The Reading Room
The Enlightenment of Robert Burns
Many a literary critic classifies the (unofficial) national bard of Scotland, Robert Burns, as a poet of the Romantic Movement. It is easy to see why. His poetry deals with nature and those living and working close to it; embraces the folkloric and Scottish tradition; embraces nationalism; and sings of love often in a rural landscape. This is the first stanza and refrain of Burns’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” (1789):
“My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe, My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.”
And yet, many ideas and themes, and historical associations, root Burns immovably in the Scottish Enlightenment—none more than his admiration for Adam Smith and the impact of Theory of Moral Sentiments on his poetry. Even Smith’s later The Wealth of Nations won Burns’s unqualified admiration and also influenced his writing.
When critics got around to making the connection between Theory of Moral Sentiments and the poetry of Burns, they first hit on the famous poem “To A Louse” (1786). A bright light went on.
O wad some Power the giftie gie usTo see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,An' foolish notion...”
Burns yearns here for the “self-command” that Smith says enables us to view ourselves as would “an impartial spectator” and thereby subdue “excesses” of passions, avoid offending others, and earn the world’s “approbation.” More of this later, but first a word on Burns's historic roots in the Edinburgh “miracle” of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Born in 1759 in Ayrshire, son of a tenant farmer and put behind the plough at the earliest age (leaving him with a premature stoop), Burns lived in grinding poverty that worsened with his father’s death when Burns was 25. Two broad developments in Scotland, however, gave Burns a fighting chance to discover his genius, rise to celebrity, and remain both Scotland’s bard and most beloved son.
One was the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which insisted on a school in every parish and every child in a school. The poorest famers, including Burns’s father, a self-taught man who schooled his children, harkened, and employed school masters to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. The boy’s formal education did not last long, but he was a prodigy. By 13, he knew Latin and French and read great works, including poetry, published in England. As a teenager, he was writing poems, the first of them to girls who worked with him on farms.
His father’s death seemed to close the trap of rural poverty, but Burns already was thinking of other worlds. He gathered his poems and lyrics, most in Scottish dialect, and found an Edinburgh publisher, William Smellie—who later launched The Encyclopedia Britannica—to bring out his book in 1786, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, also called The Kilmarnock Poems. It was Burns’s gambit to escape the poverty trap; he hoped for money to travel to the West Indies to make his fortune in sugar. He never got there.
The second development was the flowering of the Scottish Enlightenment in Edinburgh (but also Glasgow and Argyle). Burns’s book sold tens of thousands of copies. He was of lowly status in Scotland’s then-strict class-ridden society, but his Scottish nationalism and Enlightenment ideas made the plough boy in a few years a cynosure of Edinburgh society, valorized by intellectuals and farmers alike. And, not incidentally, by women. He had a series of affairs despite a wife and children back in Ayrshire.
Burns now orbited in the Edinburgh galaxy of Enlightenment giants: Adam Smith and David Hume; Thomas Reid, a philosopher identified with the Scottish school of “common sense”; Adam Ferguson, called the founder of sociology; James Hutton, father of geology; playwright John Home; poet James Fergusson; pioneer of chemistry Joseph Black; and James Watt, arguably the sparkplug of the Industrial Revolution.
Burns lived his life during the climactic close of the Enlightenment. He engaged the political and philosophical questions of that era to the extent that he was viewed as a political and philosophical radical (e.g., the French Revolution, opposition to the slave trade, and his humanist philosophy that influenced Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln). His egalitarian admiration for the American and French Revolutions, as his in “Birthday Ode for George Washington,” extended to the ideas of socialists and communists. (Centuries after his death, Burns became a kind of icon in the U.S.S.R.)
Burns was a well-read young man and influences in Scotland were legion. None, however, stirred the young farmer as did Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments published the year Burns was born. The first edition is known to have been in his father’s library and in 1790 he purchased his own later edition.
In briefest terms, Smith, in “Moral Sentiments,” took issue with his countryman, David Hume, who argued that reason cannot speak to morality because syllogistic argument cannot move from factual statements to normative statements—the infamous “is-ought” problem. Smith provided history’s best-known rejoinder to Hume. We can study human beings, Smith said, and understand what behavior conduces to individual survival (“prudence”), enables societies to survive (“justice”), and enables societies to flourish (“beneficence”). We are moved to “prudence” by self-interest, moved to justice by self-interest and, to some extent, empathy with our fellow men, and moved to beneficence by empathy. Furthermore, our behavior is reinforced by the reward of public approbation and the punishment of disapprobation. As we mature, we can learn to monitor our own behavior and exert self-control over passions and “excesses” that render our behavior imprudent and deserving of public disapprobation.
For Burns this was acutely personal. As a young man (he died young at 37), he was fierce in expressing his radical views, a tireless self-promoter, and promiscuous in an era when that term still had moral meaning. It did not sit well with his conscience and, touring England as a virtual pop star, he saw his reputation accrete these elements of his behavior so that his celebrity tarnished in polite society.
Burns was by all reports enormously ambitious for worldly success (in striking parallel with American bard, Walt Whitman). To all appearance he had a conscience, which Smith attributes to individuals able to put themselves in the position of an “impartial spectator” of their own behavior and so be guided to self-control.
It made sense to Burns---sense both as a man newly under the scrutiny of high society and as a young poet striving to speak to his brave new world.