensive quotes which show the way Grant’s mind unraveled the mystery of the Zeitgeist’s operations. First of all, Western Christianity had interrupted the Platonism native to the West, cutting across ancient traditions:
“We must think through how the western interpretation of the Bible was responsible not only for the greatness of modernity, but for what was frightening in it. This kind of questioning cannot be faced by a Christianity that envisages reason as simply a human instrument, and therefore cuts itself off from philosophy. To understand technology requires that we try to understand what is the true relation between love and reason. Did Western Christianity go wrong in its understanding of that relation? The temptation is always to try to understand technology from within technology.” (Conv: Phil, 147)
This had transpired thanks to the English empirical tradition, operating on the central European one:
“But during the 17thc. Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke had achieved the terrible task of making Machiavelli widely respectable, and the new secular and moral science is particularly welcomed by the Protestants” (Tech&Emp).
It worked because it worked, because it was power. Quebec was as helpless against it as the Dominion states:
“Marxism is an advanced product of the West that appealed to French revolutionary ideas, British industry, and German philosophy. Many people in North America no longer appeal to any ideology beyond our own affluence…this position is wrapped up in Darwinian packaging… “(Tech&Emp,74).
And it also worked because of its own shallowness and incompleteness:
“Until very recently, the very absence of a contemplative tradition spared us the full weight of the nihilism which in Europe flowered with industrial society…it was possible to move deeply into a technological society, while retaining our optimism and innocence…(Tech&Emp,37).
The European dilemma would eventually reach us, but without Nietzsche’s jouissance:
“Nietzsche’s equivocation about the relation of the highest will to power and the will to technology has never been part of the English-speaking tradition….our liberal horizons fade in the winter of nihilism, and the dominating among us see themselves with no horizon except their creating of the world, while the pure will to technology (whether public or private) more and more gives sole content to that creating. In the official intellectual community this process has become known as the “end of ideology” .The very substance of our existing which has made us leaders in technique stands as a barrier to any thinking which might be able to comprehend technique from beyond its own dynamism” (Tech&Emp).
Nietzsche’s side-step would be unavailable to us, as we had learned Nietzsche from Weber. Grant endorsed Ernst Troeltsch’s definition of Calvinism as the key attitude/concept in driving the new hyper-Protestant anti-ethos which culminates around us in control/subjection of Nature, a Calvinism that was unaware of the complexity of the fire it played with. Because we are operating so fully in this mode, are more and more present in it, we are included in it. In fact, we couldn’t even ask the same questions Plato asked, because we could understand neither him nor ourselves. Oblivion of eternity was our self-definition:
“The very procedure of research means that the past is represented as object. But anything, in so far as it is an object, only has the meaning of an object for us. That is why it is quite accurate to use the metaphor of the mausoleum about our humanities research. Moreover, when we represent something to ourselves as object, we stand above it as subject – the transcending summoners. We therefore guarantee that the meaning of what is discovered in such research is under us, and therefore in a very real way dead for us in the sense that its meaning cannot teach us anything greater than ourselves.” (Role Conflict in the Humanities, p. 3, quoted in Conv, p.134)
Whatever else this New Man Ethos was, Grant admitted, it was not “flaccid”, but it had effectively eviscerated any possibility of judging or even thinking outside its own box, destroying the old liberal hope of speaking “Truth to Power”. What was more astonishing was the irony of a Christian West (and Christian elements in the West) devouring its own innards:
“Why is it, in the ancient world, that the materialists were the private, apolitical thinkers, while the Platonists were interested in the public realm, whereas in the modern world the nationalists are so directed?” (Conversation: Philosophy, 145).
Grant believed that this diagnosis was not “pessimistic” at all, a word that entered the vocabulary with Leibniz, who had contributed to the problem. Indeed, “the Good can take care of itself”. Affirming the Socratic Real, as opposed to the Nietzschean Dionysian ethos of tragedy, he was arguing that there was “something with tears, but something beyond tears”, a something that would make itself known, if in no other way, by intimations of deprivation of that self-same Good. Like Denis de Rougemont, in whose classic Love in the Western World we also find that same affirmation of something Good which exists beyond tragedy, Grant would have understood Dido’s line from Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas – “Remember me, forget my Fate”. What was final was the Good, rationally apprehended. Tragedy and analysis gave way before it. Grant believed that this was what the Gospels had heightened.
