After Hume, will Scotland show principle and de-person its national poet Robert Burns?

Tom Winnifrith Monday 14 September 2020


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David Hume was a great philosopher but, writing in 1753, he made remarks about black folks which even then were a tad offensive and today are viewed as utterly racist. Given that we now judge folks’ utterances and actions of 267 years ago by the mores of today, in the year of madness that is 2020, Hume was toast. A building named after him at Edinburgh University has been renamed. I suspect that there will be calls to remove A Treatise of Human Nature from the curriculum and so future generations will come to know the man, not as I did as a student, as a philosopher but as just another dead white racist male. So where next with the purge? Might I suggest Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns?

The smelly socks will no doubt find numerous excuses for Burns. He wrote one poem on the evils of slavery:

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia, – ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

However, in 1786, he was financially challenged and having a spot of marital bother. Hence Burns accepted a job working on a sugar plantation in Jamaica where the hard, grinding manual work was done by er…. slaves, those poor folks from sweet Senegal and elsewhere. Luckily for Burns and for poetry, his success as a wordsmith meant that at the very last minute, just as he was set to sail out to the West Indies, his financial position changed and he was able to remain in Scotland.

I put it to the nation that celebrates Burns Day, that the position of their national poet is indefensible in light of what has happened to Hume or Gladstone (inherited money made from slaves) or Thomas Guy (a totally obscure and tangential link as described here). Will the Scots show consistency and consign Burns to the same dustbin of history as David Hume?

The influence of Hume on Western thought (Einstein, Kant, Mill all claimed to be influenced) cannot be understated. For that reason, his life and works should be celebrated and students should be encouraged to ask who he was and to read his books. I am not such a fan of Burns but his works deserve recognition and I can overlook his willingness to take part in the slave trade on that basis. But can Scotland? I am sure the Greece of the North will wriggle, squirm and find excuses and Burns will not find himself in the dustbin of history.

So where does the progressive, modern and outward-looking nation that so many Scots like to see Scotland as stand on the issue of double standards?

I know what is the key fact here but what ought Scotland to do? Can it make a moral judgement based on a fact? Is – ought. Oh dear, I guess Scotland will be wrestling with Hume’s Law on this one even if it might loathe to admit it.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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