Ron Dart. University of the Fraser Valley. 2019.
I spend a great deal of life reading Heidegger. He is certainly the greatest philosopher of the modern era….He is, of course, an ultimately modern philosopher & if I can summon the courage I would like to write an account of why his criticism of Plato is not true.
George Grant to Peter Self, 1987
I have had an interest in Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger for many a decade, and I have had the good fortune to spend time at Nietzsche’s home in Sils Maria in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland. I have also lingered at Heidegger’s Hut (where he brought some of his finer students) at Todtnauburg south of Freiburg (where Heidegger taught for many years) in Southern Germany. I have trekked most of the trails Nietzsche did in the mountains in the Engadine and sat where he had his epiphany of the “eternal recurrence of the identical”. I have rambled round the upland ridge above the Hut and walking path where Heidegger often walked with peers and students. I have done my best to read much of Nietzsche and Heidegger’s writings (most in English, some in German) and various commentaries on both men (given their boosters and knockers). I have also been fortunate to read most of George Grant’s published (and unpublished writers) in which he engages Nietzsche and Heidegger and ponders their appeal and limitations. This short article, for the most part, lights down on Grant’s read of Nietzsche and Heidegger and reflects why, by day’s end, he parted paths with them and viewed Plato (and Platonic Christianity) as a sounder waymark and pathfinder than Nietzsche and Heidegger’s read of Classical Greek philosophy, tragic literature and the meaning and ongoing significance of philosophy.
The final year of George Grant’s life (1988), he was writing an article on Heidegger for a festschrift for James Doull (who he had a sic et non relationship with much of his life). The article, “Confronting Heidegger’s Nietzsche” was never finished but, in many ways, in its incomplete way, it was the culmination of Grant’s reflections on Nietzsche and Heidegger (both whom he thought to be two of the most significant philosophers that had to be heeded and heard). Grant, in “Confronting Heidegger’s Nietzsche”, draws from Heidegger’s German aus-einander-setzung to both explain how Heidegger reads Nietzsche and how Grant will read Heidegger and Nietzsche. What then does such a German word mean? The words can mean “to explain”, “confrontation” or “to confront”. What do these terms mean yet further? Grant suggests that “To confront is to place oneself face to face with another”. Just as Heidegger faced Nietzsche “face to face”, so Grant, in his engagement with Nietzsche-Heidegger, dares to confront them “face to face”.
It should noted at the outset that what Grant shared with Doull was the fact that both men contra Nietzsche-Heidegger “refused to exclude Christianity from philosophy, or philosophy from Christianity”. Doull and Grant had their differences on how this was to be done, but unlike Nietzsche-Heidegger, they held high both the significance of Plato (although they had their differences on how he was to be read) and Christianity (which will put them at odds with Nietzsche and Heidegger). But, what is the jist and nub of Grant’s turn to Nietzsche and Heidegger and why does he, at day‘s end, part paths with them?
Grant and Nietzsche
There was tendency after WWII, given the aggressive nature of the Germans and their defeat, to ignore significant German writers in North America. But, by the mid-late 1950s, such an attitude could not be ignored. This meant, increasingly so, German literature translated into English was becoming more common and the English speaking world was becoming, once again, literate with German literature. Needless to say, the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger (somewhat suspect because of their Nazi affinities, Nietzsche seen by some as pointing the way, Heidegger embroiled in the problem) were seen, by the more discerning, as substantive critics of the modern project. Grant’s initial public foray into his thinking about Nietzsche took shape and form with his CBC Massey lectures in 1969, Time as History. We do know there was a longer history to Grant’s interest in Nietzsche (Grant read and was quite taken by Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra when he was 21 and a student at Balliol College, Oxford).There was a lag, though, between the 1969 lectures and the actual publication of Time as History (that finally left the publishing press in 1971). Grant was involved in a car accident in the Barbados in May 1970, hence his energy was not what it could have been between the CBC lectures in 1969 and the actual publication of Time as History in 1971.
