Adam Smith and Robert Burns

Published: 6 March 2023

Adam Smith's influence on literature and literary criticism.

Stained glass window with a portrait of Robert Burns on a floral background and the name 'Burns' in the window above his head. Source: University of Glasgow

By Professor Nigel Leask, Regius Chair of English Language and Literature, School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow

Hailed as the founding father of economics, Adam Smith also has a good claim to have established my own academic discipline, literary criticism. Edinburgh University can boast the first established Chair of 'Rhetoric and Belles Lettres' in the Anglophone world (founded in 1762 with Hugh Blair as first incumbent) but it turns out that Blair was beholden to Adam Smith's lectures on the subject. These had been delivered at Glasgow University as a 'private course' between 1751-64 in the curriculum of Logic and Moral Philosophy.

The first holder of my own Regius Chair of English Language and Literature (founded in 1862) was Professor John Nichol (1833-94), the last in line of an apostolic succession at Glasgow - Nichol's teacher Robert Buchanan was taught by George Jardine, Jardine by Adam Smith, in his turn taught by Francis Hutcheson, 'the father of the Scottish Enlightenment'. This new discipline moved away from traditional rhetoric to emphasise 'the stylistic formation of polite discourse and the cultivation of sensibility in modern civil society' - today's literary studies. Smith's reputation rests largely on his Theory of Moral Sentiments(1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776), rather than the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres, only published in 1983. It was reconstructed from students' notes of the original lectures as original drafts didn't survive. But the Lectures offer a crucial insight into Smith's 'day-time job' as a university professor at Glasgow.  

Adam Smith also influenced poets, not least his younger contemporary Robert Burns, even if Smith and Burns seem like chalk and cheese. The son of a humble Ayrshire farmer, Robert Burns never attended college (although his father hired him a private tutor), but it's surprising to discover that he was an avid reader of both Smith's most famous works. Why should a 'ploughman poet' have been reading Smith in the first place? The revolutionary energy of Scottish agricultural improvement was implemented by a new breed of tenant farmers like Robert Burns and his father William, required to be literate and business-minded in order to negotiate the hazards of under-capitalisation, rack-renting, and crop failure induced by challenging climatic conditions (especially the Icelandic Laki eruption of 1783).

Burns had probably first read Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) in 1777 at the age of 18: by September 1783 he was writing in his 'First Commonplace Book' (CPB):

"I entirely agree with that judicious philosopher Mr Smith in his excellent Theory of Moral Sentiments, that Remorse is the most painful sentiment that can embitter the human bosom." [CPB p.5]

Secular remorse rather than the threat of divine punishment is a feature of many of the poems written during this intensely creative period, later published in the 1786 Kilmarnock Poems in the Scottish Dialect. In his 1786 verse 'Letter to James Tennant, Glenconner' Burns represented Smith (as well as the philosopher Thomas Reid) as antidotes to Calvinist superstition, representing the 'common sense' of the people:

Smith, wi’ his sympathetic feeling, 

An’ Reid, to common sense appealing. 

Philosophers have fought an’ wrangled,  

An’ meikle Greek an’ Latin mangled, 

Till with their Logic-jargon tir’d, 

An’ in the depth of science mir’d, 

To common sense they now appeal, 

What wives an’ wabsters see an’ feel 

In Book V of Wealth of Nations, Smith praised the Scottish parish education system, whereby the common people are introduced to 'the most sublime as well as to the most useful sciences". [II p.372]

"The more [the common people] are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions off enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations, frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders". [II, pp.374-5]  

Burns's most celebrated poetic paraphrase of Adam Smith is from his comic poem 'To a Louse', published in the Kilmarnock volume:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us!

It wad frae monie a blunder free us,

An foolish notion


The first lines here paraphrases Smith’s wording in TMS (III, ch. 5): "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 be unavoidable. We could not otherwise endure the sight". 'To a Louse' is a light-hearted endorsement of Smith’s impartial spectator, exploring the consequences of vanity, the yawning abyss between Jenny’s self-regard, unwitting of the blood-sucking parasite crawling up her 'Lunardi bonnet', and the prurient fascination of other members of the Kirk's congregation. 

When Burns was appointed to a post in the Dumfries Excise Division in 1788, Smith's Wealth of Nations was on the reading list for this highly competitive post. In a letter dated 13th May 1789 addressed to his Excise patron Robert Graham of Fintry, Burns wrote of Smith's book: "I could not have given any mere man, credit for half the intelligence Mr Smith discovers in his book". He cheekily added:

"I would covet much to have his ideas respecting the present state of some quarters of the world that are or have been the scenes of considerable revolutions since his book was written". [CL p.428].

The radical Burns here refers to the American and French Revolutions. 

That Smith’s Wealth of Nations was circulating in 1780's Scotland as a tool for instructing Excise officers is perhaps no more ironic than the fact that its author, the celebrated champion of free trade, had in 1778 been appointed a Scottish Commissioner of Customs. Smith's book lambasted aristocracy, entails, monopolies, mercantile self-interest, the apprentice system, state religion, the 'golden dream' of British colonial policy, the slave trade, and any number of other pressing contemporary issues that resonated with Burns. The poet often shares Adam Smith's critical, even cynical, views of the status quo.1 There's certainly no celebration here of Smith as a prophet of modern capitalism, as some of his apologists like to claim. Perhaps Burns's Smith helps us to locate the great philosopher with more nuance back in his own times.

1 Donald Winch, Adam Smith’s Politics, p. 71

Robert Burns: Poems, Songs and Legacy

Dig deeper into the life and works of Robert Burns, with this free University of Glasgow course.

Global Burns: Robert Burns and Adam Smnith 

Online event which shared how poet Robert Burns was informed and inspired by the works of Adam Smith.

First published: 6 March 2023