Hugh Blair
Hugh Blair FRSE  was a Scottish
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

 minister of religion, author and rhetorician, considered one of the first great theorists of written discourse
Discourse generally refers to "written or spoken communication". The following are three more specific definitions:...


As a minister of the Church of Scotland, and occupant of the Chair of Rhetoric
Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. As a subject of formal study and a productive civic practice, rhetoric has played a central role in the Western...

 and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1583, is a public research university located in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The university is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city, with many of the buildings in the historic Old Town belonging to the university...

, Blair's teachings had a great impact in both the spiritual and the secular realms. Best known for Sermons, a five volume endorsement of practical Christian
A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament...

 morality, and Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, a prescriptive guide on composition
Composition (language)
The term composition , in written language, refers to the collective body of important features established by the author in their creation of literature...

, Blair was a valuable part of the Scottish Enlightenment
Scottish Enlightenment
The Scottish Enlightenment was the period in 18th century Scotland characterised by an outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishments. By 1750, Scots were among the most literate citizens of Europe, with an estimated 75% level of literacy...



Blair was born in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland, the second largest city in Scotland, and the eighth most populous in the United Kingdom. The City of Edinburgh Council governs one of Scotland's 32 local government council areas. The council area includes urban Edinburgh and a rural area...

 into an educated Presbyterian family. His father was John Blair, an Edinburgh merchant.

From an early age it was clear that Blair, a weakly child, should be educated for a life in the church. Schooled at the High School
Royal High School (Edinburgh)
The Royal High School of Edinburgh is a co-educational state school administered by the City of Edinburgh Council. The school was founded in 1128 and is one of the oldest schools in Scotland, and has, throughout its history, been high achieving, consistently attaining well above average exam results...

, Blair studied moral philosophy and literature
Literature is the art of written works, and is not bound to published sources...

 at the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated M.A. at the age of twenty-one. His thesis, "De Fundamentis et Obligatione Legis Naturae", serves as a precursor to the later published Sermons in its discussion of the principles of morality and virtue.

In 1741, two years after the publication of his thesis, Blair received his license as a Presbyterian preacher. Shortly thereafter, the Earl of Leven
Earl of Leven
Earl of Leven is a title in the Peerage of Scotland. It was created in 1641 for Alexander Leslie. He was succeeded by his grandson Alexander, who was in turn followed by his daughters Margaret and Catherine...

 heard of Blair's popularity and presented him to the Parish Church of Collessie
Collessie is a village in Fife, Scotland.It is a hamlet set on a small hillock centre around a historic church. Due to rerouting of roads, it now lies off the main road.-The Church:The church was consecrated by the Bishop of St. Andrews in July 1243...

 in Fife. By 1743 Blair was elected as the second charge of the Church of Canongate, where he spent the next eleven years. Blair was appointed to the charge of Lady Yester's Kirk
Lady Yester's Kirk
Lady Yester's Kirk was a congregation of the Church of Scotland. The building is located on Infirmary Street in Edinburgh, Scotland, and was formerly one of the foremost churches in the burgh...

 in 1754, and four years later was promoted to the High Church
High church
The term "High Church" refers to beliefs and practices of ecclesiology, liturgy and theology, generally with an emphasis on formality, and resistance to "modernization." Although used in connection with various Christian traditions, the term has traditionally been principally associated with the...

 of St. Giles; the highest position that a clergyman could achieve in Scotland. Blair maintained this position for many years, during which time he published a five volume series of his addresses entitled Sermons.

Having attained ultimate success in the church, Blair turned to matters of education. In 1757 he was presented with an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity by the Church of St. Andrews and began to teach a course in the principles of literary composition for the University of Edinburgh in 1759. At first Blair taught without remuneration, but the popularity of his course led to the institution of a class in Rhetoric at the university and a paid professorship for Blair. Blair was eventually appointed the first Regius Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres by George III; a position he maintained until his retirement in 1783. Upon retirement, Blair published several of his lectures in Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.

Blair's life was very full in both the public and the private spheres. As a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, he surrounded himself with other scholars in the movement. Hume
David Hume
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism. He was one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment...

, Carlyle
Alexander Carlyle
Very Rev Alexander Carlyle was a Scottish church leader, and autobiographer.He was born in Cummertrees, Dumfriesshire, the son of the local minister and brought up in Prestonpans, East Lothian. He was a witness to the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745 where he was part of the government Edinburgh...

, Adam Smith
Adam Smith
Adam Smith was a Scottish social philosopher and a pioneer of political economy. One of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith is the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations...

, Ferguson
Adam Ferguson
Adam Ferguson FRSE, also known as Ferguson of Raith was a Scottish philosopher, social scientist and historian of the Scottish Enlightenment...

