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Man was made to mourn
Reflections of Rabbie B
O Death! the poor man's dearest friend,
The kindest and the best!
Welcome the hour my aged limbs
Are laid with thee at rest!
The great, the wealthy fear thy blow
From pomp and pleasure torn;
But, oh! a blest relief for those
That weary-laden mourn!
When Robert Burns wrote these lines in 1784, they expressed wisdom that had been conventional for tens of thousands of years of human history. Life was fraught with care and suffering; most people were hungry, sick or wounded, or in danger of becoming hungry, sick or wounded soon. Moments of happiness were rare and brief, and were always clouded with the memory of suffering past and the prospect of suffering future. Death was not feared but welcomed; it promised release from this mortal coil.
One measure of human progress— perhaps the most profound measure—is the change in attitudes toward death since Burns's time. Already in his day, and in his poem, the rich feared death, for it would tear them from the earthly pleasures they had known. That fear of death, or at least a wish to keep on living, has been democratized as the world has grown richer. Mortality, traditionally seen as a blessing, is now treated as something for science and medicine, and individuals, to battle against.
In the process, the afterlife has lost much of its purchase on the human imagination. Death was the moment when the scales of justice would be rebalanced. The poor—which was to say the great majority of humans—would move to a better life. The rich few would have their comeuppance. A very few of the rich might get into heaven, but it would be very few indeed, if Jesus was any authority. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” he told his disciples.
It was no accident that the spread of wealth coincided with a decline in religion. Certainly there were other factors. Science provided explanations for events and phenomena previously ascribed to the gods. But at the emotional level at which most people operate most of the time, the lessening of human misery made religion's role as gatekeeper to the afterlife less salient on a daily basis.
Robert Burns was contemporaneous with Thomas Jefferson, yet Burns didn't buy into the Enlightenment optimism that allowed Jefferson to claim for humans a right to the pursuit of happiness. The Scottish poet looked backward, to that long age when such a claim would have been considered ludicrous, while the American philosopher looked ahead, to a time when happiness itself, and not just its pursuit, became a broadly held expectation.
Keeping Burns in mind helps explain much about the past that is otherwise difficult for a modern sensibility to understand. Pre-modern societies put up with all sorts of practices that are intolerable today. When the conditions of daily life made people long for death, how much worse could it be to be a slave than a miserable peasant? And if the slave died sooner than the peasant, all the better for the slave. When warfare typically included the slaughter of noncombatants, the lives lost wouldn’t have been long or happy anyway. The oppression of women didn't seem a big deal when so many were going to die in childbirth.
Most people today would prefer their own circumstances to those of people living in olden times, if permitted the choice. Yet Burns was onto something that gave an edge to the ancients in one regard. We are just as certain to die as our distant forebears were, but where for most of us death is a source of trepidation, judging by the efforts we devote to delaying it, they eyed their end with equanimity, even gratitude.
We should all be so mellow and wise.