The fact that Time as History did not appear in print until 1971 did not mean Grant was not pondering, in an ever deeper way, the significance of Nietzsche. Grant did a 1969-1970 seminar on Nietzsche and, in 1974-1975, he did a graduate seminar on Nietzsche. The 1969-1970 lectures tended to hug closer Time as History, but by 1974-1975 Grant had probed Nietzsche much deeper and further. Grant’s “Notebook: Nietzsche Class 1974-1975, Book I” is a must read for those interested in Grant’s deeper explorations into the appeal yet problems with uncritically genuflecting to Nietzsche’s historicism, creative making and “dynamic willing”. Grant turned, in his 1974-1975 lectures, to Nietzsche’s “third period” in which Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil (a commentary of sorts on Zarathustra) and the more popular The Genealogy of Morals. The deeper delving and dives Grant made into Nietzsche in these formative years clarified, in a poignant manner, why Nietzsche had to be confronted “face to face”. The most pressing and far reaching engagement by Grant, though, emerged in his article, “Nietzsche and the Ancients: Philosophy and Scholarship” (Dionysius, December 1979) and republished in Technology and Justice (1986). But, before touching down on this article, Grant’s book review of Dannhauser’s Nietzsche’s View of Socrates must briefly be discussed.
Grant did, in 1977, a book review of Werner Dannhauser’s Nietzsche’s View of Socrates (1974). When I was doing my PHD at McMaster University in the 1980s, Walter Kaufmann was one of the leading scholars in North America who had made Nietzsche (and much German literature) more palatable to the West. I almost did my PHD on Kaufmann’s role in bringing Nietzsche to North America. Grant, rightly and legitimately so, thought Kaufmann had, to some degree, dumbed down and sanitized Nietzsche to make him more acceptable to American audiences. Grant was convinced that Dannhauser’s read was much more profound and offered up the real Nietzsche (who certainly overturned the thin liberal ethos of the USA). Dannhauser’s Nietzsche’s View of Socrates tracked and traced Nietzsche’s ongoing interaction with Socrates and his deconstruction of Socratic rationalism (and thereby the history of the addiction of the western to philosophy to reason). Dannhauser did a meticulous job in clarifying why and how Nietzsche attempted to overthrow and delegitimate Socrates via a more tragic notion of the human journey and the imposing nature of the “eternal recurrence of the identical”. Dannhauser did, by tome’s end, argue that Nietzsche had failed in understanding the deeper meaning of Socratic-Platonic thought even though his criticism of rationalism as embodied in such moderns as Descartes and Hegel might hit the mark, but they were sorely missing in their read of Socrates and Plato’s notion of what it meant to think. Grant nodded a solid amen to Dannhauser’s review even though he had hoped Dannhauser would have unpacked some ideas further and deeper. But, there can be no doubt that Grant’s read and review of Dannhauser’s Nietzsche’s View of Socrates took him to fresher and deeper reads of the limitations of Nietzsche’s attempt to debunk and thereby dismiss western philosophy from Socrates forwards and onwards. There was, though, more to come by Grant on Nietzsche.
“Nietzsche and the Ancients: Philosophy and Scholarship” is, in many ways, a succinct summing up of Grant’s reflections on the tense relationship between philosophy and scholarship, the problematic nature of uncritically doffing the cap to Nietzsche and, in many ways, Nietzsche’s misread of the ancients. And, even more importantly, the dilemmas raised regarding justice by taking Nietzsche too seriously. What, then, are Grant’s final thoughts on these perennial themes?