This Good taught us, and at one time had done so publicly and culturally, that whatever else is true, it is not true that there are “human beings to whom nothing is due.” It may have endorsed slavery and practiced a thousand infamies, but it never affirmed that some human beings are outside of the pale of the Good. This Good was what “man was due as man”, in addition to being a vehicle of transcendence. It affirmed a microcosm, a mesocosm, and a macrocosm, and none of it based (primarily) upon any Objectifying of either Nature or Mankind as plastic to be worked by Technology, or a vacuum in which to exercise the will to technological (or any other kind of) power. Behind the conception of knowledge in the West, the most important fact of any society (for Grant), lies an affirmation of the will in a particular way which makes possible the historicism of Nietzsche and the abandonment of the Greeks for a final, total time (Conv: Phil, 142). Heidegger had given the clearest exposition of this anti-Greek fracture in his book on Leibniz, Der Satz von Grund. What was lost was not merely Plato’s teaching and emphasis on Bodies, but also the “absurd mystery of evil” in the context of a greater Light. Calvinist eschatology, positivistic Protestantism, & Hegelianism tended to confluesce.
“It has always seemed to me that Hegel makes God’s Providence scrutable, in a way we can understand…it was Leo Strauss who taught me to think this through” (Conv: Int.Background, 64).
“What we do to our own bodies and to other people’s bodies, is our partaking in justice here and now. We can’t learn anything about justice apart from bodies” (Conv:Theo&Hist, 104).
The particular is the nursemaid to the universal; without the particular, we cannot actually ascend to love the universal. Whether this is true to Plato or not, it was certainly Grant’s underlying creed. Also, Strauss taught him that in Christianity, revelation is received as being (a person), and not as Law, which explains Grant’s admiration of Simone Weil – “She has shown me how sanctity and philosophy can be at one” (ibid., 65). It is important to note that, apparently for Grant, although evil cannot be rationally apprehended, Love can. Or, rather, that Love is orderly, as well as sublime. Love lifts man up to participation in something higher, and it can be thought about and discussed, even in terms of history and culture. It begins with bodies and with segregate souls, passes through peoples and cultures (as vehicles), and it ends in the transcendent Good.
Saying that “science and technology are universal” really only means “let’s hire more people from Harvard and Cal Tech” (ibid., 105). Plato, by contrast, “proclaims the dependence of intelligence upon love in a much clearer way than Aristotle” (ibid., 107), a love which is awakened from local associations only, not abstractions. To talk of loving others (first) more than family is to talk “as if people do not have bodies” (ibid., 103). In philosophical jargon, it may be logically prior, but can never be so in Life.
Being an Ubermensch (freed from Chance, Nature, and Body), in this sense, involves creating one’s self-hood out of one’s self, like a spider. An older tradition sought to educate souls with the recognition that, in the words TS Eliot’s closing lines in Little Gidding – “the tongues of the dead are flamed beyond any of those of the living”. In speaking with them, one could not use power to deconstruct – one is challenged, responds, and is changed. This is what it means to truly understand. Obedience and Love are connected to Reason. One enters into a chorus of angels, if one can slip into heaven. Dare one say, you have to crawl through the eye of the needle? This noetic view of Truth as identical with the Good absolutely excludes the power-relationships and objectification which must, in the final sense, arbitrate all of modern knowledge, both as inner leaven, outer limit, and in a meta-form. The fact/value distinction is a symptom of this inner lie: in separating ’value‘ from ’fact‘, we ensure that our ’values‘ will be included in the account of fact which we dictate. Modern knowledge centers on what can be known, which is to mean, what we can demonstrate our control over. It will coalesce in terrible monisms centered upon the rewards of power or the rage of despair. Technique and technology alternately inform and dominate each other and the world. Modern man, at last, would also imitate as he understands, despite his boast.
