The Reading Room
Robert Burns and the Theory of Moral Sentiments
As a young man, Robert Burns read Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and expressed his reaction in the strongest terms in his “commonplace book”—a personal journal not intended for publication, but obviously not destroyed by him, and so we read today:
“I entirely agree with that judicious philosopher, Mr. Smith, in his excellent Theory of Moral Sentiments, that remorse is the most painful sentiment that can embitter the human bosom. Any ordinary pitch of fortitude may bear up tolerably well under those calamities, in the procurement of which, we ourselves have had no hand; but when our own follies, or crimes, have made us miserable and wretched, to bear up with manly firmness, and at the same time have a proper penitential sense of our misconduct—is a glorious effort of self-command.”
The sequence in the commonplace book suggests that after writing his affirmation of Smith’s ideas, Burns in effect grabbed his pen and wrote a poem later published (as Burns did not intend) under the title “Remorse”:
“Of all the numerous ills that hurt our peace, That press the soul, or wring the mind with anguish
Beyond comparison the worst are those
By our own folly, or our guilt brought on….
This sting is added, ‘Blame thy foolish self!’
Or worser far, the pangs of keen remorse,
The torturing, gnawing consciousness of guilt—
Of guilt, perhaps, when we've involved others…
Lives there a man so firm, who, while his heart
Feels all the bitter horrors of his crime,
Can reason down its agonizing throbs;
And, after proper purpose of amendment, Can firmly force his jarring thoughts to peace?”
This goes straight to Smith’s commendation of the individual’s “self-command.” And to “conscience” as the presence in the individual of a representative of the public, an “impartial spectator” who judges by the standards of prudence, justice, and beneficence.
The historian who quotes this poem adds that “Burns’s poetry continues to inspire and gain new fans in every generation. For everyone Burns impacts, we should say they were also impacted by Adam Smith, for without him, Burns may have never become The Bard of such renown.”
Burns later became philosophically activist in a poem in dialect about his lovechild. Here is the second stanza of “A Poet’s Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter.” The influence of Adam Smith is evident but Burns now commandeers the idea of “approbation” for his own ends.
“Tho' now they ca' me, Fornicator,And tease my name in kintra clatter [countryside gossip],
The mair they talk, I'm kend [known to fame] the better;
E'en let them clash!
An auld wife's tongue's a feckless matter
To gie ane fash….[to worry about]”
Earlier in the poem, he is tender toward his daughter (“fatherly I kiss and daut [cuddle] thee”) but here becomes assertive in dismissing the disapprobation of the priests. Burns turns disapproval of him into a back-handed approval by changing the context: Blame is fame.
We cannot conclude a review of Burns’s Enlightenment credentials without mentioning “the savior of the Scots.” He was the standard bearer of Scottish verse during an historic crisis of Scottish culture. In the late eighteenth century, Scotland was known as Europe’s most literate nation. Some seventy-five percent of Scots could read, write, and count. Much was owing to the Presbyterian Church.
Back in 1707, however, with the Act of Union uniting the Scottish and English governments, what became known as “the King’s English” began a long march to overtake and displace the Scots language. Burns almost single-handedly preserved the common culture of his countrymen. Of course, his beloved poems and lyrics in Scottish Gaelic have kept Scotsman reciting in their language to this day. Here, in the first stanza of Tam O’Shanter,” is Gaelic Burns at full force:
“When chapman billies leave the street, And drouthy neebors neebors meet,
As market-days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousin, at the nappy,
And gettin fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and stiles, That lie between us and our hame…”
Burns did not stop there. Responding to the initiatives of Enlightenment intellectuals like Adam Furguson, founder of sociology, Burns travelled Scotland writing down songs and ballads in the old Scots language before English could extinguish memory of them. Many of them Burns turned into poems or lyrics of his own. Although employed as a tax collector, he worked with publisher, engraver, and bookseller James Johnson to edit an anthology, “The Scots Musical Museum,” and later, “Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs.” Each included his own works. The project occupied Burns till his death. Surely it was an Enlightenment chore, as well as a labor of love, to turn to collection and organization of information to shape a new field of study—analogous in some ways to sociology, morality (as presented by Adam Smith), and other scholarship fermenting in Edinburgh.
Having insisted that Burn belongs in the Enlightenment, not the Romantic Movement, it is easy—and justified—to call Burns a “pre-Romantic.” Burns did reject the artistic movement that prevailed during the Enlightenment: neo-classicism. Such rejection characterized the Romantics. Burns’s poetry exemplified the philosophical premise that linked the Romantic Movement back to the Enlightenment: namely, that free will, therefore choice of values, and therefore self-made character (including heroism) is man’s destiny.
Here are stanzas of a beloved Burns poem in Romantic sympathy with nature and its creatures, but emphatic in its “empathy” and “beneficence” even toward the “wee” life and fortunes of a field mouse whose nest is riven by his plough. First comes self-control—“I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee, Wi’ murdering pattle!”—and then:
“…That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibbleHas cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble, An’ cranreuch cauld!
In “Studies in Scottish Literature,” Donald Wesling views Burns later in life as “exceeding Smith” in “empathy” and in so doing prefiguring Romanticism “while Smith does not." Wesling argues that questions of inequality “torment” Burns, while Smith accepts rank in Scottish society because rank is not implicit in his theory of morality. Wesling writes, “Burns, it seems, found a slippage at the center of Smith's philosophy… In the 1790s he worked it out in a few lyrics about brotherhood…exceeding Smith's sympathy with his radical idea of equality.” The prime example is the famous song, "A Man's a Man for A' That." The except is from Burns’s original Scots version published in 1794, two years before he died:
“…The rank is but the guinea's stamp,The Man's the gowd [gold] for a' that.
“…The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.
“…Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree’ [take the prize], an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's comin' yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,Shall brothers be for a' that.”
This puts Burns on the cusp of the transition from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Movement, a “proto-Romantic.” We encounter poems valorizing the poor by William Wordsworth (“The Ruined Cottage,” “Alice Fell,” “The Borderers”), William Blake (“Holy Thursday”), Thomas Hood (“The Song of the Hood”), Percy Bysshe Shelley (“Ode to the West Wind”), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“Lines on a Friend”), and virtually every other Romantic poet.