Leo Strauss once remarked that the irreconcilable conflict between philosophy and revelation, between Athens and Jerusalem, constitutes the very life of Western civilization, and that each of us must live that conflict either as "the philosopher open to the challenge of theology or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy." For many Americans, the writings under review will introduce a man who has lived the conflict Strauss spoke of and, in doing so, has importantly influenced Canadian intellectual and political life.
In his latest book, English-Speaking Justice (ESJ), George Grant explores the crisis for liberal justice constituted by the conception of human purpose within technology. In George Grant and the Twilight of justice (GG), theologian Joan O'Donovan tries to understand "the unity and movement of Grant's thought" as he has struggled to comprehend modernity's break with the past, and the relationship between this rupture and the earlier tension at the very roots of our tradition between Biblical revelation and Greek philosophy. While Strauss calls it "reassuring and comforting" to discover that "Western civilization is the life between two codes, a fundamental tension," Grant's analysis of this same tension leads him to conclude it "improbable that the transcendence of justice over technology will be lived among English-speaking people" (ESJ, p. 89). The two works before us can help us to understand the extent and meaning of this difference.
Like all of his earlier writings, Grant's English-Speaking Justice explores the self-understanding of our civilization especially as expressed in North America. Here Grant analyzes the relationship between the technology that shapes our society and the political liberalism formulated by Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and others that still furnishes our authoritative moral vocabulary. His argument begins by questioning the belief of the early proponents of technological science and liberal politics that each of these enterprises tended to support the other.
These thinkers had tremendous confidence in the capacity of the scientific mastery of nature to condition and thus provide for universal freedom. They were equally certain that freedom would promote technology. Indeed, they identified freedom and technology. The mutual interdependence of liberalism and technology is now brought into question, however, by "the development of technology directed towards the mastery of human beings" (ESJ, p. 9). We see this development in behavior modification, genetic engineering, and population control through abortion. We see it in the declining authority of representative institutions in Western constitutional democracies, and in the retreat of so many in our societies from a public realm of contractual relationships. These developments lead Grant to ask whether a justice based on contract is "ever sufficient to support a politics of consent and justice" (ESJ, p. 12).
Grant seeks an answer to this question in John Rawls's Theory of Justice. Rawls had promised much, for he claimed to revive the contractual account of justice within which individual rights should have a security that utilitarianism can never give them. Yet because he writes within the epistemological assumptions of contemporary academic philosophy, Rawls fails.
Like Hobbes and Locke, Rawls must deny that justice can be understood as ordered to any final human good. But he must also deny what they claimed could be known about human nature. Their state of nature becomes "an imagined abstraction . . . set up to achieve fairness" (ESJ, p. 21). So too, Rawls must forsake Kant's discovery in reason itself of an ontological basis for a morality beyond all calculations. For him, reason can only be instrumental. Understood as the capacity to calculate, reason cannot furnish a solid basis for inalienable and equal rights.
Rawls's failure serves finally to reveal the fatal weakness of the contractual case for justice in its original form. For Rawls, who doubts whether we can know anything about our self-interest, its pursuit is little more than "the maximizing of the cosy pleasures" (ESJ, p. 46). Yet even Locke and Hobbes, who know that the avoidance of violent death is our greatest interest, cannot tell why we should risk death or injury for the common good. Here we begin to see what Grant calls the "moral vacuum" at the heart of contractual liberalism. But how, we are led to ask, has "decent liberal justice" been preserved so long in the presence of this vacuum?
In England the Whigs who obtained power in 1688 have seen little need to think beyond, or even through the liberalism of Hobbes and Locke. The English have had little interest in the more radical forms of modernity devised by continental philosophers. By the same token they have been little influenced by the dangerous ideologies emerging out of those philosophies. In North America, the task of taming a vast new continent, the emergence of industrial capitalism, and the needs of later immigrants from non-English traditions have made political contractualism and private pluralism even more pervasive. Contractualism was placed beyond the serious thought that would expose its moral weakness.