The essay, “Nietzsche and the Ancients: Philosophy and Scholarship” begins by questioning the approach to Nietzsche by Professor Lloyd-Jones essay, “Nietzsche and the Study of the Ancient World”. Lloyd-Jones, for the most part, argued that Nietzsche had been misread, misunderstood and misapplied in his reading of Classical Greek thought. There were various reasons for such caricatures, but the time had come to re-establish Nietzsche as a substantive scholar in his interpretation of classical Greek thought. The establishment position had been that Greek thought culminated in the rationalism of Plato and Aristotle and such a read of the Greeks offered vision, order and hope in making sense of our all too human journey. But, was there more to classical Greek thought than a way of reading the rational Greeks as forerunners of western civilization and science? Lloyd-Jones argued, in his article, that Nietzsche was, more than most, the pioneer in seeing Greek civilization, at root, as irrational and committed to a tragic notion of life in which chaos and the abyss were more foundational to the human journey than order and reason. Lloyd-Jones suggested that Nietzsche’s insights culminated in F.R. Dodds seminal tome, The Greeks and the Irrational. The real clash for Grant, then, became whose read of the Greeks and why? Plato or the literary tragedians? Apollo or Dionysius? And, what difference does it make? Is such a discussion merely a matter of parsing Greek thought in different ways for scholars but, in reality, no difference is really made for philosophy? Lloyd-Jones and Dodd might safely play the scholarly game within the confines of the academic ethos, but was this how Nietzsche and Plato understood what philosophy was about?
Grant followed Nietzsche’s lead beyond the merely historicist dilemma he pondered in Time as History. Historicism is, essentially, the notion we are all products of time, hence our thrownness (to use Heidegger’s phrase) restricts identity and insights to mere perspectives. The Greek tradition, in this sense, is no more valuable and worthy than any other tribe, clan, community or tradition. Our point in history frames how we see and our enframing inevitably distorts how we see. Therefore, such a relativist, value free approach to life and the study of other cultures and civilizations is the alpha and omega of thinking. But, there is much more to Nietzsche than this academic fraying and fragmenting of thought into scattered worldviews. Historicism is merely the portal into something more ominous. Nietzsche thought Socrates was the “great seducer” and Plato his systematic and rational philosopher. Both men (and Aristotle is part of the philosophic family) attempted, through thought and reason, to downplay the fact that, at core, life and existence, was chaos, a chasm, an abyss with no meaning. The philosophers, through reason seduced the naïve through arguments away from such a fearful reality. But, Nietzsche, heeding his read of the Greek tragedians, argued there was no reason or order by day’s end. Life was a void and emptiness. This did not mean, though, despair should be the conclusion. The fact that existence and life was not only void but tragic meant that the “overcomer” (ubermensch) had, like an artist, to create and make reality. Just as a canvass is blank until paint is applied and just as a page is empty until ink and words are written on it, so we live into an unknown and blank future midst, often, much opposition and sadness, but we must create reality, paint on the canvass and write our journey. Many will be the moment when a resignation and giving up will be the temptation, but the overcomer will not be seduced but heroically move forward and onwards. The “last man”, the crowd and the herd, are weak but the overcomers are the future. There is the abyss and chaos, there is sadness, suffering and tragedy, there are no rational reasons to see life as ordered—-there is merely the dynamic willing of meaning in the midst of meaningless. Needless to say, Socrates and Plato were consciously opposed to such a read of reality and it might be legitimately questioned whether Nietzsche’s read of the Greek tragedians distorted their notion of the tragic. Did not Greek tragedy emerge from undealt with tragic flaws in the protagonists in which their violation of order lead to their downfall?
In short, was not Nietzsche proposing a new modern and postmodern definition of tragedy that was not, in any significant sense, the authentic Greek one?
Grant saw clearly and cleanly why Nietzsche, Dodds and Lloyd-Jones had to be questioned. The implications for philosophy were substantive and for the notion of justice most worrisome. If justice was reduced to the dynamic willing of the uber individualist and powerful overcomer, what was to become of those weaker, less gifted, less able? There are certainly comments by Nietzsche that can, when read in a certain way, define justice in such a way that the stronger, more creative and willing dominate the day. Grant made it clear by the end of his essay that although he differed with the bourgeois liberalism of Kant, Hegel, Locke and Rousseau contra Plato, he thought, at a minimum, their honouring and respect for the other, for community, even for a mild and benign contractualism was healthier than the path Nietzsche was heading that undermined basic human affinities for the weaker, that elevated a beyond and good and evil ethic and ethos. The rejecting and annihilating of Nietzsche of all that made for meaningful human contact and community led to a heroic nihilism that Grant found deeply problematic. The sheer willing and making of Nietzsche in the midst of chance, chaos, uncertainty and the tragic paved the way, Grant argued, for a form of science and technology in which human and non-human nature become objects of the strong to be manipulated for their shaping of reality. Needless to say, the benign historicism of Nietzsche took on more fearsome dimensions in the way modern militarism and corporations treated workers and nature or the implications of abortion on the unborn. In short, Grant saw the unfolding of the Nietzschean will to power enfolding as a fate that had to be opposed.
