The North American High Tory Tradition (2016) – A Review

br2992916By Robert Williams

Ron Dart’s latest book, The North American High Tory Tradition, was published at the end of August this year by American Anglican Press (New York). The book brings together 25 of Dart’s best and most insightful essays on the High Tory Tradition – a subject he is intimately familiar with, having been immersed in it his whole life at personal, academic, political and religious levels. Indeed, when it comes to discussing the High Tory tradition, there is probably nobody better suited to the task than Professor Dart. Since the publication, in 1999, of his The Red Tory Tradition: Ancient Roots, New Routes, nobody has done more than Dart to unearth, unpack and unravel the many nuanced complexities of the High Tory tradition in Canada. He further developed his thesis on High Toryism with the publication of The Canadian High Tory Tradition: Raids on the Unspeakable (2004) and Keepers of the Flame: Canadian Red Toryism (2012). Each of these earlier volumes was a significant and much needed addition and corrective to our current read and understand of political, philosophical, cultural and theological history. In that regard, each successive text helped to further clarify the meaning and importance of High Toryism within our contemporary ethos and allowed Robin Mathews, one of Canada’s finest and most important political poets, to unequivocally state that Ron Dart “has become the most important writer about Red Toryism in Canada.” His latest book, as I’ve said, continues this familiar but important theme in Professor Dart’s work by bringing together, in one handsome volume, some of his best essays on the subject.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Ron Dart over the last 14 years, first as a student at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) from 2002 to 2003; then as a mentor and guide in my educational journey; and, finally, as a friend. In this time, I’ve learned that Dart is passionate about his country, its past, present and future; his community; and his faith. To help him navigate the turbulent waters of modernity, he turns to an older way of being and seeing – one that has an abiding respect for tradition; a passion for the commonweal; recognizes the importance of a strong state, working with society, to bring about the common good; and is rooted and grounded in the High Anglican tradition. In short, Professor Dart lives and breathes the High Tory tradition.

But, you might ask, “Why write a book about High Toryism? In a time when liberalism and American republicanism so permeate every inch and corner of life, surely the concept and notion of High Toryism is fading away – is passé?” Such questions only serve to highlight the urgency of Dart’s task. He has recognized, only too clearly, that if we allow the “Moloch” of liberalism to remain unchecked and unquestioned, we will lose an important part of ourselves as Canadians at cultural, political and spiritual levels. Professor Dart has stated the matter succinctly: “In one sense there is a counter to cultural amnesia in my work. I’m putting the historical pieces of the drama back together again.” This statement highlights, in a graphic way, the importance of Dart’s latest book within the cannon of Canadian political thought. If we have no sense of who we are or where we come from, at a deeper level, how can we ever hope to live a fuller life and transcend what some have referred to as the end of history? It is this challenging question that Dart attempts to answer.

The North American High Tory Tradition is divided into five distinct yet overlapping sections: “Section I: The Tale of Two North Americas;” “Section II: The Flame Still Burns in the True North;” “Section III: George Grant: A Radical Orthodoxy;” “Section IV: Tory Traditions Meeting a New World;” and, “Section V: The Anglican Church: Tories at Prayer.” Each section of the tome, in their own ways “unpacks” and clarifies for the reader the concept and meaning of High Toryism in North America.

Section I provides historical perspective, making clear to one and all that High Toryism has played an integral role in the life blood of Canada since well before Confederation in 1867. Following the American Revolution of 1776, many a United Empire Loyalist fled to the northern half of the North American continent in search of refuge from the ideals of liberalism as represented by men such as John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith and Thomas Paine. In doing so, the Loyalists had hoped to build a more conservative community, based on an older more sure-footed tradition grounded in the wisdom of the past and the notion of the commonweal. As a result, the country that would become Canada, “unlike the United States, did not make a conscious break from English Toryism and the deeper principles that define and shape the Tory vision of the commonwealth” (4). The founders of Canada, then, sought to build a country with an “intellectual-political DNA” far more complex than that of the republic to the south. Thus, Section I of Dart’s book, along with providing important historical context, helps to clarify the language of conservatism by explaining, to the reader, the basic principles of High Toryism as compared to the Republican conservatism found in the United States which, as Dart rightly points out, is not conservatism in any deep sense because all it seeks to do is “conserve” the first generation liberalism of Locke, Hume and Smith (6).

Section II continues to clarify the substance of High Toryism but, unlike Section I which used a Canada-US comparative approach, Section II walks the reader through the history of High Toryism by looking at key and substantial figures from Canada’s past including such worthies as Stephen Leacock, George Grant, Donald Creighton and Eugene Forsey. It is also here where Dart succinctly tracks and traces, in an essay titled “The Trojan Horse of Liberalism in the Tory Camp,” how the meaning of conservatism changed in Canada by the 1980s and came to reflect more of a “blue tory” and republican bent. Thus, the section highlights the importance of the past to the High Tory – learning and heeding the call of the wise ones who’ve gone before us and provided us with a solid foundation on which to advance the Good, the true and the beautiful. Without it, if we have no sense of ourselves and no sense of history, “if Orwellian-like, all that is important is thrown away, we have no way to defend ourselves at a basic level of thought and language” (53). In other words, we become lobotomized intellectual and cultural cripples, detached from our community and without social moorings – atomized.

