Saturday, March 21, 2009

Adam Smith and Robert Burns

Ian Hunter (professor emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario, and author of Robert Burns: A Tribute) reviews The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography by Robert Crawford (Jonathan Cape), in The Afterword (’posting from the literary world’) in the National Post (Canada) HERE:

It was on July 31, 1786, that Burns’s Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published; 612 copies printed by his friend John Wilson of Kilmarnock, today one of the most valuable first editions in the world. The book has never since been out of print. By the time the second Edinburgh edition was being prepared the following year, the subscriber list exceeded 3,000 names, including Adam Smith, who signed up for four copies. Burns was now the people’s poet, the poet of the common man “wher’er he be”; as Crawford puts it “the poet who will speak to anyone prepared to listen, regardless of class, culture or situation.”

This is why Burns’s poems have been translated into every language. It is why there are more statues of Burns in North America than there are for any other human being. It is why, on July 25, 1796, uniformed soldiers lined the streets of Dumfries for Burns’s funeral procession and why, for as far as the eye could see, locals walked in silence behind the casket as a band played the Dead March from Handel’s Saul. One young boy, watching the casket go by, was heard to ask his mother: “Now that Burns is dead, who will be our poet?” His mother thought and then said: “He will.”
She was right in 1796; she is right today

‘Twill surprise nobody who knows anything about Scottish history – and the Scottish nation – that there is controversy (sometimes bitter) about Robert Burns and his literary works.

Thankfully Robert Crawford has written a splendid biography that has restored some of the balance since the unfortunate Canongate Burns: the complete poems and songs of Robert Burns, edited by Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg, (2001) (Canongate Books, Edinburgh).

The snippet, quoted above (follow the link to read the whole review) reveals the link between the young Burns and Adam Smith. Smith’s subscription for four copies of Burns’ Kilmarnock (2nd) edition is typical; Smith had a great affection for poetry (his first ever appearance in print was to write a preface for a book of poems written by William Hamilton of Bangour in 1748; a copy of Smith’s preface is reproduced in Adam Smith’s Essays on Philosophical Subjects, 1982. p 261, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis).

The Canongate Burns, cited above, contains a complete misreading of both the poem by Burns and of Smith’s Moral Sentiments. The editors write:

As a writer he was a smuggler not an Excise man. It should also remind us not to read ‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gies us/ to see ourselves as ithers see us!’ as a piece of sententious sentimentality but Burn’s two line demolition of Adam Smith’s concept of the creation of an internalized spectator in his Theory of Moral Sentiments as a form of secular conscience adequate to controlling our materialism and social pretentiousness’. (p 133).

This a travesty of the truth. Smith’s Moral Sentiments, which Burns admired, and Burns’ poem ‘To a Louse’, shared a union of sentiments, of which these famous lines summed their agreement, not their ‘demolition’:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion’

‘To see oursels as ithers see us’ expresses their different perspectives: Burns, pessimistically, reminding us of human frailty and its consequences; and Smith, optimistically, mapping how most humans develop and maintain their moral senses.

Smith says we do have the power ‘to see oursels as ithers see us’ and he explains how we exercise it. We have this power,shared common ground), from what we may crudely describe as our conscience, or the effect of consulting our impartial spectator within, which helps us resist self-deceit. Smith is explicit:

‘… self-deceit, this fatal weakness of mankind, is the source of half the disorders of human life. If we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reformation would generally be unavoidable. We could not otherwise endure the sight.’ (TMS158–9)

We are not indifferent guardians of our reputations. In practice, other people are our ‘looking-glass’ through which we see ourselves in their eyes, not ours.

Once satisfied with what we believe they see (beware hubris!), we are less flattered by the applause of some and less bothered by the censures of others if, in the main, what we believe they see indicates natural and proper approval of our behaviour.

In this manner, our ‘first moral criticisms are exercised upon the character and conduct of other people’ in so far as they might affect us and we are ‘very forward’ in expressing our views.

But the traffic is not all one-way. We soon learn that others are equally forward in their criticisms of us! This causes us to review our conduct by imagining how we appear in the eyes of others.

If we wish to become less worthy of censure and more worthy of praise, we must discover how we might improve our behaviour. In effect we become ‘the spectators of our own behaviour’ and we imagine how other people ‘scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct’ (TMS 112) through their eyes, not ours.

If we believe what we see in the looking-glass of the spectator, we are ‘tolerably satisfied’ and can discount the applause and downplay any censure. On the other hand, we may be doubtful about the merits of their disapprobation, and provided we know we have not already ‘shaken hands with infamy’, we are doubly struck with the severity of their disapproval.

But if we are secure in our beliefs that we are ‘the natural and proper objects of approbation’, because our imagined spectator’s view of us is ‘tolerably satisfied’, we may reject misrepresentations of our conduct by others (TMS112).

Smith’s argument takes us right back to Burns’ scepticism: do people really see themselves as others see them? Smith’s response is ingenious. Society is our mirror, our looking-glass, and we create our moral compass from living in it, at least in so far as we avoid causing offence to others. But is this sufficient for us to act positively in a moral manner?

We are compelled, and almost in spite of ourselves, to ‘see ourselves as others see us’ (TMS 23) The result for society is a greater degree of tranquillity than would be thought likely in a society composed of individual egos who ignore (or defy) their impartial spectators.

The impartial spectator restrains individuals from unbridled expressions of their passions in pursuit of their interests, preferring ‘silent and majestic sorrow’ in place of ‘detestable … fury without check or restraint’, and thereby confines individuals to pursue their interests only to the extent that is equitable and proportionate to what the impartial spectator and ‘every indifferent person would rejoice to see executed’ (TMS 24).

From this binding relationship it follows ‘that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind the harmony of the sentiments and passions which consists their whole grace and propriety’ (TMS25).

Ironically, the Canongate Burns’ editors include in their controversial collection of poems they attributed to Burns an epigram ‘On the Late Death of Dr Adam Smith’, which appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1790, page 843 (Smith died on 17 July, 1790):

Death and Hermes of late Elysium made boast,
That each would bring thither what earth valued most;
Smith’s Wealth of Nations Hermes stole from his shelf;
DEATH just won his cause – he took of Smith himself

The lady in the Church, unaware of the louse on her hat and careless of the opinions of others, was a member of that portion of humanity that did not consult their internal impartial spectators, and was the appropriate candidate for Burns to mock; but of those who did fraternise with their impartial spectators, it was evident that Burns and Smith agreed on the benefits individually of so doing.

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