, and Lord Kames
Henry Home, Lord Kames
Henry Home, Lord Kames was a Scottish advocate, judge, philosopher, writer and agricultural improver. A central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, a founder member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, and active in the Select Society, his protégés included James Boswell, David Hume and...

 were among those Blair considered friends. As well, Blair had a very loving marriage to his cousin, Katherine Bannatine. Together they had two children: a son who died at birth and a daughter who died at the age of 20. Blair also outlived his wife, who died several years before his own death in December 1800. He was described as amiable, kind to young authors, and remarkable for a harmless, but rather ridiculous vanity and simplicity.

Chronology of works

  • 1739: Defundamentis et Obligatione Legis Naturæ
  • 1753: The Works of Shakespeare(ed. Hugh Blair [Anon.])
  • 1755: Review of Francis Hutcheson's A System of Moral Philosophy [Anon.]
  • 1755: Observations on a Pamphlet [by John Bonar], entitled An Analysis of the Moral and Religious Sentiments contained in the Writings of Sopho and David Hume Esq [Anon.]
  • 1760: 'Preface' [Anon.] to James Macpherson, Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland and translated from the Galic or Erse Language
  • 1763: A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the Son of Fingal
  • 1777-1801: Sermons (5 vols)
  • 1783: Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres

Major works

Blair is best known for the publication of three major works: A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, Son of Fingal; Sermons; and Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. While little attention is given to his other works, it must be noted that Blair published several other works anonymously, the most important of which is an eight-volume edition of Shakespeare's works edited by Blair.

A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the Son of Fingal

In 1763 Blair published A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, his first well known openly authored publication. Blair, having long taken interest in the Celt
The Celts were a diverse group of tribal societies in Iron Age and Roman-era Europe who spoke Celtic languages.The earliest archaeological culture commonly accepted as Celtic, or rather Proto-Celtic, was the central European Hallstatt culture , named for the rich grave finds in Hallstatt, Austria....

ic poetry of the Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands
The Highlands is an historic region of Scotland. The area is sometimes referred to as the "Scottish Highlands". It was culturally distinguishable from the Lowlands from the later Middle Ages into the modern period, when Lowland Scots replaced Scottish Gaelic throughout most of the Lowlands...

, wrote a laudatory account of the poems of Ossian, the authenticity of which he maintained. Blair serves as the voice of authority on the legitimacy of the poems that he himself had urged friend James Macpherson
James Macpherson
James Macpherson was a Scottish writer, poet, literary collector and politician, known as the "translator" of the Ossian cycle of poems.-Early life:...

 to publish in Fragment of Ancient Poetry.

The dissertation directly opposes assertions that the poems Macpherson claimed to be ancient and sublime
Sublime (philosophy)
In aesthetics, the sublime is the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic...

 were in fact written by several modern poets, or possibly even by Macpherson himself. After 1765 Dissertation appeared in every publication of the Ossian
Ossian is the narrator and supposed author of a cycle of poems which the Scottish poet James Macpherson claimed to have translated from ancient sources in the Scots Gaelic. He is based on Oisín, son of Finn or Fionn mac Cumhaill, anglicised to Finn McCool, a character from Irish mythology...

 to give the work credibility. Blair's praise ultimately proved futile as the poems were deemed false and Macpherson was convicted of literary forgery
Forgery is the process of making, adapting, or imitating objects, statistics, or documents with the intent to deceive. Copies, studio replicas, and reproductions are not considered forgeries, though they may later become forgeries through knowing and willful misrepresentations. Forging money or...

. While this work does not speak highly of Blair's skills as a literary critic, it does provide insight into Blair's own taste, a subject that is important to his later writing.


Blair published the first of his five volume series Sermons in 1777. It is a compilation of the sermons promoting practical Christian morality he delivered as a Presbyterian preacher. Despite the declining popularity of published religious teachings at the time, the success of Sermons paralleled Blair's success as a preacher. Though Blair's oral
Public speaking
Public speaking is the process of speaking to a group of people in a structured, deliberate manner intended to inform, influence, or entertain the listeners...

 delivery was poor, often described as a 'burr,' he was considered the most popular preacher in Scotland. His success is credited to the ease with which the audience could follow his polite, organized style; a style that was translated easily into print.

Sermons reflects Blair's position as a member of the moderate or latitudinarian
Latitudinarian was initially a pejorative term applied to a group of 17th-century English theologians who believed in conforming to official Church of England practices but who felt that matters of doctrine, liturgical practice, and ecclesiastical organization were of relatively little importance...

 party. In many respects, Blair was socially conservative
Social conservatism
Social Conservatism is primarily a political, and usually morally influenced, ideology that focuses on the preservation of what are seen as traditional values. Social conservatism is a form of authoritarianism often associated with the position that the federal government should have a greater role...