Our era had chosen to forget all limits, manifesting itself in a war on Tradition for its own sake:
“In this era, when the homogenizing power of technology is almost unlimited, I do regret the disappearance of indigenous traditions, including my own. It is true that no particularism can adequately incarnate the good. But is it not also true that only through some particular roots, however partial, can human beings first grasp what is good and that it is the juice of such roots which for most men sustain their partaking in a more universal good? Or, can the achievements of the age of progress be placed at the services of a human freedom which finds itself completed and not denied by a spiritual order?” (Conv:Phil)
This, of course, for Grant was related to the way we were treating our bodies, objectifying them to enlist them in a war on Nature, a war that would inevitably be carried home against the body itself (and all bodily associations, such as families, kin, nations, etc.). The Hegelians had relegated Evil to the lack of total historical knowledge (on the one hand) and thought to explain it in our own day by the lack of Progress.
“For the Hegelian, political philosophy does not stand or fall for its ability to transcend history, but its ability to comprehend it…only in the radical negation of theism is it possible to assert that mankind is making progress…eternity is the sum of the historical epochs, merely…” (T&E, Tyranny and Wisdom, 90-91).
For Grant, this was a total misunderstanding of the mystery inherent in evil and human nature, most likely caused by the abandonment in the first place of the only Light which could burn in the presence of radical evil and banish it.
Given the destruction of the Past in the engines of Modernity, to what else can we appeal but a “dead” past? Resources on the ground were scarce, and the Future did not exist yet. There are few living reminders of how our ancestors captured a public Good (with all of its faults, warts and all). The situation was dire and complicated, for “How can man not be destroyed should he continue in this,” asked Grant, “and how will he not be destroyed if he tries to stop?” One is reminded of the old saying about “it is difficult to dismount a Tiger”. He even appealed to Kant against the rationalization of the will in man to nothing more than an organ or technique of raw dominance over objects:
“It is not my business here to describe the holding in unity of these two sides – timeless good and historical will – as it is laid before us through an account of the modern arts and sciences, in the edifice of Kant’s three critiques. However, in an era when the oblivion of eternity has almost become the self-definition of many of us, it is necessary to insist on the side of the timeless and universal good in Kant’s system. Indeed this side is shown with startling clarity in Kant, when despite all the causes which might lead him to propound the philosophy of history as an essential part of any true philosophical teaching, he turns back from possibility of such an enterprise because it would involve our moral choices depending on knowledge other than the timeless fact of reason itself. See The Critique of Judgement, paras 83 and 84…” (ESJ, p.98).
Kant and Rousseau had managed to reconcile the old and the new accounts, but their successors had not been so fortunate or honest. There was something which had “flamed forth in the Gospels and burned still”, for Grant, exemplified most fully in the Johannine Gospels. Grant called himself a representative of the Vedic wing of Christianity. And from this Platonistic and evangelical high ground, he went on in work after work to lay out the nature of the enemy before us, an enemy in which the issue of cybernetics (Who has the helm? who says “When”?) would increasingly become critical, especially given the movement against traditional human rights in the issue of Abortion. We were now left with a view of human nature as perfectly material, utterly arbitrary, and infinitely malleable. Duty and self/government had been destroyed as fictions, along with the Good, but paradoxically, the darkness would now compel our assent, even as it denied any value whatsoever:
“Now when from that primal has come forth what is present before us: when the victory over the land leaves most of us in metropoloi where widely spread consumption vies with confusion and squalor; when the emancipation of greed turns out from its victories on this continent to feed imperially on the resources of the world; when those resources cushion an immense majority who think they are free in pluralism, but in fact live in a monistic vulgarity in which nobility and wisdom have been exchanged for a pale belief in progress, alternating with boredom and weariness of spirit; when the disciplined among us drive to an unlimited technological future, in which technical reason has become so universal that is has closed down an openness and awe, questioning and listening; when Protestant subjectivity remains authentic only where it is least appropriate, in the moodiness of our art and sexuality, and where public religion has become an unimportant litany of objectified self-righteousness necessary for the more anal of our managers; one must remember now the hope, the stringency and nobility of that primal encounter. The land was almost indomitable.”