Plato, for Grant, was the opposition front to Nietzsche.
If Nietzsche’s read of reality as chance, chaos and disorder was, in many ways, articulated in aphoristic insights, Heidegger’s 4 volume read of Nietzsche took the philosophic take to yet a higher level. This is why, as Grant neared the end of his journey, he was convinced Heidegger had to be confronted “face to face” by both Plato and the noblest elements of Christian theology and philosophy.
Grant and Heidegger
We know that Grant was reading Heidegger in the 1950s (before many were doing so) and in his notes, when at Dalhousie (where he taught philosophy), he comments for a lecture in 1958 that he thought that Heidegger’s read of the pre-Socratics was creative, unique and had much to commend it. The pre-Socratics had not slipped into the subject-object dualism but “being and awareness were one”. The language of substance-accident was foreign to such a way of thinking and Heidegger’s deeper and more dynamic read of Greek philosophic language questioned many of the standard reads of Parmenides and Heraclitus by the classical scholars of the time. It was Heidegger’s notion of the pre-Socratic notion of the “unhiddenness of Being” that so held Grant.
Grant argued that with the publication of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) in 1927 he launched, in packed and thoughtful way, the essence and core of existentialism contra philosophic positivism. Grant had heard lectures by leading English positivists when at Oxford such as A. J. Ayer and Gilbert Ryle on positivism and Heidegger and he thought their read of Heidegger was shallow and silly. Grant was much more committed to existentialism than positivism and he did lectures on Sartre and Dostoevsky in the 1950s on CBC. It was Heidegger, though, that was the grand philosophic master and founder of existentialism and Being and Time was the manifesto. But, merely to hover, linger and remain with this tome was to miss the fact that Heidegger moved beyond such a philosophic beauty without denying aspects of its core. Grant suggested that it was Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche between 1936-1940 that walk the attentive reader into Heidegger’s 2nd and more substantive philosophic phase of thought. The developed and layered nature of the lectures was not published in German until 1961. There was a French translation published in 1971 and the final volume in English did not appear until 1982 (given Professor David Krell’s meticulous labours).
David Cayley, when in his years at CBC, did interviews with some of the more thoughtful public intellectuals of our time. David, now retired from CBC, is doing a major book on Ivan Ilich. But, in 1986, David did an interview with George Grant on Martin Heidegger. The series of interviews was finally published in 1995 as George Grant in Conversation (it’s a superb primer and introduction to Grant’s thinking and life). The interview with Grant on Heidegger is included, obviously, in George Grant in Conversation and the much larger The George Grant Reader (edited by William Christian and Sheila Grant, 1998). Grant, in this interview on Heidegger, unpacks yet further, his draw to Heidegger yet his final No to him. Grant is quick to acknowledge that Heidegger has taught and revealed to him, more than most, the nature of the modern project and the technological nature of the modern. What does Heidegger-Grant mean by this? There are various ways and pathways into such an answer. There is, obviously, the historicist portal in which we are but products of time and being is shaped by such a reality. But, what does the shaping and enframing? The addiction to techne defines the modern project and the ideology of techne merges a constrictive rationalism, empiricism and scientism with liberty and power. The modern project, in short, is about the promethean drive to make and master human and non-human reality. This, as Heidegger rightly observes, defines the modern left and right politically. Technology is the defining subject and capitalism and communism but different ways of dominating and mastering the human journey. Such is the core nature of modern liberalism. The storefront, rhetorically, might be about diversity, pluralism, multiculturalism and tolerance, but, at core, liberalism of the right and left, at core, is about the convergence of liberty and power that negates that which transcends time and history.