What has sustained decent liberal justice in our regimes has been the complex and unstable relation between contractual liberalism and the Calvinist Protestantism of those who have made this cause their own. Calvinists accepted the political teachings of Locke because they found in them support for their struggle against natural theology and established religion. The individualist and contractual account of human relations seemed also to correspond to their own understanding of the solitary relation between man and Creator. Calvinists could support liberal regimes without assuming the avoidance of violent death to be the greatest human good. Thus they could furnish the "moral cement" otherwise lacking in those regimes. Yet, to see how liberal justice has been sustained in our political society is also to see why it must now collapse, as Calvinist Protestants have been increasingly influenced by the liberal critique of traditional Christianity and the denial of creation by evolutionary biology.
That collapse is seen with dramatic clarity, according to Grant, in the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. For the majority, Justice Blackmun argued the priority of a woman's right to an abortion, as an exercise of her right to privacy, over the rights of the fetus, or any substantive account of the moral good. In arguing this, the Court speaks "modern liberalism in its pure contractual form." The presumed ontology by which the Court denies the personhood of the fetus "raises a cup of poison to the lips of liberalism." The decision poses, but cannot answer, the terrible question of "What is it about any members of our species which makes the liberal rights of justice their due?" (ESJ, p. 71).
Roe v. Wade exposes a contradiction at the heart of Western civilization. We have tried to maintain an account of justice which depends upon a Platonic view of things, within which our understanding of anything involves knowing it in relation to the good. At the same time we have committed ourselves ever more firmly to a technological conception of reason wherein we understand something only when we "know it as ruled by necessity and chance" (ESJ, p. 73). What Grant sees in Roe v. Wade is the triumph over the "absolutes of the old morality" by an understanding that our very species is a product of necessity and chance, and that our moral judgments are merely the imposing of our wills upon an accidental world.
Liberal justice, understood as equality of right, is undermined by that very technological account of reason upon which its philosophic founders had insisted. As Nietzsche saw a century ago, justice as equality of right must disappear with the death of God before whom all men are equal. Grant's perception of the threat to liberal justice posed by the argument ofRoe v. Wade closely parallels Lincoln's understanding of the implications for democracy of Taney's reasoning in the Dred Scott decision. Yet, unlike Lincoln, Grant sees little hope of overcoming the threat he perceives.
If the technological account of reason basic to modern political philosophy cannot sustain justice against the claims of convenience, might not justice be preserved by a renewed appeal to its ancient foundations? It is just this appeal that Leo Strauss has proposed in response to the crisis of modernity, and, as O'Donovan shows, Grant has accepted much of Strauss's understanding. Certainly Grant has acknowledged both the departure of modern political philosophy from the classical tradition and Biblical religion, and the importance and error of historicism. Why then does he question Strauss's claim that the tension between revelation and philosophy preserves the vitality of our civilization, or doubt that a return to classical political philosophy is possible or even desirable? Certainly Grant's reservations reflect the importance he attaches as a Christian to Biblical revelation. Yet the chief source of Grant's reservations is his understanding of the problematic relationship in which revelation stands to modernity as expressed in technological reason and in the conception of "time as history."
A major obstacle to the restoration of the ancient account of justice is that very hostility to theoretical contemplation that has isolated the English-speaking world from continental philosophy and ideologies. Another is the almost insurmountable difficulty of reconciling the ancient understanding of justice with the discoveries of technological science (Grant speaks of quantum physics, evolutionary biology, and modern logic).
A still greater difficulty is the conflict between the ancient account of justice within Greek philosophy and the "primal affirmation" of Biblical religion. For Greek philosophy, the understanding of justice is inseparable from the identification of philosophic contemplation as the greatest human good; Socratic philosophy "gives us knowledge of the nature of things, of which we are fitted for and what the consequences are for our actions in being so fitted" (ESJ, p. 44). Although Biblical revelation and the good of contemplation are to some extent reconciled in the theology of St. Augustine, Grant seems to doubt the solidity of any such accommodation and even its veracity as an expression of Biblical religion.
The powerful response of Calvinists to liberalism and technology is inseparable from their claim to "free theology from all but its Biblical roots," and Grant does not question the justice of this claim. Grant's point is that the Olvinistic vision of the soul's solitary pursuit of God's elusive will, and the consequent perception of the self as radical freedom, is a "primal western affirmation which stands shaping our whole civilization, before modern science and technology, before liberalism and capitalism, before our philosophies and theologies" (ESJ, pp. 63, 76).
