Mere Rhetoric

Hugh Blair


Welcome to MR. Rebroadcast note



Today in honor of Scotland voting to stick with the rest of the United Kingdom, we’re going to talk about Hugh Blair. That’s right-- a Scottish rhetorician to honor the Scottish referendum. Hugh Blair was a bit of a rising star. He was a Presbyterian clergyman, but the top of the top of Scottish clergymen, eventually getting the High Church of St. Giles: the highest honor for the men of the cloth in Scotland. Once you’ve peaked out in divinity, what do you do? Well, if you’re Hugh Blair, you begin teaching about literature and writing. Originally, he taught pro bono, as a way to stave off the boredom of dominating Presbyterian clergy, but his classes became increasingly popular and the king gave him the Regius Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.


Which King? King George the III, the same one who lost the Colonies. So when you think about Hugh Blair, put him in context with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.


So King George lost a hemisphere and gained a rhetoric professor, and what a rhetoric professor he gained. Think of the title. Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Rhetoric, as listeners of this podcast, you know, but what’s Belles Lettres? Belles Lettres means beautiful or fine writing, so all of literature—poetry, drama, fiction. These were considered similar enough to rhetoric so that one chair might have both responsibilities. Blair’s classes were so popular that anyone who was lucky enough to sit in on them could take notes and then redistribute or sell them to others. But if you’ve ever gotten notes from someone in class, then you know that there can be a big different between what the teacher said and what got written down. This bothered Hugh Blair, so he decided to set his lectures down on paper and compile them into a book. This book was given the incredibly clever title Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. The lectures are not particularly novel: Blair draws a lot on Quintilian, whom he loved, as well as contemporary theorists about writing, like the newspaperman Joseph Addison. A lot of what Blair sounds really familiar to us, for reasons I’ll discuss in a minute.



Blair states that “to be truly eloquent, is to speak to the purpose” and “whatever […] the subject be, there is room for eloquence” (234). That means that you don’t have to wait for a noble subject to speak noble words. It’s more important, Blair suggests, that you pay attention to why you are speaking, to the rhetorical situation and then adapt what you say to fit the situation. It’s also important to be sincere: “Nature teaches every man to be eloquent, when he is much in earnest” (235). Language should be simple (naïve) in construction, seemingly natural, avoiding ornament and unaffected (184). This straightforward style is often what Anglo Americans expect when reading everything from newspapers to academic reports.Blair thought that national languages were best for expressing ideas. These means that instead of dropping in tons of Latin or French, you should use good old English, and instead of using the English of Shakespeare or Milton, you should use contemporary English. In short, language should be current and national He defines purity not as referring back to some long-gone golden age, but purity is “use of such words […] as belong to idiom of the language which we speak” (33) propriety depends on relation between the word and “express[ing] the idea which he intends” and “express[ed] fully” (34). So eloquence depends on language that is current and national, natural and sincere.


Still, style, according to Blair, “is a field that admits of great latitude [..] Room must be left here for genius” (190). So there’s room for individuality within the boundaries of “good style.” Individuality matters an awful lot in delivery, too: “Let your manner, whatever it is, be your own; neither imitated from another, nor assumed upon some imaginary model, which is unnatural to you” (336).


Like many of his time, Blair believed that Invention is beyond the scope of rhetoric—“beyond the power of art to give any real assistance” and “to manage these reason with the most advantage […] is all that rhetoric can pretend to” (316). So the first step for, in Blair’s example, a preacher, is to do research and the first step of research isn’t to go imitate someone else’s ideas but to actually start with “pondering the subject in his own thoughts” (291). Blair also made a distinction between conviction of the brain and persuasion of the will (235). So if I get you to agree that smoking is bad and unhealthily, I can convince you through charts and statistics to the point where you admit smoking is bad, but unless you persuade you in your will to take the steps necessary, you might continue to light up. Convincing gets you to know while persuasion gets you to do. This is, as you might imagine, an important distinction for a preacher.



In sum, Blair’s over all argument was that “True eloquence is the art of placing truth in the most advantageous light for conviction and persuasion” (281). None of this sounds revolutionary, does it? Partially this is because Blair pretty much just updated classical sources for contemporary genres of writing, but this is also because Blair’s text was hugely successful. The Lectures on Rhetoric were the most reproduced, imitated and distributed text of its era, and even into the next century…and the next. But it wouldn’t be until the Victorian age that other theorists like Whatley would challenge Blair’s dominance in rhetoric in general and preacher-training in specific.

Blair’s Lectures went through over a 130 editions in the next century and its ideas filtered down through textbooks for college students, high school students, even into elementary school readers!. Sound like the upperclass and you’ll be able to smoothly move into the upper class. All that stuff about current & national language? Turns out that there’s a “correct” type of current and national language.


They were especially influential in America, where Hugh Blair’s texts were seen as a way that you could rise above your station. So around the same time that America gained its independence from England, Blair was writing his rhetoric that would encourage Americans to unite in a “current and national” language. Even though Scotland voted to remain with the rest of the United Kingdom, Blair helped them, too, to recognize the potential of their own current language.


If you want to rise above your station, send us an email. We might not be able to help you but we could take a request for an episode. Email me at and I’ll do my darnest. Until next time

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Category:Education -- posted at: 11:40am CDT