This is why both Heidegger and Grant opposed education as mere knowledge and information—-wisdom and insight were much more foundational to their commitments. What did it mean, though, to speak such things and whose view of wisdom, insight, contemplation and openness to being, to that which is?
Grant parted paths with Heidegger, as he did with Nietzsche, in their inadequate and reactionary read of Socrates, Plato and Platonic Christianity. Both Nietzsche and Heidegger argued that modern rationalism began with Socrates and Plato and, as such, openness to being was curtailed and silenced by reason as the means to wait, abide and be open to the presence of that which is. Most of the more sensitive thinkers and artists of our age, Grant suggested, have “intimations of deprival”. The best and brightest sense something of depth is missing in the soul and society in which the claws of one dimensional reason imperially colonize other ways of knowing and being. But, by turning to the tragic tradition of the Greeks (did Nietzsche misread them?) or the pre-Socratic Greeks contra Socrates-Plato, Grant argued, Nietzsche and Heidegger both misread the more contemplative dimensions of Classical Greek philosophy and, equally important, their commitment to a just political order. It was one thing, in short, in question the modern project, to be free from such an oppressive reality. The “freedom from” Grant could agree with—the “freedom for” is where he bid adieu to Nietzsche and Heidegger. The sheer lack of content of Heidegger’s notion of Being meant that Being (and an openness to it) could mean anything or nothing. The fact Heidegger had a Roman Catholic history and was grounded in some of the finest Roman Catholic thinkers and mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Thomas Aquinas meant there was a depth to his thinking, grounded in an older contemplative tradition. But, his greater commitment to the pre-Socratic ethos meant that his vision of the contemplative lacked substantive ethical and political grounding. “The poets are those who listen to what is”, but if there is no framework to discern the good, better, best or bad, worse, worst in “what is”, awaiting upon being can easily become a plaything of the weltgeist of the historic moment. It is in this sense that Heidegger, like Nietzsche, who claimed to be drawing from the classical past so reinterpreted such a heritage that they reduced it to their historicist prejudices and principles. The unfolding of such an ideological enfolding deeply concerned Grant for a variety of practical reasons.
Grant acutely realized that an authentic from of Christian Platonism acknowledged, on the one hand, the sufferings and tragic nature of life (Socrates’ death and Christ’s brutal death on the cross)—such an approach saw into the heart of a tragic realism—certainly no naïve idealism. The other extreme that Grant thought both Heidegger and a thin form of Christianity embodied was the notion that the “presence” of that which is would be the “saving power where the danger grows”. Grant, heeding more Simone Weil than Heidegger, suggested that there is a mysterious tension between presence-absence, and he thought Heidegger lacked a deeper notion of being and absence, silence and suffering that seemed to be senseless sans redemption. There are moments when meditatively waiting upon may not reveal the presence. How then must humans shape and form the journey in the absence of the “saving power” (ironically enough Heidegger’s notion of grace within Roman Catholic theology)? Such an approach to absence meant then that humans must act when, it seems, that “only a god will save us” does not do so. Grant saw, all so clearly, Heidegger’s agenda (which he thought more profound than Nietzsche’s), but he also thought that Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche moved Heidegger’s thinking far beyond his earlier and more immature Being and Time.
“Confronting Heidegger’s Nietzsche”(1988) was, in most way, Grant’s final project as he came near the end of his earthy journey. Grant was most interested in Heidegger’s read of Nietzsche and, equally so, his questioning of their agendas. The longer essay Grant was working on was never finished, but the publication and translation into English of Heidegger’s 4 volumes on Nietzsche was front and centre for Grant throughout most of the 1980s. The initial introduction of sorts to “Confronting Nietzsche’s Heidegger” via Heidegger’s lectures turned tomes is an apologia for why Heidegger should be read and internalized yet opposed. Grant thinks that Heidegger’s read of Nietzsche is also his “second magnum opus”—Grant draws Derrida in to support such a position. The introduction then highlights why Grant thinks that English positivists such Ayer and Ryle have misread Heidegger and why most Americans (given their pragmatism, trendy progressive liberalism and utilitarianism) are ill equipped to understand Heidegger. But, with the superb translation of Professor Krell’s Heidegger on Nietzsche into English, both Nietzsche and Heidegger are available to an English reading audience.
