Robert Burns’s Antidote for Our Self-Righteous Times

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Madeleine Kearns
·4 min read
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In 1695, the Scottish parliament ratified a preexisting statute making blasphemy a capital offense. In the next few years, 18-year-old Thomas Aitkenhead, having described religion as “a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense,” was hanged for his remarks, and six others were sentenced to death for witchcraft. The hard-line intolerance of pre-Enlightenment Calvinism cooled off in the following century, which is just as well, or a generation of Scottish geniuses might have been killed off.

One such genius was Robert Burns, born on January 25, 1759, and celebrated worldwide by Scots today. A prolific poet and songwriter, Burns frequently found himself on the wrong side of Scotland’s Kirk, whose moral orthodoxy he frequently lampooned in his writing and disobeyed in his personal life.

Among the most famous of his works in this vein is “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” a satire of the Calvinist precept of predestination. In its opening, the poem imagines William Fisher, an elder at a nearby church, directing his prayer to a capricious God:

O Thou, that in the heavens does dwell,
Wha, as it pleases best Thysel’,
Sends ane to heaven an’ ten to hell,
A’ for Thy glory,
And no for ony guid or ill
They’ve done before Thee!

Willie’s arrogant presumption that he is a member of God’s elect becomes clear later in the poem:

Yet I am here a chosen sample,
To show Thy grace is great and ample;
I’m here a pillar o’ Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example,
To a’ Thy flock.

Later still, after admitting his own lecherous wrongdoing, he prays that another man who “drinks and swears and plays cards” be damned for all eternity, before finally asking God to be more forgiving of his own transgressions:

Lord, in Thy day o’ vengeance try him!
Lord, visit them wha did employ him!
And pass not in Thy mercy by them,
Nor hear their pray’r,
But for Thy people’s sake, destroy them,
An’ dinna spare.

But, Lord, remember me and mine
Wi’ mercies temporal and divine,
That I for grace an’ gear may shine,
Excell’d by nane,
And a’ the glory shall be Thine –
Amen, Amen!

I can’t help but wonder what Burns would have made of the Scottish parliament’s continued effort to repeal the dormant blasphemy laws of 17th-century Scotland and replace them with a new one aimed at fighting the sin of “hate speech.” It does not seem to have occurred to many of the effort’s proponents that in purporting to fight hate and intolerance they are, in fact, attempting to perpetuate those scourges.

Burns has another topical poem on this theme, his “Address to the Unco Guid, or the Rigidly Righteous.” The poem begins: “Oh, ye wha are sae guid yoursel’/Sae pious and sae holy,/Ye’ve nought to do but mark and tell/Your neighbours’ fauts and folly.” In the final stanza, Burns, who was religious in his own way, discusses the danger of judging the contents of the human heart:

Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.

This is a more eloquent and recent articulation of the warning from the Scottish Police Federation that the hate-crime bill introduced last year, which proposes up to seven years in prison for the offense of “stirring up hatred,” would force officers to “police what people think or feel.”

It is surely one of the worst features of modern politics that so many are quick to assume that those with whom they disagree must be evil. This standard applies to the dead as well as the living. The Telegraph reports that in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, “philosophers David Hume and Thomas Carlyle are set to have their links to slavery reviewed by art gallery curators as the thinkers who led the Scottish Enlightenment come under scrutiny.” Burns, too, has fallen afoul of progressives in recent years, for a complicated, less-than-savory sexual history dredged up in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

No doubt, Burns would have found the high-toned moralism of our age amusing. When he wasn’t penning piquant satires of his own age’s hypocrisies, he could be heard urging readers not to take themselves too seriously. In his famous poem, “Tae a Mouse, on Turning Up in Her Nest With the Plough” he penned the immortal lines, later borrowed by John Steinbeck, that “the great laid schemes o’mice and men gang aft agley.” And in “To a Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church,” he wrote:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion.

If only the Scottish government possessed such wisdom.

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