Section III focuses its energies on the High Tory philosopher George Grant. Grant is perhaps the greatest philosopher Canada has ever produced and he is, without question, our most well-known High Tory. He was a staunch critic of liberalism and modernity. When his most famous book, Lament for a Nation, was published in 1965, he was immediately thrust into the national spotlight in Canada and became, in many ways, a darling of sorts for those on the New Left in the CCF/NDP. Indeed, because of this he has been acknowledged as Canada’s leading philosophic voice and as “the father of English-speaking Canadian nationalism.” In this regard, it is only right that Professor Dart devotes a whole section of his book to an articulation of George Grant’s ideas. There is certainly no one better suited to the task: Dart has become one of the leading scholars on the work of George Grant in recent years and he is equipped, better than most, to explicate the richness and depth of Grant in a way that synthesizes both his political and theological ideas. Section III, then, departs from an exploration of High Toryism at the level of history and moves into the realm of political philosophy. Through Grant, Dart begins to ask us if there is an alternative – a way to think outside of the liberal box; or, are we fated to lament the passing away of such a rich tradition?

Section IV is my favourite part of Dart’s newest book because of an essay, “The Matrix of Liberalism: A Seven-Act Drama” that, first, explores the origins and principles of liberalism, sends out “Philosophic Probes” to critically question the liberal project (185), and “Contemplative Probes” to explore key weaknesses and contradictions within liberalism (190). The “matrix of liberalism” pervades every nook and cranny of contemporary society. Because it is so pervasive, it “shapes and defines, it enframes and conditions virtually all ethical, political, religious, educational, cultural and social thought” (195). In this section of the text, Dart keenly recognizes that as we learn to think critically and question the “unquestionable” we, in effect, become more human (less fragmented) and begin to shed our myopic vision and clearly see our own unique philosophical, political, cultural, literary and religious traditions in a fuller and more rewarding light. Indeed, the ability to have readers reflect on some of the larger questions both in terms of “community” and “self” is the genius of Ron Dart. As we explore the High Tory tradition concomitantly with the Liberal tradition, we cannot help but marvel at what has been lost in the turn from the classical High Tory way to the modern Liberal way. The shift from vita contemplativa to vita activa has resulted in all becoming relative (99) – a matter of personal opinion; however, in his detailed examination of the “matrix of liberalism,” Dart encourages us to think about and question our own assumption and understanding of things. In doing so, we learn to truly think for ourselves and become active and engaged citizens.

Section V brings Professor Dart’s latest missive to a fine and fitting close with its focus on religion and the Anglican Church – an often ignored aspect of the High Tory tradition. Dart is only too well aware that if we are ever to get a proper appreciation and understanding of High Toryism then we must, of necessity, explore its theological foundation. This section of the book makes it abundantly clear that Dart has not written a text about mere politics and ideology. In fact, he makes this point early on in the “Introduction” when he states: “there can be no doubt that there is a distinct liberal tradition and ethos in Canada, but there is also the Tory touch” (xxi). For Dart, then, the individual and community live in a healthy tension, with neither overtaking the other – order in tension with liberty. In this way, Dart is able to transcend the tribalism of left, right and center. For me, this integral point is beautifully articulated in the final essay of the collection, “Anglicanism and Orthodoxy.” The essay is highly personal and reflective. In it, Dart tracks and traces his theological and educational journey as a young man, noting the early influences of CS Lewis and Thomas Merton upon his thought. Their grounding in the classical traditions, for Dart, was attractive: “I found the breadth and depth of such an approach to the Western way most appealing” (273). The contemplative approach represented a clear middle way for Dart – a way forward that avoided simple dualisms and Manichean oppositions: “I was convinced it was in the synthesis of the Patristic-Medieval way, when engaged with the Modern, that a way forward could be found” (274). In this I think Dart has succeeded. With masterful skill, he dives deep into the waters of Canadian history; Western political philosophy; and theology and religion, offering up new ways of seeing and being without being prescriptive. In short, he allows us to come to our own conclusions.

It is important to note, by way of conclusion, that Ron Dart begins his text with two epithets, one by George Grant and the other by Richard Hooker. The quote by Grant reads, in part, “If there was nothing valuable in the founders of English-speaking Canada, what makes it valuable for Canadians to continue as a nation today?” while the one from Hooker reads: “Posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream.” It is no coincidence that George Grant concluded the first chapter of Lament for a Nation with these same words from Hooker. For Dart, much like Grant, the preservation of the High Tory tradition is very much a labour of love; and, while some may question the relevance of High Toryism in the early part of the 21st century, Dart refuses to stay silent. He is aware that it is only in “knowing our intellectual and political history that we can defend ourselves against its distortions” (53). In this way, he very much stands on the shoulders of the giants that have gone before him – people like Susanna Moodie, Stephen Leacock, and George Grant – eager to pass on, “like a torch” (256), the best that has been given to him. For this, we can indeed be thankful.

In summary, The North American High Tory Tradition is yet another valuable contribution to the literature of political philosophy, politics, culture and religion. Dart’s conversational tone and accessible style makes what might have been a difficult and challenging read easy to digest and understand for even the non-specialized reader. For those interested in further study, the book, to quote Jonathan Paquette, “serves as a passkey” thanks to its extensive bibliography and reference list. Indeed, as we near Canada’s 150th anniversary, it is important to know, at a deeper and more substantive level, who we are and where we came from. Ron Dart’s book can certainly help us in this essential task.

Published on Mitre and Crown, 29 September 2016. Buy it online.