It was true, of course, that Heidegger had written previously about Nietzsche in What is Called Thinking? and Plato in Plato’s Doctrine of Truth, but in Heidegger’s sustained reflections on Nietzsche he also reflected on the history and sweep of western philosophy. Grant saw Plato and Nietzsche as the book ends at odds via Heidegger in these masterpieces. The Will to Power as Art is Volume I in the series and Grant lingers at this challenging text. The tension, as Grant sees it within both Nietzsche and Heidegger, can be summed up in two sentences. Heidegger viewed “Truth” as “bringing out of concealment” but, Plato would ask of Heidegger, “What is Being (to be)?” If art and willing are but the unconcealing through the creative use of the will, and there is no form, nature or end to which that which is concealed to be revealed, then the clearing for unconcealment for being can become anything or nothing, noble or demeaning. This was, in some ways, the Socratic-Platonic opposition to the pre-Socratics and Grant’s opposition to Nietzsche-Heidegger. Just as Nietzsche and Heidegger thought that Socrates-Plato-Aristotle (wrongly so) were the pioneers of western rationalism, Grant saw in Nietzsche-Heidegger’s read of contentless art-will-unconcealment the origins and justification for the misuse and abuse of power and willing. Some of the conclusions reached by Nietzsche and Heidegger (in thought and deed) certainly warrant such concerns.
The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is Volume II in Heidegger’s read of Nietzsche. This volume is the “most concerned with the direct exposition of Nietzsche’s teaching”. Grant lights down briefly on this book, then moves to Volume III as The Will to Power as Knowledge. Sadly so, Grant was close to the end as he tried to complete his reflections, as an article for a festschrift for James Doull on Heidegger and Nietzsche. The inner core and nub of Grant contra Nietzsche-Heidegger was their misread of the Classical Platonic thought, Platonic Christianity and the emergence, in the life and writings of Nietzsche-Heidegger of a notion of Being-art-will that lacked any form or limits.
Such a philosophic position when fleshed out in the public and political realms (must less issues of identity politics and ethics) leads to a fusion of liberty-power in which he/she who has the greatest will and power can do as they wish or will with human and non-human nature justified by the language of openness to being and an emerging into the clearing. The notion of overcoming fused with art as making on a blank canvass-liberty-power if not checked, in thought and deed, had serious implications in the unfolding.
Grant thought that Martin Heidegger was the real magus of modernity (even more than Nietzsche). Heidegger, more than any other modern philosopher, clarified the nature of the modern project. Heidegger’s misread of the pre-Socratics (like Nietzsche’s misread of the Greek tragedians) made it abundantly clear that reality was an open ended project with horizons or boundaries as the problem, the task of will and liberty to overcome, negate and deconstruct anything that threatens the wills drive to meaning. Being, in such a way of thinking (and openness to it), certainly negated the classical understanding of being which has form and substance, nature and order. Such notions for Nietzsche and Heidegger were but fictions and obstacles to overcome through the use of the will in a free manner. Grant saw how such an ideological enfolding would unfold, and in his clear headed way enucleated the issue well and wisely. Nietzsche and Heidegger had gone far beyond Locke and Hobbes, Hegel and Marx, Rawls and Rousseau. It was this extreme historicism wed to will and liberty that negated and undermined the very meaning of liberty and a path for the will to walk. Grant held Plato as an option an antidote to Nietzsche and Heidegger, hence to Plato he devoted much of his efforts to understanding and heeding the unconcealment and revealing nature of Plato’s contemplative notion of aletheia and the role of nous (noetic and meditative way of knowing) bring about justice and peace in the polis.