With what has been transpiring on the US side of the border, it might be tempting to wag our Canadian fingers. Ron Dart, prodigious writer, mountaineer, poet, political science prof, and one of Canada’s leading intellectuals of the Red Tory tradition, admonishes otherwise. In his recent book, The North American High Tory Tradition, he demonstrates that the two apparently differing ideological camps have a single root. And we in Canada, wish as we might, are not as free of the offending subsequent effects as we may think.
In this text, Ron Dart has managed to accomplish quite an astounding thing: not merely reflect cogently – and with pique – on wide-ranging topics such as (but not limited to), Noam Chomsky, Platonic versus Aristotelian philosophy, contemplative mysticism, Allen Ginsburg, C.S. Lewis, the Beats, Anglicanism, Erasmus, Puritan theology, Charles Taylor, colonialization, and T.S Eliot, but even more impressively, has masterfully strung through all these topics and personalities a thread which, by the conclusion, brings home to the reader an undeniable fact: liberalism is a weed which must be dealt with if we as people – not just Canadians, or Americans or Westerners – are to flourish.
Sound like a rather large undertaking which Dart has attempted? It is; and, he has done it beautifully. Each of the above topics, along with still others, are handily dealt with in a way that aids to a great enlargement on a topic that isn’t much explored these days: the importance of what true conservatism looks like.
For the Northern reader, there is, happily, an abundance of Canadiana. (Canadian anarchists, poets, dissenters (of political and religious flavours), great literarians, and more.) After reading Dart’s book, a proud Kanuck will surely find herself standing somewhat taller. She will learn that it was in Canada that a true form of conservatism took root. And while Dart laments that things aren’t as they should be, it is his belief that we emphatically can return to our true roots. What we require is a proper education of where our true foundations rest; he states, “the task of education is to awaken the conscience to the important things, to stir the will into action and to point to the wisdom that calls forth to be heard.” In order to rediscover our foundations and arrest the spread of deleterious assumptions, Dart admonishes that we move past our conceptions and become acquainted with our legitimate history.
For instance, I thought I knew what a Tory was. It is a conservative. And as every good Canadian knows, that’s not a liberal. A good example of a conservative is a Mulroney, or a Harper or a Manning, as far as Canadians go, yes? For our cousins across the border, it might be a Reagan or a Bush; for an intellectual, it would be a Buckley or Russell Kirk (who had that glorious Southern warmth) or Strauss et al. If one was to really dig s/he could go back to Edmund Burke, correct?
Dart would say that the above assumptions are due to miseducation about our past; hence, this book should be required reading for any Canadian who truly wants to know what a real conservative is. Dart elaborates that conservatism is not strictly associated with the names mentioned above, not even Burke. Thus, in part, Dart educates his readers about what a conservative is by defining what it is not: a liberal.
Now, for the average individual the concept of liberal or democrat is the wrong direction to be heading in to begin with. What Dart asks us to do is go a bit deeper, farther back actually, to the roots of political theory and consider what should take precedence: the individual or the commonweal (Common well-being; especially the general good, which takes into account public welfare and prosperity of the community).
Many will know that individuals such as Locke and Hobbes had a rather large role to play in our political understanding. They facilitated a governmental theory which focused on the rights of the individual on freedom, liberty, estates, and all those things which are meant to ensure our happiness as people with self-agency. This, for Dart, is where we first need to look in order to start asking the right questions.
Here is his – possibly surprising – question: is the individual the best place to start?
If you found yourself quickly rejecting that question because individualism is the axiomatic truth and starting point of political theory, Dart might smile and ask if you are really prepared to meaningfully question both sides of an issue. He might then go on and ask why it is that we are so certain that it is the individual which government must, at root, protect? This is not to say that the individual shouldn’t have an enormous value; however, Dart encourages us to not stop there. He wants us to further consider the commonweal, for, as he states, “the individual truly becomes a person as they find their place in the whole.”
Dart maintains, “If we have no notion of who we are or what human nature is, then, it is impossible to think of the common good in any minimal manner much less to act or live it in the public place.”
Thus, for Dart, a primary question we should keep in mind when it comes to governmental theory is, “what is the common good.” Now we all know that both sides of the political spectrum claim to have that covered. Dart disagrees: “The politics of the anarchist left and republican right will not do, no more than the ideology of the right, left and sensible centre.” This is because both, according to Dart, rest on the foundation of liberalism.
Liberalism, for Dart, and other thinkers he respects, is the myopic viewing of life through the lens of individualism: my rights, my choice, my ideology, and my property. Liberalism’s primary concern is rights (the individual) versus order (the good of the community). And there are consequences to our choices: “we either see order or liberty as the guiding star, and if we choose liberty, we often use it to violate the very order that gives meaning, happiness and fulfilment.” T.S. Eliot warned that
Liberalism … is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination. By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, … by substituting instruction for education, … Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation.
True conservatism adheres to the order that upholds a concern for “the proper and due end and purpose of the human journey.” This is true humanity, and we will only live fulfilled lives when our aim is towards that end. But what does modern conservatism desire? Dart says,
the Anglo-American understanding of conservatism is really a form of first generation liberalism that seeks to return lighter state, less taxes, more power to the individual (and the business sector) over against the growing power of the state to protect its own sovereignty (in an age of globalization), and the role of the state in ensuring basic services such as health care, education, culture and employment.
For Dart, the solution we need is multifaceted; however, the implementation requires returning to a spiritual foundation. He argues that the idea of a separation of the spiritual and secular is untenable. Why? Because, he says, the human condition is not something that can be divorced from a spiritual understanding: “when the secular dims and silences the sacred, the secular, in time, leads to disenchantment of nature, soul and society.” This, at first, might seem odd; nevertheless, with force, Dart argues that true conservatism has its veritable roots in a Christian tradition, specifically what he calls “the Tory Anglican way.”
This “way” was not envisioned by some eclectic ecclesiasticals, but rather has full historical weight from older Anglican thinkers (Hooker, John Jewel, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and others) to the younger (T.S Eliot, C.S Lewis, George Grant, etc.).
In sum, Dart argues that the Anglican Tory way rests on some of the following tenets: there is wisdom in tradition; the bible has a special role in not only informing our view of life, but also in allowing us to ask knowledgeable questions; contemplation aids us in living; true religion helps us walk in an effective way; the arts and the aesthetic have a high role in culture; nature is to be respected, cherished and protected; since our minds are gifts from God, education is to be held high; the fulfilled human journey will eschew a simplistic split between the sacred and the profane; there is a valid tension to be lived in-between ideologies; and if we are to truly thrive, the parish must have a central role in society.
Throughout his work, Dart’s voice is almost like that of a prophet: a prophet who is not only calling out a warning to where our current road will lead if we continue on its path of liberalism, but also offers us glimpses of hope. Hope that offers a better way. Our choice will, undeniably, take us to one destination or the other. Let us hope we have an ear to listen and the will to choose aright. Eliot talked of there being two classes of people:
There is one class of persons to which one speaks with difficulty, and another to which one speaks in vain. The second, more numerous and obstinate than may at first appear, because it represents a state of mind into which we are all prone through natural sloth to relapse, consists of those people who cannot believe that things will ever be very different from what they are at the moment. From time to time, under the influence perhaps of some persuasive writer or speaker, they may have an instant of disquiet or hope; but an invincible sluggishness of imagination makes them go on behaving as if nothing would ever change. Those to whom one speaks with difficulty, but not perhaps in vain, are the persons who believe that great changes must come.
Perhaps to Dart’s great joy there can even be a more willing third class? Ones which shall, God willing – and He assuredly is – not only believe, but also take part in facilitating such great changes.