Sunday, January 18, 2009

Robert Burns and Adam Smith





Gavin Kennedy

Robert Crawford interview: A Burns to believe in”, The Scotsman, 17 January, (Edinburgh, Scotland) HERE:

“Robert Crawford on Robert Burns”:

"People often pat Burns on the head as a 'heaven-taught ploughman', assuming he was an unlearned character," says Crawford, professorially leaning back against a wall of books in his St Andrews study. "But if I was to say to my students, 'Hands up which of you have read a major work of philosophy published in the year of your birth' I wonder how many would be able to do so. Yet Burns read Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759, and he knows it well because he refers to it several times. "O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us" ... that's just a straight versification of something in Adam Smith

At last, an authoritative guide to the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns!

Shoals of books have been written about him and we celebrate each 25 January with “Burns Suppers” about and beyond the land of his birth, from fairly formal suppers, with their strict rituals and order of events - piping in the Haggis, the ceremonial toast to the ‘chieftain of the puddin race’, delivered with appropriate deference in the ‘Guid Scot’s tongue’, the traditional ‘toasts to the lassies’, and the ‘immortal memory’. This followed by the obligatory meal of ‘haggis, neaps and tatties’, washed down with whisky (or other drink – in my case orange juice) and, as the evening progresses, it becomes more of a blur to most of those present, with Burns’ songs, sang with feeling by a lovely singer, with listeners thinking romantic thoughts (I’m trying not to be sexist) and the occasional inter-family feud breaking out.

For many years, if we are not going to a public ‘Burns Supper’, we have our private family one (plus any guests who happen to drop in). The traditional meal is followed by our version of the Supper’s verbal accompaniments in that everybody –guests included – must recite or read a Burns’ poem (copies provided from our old copy of 'The Poetical Works of Robert Burns, edited by The Rev. Robert Artis Wilmot, George Routeledge and Sons, London and New York, 1856). This year’s is planned for Sunday, 25 January, at our daughter's house nearby (we take turns).

However, let me refer to Robert Crawford’s reference to Burns junior reading Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments. He received his copy from his father, and Robert Crawford is absolutely right to refer to Burns’ poem as about a subject discussed by Smith:

“"O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us" ... that's just a straight versification of something in Adam Smith.”

In my 2005 book, Adam Smith’s Lost legacy (Palgrave Macmillan), chapter 10:

A Poem About a Louse’:

“One way to pass through your mind’s window into Smith’s theory of the impartial spectator is to start with a poem by Robert Burns:
‘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
;’ (Burns, 2001: 130-2: To a Louse: On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church, 1786)

Translating Scots into English drains its poetic power: ‘We would save ourselves from many a blunder and foolish notion if only we could see ourselves as others see us.’

Robert Burns (or Burness) was born in 1759, the same year Smith published Moral Sentiments. He was a young contemporary of Adam Smith and, during the winter of 1786-7, Burns tried to meet him in Edinburgh but Smith was too ill to socialise, though they were at the same meeting of a Masonic lodge on at least one occasion. (Rae: 402) It is said that Moral Sentiments influenced Burns composition of the above lines. (Macfie, 1967: 66; Raphael, 1975: 89, n18)

Unlike Smith, who theorised about the consequences of imagining how other people in the persona of ‘impartial spectators’ might judge our behaviour, Burns wrote of our blindness to the perceptions of others and how our vanity masks our imperfections. In truth, others who weigh us in the balance find us wanting (as we do them). Powerful poetry indeed! On hearing Burns’ lines we often assume that his poem applies to others, not ourselves. How vulnerable we are to foolish and petty vanities!

Burns’ poem is a way into Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’. Both men would have agreed that ‘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 humans develop and maintain their moral senses. Smith, contrary to the poet’s assertion, says we do have the power ‘to see oursels as ithers see us’ and he explains how. We have this power, if we wish to use it, from what we may crudely describe as akin to a conscience (though it was much more) in a weak resistance to self-deceit.

Smith is explicit and his stance inspired Burns’ verse:

… 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. (TMS III.4.6)

Burns’ editors (Messrs. Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg) comment that his poem:

‘should also remind us not to read “O was some Pow’r the giftie gie us/to see oursels as ithers see us!” as a piece of sententious sentimentality but Burns’ two line demolition of Adam Smith’s concept of the creation of [an] internalised spectator in his Theory of Moral Sentiments as a form of secular conscience adequate to controlling our materialism and social pretentiousness.’ (The Canongate Burns: the complete poems and songs of Robert Burns), edited by Noble, A. and Hogg, P. S., 2001. Canongate Books, High Street, Edinburgh).

These editors, Noble and Hogg, unlike Burns, forgot Smith on ‘self-deceit, this fatal weakness of mankind’.” (Adam Smith’s Lost legacy, pp 48-49, Palgrave Macmillan) Assuming they had ever read Moral Sentiments.

Meanwhile, I recommend that you read the interview with Robert Crawford HERE:

Note too: “The Bard” by Robert Crawford, is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £20. At this price it is accessible (try Amazon) and it promises to be the most authoritative biography of Robert Burns in print.

Note also the publication of “The Best Laid Schemes, Selected Poetry and Prose of Robert Burns”, edited by Robert Crawford and Christopher McLachlan, is published by Polygon, priced £12.99.

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