Friday, January 25, 2008

Robert Burns and today's debate on materialism

Many will be celebrating ‘Burns Night’ tonight. The anti-materialist poet and lyricist Robert Burns was born on this day in 1759. This years celebrations coincide neatly with live discussion on the issue of materialism (see yesterday’s blog entry on which sorts of economic growth are good for example). Also, Green MEP Caroline Lucas has said that ‘Happiness does not derive from infinite economic growth and material wealth, but from contented families, strong communities and meaningful work’ in a new book of collected essays written by very wide range of people. The book edited by Andrew Simms from the New Economics Foundation and Joe Smith of the Open University, asks ‘Do Good Lives Have To Cost The Earth?’.

I find the poetry and songs of Burns inspirational as I’ve said in a previous post (see another sample of his work below). We have a good deal to learn from what he expresses. A new book on the man, written by my fellow Open University lecturer Alan Jackson, ‘Robert Burns – Icon or Challenger’, discusses how Burns might view today’s Scotland, compared with how Scotland today sees him. Burns vigorously opposed materialism, yet much of the modern world, Scotland included, persists in the belief that material progress equals the good life. We gear our economy and society to the aim of material progress, while scientific evidence, not least on climate change and human wellbeing, amasses showing the huge problems this is bringing.

"Is There For Honest Poverty", by Robert Burns, more commonly known as "A Man's A Man For A' That", (standard English translation):

Is there for honest poverty
That hangs his head, and all that?
The coward slave, we pass him by -
We dare be poor for all that!
For all that, and all that,
Our toils obscure, and all that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gold for all that.

What though on homely fare we dine,
Wear course grey woolen, and all that?
Give fools their silks, and knaves their wine -
A man is a man for all that.
For all that, and all that,
Their tinsel show, and all that,
The honest man, though ever so poor,
Is king of men for all that.

You see yonder fellow called 'a lord,'
Who struts, and stares, and all that?
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He is but a dolt for all that.
For all that, and all that,
His ribboned, star, and all that,
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at all that.

A prince can make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, and all that!
But an honest man is above his might -
Good faith, he must not fault that
For all that, and all that,
Their dignities, and all that,
The pith of sense and pride of worth
Are higher rank than all that.

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a' that)
That Sense and Worth over all the earth
Shall have the first place and all that!
For all that, and all that,
It is coming yet for all that,
That man to man the world over
Shall brothers be for all that.

For more on Robert Burns, you could do worse than read this Guardian piece.,,2242983,00.html

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