From In Defense of North America, Technology and Empire (24,40):
“How far will the race be able to carry the divided state which characterizes individuals in modernity: the plush patina of hectic subjectivity lived out in the iron maiden of an objectified world inhabited by increasingly objectifiable beings? When we are uncertain whether anything can mediate that division, how can we predict what men will do when the majority lives more fully in that division? Is there some force in man which will rage against such a division: rage not only against a subjectivity which creates itself, but also against our own lives being so much at the disposal of the powerful objectifications of other freedoms? Neither can we know what this unfolding potentiality tells us of the non-human: as we cannot now know to what extent the non-human can in practice be made malleable to our will, therefore we also do not know what this undetermined degree of malleability will tell us of what the non-human is. Is the non-human simply stuff at our disposal, or will it being to make its appearance to us as an order the purposes of which somehow resist our malleable-izings? Are there already signs of revolt in Nature? Despite the noblest modern thought, which teaches always the exaltation of potentiality above all that is, has anyone been able to show us conclusively throughout a comprehensive account of both the human and the non-human things, that we must discard the idea of a presence above which potentiality cannot be exalted? In such a situation of uncertainty, it would be lacking courage to turn one’s face to the wall, even if one can find no fulfillment in working for or celebrating the dynamo. Equally it would be immoderate and uncourageous and perhaps unwise to live in the midst of our present drive, merely working in it, and celebrating it, and not also listening or watching or simply waiting for intimations of deprival which might lead us to see the beautiful as the image, in the world, of the good.”
One quickly sees that in all his major works, he repeatedly and strongly affirms the centrality of the insight that it was unconstrained will, or will bereft of Reason and something beyond Reason, which has lead us to “Modern Times”. Manichean Evil was paramount, there could be no final Good or Reason. Socrates was, quite frankly, dead wrong:
“Socrates turned away from tragedy (and what was given in its truth about sexuality) in saying that what was final was not the abyss, but Good. The greatest achievement of the modern scientists and philosophers was the destruction of Greek rationalism with its ‘substances’, its ‘truth’ and its ‘good’. The greatest height for man was laid bare in Greek tragedy, in that it made plain that the basic fact of existence was our encounter with an abyss – our encounter with the finality of chaos. Classical rationalism is seen as a species of neurotic fear, a turning away from the elementary fact of the abyss by means of a shallow identification of happiness, virtue, and reason. Our study of it must be a kind of historical therapy (similar to the way Nietzsche proposes to free us of Christianity). That therapy is a means for the educated to bring themselves to an even greater height than that proclaimed in tragedy. It will be a greater height because it will now take into itself both the primacy of the abyss, and the overcoming of chance made possible through scientific technology. This will enable the great and the noble to be ‘masters of the earth’. The combination of the primacy of the abyss with technology will produce the Ubermensch – those who will deserve to be masters of the earth. Humanity has been a bridge in evolution between the beasts and those who are higher than human beings. Nietzsche may have been the great political critic of Rousseau, but he accepts his account of human origins. Reason does not open us to the eternal; its greatness has been to transcend itself in its modern manifestations, so that we are both able and deserve to be masters of the earth…
In Nietzsche’s conception of justice, there are other human beings to whom nothing is due – other than extermination….Whatever may be given in Plato’s attack on democracy in his Republic, it is certainly not that for some human be–ings nothing is due…what gives meaning in the fact of historicism is that willed potentiality is higher than any actuality…(85) Why should constitutional regimes be considered superior to their alternatives if human beings are basically ids?” (p. 88, 94, 85)
From Nietzsche and the Ancients, from Technology and Justice:
