A Man’s a Man

Watching the Middle Eastern World order dissolve into chaos and revolution I find myself wondering where this is all leading. Since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall I have seen all too many dictatorships fall at the hands of a people who have collectively said, “We’ve had enough!”

Governments come and go, of that there is no doubt. But it is the inner stuff that makes a man a man, and that leads him inevitably to rise up and say “No” to generations of oppression, violence and injustice. I can only stand in admiration and wonder at the brave men and women who have placed their very bodies in the line of fire to demand freedom to Tunisia, Egypt and in recent days, Libya.

Most surprising is that these are not religious revolutions. There is no stamp of radical Islam or a call for Sharia law. There is simply an insistent demand for genuine freedom, a call that rings true in the ears of many Scots. One needs only a casual reading of Scots history to understand that the desire for freedom is an fundamental element of the Scots identity. Granted, we have been at peace with our southern neighbours for over 300 years now, but it was English oppression that formed our identity in the cauldron of oppression.

The real revolution took place in the 18th century at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment when brilliant Scots thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith and many, many others crystallized the desire for freedom in philosophical and economic terms. Their work formed the basis of the American documents of freedom; many of the words of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are lifted directly from the works of Scottish writers.

America had the luxury and the opportunity to put these ideals into practice and it was John Witherspoon, the Church of Scotland minister who was hired on as President of the nascent Princeton University, who realized that America was the place where the ideas rooted in Scottish philosophy would find their blossom. Many of the men who signed the Declaration were either educated by Witherspoon or found in his work agreeable inspiration for their own.

And so, in honour of those who are dying every day for the cause of freedom in Libya and other tyrannized lands I want to quote the national bard of Scotland, Robbie Burns, whose poem “A Man’s a Man for ‘a That,” written in 1795, captures the essence of what is right and good and true about humanity. It is not title or position or wealth that makes a man a man, it is honesty and kindness and grit.

This is for the martyrs…

Is there for honest poverty
That hings (hangs) his head, an’ a’ that?
The coward slave, we pass him by –
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that!
Our toils obscure, an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The man’s the gowd (gold) for a’ that.

What though on hamely (homely, simple) fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey (coarse woollen clothing) an’ a’ that?
Gie (give) fools their silks, and knaves their wine
A man’s a man for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that,
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor (though ever so poor),
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie ca’d ‘a lord’ (a plucky fellow called a lord),
Wha (who) struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that?
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a cuif (fool) for a’ that,
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind,
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that!
But an honest man’s aboon (above) his might –
Guid faith, he mauna fa’ that! (good faith he musn’t allow to fail)
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities, an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth (the real substance of pride and worth)
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a’ that)
That Sense and Worth o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree (have priority) an’ a’ that,
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man the world oe’r
Shall brithers (brothers) be for a’ that.

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