. He did not believe in radical change, as his teachings were safe and ultimately prepared for the upper classes. Blair also had liberal
Liberalism is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally, liberals support ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights,...

 tendencies demonstrated in his rejection of Calvinistic doctrines such as original sin, total corruption, and damnation.

Sermons focuses on questions of morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

, rather than theology
Theology is the systematic and rational study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truths, or the learned profession acquired by completing specialized training in religious studies, usually at a university or school of divinity or seminary.-Definition:Augustine of Hippo...

, and it emphasizes patriotism
Patriotism is a devotion to one's country, excluding differences caused by the dependencies of the term's meaning upon context, geography and philosophy...

, action in the public sphere, and moral virtue promoted by polite secular culture. Blair encourages people to improve their natural talents through hard work, but also to be content with their appointed stations in society. He urges people to play an active role in society, to enjoy the pleasures of life, to do good works, and to maintain faith in God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....


Blair's appeal to both emotion
Emotion is a complex psychophysiological experience of an individual's state of mind as interacting with biochemical and environmental influences. In humans, emotion fundamentally involves "physiological arousal, expressive behaviors, and conscious experience." Emotion is associated with mood,...

 and reason
Reason is a term that refers to the capacity human beings have to make sense of things, to establish and verify facts, and to change or justify practices, institutions, and beliefs. It is closely associated with such characteristically human activities as philosophy, science, language, ...

, combined with his non-confrontational, moderate and elegant style made each volume of Sermons increasingly popular. Four editions were published in Blair's lifetime and a fifth shortly after his death. Each volume was met with the greatest success, as they were published in many Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

an languages and went through several printings. Though Blair's Sermons eventually fell out of favour for lacking doctrinal definiteness—"a bucket of warm water", as one opinion puts it—they were undoubtedly influential during Blair's lifetime and for several decades after his death.

Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres

After retiring from his position as Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh in 1783, Blair published his lectures for the first time, deeming it necessary because unauthorized copies of his work threatened the legacy of his teachings. The result is arguably Blair's most important work: Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Lectures, a compilation of 47 of Blair's lectures given to students at the University of Edinburgh, serves as a practical guide for youth on composition and language; a guide that makes Blair the first great theorist of written discourse.

Lectures is important not because it presents radical new theories. In fact, Blair himself admits that the work is a suffusion of his understanding of classical
Classical antiquity
Classical antiquity is a broad term for a long period of cultural history centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, collectively known as the Greco-Roman world...

 and modern
Modernism, in its broadest definition, is modern thought, character, or practice. More specifically, the term describes the modernist movement, its set of cultural tendencies and array of associated cultural movements, originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to Western society...

 theories of language. Lectures draws on the classic works of theorists such as Quintilian
Marcus Fabius Quintilianus was a Roman rhetorician from Hispania, widely referred to in medieval schools of rhetoric and in Renaissance writing...

 and Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...

 combined with the modern works of Addison
Joseph Addison
Joseph Addison was an English essayist, poet, playwright and politician. He was a man of letters, eldest son of Lancelot Addison...

, Burke
Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke PC was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party....

, and Lord Kames to become one of the first whole language guides. As one of the first works to focus on written discourse, rather than solely on oral discourse, Blair's Lectures is a comprehensive, accessible prescriptive composition guide that combines centuries of theory in a cohesive form.

The intention of Lectures is to provide youth with a simple, organized guide on the value of rhetoric and belles lettres in the quest for upward mobility and social success. Blair believed that social cultivation, and most importantly the proper use of polite literature and effective writing, was the key to social success. For him, an education in literature was socially useful, both in its ability to elevate one's social status and its ability to promote virtue and morality. Blair also acknowledged that a person must have virtue and personal character, as well as knowledge of literature to be an effective speaker or writer.

While Blair's outline of the requirements for an excellent speaker or writer is an important aspect of Lectures, the work covers a very broad scope of issues relating to composition. Blair's primary considerations are the issues of taste
Taste is one of the traditional five senses. It refers to the ability to detect the flavor of substances such as food, certain minerals, and poisons, etc....

, language
Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication...

, style
Style guide
A style guide or style manual is a set of standards for the writing and design of documents, either for general use or for a specific publication, organization or field...

, and eloquence
Eloquence is fluent, forcible, elegant or persuasive speaking. It is primarily the power of expressing strong emotions in striking and appropriate language, thereby producing conviction or persuasion...

 or public speaking. As well, Blair provides a critical examination of what he calls "the most distinguished species of composition, both in prose
Prose is the most typical form of written language, applying ordinary grammatical structure and natural flow of speech rather than rhythmic structure...

 and verse
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...