“The danger of this darkness is easily belittled by our impoverished use of the word ‘thought’. This word is generally used as if it meant an activity necessary to scientists when they come up against a difficulty in their research, or some vague unease beyond calculation when we worry about our existence. Thought is steadfast attention to the whole. The darkness is fearful because what is at stake is whether anything is good. In the technological era, the central western account of justice clarified the claim that justice is what we are fitted for. It clarified why justice is to render each human being their due, and why what was due to each human being was ‘beyond all bargains and without an alternative’. That account of justice was written down most carefully and most beautifully in The Republic of Plato. For those of us who are Christians, the substance of our belief is that the perfect living out of that justice is enfolded in the Gospels. Why the darkness which enshrouds justice is so dense – even for those of us who think that what is given in The Republic concerning good stands forth as true – is because that truth cannot be thought in unity with what is given in modern science concerning necessity and chance. The darkness is not simply the obscurity of living by that justice in the practical tumult of the technological society. Nor is it the impossibility of that account coming to terms with much of the folly of modernity, eg., the belief that there is a division between ‘facts’ and ‘values’; nor the difficulty of thinking that truth in the presence of historicism. Rather it is that this account has not been thought in unity with the greatest theoretical enterprises of the modern world. This is a great darkness, because it appears certain that rational beings cannot get out that darkness by accepting either truth and rejecting the other. It is folly simply to return to the ancient account of justice as if the discoveries of the modern science of nature had not been made. It is folly to take the ancient account of justice as purely of antiquarian interest, because without any knowledge of what we are fitted for, we will move into the future with a ‘justice’ which is terrifying in its potentialities for mad inhumanity of action…who has been able to think the two accounts together?”
From English-Speaking Justice:
“But the difference between the ancients and the moderns as to what is due to all human beings should not lead us to doubt that in the rationalist traditions, whether ancient or modern, something at least is due to all subjects, whether we define them as rational souls or rational subjects. Whatever may be given in Plato’s attack on democracy in his Republic, it is certainly not that for some human beings nothing is due. Indeed to understand Plato’s account of justice, we must remember the relation in his thought between justice and the mathematical conception of equality. In Nietzsche’s conception of justice there are other human beings to whom nothing is due – other than extermination. The human creating of quality of life beyond the little perspectives of good and evil by a building, rejecting, annihilating way of thought is the statement that politics is the technology of making the human race greater than it has yet been. In that artistic accomplishment, those of our fellows who stand in the way of that quality can be exterminated or simply enslaved. There is nothing intrinsic in all others that puts any given limit on what we may do to them in the name of that great enterprise. Human beings are so unequal in quality that to some of them no due is owed. What gives meaning in the fact of historicism is that willed potentiality is higher than any actuality…oblivion of eternity here realizes itself politically. One should not flirt with Nietzsche for the purposes of this or that area of science or scholarship, but teach him in the full recognition that his thought presages the conception of justice that more and more unveils itself in the technological West.”
Grant never proposed a “solution”, though he did wonder about the possibility of placing the goods of Progress at the service of a higher Good. Unlike Strauss, he was not reticent about his faith, nor did he deny that perhaps, in the end, charity or “compassion” for man was the supreme Good after all, with a nod to Feuerbach. But he did attempt to delineate where our accounting of ourselves had severed taproots in Tradition necessary for any human existence at all, a destruction which already manifested itself in the modern disorientation, a disorientation that crystallizes in irrational joy every time some bulwark of the idolatrous Past is brought crashing to the ground.
Grant stands as a permanent challenge to those who glibly undertake to asset that all evils exist in the world through Tradition, or lightly assume that man can effectively “will” to create his own realities without it. He was one of the few “conservatives” who carried out a deep foray into occupied territory, and his criticisms deserve to be meditated on by fellow conservatives or progressives of good will who would wish to remember that it is not Philosophy’s job to self-assure the elements of desire and naked will in man, even in a New Age. As Grant would say, Tyrants do not seize power to become warm, and the global situation had rendered man peculiarly adapted to control. For Grant had watched Strauss give masterful answers to the subtle Kojeve’s articulation of a new Hegelianism, and he left convinced that history was not the home of all truth, nor was Truth apprehended in the absence of our bodies. For the fullness of something beyond tears, he turned to Weil, from whom he ordered his experience of God. In this, Grant was a European of the old breed, but it made him a dangerous critic of the new. For Grant, the longing for that Good was not less, and that Good could never completely go, but it would exist forever as intimations of deprivation, even in hells of our own making.