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Stevenson and Burns on Kingship and Brotherhood

November 24, 2023


The liturgical year, in coming to a close, has reached its apex: the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Christ is really and truly king of the entire cosmos, and his kingship illuminates the essence of human fraternity. In the section exploring the traditional offices of priest, prophet, and king, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that

the People of God shares in the royal office of Christ. He exercises his kingship by drawing all men to himself through his death and Resurrection. Christ, King and Lord of the universe, made himself the servant of all, for he came ‘not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ For the Christian, ‘to reign is to serve him,’ particularly when serving ‘the poor and the suffering, in whom the Church recognizes the image of her poor and suffering founder.’ The People of God fulfills its royal dignity by a life in keeping with its vocation to serve with Christ.

(CCC 786)

Those who seek authentic brotherhood find their model in Christ himself, who exemplifies humility as the chief of virtues and gives himself totally in love for the good of the other. Christian love is true kingship, and to belong to Christian brotherhood is to share in that kingship.

The honest posture before the miracle of heaven and earth, and the miracle of oneself, is a humble one and prompts boundless gratitude.

Two of the foremost authors of the British Isles, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns, saw keenly the profound, flourishing harmony between kingship and brotherhood and reflected often on that harmony in their literary works. Burns lived in Scotland during the post-Jacobite period; he is the well-beloved bastion of the Scottish literary tradition and universally regarded as the national poet of Scotland. Stevenson grew up in Scotland a century after Burns and wrote some of the best-loved novels of all time, including Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

There is a quaint little couplet in Stevenson’s book of poems, A Child’s Garden of Verses, that one could easily read and move on from or just miss entirely due to its placement between longer and seemingly louder poems. The couplet is titled “Happy Thought” and reads thus:

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

There seems to be very little at all to these two verses beyond a pleasant sentiment, but the disposition Stevenson aims for here is fundamentally and dynamically Christian. When the human person turns his gaze toward creation and recognizes the endlessly grand diversity of all that God has made, the proper response should be nothing but joy. The honest posture before the miracle of heaven and earth, and the miracle of oneself, is a humble one and prompts boundless gratitude. Knowing that the Lord brought the universe about, and thought that you should belong in it, is a short road to happiness, the true happiness that we all suppose only kings can have on account of material wealth or otherwise but actually belongs to every human person when he reckons with the goodness of God and his place in reality. And since everyone is made for this happiness, the happiness of true kingship, we all may find a brotherhood both in the face of creation and in striving for our common end. Stevenson’s little couplet is a grand summons to all readers to assume this holy disposition before God’s handiwork.

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Marvelous, too, is that Stevenson addresses this couplet to children, for childhood is the time for learning that the world is full and that we were made to know it in its fullness. As the Gospels tell us, the kingdom of God is only possible for little ones (Matt. 18:3). “Happy Thought,” then, is an excellent title: what we at first take to be a fleeting childish notion is ultimately a thought of perennial value directed toward happiness itself.

Robert Burns spent most of his life as a tenant farmer, and his poetry champions his passion for simple, rural existence, his anti-tyrannical and heavily democratic instincts, and his relish for the things that make humans truly good and worthy, rather than the many false things men and women give worth to like power and wealth. Such loves drive his poem-song “A Man’s a Man for a’ [all] That,” which even in the title suggests that dignity and worth lie not in externals but in the essential dimensions of human nature. This is obvious from the first verse:

The rank is but the guinea’s stamp [only worth what money can buy];
The man’s the gowd [gold] for a’ that.

What makes a man valuable is not his position in society; rather, the real gold in the man is the man, to have the honor of bearing the very image of God. Indeed, the central thrust of the song is set in the praise of virtue and genuine humanity over against prestige and esteem. Though many may take pride in the pleasures they can afford, and though many may feel shame with their lack of means, Burns cares for none of that:

Gie [give] fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man’s a man for a’ that.

Whether one dines in the royal courts or in the slums, the truly highest-ranking soul is the one who lives honestly and humbly:

The honest man, tho’ e’er sae [so] poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Burns builds on this theme in the third verse, mocking the often-envied grandeur of material royalty:

Ye see yon birkie [show-off], ca’d [called] a lord
Wha [who] struts, an’ stares, an a’ that
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof [idiot] for a’ that.

He who glories in his prestige, though he may be admired by hundreds or thousands, is nothing more than a fool if he measures himself by that standard alone. In contrast, he who is free from such vices and oriented toward the good, “the man o’ independent mind,” scorns such a pitiable approach to life: “He looks and laughs at a’ that.” Instead, he delights in his God-given dignity and prizes the life of virtue:

The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Burns concludes with a prayer that this way of life will become the desire of all people, for walking that way forms the bonds that mark real fraternity:

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth,
May bear the gree [take pride of place], an’ a’ that. . . .
It’s coming yet, for a’ that,
That man to man, the warld [world] o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Christ, who in his very form is the height of virtue, promises the good life, happiness, royalty, kingship, and a brotherhood thicker than blood to those who imitate him. Eschew those false treasures of the world, embrace your existence and self-worth as a creature of God, and take up the cross of Christ our King and Brother, the foundation of all that is holy.