" (15).

As an adherer to Scottish common sense realism
Naïve realism
Naïve realism, also known as direct realism or common sense realism, is a philosophy of mind rooted in a common sense theory of perception that claims that the senses provide us with direct awareness of the external world...

, Blair's theories are founded in the belief that the principles of rhetoric evolve from the principles of nature. Blair's definition of taste reflects this sentiment: "The power of receiving pleasure from the beauties of nature and art: (15). His analysis of the nature of taste is one of his most important contributions to compositional theories because taste, according to Blair, is foundational to rhetoric and necessary for successful written and spoken discourse.

While Blair's work is generally a safe composite of multiple theories, it contains many valuable insights, such as the aforementioned analysis of taste. Blair's discussion of the history of written discourse is another important contribution to composition theory because this history was previously neglected. As well, Blair's naming and defining of four generic categories of writing: historical writing, philosophical writing, fictitious
For literary uses see FictionFor Legal uses see legal fiction*Fictitious defendants*Feigned action*Ejectment - an action to recover land*John Doe - commonly named as a fictitious defendant....

History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

, and poetry
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...

, and his analysis of the different parts of discourse plays an important role in the development of later compositional theories. One of Blair's more radical ideas is the rejection of Aristotelian
Aristotelianism is a tradition of philosophy that takes its defining inspiration from the work of Aristotle. The works of Aristotle were initially defended by the members of the Peripatetic school, and, later on, by the Neoplatonists, who produced many commentaries on Aristotle's writings...

 figures of speech
Figures of Speech
Figures of Speech is a hip hop group consisting of MCs Eve and Jyant. They performed at the Good Life Cafe in the early 1990s and were featured on the Project Blowed compilation....

 such as tropes. Blair argues that invention is the result of knowledge and cannot be aided by devices of invention as outlined by classic theorists. Though Blair rejects this traditional method of discourse, his work is still prescriptive in nature.

Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres combines the fundamental principles of belletristic rhetoric and literary theory in a concise, accessible form. Drawing on classic and modern theories, Blair's work is the most comprehensive prescriptive guide on composition in the 18th century. It enjoyed tremendous success for nearly a century, as 130 editions were published in numerous European languages.


Blair wrote in a time when print culture was flourishing and traditional rhetoric was falling out of favour. By focusing on issues of cultivation and upward mobility, Blair overshadowed the prevailing opinions of rhetoric and capitalized on the 18th century belief in the potential to rise above one's station. At this time, new money industrialists and merchants caused the middle class
Middle class
The middle class is any class of people in the middle of a societal hierarchy. In Weberian socio-economic terms, the middle class is the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socio-economically between the working class and upper class....

 to rise and the English empire to grow. Blair's optimistic view that upward mobility could be affected by an understanding of eloquence and refined literature fit perfectly with the mentality of the time. In particular, the ideas presented in Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres were adapted in many prestigious institutions of learning and served as the guide on composition for many years. Lectures were predominantly popular in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

, with colleges such as Yale
Yale College
Yale College was the official name of Yale University from 1718 to 1887. The name now refers to the undergraduate part of the university. Each undergraduate student is assigned to one of 12 residential colleges.-Residential colleges:...

 and Harvard implementing Blair's theories.

While Blair enjoyed great success in the better part of the 19th century, this success was not maintained throughout the following century. After the authenticity of the Ossian poems was disproved, A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian caused a decline in Blair's credibility. Sermons was criticized for its sentimentality and lack of doctrinal definiteness and it failed to adapt to changing tastes. Lectures too did not maintain its popularity as theorists such as Whatley
Whatley is a small rural village and civil parish near Frome in the English county of Somerset.-History:According to Robinson, it was called Watelei in the Domesday Book of 1086, when the tenants of the Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey were Walter Hussey and John the Usher...

 and Spencer
-Names:*Spencer , a surname**List of people with surname Spencer*Spencer , a given name -Australia:*Spencer, New South Wales, on the Central Coast...

, drawing on Blair's theories, dominated the domain of composition theory. Though the status of Blair's theories declined in the 19th century, his role as the first great theorist of written discourse cannot be denied. Blair's influence on decades of academics and theorists has ultimately affected the compositional theory of today.

An excellent portrait of Blair's Spanish translator, José Luis Munárriz, painted in 1815 by Goya, hangs in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. Munárriz holds one of Blair's books in his hands.

External links

  • Hugh Blair at James Boswell - a Guide
  • Hugh Blair at MSU - a Website on Hugh Blair's life and philosophy
  • Hugh Blair at Thoemmes Continuum - an Encyclopedia article
  • Great Scots at Electric Scotland - an Article on Hugh Blair's legacy as a Scottish theorist
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