Review: The North American High Tory Tradition (2016)

Full text will be published in The Dorchester Review, Autumn/Winter 2016.

What can the Tory tradition mean for us today, in the age of multinationals and American hegemony, and half a century after we were taught “the impossibility of
Canada in the modern age?” What would a 21st-century Tory philosophy look like, and what would be its historically new role or vocation?

“Love,” it was written, “is inseparable from memory, which seeks to preserve what must pass away,” and it is to memory that Ron Dart turns in The North American High Tory Tradition (American Anglican Press, 2016), his fourth on this subject. Memory of “an older vision of faith and society” (232), of “a large and organic view of life, … in which … religion, education, culture and politics were all organically connected” (66), of a time before the much-lamented “disenchantment of nature, soul and society” (91).

In the most sustained thesis found in these pages, Dart applies tremendous energy advancing the centrality of the Anglican faith (through a succession of figures from
Bishop Strahan to Stephen Leacock) to any Red or High Tory historical vision of Canada; and further, states the case for the traditionalist wing within an Anglican fold
too eager to sip, he argues, from the poisoned chalice of liberalism and relativism.

This isn’t to suggest we have here a narrowly sectarian or theological treatise: Dart’s Anglicanism is, first and foremost, co-substantial with “a passion for the people, a concern for the common good”; and anyway, did Chesterton not teach us that the merest drop of Christianity is political enough “to boil all modern society to rags?”

In any case, Dart’s overriding “religious” concern turns out to be something profoundly appealing, even for secular readers: the defence of the transcendental, of the contemplative life. This is simply to reaffirm the value of philosophy itself, since any philosophizing must perform at least a minimal transcendental turn away from the purely empirical knowledge which forms the sick addiction of our technological society. In this world of mechanical mastery over the human and non-human, isn’t philosophy itself — the longing for an eternal system of truths and universals — a kind of rebellion?

Maybe rebelliousness, then, is what best defines this form of Toryism, pervaded as it is with Dart’s disdain for the self-satisfied bourgeois life — materialism, money, “possessive individualism” —, his hostility to U.S. imperial politics, and his defense of a distinct Canadian identity. Certainly, Dart’s voluminous work places him in a “radical” Tory tradition historically composed of the most unlikely bedfellows, from the ultramontane Bourassa, thundering against Laurier’s imperial entanglements, to the preachers of social gospel in drought-ridden Prairies.

But if Toryism is to mean anything but “a defence of class interests, attractively packaged as an appeal to the past,” then it must mean, above all, a critique of the Enlightenment programme, and it is for the liberal philosopher from Locke to Hegel — the “bloodstained minions of liberty” — that Dart reserves his most withering scorn. At stake here is a rewriting and rebuke of the Enlightenment as the destroyer of a harmonious feudal ethos in the name of a “freedom” which turned out to be that of the “possessive, competitive, accumulating, market-driven autonomous and atomistic individual.” (198) Thus Dart [...]

- Daniel Velarde