Calvinism has thus supplied not only the "moral bite" contractual justice would otherwise lack but also the driving force within our technology. It has embraced and even directed the very scientific and philosophic enterprise that has undercut its own theological foundations. The centrality of the divine will qua will to its theology has made Calvinist Christianity peculiarly open to the definition of will as autonomy (ESJ, p. 65). And in all of this Calvinism has reflected only what is perhaps the fundamental truth of Biblical revelation and "seedbed" of our technological civilization. Indeed, modern political philosophy is itself the secularization of this same primal affirmation, especially of charity and of the Biblical understanding of the importance of history.
If the conflict between philosophy and revelation directs the movement of our civilization, Grant sees in it no guarantee of continued vitality. It is rather, as O'Donovan argues, a conflict that determines the unfolding of modernity as a "unified fate" which calls into question that "enduring presence of 'the whole' to human awareness" which Strauss's project to restore classical political philosophy presupposes (GG, p. 105).
Nor is Grant sure that this restoration is desirable. To the extent that charity and contemplation are opposed, Grant hesitates to assert the priority of the latter (GG, p. 100-01). Ancient philosophy may teach us why we ought to suffer injustice rather than commit it. It may reveal the relationship between the just order of the soul and the just actions in the world. It may show us that justice is the rendering to each of what is owed him. But it is Biblical revelation, not ancient philosophy, that has defined justice as the equal worth of all members of our species. This is what is put at risk by Roe v. Wade.
O'Donovan's painstaking and perceptive analysis of forty years of Grant's writings suggests the following conclusion. Grant has indeed turned from a Hegelian understanding of our tradition as a dialectic of freedom and accepted Strauss's identification of the "universal and homogeneous state" with a "universal tyranny of unwisdom," But he has continued to view the Western tradition as a "meaningful structure of necessity" (GG, pp. 162-63). His life work has been the explication of that meaning through a kind of recollection of the "primals" or roots of our tradition. That work, according to O'Donovan, issues in paradox, for Grant argues the need to understand our fate in relation to our past while arguing that the pervasive character of our fate within technology makes this understanding impossible. Grant's nobility must consist in refusing but not refuting Nietzsche (GG, p. 166-67). O'Donovan argues that what is wrong with Grant's theological understanding of the fatedness of modernity is "not that it makes providence scrutable but that it makes sin scrutable" (GG, p. 171).
The difference between Strauss and Grant must be understood in the light of their agreement. In O'Donovan's view, Strauss's "concern for morality" demands "an excluding rational choice" between modernity and the classical tradition, and at a more fundamental level between revelation and philosophy (GG, p. 50). The same concern makes Grant strive for synthesis. The tragedy of our fate is the impossibility of that synthesis: We cannot reconcile the truth revealed through technological reason and the ancient account of justice, or revelation and Greek philosophy. O'Donovan thinks that we may eliminate the latter tension, and thereby reduce the former, if we speak of Plato and the Gospels rather than of Greek philosophy and Biblical religion. Yet it seems doubtful, on her own account, how far one may distinguish the incarnate Christ from the whole of Biblical religion and, to us, whether any adequate interpretation of Platonic political philosophy could prove it closer to the teaching of the Gospels than to that of Aristotle (GG, pp. 130, 132, 168).
Has O'Donovan correctly identified and measured the agreement of Strauss and Grant? Is it the "concern for morality" that leads Strauss to insist upon choosing between ancients and moderns, philosophy and revelation? Is it his "concern for morality" that comforts him in the discovery that philosophy cannot refute the claim of theology, or theology that of philosophy? These are hard questions we shall not presume to address. If we may use the language of Strauss to call George Grant a "theologian open to the challenge of philosophy," we can recommend the study of his writings-the present one and those that precede it, especially Time as History-to all those for whom Leo Strauss has been a guide to the understanding of our politics and philosophic tradition. Here they may find not only a powerful treatment of the deprivation constituted by modernity, but also a clarifying response to the "theological-political problem" by one who remains "a good citizen of the city of God."